Nicholas Brembre 23
It was time to go. Nicholas remembered the pride and pageantry surrounding the royal nuptials, as well as the expense to the corporation and the guilds; he remembered waiting at Blackheath for several hours because Anne’s party had stopped unexpectedly at Deptford; and he remembered that the servant of a Frenchman tore down the shields from the Conduit after dark, and indeed returned for their replacements the following night. Such was the excitement surrounding the event as it unfolded. And now he had discovered an entirely new angle on the affair: whether or not a merchant’s wife would like to lie with a king. It was time to go.
The family favoured the weather by walking home. The servants led the horses on either side. Robert was with his father. He had spent the eternity of the celebration with his cousins in corners of the house and yard, occasionally succumbing to his mother’s attempts to exhibit him in the hall.
Robert had a fat face. It wasn’t what you expected given that he was ill so much of the time. But it was true. The bones stretched across from ear to ear, giving him broad cheeks and eyes that should open to the width of the world. It was his son, this body with the broad face. This was it.
Nicholas knew that few sons followed on from their fathers in business. Of those even fewer provided grandsons working into the third generation – else there would no space for provincials like himself to be sucked in from the country towns. Why the poor inheritance? Was it because merchants were not princes, were not supposed by God to gather wealth, and even less to pass it on? So God attacked the fertility of men and called children to Him before they were ready for work. And to make sure of it, He had a trick of temping city heirs back to the provinces. Nicholas could think of the odd London dynasty: Farndon, Constantyn, Gisors – and a few more that had managed to pass their name at least from father to son: Aubrey, Frowicke, Venour. Strange to think of just two generations as an achievement, but even this was more than he could manage.
‘Why is our house so big?’
‘It is not as big as the king’s.’
‘Does the king have a house?’
‘He has a palace.’
‘Does he live there all alone?’
‘No, he has many servants.’
‘Is that why he has a palace, to put his servants in?’
‘If it were only for servants it would be easier to have less servants and a smaller palace. But often his mother is there and his brothers and uncles, and other important people. He needs somewhere they can all be comfortable and which shows them how rich and important and noble he is is.’
‘Is our house a palace?’
‘No, but it is a very grand house worth a lot of money and it has rich and beautiful things in it. It is a bit like a palace.’
‘Then I am a prince! I will dress in bright colours and wear a silly hat and I will give people presents. What’s that?’
‘Since you speak of dress – why does your mother…’
‘Tiny birds, lots of tiny black birds all in a swirl. They’re gone!’
‘How many were there Robert?’
‘Lots,’ he repeated.
Birds sing at dusk, the chatter triggered by the dying light and yet oblivious to it. They know they must settle soon but they do not rush. The sun is gone and the pattern complete. The sky is dull blue, unlit but not yet dark. The deep dull blue is yet to come, the black still further removed, but there is a quiet which warns of them. It sighs through the back streets and the gardens, now all shut up. It has cool breath, pleasant yet. The cold will come in a while.
There was a rattle advancing. He could not see it nor catch its direction. He tried to guide Idonia but she had stopped by St Thomas the Apostle and refused to move. The leper was in Wringwren Lane. Gombert spotted him moving north from Knightrider Street, along which they had been walking.
‘How is this allowed?’ shouted Nicholas Brembre. ‘Chase him away Gombert!’
Gombert made a noise loud enough to scare a sheep and took three paces into the lane. The leper turned and answered with his rattle.
‘It’s a woman,’ breathed Idonia. ‘A woman, and she’s all alone.’
A woman alone on the streets: that was an issue. But this was not a woman, it was a leper. A leper on the streets was a different issue. Outcasts of all kinds wandered the streets, whatever their sex, but not all of them were contagious. The danger from most was contained by the city laws and by the watch. Beggars, cheats and musicians came up before the courts and were punished and cast out. This prevented the spread of spiritual harm. But of all the threats, the leper needed complete physical separation regardless of moral consideration. The city must maintain its purity, and purity of the body came before purity of the soul.
‘Peter, go and fetch the constables.’
‘What will they do to her?’ asked Idonia.
‘They will take her to a gate and throw her out.’
‘Can she have some business in the city?’
‘Business? What business can a leper have?’
‘I mean, maybe she has family here?’
‘How can that claim our attention? It must be her fault, in any case, that she is as she is. We’ll leave her to worry about her fate.’
The height of the houses had frightened him when he arrived from Norwich in his sixth year. There was no light until he tipped his head so far back that he thought he would fall over – just a great block of stuff standing in the way. How many people could live in dwellings such as these? One hundred? A thousand? Nichol could not think where so many men would come from? And what would they do when they got here? London was dark and dusty. He didn’t like it because the grass between the buildings was pale and scratchy.
His father took him over the bridge to the Bear Tavern in Southwark and there he saw the beast for which it was named waiting at the edge of a pit. The bear was magnificent. Little Nichol did not hear his father’s laughter. He did not see the limp or the cloudy eye or the patches where the fur had been torn away by beasts unknown. He saw only the sheen on the glorious black coat, the icy points of the teeth, the sweep of the mighty paw. He was in the presence of greatness, of a will that had no understanding of the chain around its neck. In a moment it would pull it apart as if it were a ring of flowers.
