Nicholas Brembre 36

by socalledstories

Nicholas had business in Southwark. He dismounted at the river and told Peter to wait for him with the horses on the other side. Buildings perched along the bridge like seagulls crowding a branch. The tight pack of them denied their suspension: they could be any street on solid earth. The illusion continued until he stopped at the gap by the chapel half way across the bridge. The river running under his feet was smooth near the banks, but in the middle it was minutely wrinkled where the light wind caught it. The sun, between clouds, dropped frets of gold, which broke on the edges of the waves.

It was close to low tide, though not a particularly profound one. Nicholas could see a number of vessels out to the east moving slowly upstream to join the queue for the lifting of the drawbridge. That would not happen for a while and he would have no difficulty reaching the south bank. It was wise to consider these things when you wanted to cross since once raised the drawbridge rarely dropped in less than an hour.

He entered the chapel, which stuck perilously out over the the edge of the bridge, and knelt between a party of pilgrims and another of labourers carrying sharp-angled sacks. The former were fresh enough to be setting out for Canterbury or beyond, the latter more likely to be coming into the city to seek work.

‘Let me be successful in my campaign, lord, though it is a vain request. If I can’t be successful then let me be good. Either way I will give more money to your saint’s cause, to Thomas of Canterbury, so that more of your children will be saved, even if I am not to be one of them. Please accept my prayers for Pieryne, who is an honest servant to both of us.’

A man and a woman knelt in the shadow of a pillar on the north side. Their prayer began to intrude until it became an argument. He did not want to give them a second glance but could not ignore this hissing in his left ear. The issue of the man alone hardened into speech that could be understood, but between his complaints an inarticulate rebellion steamed on: ‘It wasn’t clean…sweat under the arms…you don’t try hard enough, you slut…you didn’t want it to be clean because it was mine…you are wilful and full of spite…’

The chapel, as any other house of God, had seen the range of human frailty, but Nicholas resented this escalation towards violence that should have been confined to whatever room, tent or hedge they called their home. Each slapped the other and then the man pushed the woman hard against the pillar which burst into a shower of white dust. A section of the stone column had fallen away, much of it crumbling but some retaining form and weight. The woman was hit in the head and blood flowed between her fingers. Her screams suggested she would live but the man flung himself to the floor in repentance, calling on God to cast him into hell. Nicholas was probably not the only one to support the request, so long as it be executed quickly. In the meantime he was disturbing the chapel more than ever and providing no assistance to the injured woman, who was bleeding all over the floor.

The female pilgrims came over to nurse the wife. One worked at her head with a cloth while the others sent competitively ugly looks out of the huddle towards the husband. Eventually the clerk of the chapel appeared with a mop and encouraged the penitent to get up from the floor so that he could clean it.

Nicholas distracted himself by surveying the chapel. It was in a poor state, worst than he had thought and attention was needed urgently. Though Henry Yevele had just been permitted to resign as warden of the bridge, Nicholas hoped he could persuade him to take on the work as he was the foremost mason of the land. Rebuilding looked like the best option. It might save work for the clerk and his mop.

Nicholas crossed a few more arches of the bridge, pushing his way past women brawling outside shops and men staggering from inns, until he reached the point where the inner gatehouse rose cold and intent before the prone figure of the drawbridge. This gate, a third of the way in from Southwark, had often been cited in disputes about city jurisdiction. Had a man escaped its reach by crossing this point or did he have to struggle on to the southern gate by the shore? Where exactly didthe clear rule of the city give way to Southwark’s tangle of liberties? Let the lawyers speculate; let them make their money. Most bodies simply walked on over the deck of the drawbridge with only a glance at the gate and its tenants.

It was here that the head of Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury, was set on a pole by the rebels, later to be replaced by that of their leader, Wat Tyler, who continued to leer at those beneath him, his face becoming less fleshy until it shone harder and cleaner than ever it had been in life. He had friends around him, sharing his vantage, although not so many as he boasted in his bloom.

The drawbridge was controlled by a system of ropes and pulleys, windlass and winch. Counterweights offered their assistance but it was nevertheless a lusty process. In the normal course of things the drawbridge was raised at dusk and dropped at dawn, while the gates reversed this act of schism. In between it was operatedas needed by the shipping and as permitted by weather and tide.

During the insurrection when the rebels camped on Blackheath, William Walworth ordered that the bridge be closed. But it is not an easy thing to shut a gate against a press of peasants and harder still to raise a drawbridge with a weight of beggary on it. Nicholas had seen the difficulty William had that afternoon, with a mob brewing inside the city and the Kentish threat not far beyond. No, he had not managed to shut the bridge but he had arranged to do it later. He was probably wise not to have attempted force, which might have provoked a worse result. But perhaps whatever he attempted was destined to fail. Within a short time the invasion had begun. Nicholas remembered watching from the Tower as the rebels with their torches passed the very point where now he stood. He felt some echo of it in his pulse, a quickening, and he thought again about the crumbling of the pillar against the wife’s head.

