Nicholas Brembre 33
January crawled forward on its frozen belly. After epiphany the king sent out writs to those he wished to attend a parliament ‘to consider matters touching the aggressive action of Charles of France’, but it was not to meet until the third week of Lent. The city of London was required to elect four members, but it did not make its choice at the January common council, and in the meantime John de Northampton puffed on about the sale of fish and the brewing of ale, sheriffs’ oaths and brokerage, false contracts and usury, hucksters and piebakers.
February raised itself to its knees and began to show some purpose. Forty days after epiphany came the purification of the virgin with its candle-lit processions, looking both back to Christ’s birth and forward to spring. This year an early Easter pushed Lent so far back that Shrove Tuesday followed Candlemas by only two days. Shrovetide was celebrated with abandon, particularly by those who had had poor sustenance over the winter and were now expected to deny themselves until Easter. No meat, milk or eggs for forty days, the longest period of fasting in the year. London stuffed itself with whatever it had that could not be touched in Lent, while boys held cock fights and poor men played their annual game of football. This brief period of indulgence was followed by a long list of saints days ascribed to this month of thaws, including St Agatha of the pincered breasts, St Matthias the late apostle, and Nicholas’s favourite, king Ethelbert of Kent, whose life was full of politics and war but who was converted by Augustine and brought many thousands to God.
In the country work had begun again with ploughing and sowing of beans and peas and oats, although the new year would not to start officially until the feast of the annunciation on 25 March. In this confusing year Lady Day would come after Easter. Two Easters in one year and none in the next? In the city buds were appearing in defiance of the cold and little pigs were squealing in the alleys in anticipation of next Christmas. Early flowers stabbed out of the mud and poor people were planting their modest equivalents of country crops.
The common council met on Wednesday 18th February. Nicholas set out very early. The sky was clear almost to the horizon, where indigo fists punched at the serenity. A late star ignored their efforts. The sun had not yet risen and tar-silhouettes of roofs and towers pressed against the emerging blue. Flames from wax and tallow dabbed at the dark. Nicholas made his way along La Riole, looking out with new determination for holes or clumps of rubbish, but not resisting entirely the the desire to follow the dawn.
He entered the grey Guildhall, leaving Peter and Gombert stamping in the yard. He knew the door would be open and that Richard would be there before him. The rules of the Guildhall, of its courts, its administration, its politics are so complicated that no one knows them all. You might have to come with your question several days in a row before you could settle on an answer. The best man to approach was Richard Odyham, the chamberlain, although even his knowledge was thin in places. Point to the wrong point and the fabric would be breached.
‘Are you not scared by so many rules?’ Nicholas asked, having found the chamberlain at the table of the main hall, his common place book surrounded by a wheel of scrolls.
‘You have to have rules,’ said Richard as he always did. ‘Rules keep the world orderly for God.’
‘Yes, and for man,’ agreed Nicholas. ‘Without rules there is wilderness. Without rules there is no shape, no direction, and no opportunity to take advantage.’
Richard did not laugh. He turned a page in his book and cut a finger across it. ‘Sometimes I wonder if we have the best rules we could. In life you do your best but there are always corners you can’t get to. A man has been before the sheriffs’ court recently on a charge of trespass. There has been the usual grapple with attendance and absence allowed or otherwise. Each time a different selection of participants gather and disperse. He looks neat and tidy but you can see the patches if you looked closely. So he is poor and you can tell from his speech he is from far away. How is that man to get his witnesses?’
‘If he doesn’t come from London, if he is a stranger he should be more careful.’
‘If he is a stranger he needs to be more careful.’
‘Are you suggesting we are inhospitable?’
‘But the rules make special provision for those from outside London.’
‘Do those provisions favour them or London?’
‘To me they favour the outsiders – the crown has always wanted to attract them as foils to the city. They deal with each other and with us in dubious ways and then use our courts to try to prove their virtue.’ Nicholas pressed his palms hard into the oak of the table and surveyed the banners hung around the hall. ‘What do you know about the law merchant?’
‘I need to know quite a bit. Do you have a problem?’
‘I am effectively owed money by a Venetian merchant, Luke Bragadyn, who is imprisoned in Newgate. I wondered what could be done to get him released.’
‘Wouldn’t you rather know where he is?’
‘He can’t sort out his affairs while he is prison.’
‘This case is before the mayor’s court.’ Richard turned another page in his common place book and reached for the roll at the bottom of the wheel.
