Nicholas Brembre 25
Only the king knew how long parliament would be and even he did not know in advance. He had his aims and he wanted parliament to last until they were achieved. But that might mean that parliament lasted forever – until they were all dead of frustration and their bones lay in the beautiful chamber in accompaniment to the warfare on the walls.
Nicholas was glad he was not tied to attend as a member. He could come and go according to his business demands. He could share his observations with those of William, Henry and a particularly sober John, who were also present from time to time. They were all concerned about the money. What might be demanded in tax, what might be requested in loans? If all the wars in the world were to be fought, the king’s coffers must be buried in gold. Even then success in capturing the money was no guarantee of success in capturing the Scots, the French or the Spanish.
They agreed with the commons that whatever was dragged from them should produce a return. Scotland and Spain were too far away. Flanders, however, was part of the territory for a merchant. For all that her inhabitants were designated alien, her merchants were often more familiar to them than London’s poor. And her freedom from the French meant London’s rich could survive and prosper and so, therefore, could everyone else.
The king was fifteen. He sat in front of the east wall where king Henry’s bed had once stood, the defeat of the vices by the virtues depicted behind him. Under the crown the young face was beautiful, catching as it did the glow from the gold and the cool of the blue silk of the robes. He was full of the seriousness of youth. Parliament honoured him and looked to him for signs of strength and of intent. But this was a pretence. They were not expectant of the king’s leadership, of where he would lead them, but of where they could lead him. It was a different sense of the word, a subtler, quieter, creepier sense, certainly not what was shouted from the walls around them, where the Maccabbees offered shining kingship and an impossible mix of gentleness, righteousness and death.
The duke of Lancaster was there by his side, looking pale for a king of Spain. But then the claim is not identical with the possession, though it may be a step towards it. That was what John of Gaunt wanted from Richard of Bordeaux. John wanted his own kingdom, having narrowly missed out on Albion. He wanted to win it by battle, which he had waged before, albeit with varied success. He came from a line of warlike kings – but then so did Richard. Their ancestor, Edward son of Henry, had smashed the Welsh and the Scots and had thirsted for crusade all his life, though he managed only one attempt at the holy land. It was he who ordered the paintings on the walls of the chamber. Nicholas felt his fervour, his thirst for noble action. There was time for Richard to follow.
How long? How long? In order to catch the mayor’s show, Nicholas had to sit through a pageant of petitions from all parts of the realm. He imagined floats stretching back along King Street towards the Strand. Some petitions raised specific cases, perhaps of murder or disseisin; others wider injustice involving the corruption or impotence of those in charge. There was complaint about the increasing demands of the church on first fruits, confusion regarding responsibility for imprisoning heretics, and anger that grain from the provinces was disappearing overseas. Eventually there was sight of John de Northampton’s bill against the fishmongers of London, which repeated for the king’s benefit all the stories he had told in the Guildhall during the last excruciating year. These seemed to transfer well from London to Westminster. The bill listed the evil practices of the guild: the seizing of foreign fish, the violent threats, the brawls perpetrated and then reserved for the Hallimoot, the ridiculous prices and the deceitful dorsers.
There was a good number of fishmongers among the spectators and Nicholas Exton, on behalf of them, made much noise against the notorious ordinances of the draper. The views of the king and his advisers, however, were against him and his points were dismissed one after the other, including his final, impassioned claim of persecution of the guild. ‘Had I been found at home the previous night I would have been arrested and led by the mayor’s orders through the midst of Chepe like a robber and cutpurse,’* he wailed.
John de Northampton was fulsome against the idea that the fishmongers faced threat to life or liberty. He insisted that all the city was full of love and concord, except for the fishmongers. Only they could be expected to resort to violence and oppression and he would ensure that this did not occur.
The king took the fishmongers under his protection and granted them the right to complain of any harm. But he accepted John’s bill on the practices of buying and selling fish, and in addition agreed that no victualler should take judicial office and that future mayors should swear to uphold the ordinance as part of their oath.
