Nicholas Brembre 26
‘Two fishmongers have been arrested!’ William Walworth was speaking in a rush. He walked to the window and back several times, where once would seem excessive. There was pain in his face as he eased back to his meal and he put a hand to the place where Wat Tyler’s thrust had bruised him through his breast plate. ‘And a vintner,’ he added by way of a sigh. ‘John Horn and Walter Sibyle! Good men, I believe. Or believed. You know them as well as I.’
‘And the vintner?’ asked Nicholas.
‘William Tonge. Less well-known to me. Obviously the fishmongers are my guildsmen.’
‘What is alleged?’
‘It is said that Walter Sibyle dropped the drawbridge for the men of Kent, while William Tonge let in the Essex rabble through Aldgate.’
‘And John Horn?’
‘Something – my memory fails – not so dramatic. Had some of the rebels to stay with him at his house. How could he tolerate their company? It seems more vicious still to sleep with them, though the aid to their cause be less.’
‘Is any of it true?’
‘The rebels entered across the bridge and through Aldgate. These things are true. It is also true that we thought both shut.’ William straightened his plate and reached for his wine. ‘Would fishmongers do such things?’
Nicholas laughed at what might be a joke.
‘I don’t know, Nicholas; but there is nothing to be done for the moment. They have gone to the Tower.’
‘To me, this has the smell not of fishmongers but of drapers.’
William looked up from his plate, which had seemed to compete with the prisoners for his attention. ‘Smell?’ he queried.
Nicholas smiled. ‘I have a suspicion that the answer to the puzzle lies with the accusers rather than the accused.’
‘It would be easier if the blame lay with John de Northampton rather than the fishmongers.’
‘Which party is more likely to deceive? Have you ever suspected these men – Walter, William or John – of sympathising with peasants?
William looked back down at his dinner.
Everyone knew that the defences of the city had been undermined. Nicholas had watched from the Tower as the rebels swarmed across the bridge; he knew that someone had raised the drawbridge beside the Chapel of St Thomas; and he had heard from Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived above Aldgate, how it had too easily been breached by the men of Essex. If all instead had held the line, the rebels would have been excluded from the city for some while longer, perhaps until frustration and hunger saw them home. Theories of who was to blame had puffed up like piss-a-bed dandelions from the cracks in the city streets. Some offered names, others types of culprit (usually poor). Most – although not all – presumed sympathy with the rebels. But why would John More think the fishmongers in favour of the insurrection?
Diagonally across the main conversation Idonia and Margaret, William’s wife, talked of the king. He was a beautiful young man who must be the pride of his mother. But her task was tough. The wives fought a little over the possibility of having such a son. But how could a mother clear his way and guide him when he was surrounded by so many powerful men?
‘He is nearly sixteen and he moves as if sixty. They have trained him to be slow and stately.’
‘His chin lifts a little each time I see him. At first I thought it good that he was beating the shyness of a boy. But…how can he resist the glory of the role he has acquired…’ Idonia’s voice, though faltering, was flavoured with impudence.
‘He held his head high on Smithfield and saved London,’ said Nicholas.
‘William saved London too,’ said Margaret, but William’s glance at her was also disapproving.
‘The king was not born to this burden, and certainly not to carry it at so young an age. His father and his brother were taken by God when we were not ready,’ said Idonia. ‘I fear it is too much for him.’ Was she apologising for the king, or revelling in the inevitability of his failure? Either way she was in danger of sliding into the rebels’ den.
‘I wanted to invite more people to dinner today, Nicholas,’ said William. ‘But I wondered about Adam Carlisle. If I did not include him…’
‘I believe you are wasting your wit. Although you did not mention him earlier it is likely that he too is in the Tower. He was clearly accused in parliament. I am also concerned about John Frosshe, who is, as you know, a business partner of mine. I spoke with him soon after John More’s speech but I have not seen him since. I asked him about John Horn and he said most people suspected that he was too friendly to the rebels, that he has always had an inclination against authority and been in favour of the lesser folk. You seem not to be aware of that William. But it was Adam Carlisle and John Frosshe who sent him out to Blackheath to talk to the rebels. They thought they might be persuaded to disperse and that John Horn seemed the kind of man who would be able to talk to them.’
