Nicholas Brembre 27
Wedges of blue-grey cloud were crossing the sun, which had dulled and blurred since Terce. Rain came in swipes like the claws of a giant cat, swinging and scratching, then at rest. Nicholas reached Guildhall half wet, half dry. The dark interior offered no hope of warmth. He would remain damp until he was home once more. John de Northampton was fussing at the far end, speaking to five men at once, pretending friendship. Nicholas took his seat silently and looked ahead, projecting his dignity at the wall.
There were always meetings. Most were part of a regular pattern – the hustings was held on Mondays, the assize of nuisance on Fridays, the mayor’s and sheriffs’ courts in between. Meetings of the aldermen and of the common council were inserted regularly, although less frequently, and in addition there were special meetings called at the bidding of the mayor, the sheriffs or even the king. Between them these bodies dealt with almost everything in London that required attention. How much was there besides? William Walworth believed that there was very little else; the system was perfect, it had been designed to cover all that could be imagined. Perhaps it did. If so, there was great deal that could not be imagined, at least at the point of planning. Sometimes it seemed that William Walworth thought more of London than of God. God gave us the king, the sea, the soil, the weather, but the corporation gave us London. He had no sense of the history behind the city. There had not always been a corporation, or a city for that matter. But Nicholas found most people uninterested in this. Why, by God, did they think that everything stayed the same? It was obvious from the changes they could see during their own lives – in a year or two even – that the world was always squirming to be something else.
The meeting began with prayer. Nicholas wiggled his toes in his thick boots and warmed his hands under his buttocks. His nose dripped but he let it do so as he eased into the brief concord that religion allowed to politics. It was the eleventh day of December and the season of the nativity approached. Unfortunately that did not prevent mayor John from souring the peace with snide mention of the feast of St Nicholas. From this recent celebration of largesse and subversion John plucked the boy bishops, who were allowed their misrule for a few hours, if only to show the wisdom of restoring order thereafter.
‘Boys may be granted their day on the dais but they are back under the rod when the bell sounds and everything is as it was,’ said John with a smirk.
It was easy to summon a story to fit this snatch of tags: the name of the saint, the rude thrill of the underling, the reminder of who was really in charge. But John was playing too hard with the present. He was mayor for the year, not for the lifetime of a school or of the priest who held it or, for that matter, the church which underpinned it.
John de Northampton held his pious pose for some time after the bubbles stopped leaking from his mouth, while Nicholas fished for the calm indifference of the prayer that had preceded it. Just as he caught a hook on it his rival began venting once again.
‘Fellow councillors, we consider the gates of the city…’ John turned to Thomas, his clerk, who fussed over his few sheets of paper before releasing one to the mayor’s outstretched hand. ‘Specifically the tenements above Aldersgate and Ludgate,’ he continued as excitement faltered and fell. ‘The king has requested the Ludgate mansion for his loyal esquire John Beauchamp. The existing tenants, both sergeants of the chamber, have heeded the royal request and are now in need of accommodation themselves. It seems to me fitting that they, William Wircestre and Philip Waleworth, be housed in the tenement above Aldersgate, as they remain in the service of the city, whereas the current occupant, Ralph Strode, formerly recorder of the city, relinquished his employment of his own accord.’
Nicholas looked around the chamber. Some heads were nodding, some were still. Most bodies were huddled in their cloaks. The bright colours of the blurry shapes made them resemble Robert’s set of bowls, though there were far too many to tumble. Nearer the fire where the early arrivals showed some flesh, there were signs of renewed interest, eyes that could be seen to swivel in his direction. Nicholas pulled his head from his hood and accepted their tribute, or whatever it might be. Though not the gate-related issue he had expected, this one chafed in its own way and needed a response.
‘I am bound to remind the mayor that the residence of Aldersgate was granted to Ralph Strode for life, not for the period of his service alone, nor according to any waxen standard that might be applied thereafter.’
‘Nicholas Brembre speaks because it was he, as mayor, who gave away this asset, regardless of the interests of the city as a whole. And who knows for what special service this lavish reward was made, or how quickly its upright appearance might melt down if light were applied to it?’
‘There was no service beyond that which was know to the city and which was of benefit to it.’ Nicholas sat down. He did not want to argue about Ralph Strode, whose cause was clearly lost. This bickering with John de Northampton was of no use. Hasten September and the election.
Thomas Usk released another sheet of paper and John began to translate ink into sound. He mentioned cases before the courts. William Northampon, cobbler, was sent to the pillory for conspiracy and false magic. His accomplice, Alice, had stolen a Paris kerchief and wanted William to clear her name. He approached the owner claiming to have the magical power to identify the thief. He convinced her not only that the thief was not the thief but also that she would be drowned within a month, bringing on a severe case of melancholy. Why did John dwell on this matter? Was it the name of the cobbler? Was it the asininity of the general population?
The meeting continued with the requirement for bakers to appear twice yearly before the mayor and sheriffs at St Thomas Acon. Hitherto fines had been levied for absence and lateness, but the council decided that penalties should be imposed only where a baker had not attended at least once a year. This was followed by clarification elections of aldermen should be held in the wards between the Feasts of Purification and of St Gregory.