Nicholas was sitting next to Walter Sibyle, who had been eerily quiet to this point but now demanded to be heard: ‘My lords, it is not indeed unknown to you all how before this time, some of the persons here present, who were instrumental in the suit against us, were by order of the king who is dead, whom God absolve, taken and imprisoned for certain offences alleged against them, at which time the chief ministers of the city who carried out the orders of the king belonged to our mistery and livery of fishmongers. And for this reason alone, and the ancient hatred and rancour conceived against us, they now bring their suit to destroy us, and take away our franchise and liberty granted to us of old, and confirmed by the noble kings of England of the time; because of which we have greater need for good security of the peace from them and their supporters.’†
‘This is an old trouble from the time of king Edward,’ muttered William Walworth. Nicholas recalled that ten years ago after violence against aliens in the city, sheriff William had arrested John de Northampton and three others and put them in the Tower. They had spent several months in castles across the country before being released on sureties. This had not prevented John Hadley, who was one of them, from becoming mayor thereafter – nor John de Northampton, of course. These shifts in and out, the roll of the offices, could go to extremes, so that those deemed most respectable in one year were debased in the next. And nothing was forgotten, even if untrue – everything was packed up in a scabbard and brought along.
He himself had once imprisoned the goldsmith Nicholas Twyford, another Northampton familiar. He could see him now through the puffy pink faces of the commons, looking as yellow as the metal he worked. His veins must run with lemon juice. He rarely spoke more words than business required, and each as sharp as a tooth; but since the namesakes had nothing good to say to one another, brevity suited both. Twyford had been sheriff to Brembre’s mayor at the time of the trouble. Sheriff Nicholas had no reason to be so sour: he had prevented the arrest of a malcontent, a fellow supporter of John de Northampton, who had been involved in an affray on Chepe between the goldsmiths and the pepperers. He had been ordered to place the man in custody and he had refused, so he was arrested while the culprit fled. It was the mayor’s responsibility…
John More was on his feet, addressing Walter Sibyle on the insurrection, his speech increasing in temperature until it became hot as mustard: ‘My lords I do not say that it is definitely so, but I say it is common rumour – although I cannot vouch for the truth of it myself – that John Horne and Adam Carlile aided and abetted the rebels, and that Walter Sibyle prevented William Walworth from closing London Bridge against the enemy. I wish the matter to be investigated, and I believe that what I have stated will be found to be true.’‡
Walter Sibyle was still afoot, having expected an attack perhaps. Was he surprised by its nature? Surely so, but his face did not tell. The king looked hard at John More while the duke of Lancaster whispered in his ear. Walter opened his mouth and stretched out an arm but the king waved him down. ‘The matter will be examined,’ he said and stood to leave the chamber. Behind him there was an allotment of hush followed by hissing and then an explosion of words. Nicholas heard knowledge, doubt, scorn, indifference and fear. In in the midst of it the More-Sibyle duel looked ready to draw blood. Nicholas stepped forward to restrain his friend and found himself facing John de Northampton, hands on the shoulders of John More in a reflection of his own pose.
The skirmish had been conspicuous at first but as parliament grasped its sudden freedom it became absorbed in the process of gathering parchment and untangling robes. The bishops were gesturing to the abbots and priors to pull around them into competitively sized groups. The lords were congealing into jelly alongside whichever great earl would accept their allegiance. The knights and burgesses of the provinces appeared keenest of all to leave the chamber for the fresh air. They took to their feet all around the incident and made it disappear. Within moments only London cared about its bridge or its gates. Everyone else was consumed by the opportunity for food and drink. There on the south wall hung the woman of Thebaz. forever tracing the arc of the millstone from the tower. But no-one now recalled her plight or her victory.
On 24 October king Richard brought to parliament to a close. There was no further mention within the Painted Chamber of John More’s revelations, but London was boiling with the news. The storm had passed from Westminster and rolled into the city.
*’From Judicium inprisonamenti pro Nich’o Extone. Folio clvii. in Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: H, 1375-1399, ed. Reginald R Sharpe (London, 1907), pp. 190-209.
†‘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.63.