Nicholas Brembre 24
The king summoned the lords and commons to come to Westminster on the octave of Michaelmas – that is the sixth day of October in the sixth year of his reign. Parliament met in the Painted Chamber, although as always it was adjourned through the lack of those provincials who had failed to leave sufficient time for their journeys. Nicholas was not one of the London members this time. He had been chosen for the May parliament when the main aim had been to persuade merchants to make loans to save the realm from every alien force between Scotland and Iberia. The merchants were not persuadable and Nicholas found the process tiresome. The same had pertained to the parliament before that and seemed likely to repeat itself now that autumn had arrived.
The representatives from October’s cooling city were John More, Thomas Carleton, William Essex and Richard Norbury. Men did not usually fight each other for places at parliament – there were better things to be doing with the time – but these men looked like a crusade. John and Richard were full members of the Northampton party before they were members of anything else, while William and Thomas would certainly be prepared to share a bed with them on a cold night. Thomas was after all a broiderer and William a draper, crafts that were opposed to the victuallers in these times.
John More was a slight man, almost like a woman. His narrow chest was stiff as a pillar, around which the expensive material of his cotehardie billowed and flounced. He was less clothed by it than orbited. His hands were finely formed and without the breadth of Nicholas’ gnarled equivalents. A woman’s touch may perhaps be useful in the trade of the mercer and John was well served by being born outside the knightly class, whose purpose it was the wield the sword. Beyond this, however, John departed from his delicate appearance. His speech was strong and his actions determined. Nicholas came often into conflict with him and had to draw deeply on his own powers to hold the line against him.
However, he much preferred this to Richard Norbury’s sponge-like ability to take in information and given no idea as to his view of it. His face was like a fist that has closed around a precious stone and will not let it go – will not let it be taken, will not let it been seen, pretends even that it does not exist, that there is no fist, that the hand is still open. And yet the eyes smile and the tongue wags between the knuckles.
When Nicholas was mayor in the last weeks of king Edward’s reign, the common council of the city expelled five men of guilds opposed to the victuallers on the grounds that they had been betraying its secrets. Among them were John More and Richard Norbury. There already was the shape of the war to come. Not long afterwards the earl of Buckingham made his attack on Nicholas for failing to quell the Cornhill riots, revealing the upper level of the campaign. The city was assaulted from below and beside by the drapers and their degenerate allies, and from above by the uncles of the king.
Nicholas knew well enough the scene in the Painted Chamber as parliament opened and could see it before him now as if he were there. The king sat between the great lords of the land. On his right the archbishops and the bishops of London, Winchester and Salisbury, with their lesser brethren and a selection of abbots and priors beyond. On his right the duke of Lancaster (‘king of Castile and Leon’) and the earls of Arundel, Kent, Salisbury and Stafford, followed by other lords. The paid officials were half hidden around the edges of the hall, keeping away from criticism and allowing more room for the knights and burgesses, including the four representatives of the city.
Such were the men who occupied the floor, but in their best robes they were easily outdone by the men and women on the walls. If Nicholas missed anything through not being a member of this parliament, it was the opportunity to study the walls while the speakers droned on beneath. There in broad bands around three walls of the chamber were depictions of some of his favourite stories outside the Brut. He had told them to Robert many times, particularly the deeds of Judas Maccabbeus, which were represented in the second band just below the struggles of his father Mattathias against Antiachus, the Seleucid king.
The chamber was painted with blood: the blood of the Isrealites and the blood (still more) of their enemies. The walls were dripping with it. Righteous suffering and righteous vengeance. The Maccabbees avenged their persecution, which began with Antiochus’s desecration of the temple in Jerusalem (left-hand top corner of the south wall) and continued with Mattathias rallying the people of Israel and, on the level below, the battles of Judas against a fury of foes. His assault on Alema and Dathema was fantastically drawn as a bundle of bodies rolling towards a castle that had already been violated in every sense. Everywhere above the heads there were blades, while the shields lay trampled underneath. The noise was so loud you could not hear it, but it still beat the bleating in the chamber below.
The Maccabbees were not the only source for the men who stood in this hall a hundred years ago wielding brushes rather than swords. In the middle of the south wall parliament was offered king Abimelech and the seventy severed heads of his brothers, the burning of Shechem, and the crushing of the king’s own skull by the woman of Thebaz, who threw down the millstone from the tower he besieged. Nicholas liked this story particularly because of the nasty turn of fate that brought a great man down at the hands of lowly woman. Abimelech, not yet dead, ordered one of his soldiers to finish him in a vain devise to cheat dishonour, but this showed merely how well he understood his doom.
While the lucky people watched the walls, parliament offered the usual dreary sketches on the floor: a speech or two on the need to protect the liberties of the church and provide remedy with regard to the laws and customs of the kingdom; a listing of the familiar threats from enemies within and without; a sickly sounding request for the lords and commons to assist the king; and an invitation to all present to submit their petitions. Finally the commons would be banished to the chamberlain’s room with an fix of lords like bakehouse bosses looking to ensure that the right ingredients were cooked.