‘Indeed it seems he did. And that on the basis of this promising beginning he invited them all back to his home for a party.’
William Walworth, who had by this stage managed half his plate of pork, got up and walked to the window again. His mouth looked as if it were stuffed full: he seemed to want to speak but to find himself unable. Nicholas waited but nothing emerged – and indeed nothing had been contained therein. William sat down at the head of the old oak table and defiantly refilled his mouth with meat.
Margaret and Idonia resumed their chatter, now moving to the duke of Lancaster. His Spanish duchess did not gain their favour in comparison to lady Blanche, whom they remembered seeing as girls. She was hardly older than they had been but her sweet bloom was taken by the plague. What a man to marry! He was ruthless, ardent and bad tempered! Had these ladies had their satisfaction? And what of the third ‘wife’, the one who should not to be named? Life would not be dull with the duke. He was not as handsome as the king but he had poise and fire, he was commanding. He would look very fine as king of Spain, and with the queen in her proper place.
‘Little chance of that, I would say,’ interrupted Nicholas.
John of Gaunt, that poisonous prince who hated England’s great city, while instead he loved the Flemings and the Genoese, the Hanse merchants and the Florentines. No wonder the people of England marched like an army to his palace on the Strand and raised it to the ground. It would have been his last bed, had he not been away in the north fighting the Scots. His ashes would have blown into the Thames and fish would have expired at their touch. But if he was saved by his absence during the revolt, not so his allies the Flemings, who were dragged from St Martin’s and slaughtered in the streets. Even Richard Lyons, a merchant as wealthy as most – although not Nicholas himself – could not protect himself and but was seized and beheaded.
But what of John Horn and Walter Sibyle, Adam Carlisle and John Frosshe? Who opened the gates?
‘Your thoughts Nicholas?’
‘I have none.’
A twist in William’s mouth showed that he had been speaking while Nicholas had been far away in Vintry. ‘On being mayor next year?’
‘We’ve come to this point before.’
‘And each time you have shied away. Nicholas, you can no longer argue that the time is not right to make our plans. A decision must allow space to gather others around it.’
‘We could leave it to the common council and the aldermen to decide as it says in the charter.’
‘You are laughing at me – or testing my patience. You don’t want to be mayor perhaps but you have a duty and you have a need. If Nicholas Brembre is not the next mayor of London his fortune will fall along with all others’.’
‘What about my brother Philipot?’
‘Have you heard that cough? In any case he needs all the strength left to him to fight back from his disgrace.’
‘What about the man who felled Wat Tyler?’
‘I have that badge. But I don’t have the substance any more. I struggle to maintain my household. This silver, these knives and spoons with which you eat this meal, they are what I have left of my former glory. There is little spare with which to fight an election.’ William let his eyes roll on the oak, before spinning them up towards his wife. ‘Margaret too has suffered much pain through the loss of her wifely trophies.’
Nicholas looked at his own wife but she failed to show her sympathy, in fact there was no sign of her feelings at all.
‘Perhaps I do want to be mayor,’ he said out of the silence.
William relaxed the martyr’s stiffness in his frame and let out a breath long enough to mist his glass and that of his wife as well.
The candles burned low in the gloom after Nones. Nicholas saw Idonia nudge hers towards Margaret to give the illusion of more light. The servants were not ready to replace them. Surely William need not economise on wax – he had not dropped so far? They were eating in the solar – to save on wood for the great fire in the hall? It did not save the effort of the servants who had to carry the table up the stairs. The dinner was good but plainer than the Walworths had offered in the past. Nicholas preferred it. Idonia cared little either way; she picked at her food between bursts of laughter. She had never had so much fun as she had now with Margaret on the subject of men.