‘Yes. Richard Morell and Henry Pensehurst began the action because Luke did not honour bonds his son gave them in respect of wool they shipped to Calais. But I have become involved because of money that is owed to me by Richard and Henry. In the meantime Luke refused to pay until Peter Gracyan, a merchant of Lucca, has settled with him. Peter is also in prison.’
‘Sounds straightforward to me,’ said Richard, using both hands to flatten the roll.
‘Yes, the case itself is straightforward: everybody owes everybody else and we all wait for someone else to sneeze. Such is familiar enough under the law merchant. But I feel sure that Luke Bragadyn is the key and until he is free we will all remain seized in a net of bonds.’
‘There was arbitration in this case.’
‘Yes. The arbiters were Walter Sybille and John Shadeworth and two Lombards. They came up with a bracing list of who should give a bag of gold to whom or a sack of wool to somebody else. But settlement is still outstanding: nothing practical has followed.’
‘Whatever you think of Luke, the key to his release lies with Richard and Henry.’
‘They want him to remain where he is.’
‘That is not surprising. Will they relinquish the case to you?’
‘Maybe. They have plenty others – as have we all.’
Nicholas lifted his hands from the table. Richard studied the two damp prints which lingered there for a moment. His own hand flexed as if it might reach for a cloth. Nicholas gave him a steady look, neither hostile nor apologetic, and began to walk towards the door. He stopped and looked back across his shoulder: ‘John Fresshe has been released from the Tower. What do you think are the prospects for the other men?’
‘That one has been released is a sign of what may come. But my impression is that the case against John Fresshe is the least robust and that is why he was released.’
Nicholas left Richard behind him at the table he would later share with the mayor. There was plenty of time before the meeting so he collected the huddled figures of Peter and Gombert from the porch, where they had been hiding from the remains of the night. The sun was now up but dense, grey clouds were rushing across the Thames and there would soon be twilight again. The horses sensed this and were shifting slowly in the yard as if ready to sleep.
‘We’re going to Coleman Street but you can leave me there and go home. All five of you look like you need to bed down on some straw. Gombert can come back for me at Terce.’
Thomas Wailand was among his apprentices. He was teaching them how to check the quality of cloth in the middle of a roll. A handsome boy with a dull expression was making no progress next to a a sweaty youth with a boil on his nose who had learned the lesson in the time it took to sneer at his companion.
Thomas led Nicholas to the stairs at the back.
‘Boil boy seems bright,’ said Nicholas.
‘True. He grasps what I tell him quickly enough. But if you are looking for the man to put us out of business, that’s the one blending into the white wash in the far corner of the room. Unlike boil boy he has already concluded from the fact that the rolls I have given them have poor cloth in the middle that this is a trick I play myself.’
‘I want to talk to you about the election.’
‘Something very precious to you.’
‘Which side do you support?’
‘But not to me.’ Thomas turned away from him into the room above the warehouse.
There was a woman in the room. She had been reading, which surprised Nicholas as soon as he stopped being surprised that she was there at all. She stood up and moved towards the door.
‘This is Beatrice,’ said Thomas. ‘And this is Sir Nicholas Brembre. I am sure he is not frightened of women so you don’t need to leave quite so quickly.’
Beatrice smiled. It was a smile to show that she was not embarrassed but it was full of puzzlement. While a trace of discomfort remained, whatever her attempts to hide it, there was also enjoyment and her lips curled at their ends as they worked to understand the situation.
‘God be with you, Sir Nicholas,’ she said.
Nicholas stared at her. Though she was certainly not a respectable woman he began to feel that he was being rude. He must either say something or look away. ‘What is that you were reading?’ he asked in desperation.
She picked up the book, which must belong to Thomas.
Nicholas read the cover: ‘De proprietatibus rerum. By Bartholomew the Englishman. I have it at home. It is a book to tell you about everything. This copy is in French. Do you understand it?’
‘She is terrifying. She understands everything.’ Thomas nodded to her and she made the escape she had first attempted.
‘You are surrounded by surprising people. First white wash boy and then…’
‘Beatrice was not always her name. I gave it to her.’
‘It is better for her. I did not like the name she had and, in time, neither did she. Now she is Beatrice, which means make happy.’
‘What was she called before?’
‘She must have been given a name at the font.’
‘Yes, but that is a secret between me, Beatrice and the priest.’