The dogs were loosed like stones escaping a sling. They jabbed at the great one and he flung them back. But there were too many dogs. While a paw dealt with one and teeth snapped at another, a third and a fourth were sinking their bites. The bear grew angrier and it misspent its power. The dogs exulted, while the bear sagged and fell.
The head of the great black bear lolled in the filth, tangled in the studded harness someone had dared fit on it. The hemp shirt showed the welling of blood from the leg. Why would a hero wear a shirt made for a whore? Though he did not know the meaning of this word, Nichol knew from his father that some beings were unworthy to touch the righteous.
Sir Nicholas Brembre rode along Chepe towards the Guildhall. A broken skin of grey clouds covered the heavens, allowing channels of light to run between them like veins. The source of the pale blood beat behind, revealing itself in sections. He slowed as he passed a couple of properties that he rented out to victuallers. The shops were properly set out and clean but the penthouses above looked in need of repair.
A man in fine plain cloth emerged ahead of him from one of the tenements. Nicholas watched and waited, then followed on, ensuring that he did not make too much ground. It was rare for a man of wealth to walk alone, but this John de Northampton was certainly a rare beast. It was likely he spent much of his time alone, sneaking in and out of holes, scratching out what others had missed, like a loan wolf. A sudden sound to the rear let Nicholas turn in time to see Thomas Usk slipping off towards Poultry. Perhaps the wolf was not alone. Thomas Usk was John’s clerk, an excitable man who wanted to tell the world his business – but perhaps not on this occasion. Why did they need to meet in secret? Jankin could look into it.
Today’s congregation at the Guildhall began with prayers, from which mayor John sprang into the middle of the sermon on the mount: ‘A man should not point at the chip in his brother’s eye when there is a great lump of wood in his own,’ he whacked out across the hall, as if he had that moment recognised the fault in others that most enraged him.
Nicholas wanted to laugh but John Philipot was beside him and staring ahead intently into the mystery of God’s wisdom. He is absorbed in the Almighty and has His protection as a result: nothing will harm him on this earth and his soul will undoubtedly reach heaven before mine. John Philipot was taken by a fit of coughing and John de Northampton looked across, distracted in his sermonising. John Philipot held up his hand in signal of recovery and the meeting moved on.
The upper chamber of the Guildhall was spanned by the great wooden frame of the roof, stately struts and beams flying above the fussy work of the little people below. Nicholas became engaged in the engineering. Was this the best possible pattern for these ribs of oak? Had not roofs fallen in the past because designs were not yet perfect? Was it for man to find the right shape in this and in other things, or was God always there to guide us, as Idonia imagined, though we might not see Him?
Mayor John was grinding on in the deep. His voice was pungent and tough like the taste of cloves, but what he said smelled musty and unpleasant. John was a squat man with a rough but mobile face. He dressed plainly but was extravagant with his badges. You had to doubt the merit of all these tokens, since allegiance to many causes weakens each claim. His eyes were very bright. Nicholas was inclined to look away when they fished for him, but he was training himself to hold their hook. He wanted to confront this man, not to hide from him. It seemed not to trouble John that his supporters were mean men. He had managed the weak minds of the common council so that they voted for mistery rule. That was how the mean men gained entrance. Now they were pulling the city apart.
The common pleader, John Reche, brought a petition against Nicholas Exton calling for his discharge as alderman for Billingsgate. This had been expected and Nicholas’ concentration was switched into place, like a cart that has been wandering over the ruts and now finds its slot.
‘What were the words?’ demanded William Walworth.
‘The words were opprobrious.’
‘Repeat the words.’
‘The words contained reference to his lordship the king and our lord God. They suggested that the mayor compared himself to these elevated figures but that his body lacked parts essential to success.’
‘That’s blasphemous,’ whispered John Philipot.
‘What’s blasphemous?’ whispered Nicholas Brembre. ‘Comparing himself to God?’
‘Yes, but we expect that of John,’ said John. ‘No, I mean comparing the king to God.’
Whichever way the words were framed, it was difficult to deny the validity of the charge and only slightly easier to doubt the truth of it. The main option for argument was that if the accusation of what was said was true, then so was what was said – less perhaps the anatomical detail. Unfortunately the latter kind of truth was not of much interest to official bodies. Nicholas had often been involved in dispensing judgment and, although he tried hard to maintain interest in the truth, it rarely seemed to fit the design of things.
There was nothing they could do about Nicholas Exton. He had managed the matter very thoroughly himself. He did not appear before the congregation on this occasion. He was allowed his essoin, but this absence at the start suggested that the flame of his desire to contest the matter had sputtered back to smoke.