Nicholas had plenty to digest at his own table, but he kept a small space in corner of his mouth for crumbs from the churning fuss and bother beyond Ludgate. He attended a few sessions at Westminster and, on occasion, waited in the periphery for reports on progress. The city had a number of petitions for the king, none of which looked good to Nicholas.
The battle for the purse began on the fourth day, once nearly all had deigned to arrive. Bishop Despenser wanted to lead a crusade against the French schismatics, who had overrun Flanders, while the ‘king of Castile and Leon’ wanted to spend £43,000 on an expedition in support of Portugal against lands he claimed already to rule. The commons preferred the bishop’s story to that of John of Gaunt. It was more amenable to the imagination, set as it was in an accessible location and providing more interest in terms of opportunities for trade. They submitted a petition to this effect and agreed to grant a fifteenth and a tenth in support of it, taxes desperately needed by the crown.
While the ‘way of Flanders’ and the ‘way of Portugal’ held the centre of this parliament, there was a sweep of other matters to deal with, many of them related to the insurrection of the previous year. There was discussion of who should or should not be pardoned. Thomas Farndon, who had attacked Nicholas on the way to Mile End, and two others were named as chief instigators of the ‘great and terrible rising’ to be excluded from the king’s grace. The cities of Beverley, Scarborough and York, which had been heavily involved, bought back their freedoms in fines. Meanwhile it was pointed out that many former rebels were labourers unable to afford the price of a pardon and so had fled to the woods, creating thereby a further threat to the realm. The king agreed to a general pardon.
Beyond the rebellion, he was faced with a wallow of other alarms and irritations. There were issues of process and its unimagined effects; issues of law that could not be settled at a lower level, or where the level was in dispute; matters relating to trade, including the departure of the staple from Calais, now largely cut off by fighting in Flanders. There was the need to protect shipping from attack and ransom, particularly from the French, who were learning our secrets from the prisoners they took; there was concern about violence and rape by marauding Cheshire men, leading to the question of how to impose appropriate punishment of life and limb when women who had been ravished later gave their consent to their ravishers. And squeezed among these and the many other issues, from burning new to long gone cold, was the cost of the royal household. It was hoped that it would please the king, ‘considering the great poverty and discomfort of your said commons, on account of human pestilence, murrain of cattle, and the fruits of the soil having for the most part been flooded and destroyed, as well as other things, to ordain that good governance be set in place around your honourable person so that you may live honestly and regally within the revenues of your kingdom…’* The commons did their best to remain respectful but the first task in communication is to make the point.
All in all, parliament pictured the range of human folly and weakness, together with more or less desperate attempts to pull something together in the face of it. Come the next parliament and many these complaints, including that of the royal expenses, would regenerate like spring weeds, while others would lose their space in the earth, not necessarily because anything helpful had been done about them.
As parliament reached its eighth day, back in the city John de Northampton was re-elected mayor. The king had written to the corporation to say that he would be happy to see John continue for a second term. The letter sat in the hand of the common clerk and the seal was unmistakable. There would be another year of chaos and persecution. It was not within the king’s conventional authority to settle the election. For hundred’s of years the city had been possessed of charters stating its right to elect a mayor and sheriffs. Occasionally the charter of the day was withdrawn and the city was brought back under royal control. But that had not occurred for many years. At present the choice was with the city and not with the king, but that did not prevent him from expressing his opinion and the opinion of a king leaves little space for others.
Nicholas was disappointed by the letter. The duke of Lancaster favoured John, but Nicholas had hoped his nephew would offer a little resistance. These things were often surprising, though. It was the duke who had imposed Nicholas as mayor when Adam Staple was plucked from the post. We try to play ahead according to our knowledge of the pieces but they keep jumping about and changing colour. Idonia told him that God’s world made sense if you had His vision and capacity for detail. But that did not make things much clearer if your eyes were only a few feet from the ground. Idonia always looked knowingly at him when they spoke of such matters. Do you believe? Never spoken aloud. Idonia said very little aloud on any subject. Was she keeping count of the words she used in her lifetime? Could she? How did she carry her message without words? There was something scary in her method. Anybody else would be misunderstood if they did not get on and say what they meant. But not Idonia.
Muffling of meaning, when he thought about it, was widespread in this world, certainly not confined to one man’s wife, although women were particularly good at it. It happened in many places for many reasons and with many effects, usually bad. It was bad in business but worse in politics. When profit was threatened the tongue sharpened, but in the Guildhall motivation tended rather towards obscuration. John spoke of benefit to the city when he meant ruin for the fishmongers. He spoke of the true ordinances when he meant relics from a different time. He spoke of plotters and oppressors when he meant the honourable and hard-working citizens whom he had pushed into the mud as he clambered like a pig up the side of his heap.