‘I like her as she is.’ A smile whet the face of Thomas Wailand and left a sheen such as you see in the distance when the road is hot.
Nicholas took breath loudly through his nose and pushed away. He reassembled the reasons for his visit: ‘Do you know any man of the drapers company whose sympathy I might encourage, by whatever means might suit?’
‘You are speaking of the guild of John de Northampton himself. I assume you know that so I am not sure what you expect as a reply.’
‘Not all drapers think the same way.’
‘True. Some are as angry with him as you, although probably for different reasons. But they may not favour a grocer whatever their gripe. Who can tell?’ Thomas looked down into the street where it sounded as if two armies were trying to pass. ‘But since it is probably in my interests to see you as mayor, I will look around the company for you. In the meantime I will get dumb boy to bring you some wine.’
There was a while to wait until Terce but Nicholas felt confined and unusually breathless in the house of Thomas Wailand. The room smelled of the strange woman who had left it. Women disturbed the line of things, especially when they appeared without warning. The wine was strong. Thomas must have access to the best, perhaps from some ally in the house of an earl or bishop. Nicholas himself was not always able to drink wine of the first pressing. Thomas talked about problems in the world of drapery. The details of the drapery were a little blurry but the main issues hit him straight in the chest. Debt, credit, taxes…Thomas’s problems were just like his. He began to tell Thomas about Luke Bragadyn and about Richard Lyons: ‘It was a bad time. The staple was not yet settled at Calais and I couldn’t make sure of my return goods, the wool trade itself was badly affected, the sacks were coming in just the same from the country and filling the ships but the ships didn’t know where to go, and even if they got there they might find no merchant to purchase them. You remember that Richard Lyons was selling licences to evade the staple, as well as milking loans made to the king and other imaginative ventures.’
‘The commons of the good parliament were ready to drag him to Tyburn for doing what they would all have done in his place.’
‘I have made a number of loans in the past to a Venetian named Luke Bragadyn. About ten years ago he bought an excise waver from Richard Lyons at my suggestion and I took space on one or two of his ships with a loads of my own wool.’
‘So that you could share in his tax-free felicity.’
‘More recently he has been in trouble over money he owes to two London merchants and they have had him thrown into Newgate.’
‘Luke Bragadyn wants to be out of prison and he is exercising what power he has, which is over you.’
Nicholas watched the tilt of Thomas’s elbow as he poured more wine into his cup.
‘You should not put this knowledge in my hands, Sir Nicholas.’
‘What would you do with it?’
‘I would become a story-teller and make more money from it than your friend Geoffrey does. You have enemies. My guildsman of course, he is rich enough to be worth a tale. But there are richer. I could go to John of Gaunt. Or even Thomas of Woodstock, his brother: he is less galled by you at the moment but might want a tally to keep it in his chest.’
‘They could certainly make use of the information. You could gain a great deal.’
Thomas pushed the jug aside. ‘I don’t want Lancaster’s cold crowns or Northampton’s shillings.’
‘They buy food and drink like any other precious metal. Don’t tell me you’d choke on a biscuit bought in the cause of the royal uncles or their grunts.’
‘Perhaps I would.’
‘I may have a loose relationship with the rules of the city, but I have my own rules and I put more effort into keeping those. I have been teasing you a little, as you have been teasing me, but what you suggest would be to the hurt of my friends and perhaps the king too.’
‘You are a surprising man.’
‘Why? You and I are the same. We are ready to attack everything in the world because we are desperate to find something that is good in it.’
‘Is that why you keep your whores?’
‘There’s no redemption to be squeezed from a wife. No need to redeem her, no mission for me.’ Thomas sat up straight as if something was causing him pain. The stiffness of his body was unfamiliar. Suddenly he blew out a cataract of air and the elements of his body fell with it into a smoother state. ‘In any case, why restrict yourself? Why not look for what you can in three different women? Each may have something to extract. Don’t you agree?’
‘I see your point, although I think there was more than one of them. But don’t you worry you may be accused of fornication, especially with the mayor stalking the streets in search of vice?’
‘Well, he won’t find me on the streets. If you are rich enough to fornicate between your own four walls you are probably safe enough from John’s campaign.’
‘I can think of several examples of citizens before the courts and cases where the parties were followed into the premises and arrested once they had proved their purpose.’
‘In that case, let’s agree on a pact: don’t tell the mayor about my project of redemption and I won’t tell the duke about yours to improve alien merchant relations.’