The list progressed with the result of an inquest following a complaint by Nigel Taillour of Holbourne that Roger Gailer had been a leader of the evildoers in the insurrection who had ridden to the Savoy and St John’s. The jurors concluded, however, that Roger had not been to the Savoy and had been only a minor figure in the attack on St John at Clerkenwell. He had stolen several items there, including bulls sealed with lead but had returned them later.
Finally John flapped his piece of paper, smoothed its bottom with his thumb and announced the release of John Filiol from prison in Newgate (on sureties). John Filiol had accused John de Northampton of maliciously depriving his fellow fishmongers of their living. He was committed for a year but released after four weeks. ‘We see that calling the mayor a “false scoundrel and harlot”, not to mention offering to fight him, does not prevent mercy on the part of the abused party.’
John was perhaps more irritating than ever when putting on his good mayor show. John Filiol had wanted to fight him and so now did Nicholas Brembre.
The meeting was at an end. John de Northampton thrust his papers back at Thomas Usk, who shook them and stuck them under his arm. John then stood and waited for the clerk to clear his path from the table. He made much of the space this allowed him to stand full frontal to the assembly. Finally he swept down the aisle between the benches with Thomas trailing behind him.
It was usual for men to linger after the meeting, if only to annoy their servants, who had become so cold and dry with boredom as to merge with the stonework. Nicholas nodded to Guy who wrenched forward from the north wall as if a spectacle were needed to break free. Nicholas, meanwhile, stamped his feet as quietly as possible in the corner of the chamber. He stared at them as if concentration could warm them but was unable to prevent the approach of Simon Wynchecombe, alderman for Chepe. Simon had stones to sell but Nicholas did not deal in stones, nor did he buy small, single items of any sort unless they were very unusual. He had rehearsed this for him in the past but Simon clearly felt that Nicholas was either lying or stupid. This time Nicholas chose to turn his back on the whole exercise, since effort had gone unrewarded in the past. But what came into view as he completed his spin was of greater nuisance still. John de Northampton had noted the (non) exchange and was advancing on the position of his rival like a knight in too much armour.
‘Are you dealing in the corner of the Guildhall, where honest tradesmen cannot find you?’
‘I have no desire to be found by any-one, not least those whose designs are quite opposed to mine. All I want is to restore the feeling in my legs and look for my dinner. No other deal or discovery interests me this morning.’
John was not to be bounced. Nicholas saw that he was hard with blood from his clenching of the meeting. He needed something more to flatten.
‘Why should men who gather pretty things and put them in boxes, like spoiled daughters, make hundreds of marks because their fathers-in-law provided them with the means to ship them round the world? Meanwhile ordinary craftsmen have to sweat for every groat.’ John de Northampton projected his face as if it were a fearsome weapon. It was a little lopsided, to the right of itself. Nicholas suspected one ear was further forward than the other, something that can easily happen when the head is squeezed and twisted at birth. The forehead was clawing backwards across the scalp but without granting greater wisdom. The nose was scarred by pockmarks and the chin by shaving scabs.
Nicholas laughed: ‘Why would it matter to me the nature of the goods so long as paying folk wanted them? Money is money. If you have money you have the chance to make more. Why wait forever for those without the seed to fail to grow the plant?’
‘Is that why you must deal and deal until you have all the money in the world? You can grow a forest of notes of exchange, but you can’t grow a house of heirs. Your fruit is all of silver and gold: cold, hard and bloodless.’
To this point Nicholas had granted to John the draper a glancing sort attention at most. This was now too much and he fixed instead on two figures under the window by way of distraction. Their mouths were making tiny movements while their hands worked at their clothing, pulling it across flesh as if they could hide their plotting. So often we reveal through our intention to conceal.
A sudden pain in the back recalled Nicholas to the near ground. There was the semblance of surprise on the face of John the draper. His hand projected to the left to restrain his colleague, who seemed disarrayed and to be leaking steam from his ears.
Nicholas had missed whatever it was that provoked the drama. He had no sense of its territory. It was John’s self-consciousness that sharpened Nichol’s pain and made him seek account. As the idea of assault exploded in his imagination, his hand moved towards his dagger. Often our limbs are obedient to urges our wit does not approve.
‘See where he goes for his weapon in the Guildhall! Nicholas Brembre would use violence to impose his will!’
The sheriffs were suddenly attentive.
‘What I see is that after two attempts to provoke me – by insulting my trade and my dead children – desperation has led to the yet cruder method of poking me in the back.’
‘Did anyone poke Sir Nicholas in the back?’
‘I see no pokers.’
‘Citizens and aldermen of London! Guildhall is not used to voices raised so high. We are the leaders of the city. How will we keep order if we do not maintain it in our own persons?’ asked sheriff John Hende.
John de Northampton rubbed his pockmarked nose and pulled back the damp corners of his mouth. He was ready to shout at some-one but could not chose.
It was William Walworth who calmed the fever by marching over and seizing an entirely different debate. ‘There is no point in arguing about the bridge – why would Sir Nicholas know anything about it? I am sure you have nothing left to say to the mayor, Nichol. Let us find some fresh air.’