On the very same day that John de Northampton was re-elected, John More charged John Philipot with failing to return money he borrowed during his own mayoralty of four years before. Had they been waiting for this opportunity? It was difficult to believe otherwise, but no-one had expected an attack of this nature. John was shocked and confused. He did not know how such a thing could be said, but he could not find the proof that the money had been returned. It was too long ago and his reputation for probity tripped him up: no-one at the time thought to take much notice of the matter since they were so confident of its virtuous conclusion. John, like Nicholas Exton before him, was deprived of his status as an alderman.
‘This man is the devil, there is no other explanation.’
Nicholas felt an odd sensation in his foot and knew it had been there for a while. It was strange that you could remember something you did not notice at the time. When he failed to catch the bells at Sext, he knew still that it was time for the morning meal and he could feel that they had been swinging in his skull from the start.
‘If he continues to invent rules – and now stories – to afflict us we may need to take action.’
It was an itch. Now he knew what it was it strengthened and began to move about. He flexed his toes and then stretched the whole length of his leg. The right leg.
Henry was still talking through his teeth, hissing. Something was emerging from Nicholas’ shoe. It had very long legs.
As parliament reached its tenth day, the victuallers met at Henry’s house to discuss what was afoot in both Westminster and London. The two were linked since John de Northampton sought conformation from the king for what he had fixed in the city. The victuallers knew it would not be long before the mayor introduced his bill in parliament and they wondered what could be done about it. They sat around in the house by the Thames, looking, well, puzzled, Nicholas thought, rather than anything else. Their impotence was confusing.
John Philipot was quiet, Henry was loud, William kept repeating that there was little they could do that would not make matters worse. Thomas Goodlake stood in corners, statuesque and silent, Walter Sibyle ate most of the pies, John Pyel drank most of the wine. Nicholas Exton tried to convert loss of aldermanic status into gain of civic heroism, apparently for the benefit of John Philipot, although Nicholas suspected it was principally for the comfort of the speaker. The enormous and alarming insect scuttled across the floor towards a hole in the wall.
‘Nicholas, I despair! We thought things had got as bad as could be,’ said Henry.
‘No we didn’t. We knew John would take these matters to parliament. His ambition impels him to seek a badge from the boy.’
‘I thought not,’ said John Philipot. ‘I thought he would not risk it. The king’s opinions are raw and therefore unpredictable.’
‘It depends, of course, on who is advising him,’ said William.
‘There are others. Lancaster is not winning the argument for his Spanish adventure.’
‘He has won the argument for mayor,’ said John Pyel.
‘Why does he favour John de Northampton?’ asked Henry.
‘Because he hates us.’
‘London is a great prize. There is nowhere like it in the realm,’ said William.
‘In the world.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Nicholas.
‘Royalty is exalted but it runs through its revenues,’ said Nicholas Exton. ‘So it comes to us, the men it despises, for our money. And why does it despise us? Because it doesn’t know what we are: it cannot fit us into its fantasy of the three estates.’
‘That is true,’ said Thomas. ‘The clergy, the nobility and the common man. Our society is built on these choices – which are, of course, not choices. The model has no place for us.’
‘Is the model wrong?’ asked Henry. ‘How long has it been the model?’
‘It was not so at the beginning, not according to the Bible,’ said William. ‘God made us in His likeness and the only divisions were between man and beast and man and woman.’
‘Adam was not a knight, a priest or a peasant. He was a tiller of the soil, but you could not call him a common man since there was no-one but God above him.’ Thomas’s voice was deepening as if demanding its space in the hall.
‘I have heard words like this before,’ muttered Nicholas. ‘We are rolling into a bog that seems horribly familiar.’
‘Whatever he was he certainly did not make loans or receive them,’ said John Pyel. ‘So when did that practice begin?’
‘Usury has long been seen as evil. Jesus drove the usurers from the temple and the church has always prohibited interest on loans.’
‘Well that’s true, Thomas, but we are not usurers. We make loans but we do not charge interest.’
‘Not until the money has been through the dip with the sheep. You farm the customs, Nicholas: you make loans to the king on the basis that you will recover what is owed when you oversee the duty on wool. And when you do so you take what you think makes your service worthwhile.’
‘We are all honest men with honest trades,’ interposed William. ‘We do not make our living from loans but we are able to assist the king in his financial need. That is all.’
‘But we still don’t know what we are,’ moaned Henry.
‘Perhaps three estates are not enough and must make way for more,’ said John Pyel.
‘Things do change, though the world seems to stay the same. The affairs of men are quicker than the sea and the sky and the love of God,’ mused John Philipot.
‘Of course things change and mayor John is the master of it,’ said Nicholas Exton. ‘He may seem to look backwards but what he takes from the past is only what he needs for the future. It doesn’t matter what the old people say about the shape of the world, because we know better. It’s different now. The old ideas don’t work any more. Don’t you see that things move on? The king does not ride to war any more and neither do many of the lords, not if they can get someone else to do it. But to pay for it they always come back to us!’
*’Richard II: October 1382′, in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ed. Chris Given-Wilson, Paul Brand, Seymour Phillips, Mark Ormrod, Geoffrey Martin, Anne Curry and Rosemary Horrox (Woodbridge, 2005), n.o.42.