What was a congregation? Margaret Philipot asked about covens, now Nicholas Brembre was asking about official bodies with rules of composition and performance. This particular congregation was of the mayor, aldermen and common council. It dealt with matters that needed the knowledge and agreement of the city as a whole. Those who attended knew roughly what was expected and record was kept so that others could find out what had been decided. Men obeyed the rules or occasionally did not and were ejected. Covens, meanwhile, were secretive and without principle, meeting in darkness to disrupt the just plans of those who were excluded from them – except that the characteristics of covens seemed to be leaching into the bodies of the corporation. It was no longer true that each man could give his view on an equal footing, that he understood what was planned or at stake at a meeting, or, increasingly, that he could follow the language used, which seemed to twist from the familiar letters of the Latin script into a strange, spidery code. Thus it was that Nicholas sat in some discomfort on his bench in the Guildhall trying hard not to snort. Surely only the familiar threat of expulsion, backed by the possibility of imprisonment, prevented the rest of the hall from laughing out loud.
Why did men’s heads stand up above their shoulders where they could be struck off in a moment? Nicholas looked around at his fellow citizens: squashes on sticks, which held their identity in the bumps and holes of the outside or in the strange seeds and mush within. Some of these men seemed definable through appearance alone, while others were inscrutable, knowable only in the interior and so unreachable.
The shape of man was far stranger than almost any other being you could name. A sheep was a good round body set on its four feet with its head tucked into its fleece, allowing the exception of its snout. The butcher must pull back hard on the head to find the throat. But a man’s head was stuck out there like a target. Many had lost theirs before. The head of William Wallace was stuck on a post on London Bridge. He thought he could protect it against the armies of the English but it took one blow to take it off. The lordly heads in the Tower had no thought of their own vulnerability before the insurrection overcame them. Simon Sudbury, Robert Hales and the others: they found that you could be killed in an instant on the hill. Better in an instant, indeed, since death was less friendly the longer it was in coming.
If Nicholas Exton showed so clearly that arguing with the enemy did not work, then why did Nicholas Brembre keep finding himself sparring with mayor John?
‘You want to ruin us to be popular with the poor!’ There he blazed as soon as John returned to his ordinances.
‘Why should you gain more and more when your moneybags are already bursting?’ John was ready with his usual resort to envy.
‘There is little coin in those bags, rather credit like bad air that will blow away if trade collapses. And how will that benefit the city – including the poor for whom supplies must be maintained?’
‘Without the old merchant monopolies, supplies will be more than maintained; they will be increased and prices will fall. If that makes me popular I will gladly suffer the criticism.’
‘What of the aliens and foreigners? Why should they gain such advantage?’
‘The aliens and foreigners help us more than the freeman victuallers ever did!’
The blaze was dying down in Nicholas but rising in John. There had been no good in starting the argument and there was even less in continuing it. Nicholas sat back down on the bench and offered no word for the rest of the meeting.
Afterwards the victuallers followed out into the yard of the Guildhall. William was walking strangely. His feet were scraping the ground as if he had lost the strings to lift them, but he mounted his horse competently and became fit by proxy.
‘Bad days but maybe they will improve.’
‘That depends on the next mayor.’
‘Which assassin will stand?’
‘John More? Richard Norbury? Or will John de Northampton attempt to steal a second term?’
‘It is against the so-called ancient rules which he has so kindly uncovered for us.’
‘So is most of what he has done in the last twelve months.’
‘What of us?’
‘I would put William forward, but I fear we are weakened by John’s clever campaign and that while Lancaster keeps his hand on the king’s shoulder, we will be stuck in a squat.’
Within a week the matter of Nicholas Exton had been settled and he was discharged as alderman of Billingsgate. In the meantime the commons made similar complaint of Adam Carlisle with similar outcome. His abuse had apparently been directed against foreign fishmongers who were selling their wares in the Stocks Market according to the new rules. He stood before them calling them ribalds and declaring that he would be better pleased if his neighbour made twenty shillings by him than that a stranger made twenty pence. But at the heart of the accusation was his side-swipe at the mayor through criticism of the ordinance. Adam was not an alderman and so could not be discharged but he was debarred from holding any office of the city ‘without reconcilement in the future’.
Adam’s wife Alice was waiting for him in the porch. Nicholas saw them along the corridor as he left the meeting in protest. Adam walked away from the Guildhall with his usual loose shoulders and flailing arms, body flowing with chatter. But his face was drawn tight. His wife struggled to match his pace, either physically or verbally, and was several yards-cum-curses behind him as he reached the gate.
‘Alice!’ he shouted as he turned. ‘Why did you come?’ The Carlisle servants gathered round them. Adam became still for a moment. ‘Thank you,’ he said in his new shape, although it was not clear what he meant or of whom he was thinking.
Alice had threads of yellow and pure white in her hair. The maid of the time – Martha, Magdalena? – pulled them into a plait, sometimes two. In the plait the white hairs danced like ripples on a stream catching the light. Before long the plait was half tangled, half undone but the white hair still shone through. Idonia said that their daughter’s hair would darken as she grew older and that the white would become yellow and the yellow brown. This had happened to her own hair. But Alice’s never dimmed.