Nicholas Brembre 34
Nicholas returned in good time for the meeting of the common council. Richard Odyham’s wheel of rolls was collapsed and put away in a box. Members of the council were talking softly under the beams of the Guildhall. The sound was like mild wind and the wooden floor caught the light in puddles like incontinence. From the corridor came taps and bangs and scrapes, creatures in the dark contracting business unknown. So it would be in the forests of England among the free-ranging people of the past, whose control was of hand and eye without care for dignity. Life then would have been damper and more surprising.
The meeting proceeded in the usual way. John made pretence that he was taking account of what others said in the discussion of the many issues of the day. Some were so convinced by his performance that they forgot to check later for signs that he had actually taken any notice of their views. When he disagreed with a comment from his audience his first defence was to laugh. He knew how to round the sound so that it was both soft and hard, jovial and savage at the same time. Sometimes the laughter was met with collapse, like a flower that drops all its petals when it is touched. Other times the flower was resistant and stood high on its stalk. Sometimes John became serious and tried to reason, sometimes he shouted, often he derided those who had been fed with rich food and watered more generously than others. There was always this bitter root to John’s banter, this struggle to be worthy through poverty, as if God were deciding the debate. John de Northampton was not poor, never had been, and neither were most of his associates. But they seemed to want to be, to borrow holiness from their inferiors, the craftsmen of the minor guilds. Even they were not poor to the necessary standard: they hardly met St Francis’s challenge to give up all worldly goods. Better to name your riches and do penance than pretend they can be hid.
Today the illusion of debate applied itself to the election of aldermen and of members of parliament, to public morality, the administration of justice and to the maintenance of toilets. Nicholas would not be eligible to remain an alderman as a result of the one year rule, but he was chosen as a member of parliament, along with John More, Richard Norbury and William Essex. He was the only one of the four not to be a supporter of John de Northampton and for this reason, if no other, he was willing to accept the role.
With the elections completed the meeting descended to a more practical level. It was decided that the latrine on London Bridge should be repaired by the wardens but that one of them, Henry Yevele, should be permitted to resign at Michaelmas (to escape this very task perhaps); that no native be admitted to the city for less that 60s; that no sheriffs should hold any pleas except assizes on a Saturday; and that freemen committed to prison for debt, trespass, account or contempt be sent to Ludgate prison, but in cases of felony and maiming to Newgate. And so it continued, while the wind rose and fell according to the state of stomachs in the hall.
John de Northampton had issued a string of proclamations and took the chance to repeat a few of them. His confidence began to look overdone. He lit up the Guildhall with his fervour but the air around him remained cold and damp. The lack was not always in his arguments but rather in their necessity. The flame passed over many heads that wondered why they should shiver for so long when they were already resigned. Nicholas himself did not always argue with John’s direction, more the distance travelled. The matters he raised had had the attention of the corporation for many years but before John the attention had been proportionate. Now it was engorged with zeal for punishment and for spectacle. These days musicians were hired to accompany miscreants to the pillory or the thew, so that processions grew dramatically as they made their way from the Guildhall. Bawds were marked by the shaving of beard and crown, procuresses by all hair from the head, while common whores were marched in striped hoods to Cock Lane, since it was here that they were supposed to pursue their business. Some people were glad of the entertainment, as seemed to be the case among the councillors, but Nicholas squirmed in his seat. He did not want to dwell on what was best handled quickly and with due hush.
Nicholas had long been bored by John’s performance and now his own false tolerance was losing grip. The point of being mayor was to organise and speak for the city. But this is what we have for a mayor, a man who wants more attention than a child, who constantly seeks admiration and assent, although he shouts it down when it is grudgingly given. Nicholas had to bring an end to the mayor’s strut, to break the thread of his theatre: ‘Does the mayor have news about the citizens in the Tower?’
John danced his eyes around the room, as if he did not know where Nicholas was sitting. ‘More on the subject of punishment,’ he said with glee as he fixed his gaze.
‘Not yet, I hope. Guilt has not been determined and I would suggest that they – or some of them at least – will be acquitted.’
‘Maybe. I promise to keep my eyes lithe, although I confess it is a struggle. Why would Nicholas Brembre support these people? They are his allies of course, but I would want to sever such connections as soon as I heard the charges.’
‘Is it right to accept so carelessly what began as whispers in dark alleys and transferred to the courts without any evidence being added? The mayor knows the rules regarding cases that have not yet been tried. He presses his views as if there may be some advantage to him in seeing these men condemned.’
‘Nicholas Brembre should be careful himself of what he says.’ The growl was so low he thought he saw a bear standing there on the stage. But, as its voice recovered pitch, its body shrank back to the height of a mayor: ‘It is true that no-one has yet been convicted in this case, but that has no bearing on the merits of prosecution. How could it, since on those grounds no case would ever proceed?’
There was laughter in the hall, which gathered pace along snaking lines of apprehension. Nicholas stared ahead of him, holding his chin straight but he no longer looked at John. When he began to attend council meetings as a young man, Nicholas was excited by the prospect of argument. He relished the opportunity to try his strength in debate. But these days the likelihood of disagreement was so great as to be deflating. There was a great tradition of strife in the city. Arguments among the citizens and with others – royal, baronial, ecclesiastical – had made the council what is was, determining its shape and its power. But there was no satisfaction in argument as sport, in striving to win regardless of the strength of the case or the importance of the subject. This business went beyond the fate of the men in the Tower to the rights of citizens and their freedom under the law.
John was still talking: ‘I don’t understand why members of the council think that their own interests come before those of the city. I have in mind only the body as a whole when I make my decisions. It should not be otherwise. We are strong together, weak if we divide.’ Here was a new attempt at vanity. John was putting effort into each word but the profit was slight. He was the enemy, opposed to so much that was essential to the city; yet Nicholas realised that he could have used exactly the same words himself, since everything substantial had been left out. Of course the city should work as a whole – but what work should it do?
For a second time that day Nicholas Brembre collected his servants from the porch of the Guildhall and escorted them home. The sky was colourful and dry, unlike its morning self. Grey cloud and blue brightness interspersed and over Westminster a little red was added. The cold was comfortable and men who must walk between work and home did so with their heads thrust a little forward from their hoods. Nicholas felt irritated and invigorated at the same time. Perhaps the two went naturally together. However many times he cursed the running of the corporation, he always came back to it. With John de Northampton as mayor he was angrier than ever and even more excited at the prospect of fighting to be mayor himself.