In the shadows the servants waited, their number diminished from their former plenty. A young man with tufts of red hair, whose hands held each other still but whose feet shuffled. A young woman whose eyes dabbed at the restless feet and then at her master’s dead hands. That was all. She was very fair and lightly sprung like a yearling tree. Nichol’s right hand tingled as he felt the smooth silver slip of his plate.
Margaret nodded to these two remaining servants to take the plates away.
When the moon fails darkness is complete. You can feel the widening of your eyes but there is no response from the world. A blind man has the advantage through practice at this stumbling art. On the eve of winter this oblivion stretches back towards its tail. Men hurry to complete their business, as they hurried in the morning to get it going. The price of candle is alarming and little can be achieved by it. The curfew comes when the day seems hardly begun. There is an urgency to sight home before it is no longer possible.
In the shops before the house in La Riole they are busy trying to clean and put away in the half light. The gate may as well as have been painted black for the devil since by now you cannot see its daytime hue. But inside there is some comfort: Gombert has kept the lantern flickering in the yard and the yellow squares beyond him squeeze a little of their warm grease across the side of the house.
How different it is to return to a home you have chosen for yourself, that you own and can order as you wish. When Nichol was apprentice to Thomas Albon he must enter and leave only when instructed and when he returned in the dusk in the cold of winter there were no lights lit for him. Rather he must make a stub of candle last for ever and shiver under a blanket that had lost its stuff.
The child was playing in the corner of the hall. It was late now and the space would soon be needed for the evening meal. Nicholas had not noticed his son until he and Idonia were half way across the room. A clump of candles projected from the wall and caught the corner where he played. Robert was building with flat stones. There was a pile of round ones behind him in rejection. Nicholas had intended to comment on aimlessness of the undertaking but he stilled his tongue on the point of pronouncement. Robert looked up and was surprised. His hands moved to a half-built castle, protective for a moment but then resolved to sweep it from the earth.
‘No. You can carry on,’ said his father. ‘But it must all be gone by supper.’
A supper of smoked cod was duly eaten without a stone in sight. As of all December evenings, there was little that would now keep the household from bed. But Idonia wanted Nicholas to read to her and he was content. He thought back to the dinner discussion in Thames Street. Most of it had been of the mayoralty, which was of little concern to Idonia, while some of the rest seemed to interest her too much. History had the power to sober.
‘Peter, more candles and call anyone else who is still awake. Robert, what do you want to hear?’
Robert wanted dragons. He wanted the dragons under the castle that couldn’t be built. Idonia nodded her consent. She would agree with whatever Robert said.
King Vortiger began to build a castle in Wales, starting with a dyke and a wall on top of it. But each night the wall fell and no-one could tell him why. The sage Joram told him to stiffen the lime with the blood of a child who had no father. This was Merlin, begot by an incubus, but rather than lose his blood as Joram intended, the boy told Vortiger why the castle would not stand. Under the dyke was a stone and under the stone water and under the water slept two dragons who woke and fought each midnight causing the earth to shake and the castle to fall. The king’s men dug and drained; the dragons flew out and fought with ferocious din and fire; red killed white; red flew back into the hole never to be seen again. The king lauded Merlin and took the head of Joram, but Merlin predicted that Vortiger himself would soon be slain. Ambrosie Aurelie and Uther Pendragon had returned to Britain to seek their revenge.
‘How did Merlin know there were dragons? Did he want to kill them?’
‘The words don’t tell us, Robert. Layamon says what is necessary but not more. Wace, in French, gives a version that differs in detail but says no more on Merlin’s faculty.’
‘I think Merlin knew by magic,’ said Idonia. ‘But magic is not always good. The love of God is better.’
‘Did he want to kill them?’
‘A strange question. Of course he wanted to kill them. Who would not? But he did not need to and that is the point. Merlin always did things the practical way, magic or otherwise.’
‘I would like to see a dragon fly,’ said Robert.