He looked into the river which had reached a crisis of confusion as the tide turned. There was a fizzing in the water where the bright sky was reflected. Away ran the ripples in all directions and flattened themselves into the mud. There was scum on the water too. It looked like yellow petals but he did not want to know what it was in truth. So much that was fowl was cast into the Thames from both sides and often in plain sight of the bridge. Rubbish from home and workshop; the rejected effects of craft and butchery; excrement of beast and man, including what was dropped from the latrine on the bridge; the bodies of drunken sailors or children sent to fetch water from the river’s treacherous edge. The Thames took what it was offered, softened or diluted it, but could not exonerate the shame of an entire city.

Southwark and the city were like frustrated lovers allowed to meet during day but not by night. They lay alongside each other, they needed one another, but they must not touch. One had sense and propriety, the other was wilful and free. A match like that could be surprisingly fruitful. No wonder consummation was resisted.

Southwark lay largely outside the laws and practices of the city. At the beginning of his reign king Edward sold to the city the vill of Southwark, but this was a small share of this rise of land between the bogs, which was otherwise divided between a range of overlords, mostly ecclesiastical. The agreement soon lapsed in any case, leaving next to no control over what went on in the suburb – and what went on in the suburb was even more varied than the botch of authorities. This was the attraction. Some men camehere from the city, where they were refused the freedom, so that they could set up in the trades of their choice. Some practised business that would not be tolerated of anyone north of the bridge. Others fled justice, slipping from the throbbing presence of their crime to the less interested eye of the south. Many more had lurked so long in the fumes from the tanneries, the lime kilns and the bathhouses they had become consummately debased. People of this sort were demanding of cheap accommodation and generous refreshment, hence the many inns of Southwark, not to mention the prisons. To their number was added a greater body of travellers: pilgrims, migrant workers, merchants and clerics competing to find tolerable shelter and victualling in this pit of importunity.

As he stepped back from stone to earth, Nicholas was encouraged to see the shape of Peter against the priory of St Mary Overie. Beyond the priory to the right ranged the extensive territory of Winchester House, owned by the bishop of that diocese but mostly leased to less holy interests, including the bear pits and stews along Bankside. To the left was St Olave’s church, dedicated to the canonised king of Norway who came to the rescue when London was held by the Danes; and Bridge House, where the wardens enjoyed a more peaceful existence of financial management and supervision of repairs. Straight ahead ran the road to the south: more inns, St George’s church, and the Marshalsea and King’s Bench prisons, until the lust of Southwark dissipated into the fields of Surrey and Kent. Nicholas had followed the road often enough to his farms at Mereworth and Kingsdown. But not today: today his business kept close to the Thames.

Lambeth House could be reached along the south bank but horses were essential if you didn’t want to look like a vagrant by the time you got there: only the main street of Southwark was worthy of the title. The route west passed prelates’ palaces, dens of vice, and fields of sheep, and led eventually to the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury, William Courtney, who had inherited it from the butchered Simon after the insurrection.

As soon as they arrived a servant rushed out to meet them and another led the horses away. Nicholas was given food and drink in a comfortable room facing a courtyard pecked by hens and Peter was escorted to the kitchen. Once refreshed Nicholas was shown into the main hall, where he was introduced to William’s clerk, Adam Mottrum. They had met before when William was bishop of London. Adam had been his vicar-general and moved with him to Canterbury.

‘You are sending your ships to Middelburg now.’

‘Yes. Since the autumn.’

‘And you have space in one or two of them? What will you be bringing back?’

‘Spices, wax, wine…’

‘All things that we need.’

The negotiations kept up a good pace and were concluded while the sun was still high. Adam was a calm and courteous man but he apt to pitch a pointed question at you when you had ceased to look for it. This time he did so after they had wished each other God’s reward and Nicholas was walking to the door.

‘Tell me, what are your chances of being the next mayor of London?’

‘As good as any other,’ answered Nicholas as quickly as he could while trying to avoid walking into the door frame.

‘That can’t be true. Have all the others been mayor before? Are their businesses as successful? Are they so rich?’

‘You suppose that I want to be mayor?’

‘Well, we are a little cut off here on the south bank. Even so we eventually hear what is common knowledge in the city.’

Nicholas was shocked to be shocked. He should have known that no sound in London is so low that somewhere a worm will not pick up its vibration. He waved his cap at Adam as he went and smiled at the sheep over the east wall as he followed a servant to find Peter. There was one more visit to make.

Peter was in the stables talking to the horses. They all walked out to the river bank and looked across to Westminster. The horses had no idea how quickly a boat could cross the water – nor how it might compete with their purpose – but the archbishop did. He was well placed to confer with the crown beyond earshot of the city. This was how the princes of the realm argued the fate of those beneath them. It was certainly a sweeter journey, despite the sewage, than back through the mud and over the sweaty bridge with its unfortunate connections for archbishops. Here were several boats making the trip, the oarsmen sliding themselves like shuttles across the thread of longer journeys along the Thames. It would be pleasant to take a boat now down stream to Queenhithe, and abandon the horses to Peter, but there was still one visit make.

He wasn’t certain of the alley, although he had been there once before. He should have brought Gombert as well as Peter – perhaps Guy too. It was wretched down here. He rarely felt scared in the city, despite its many dangers, but here in Southwark he felt beyond all normal means of protection: custom, law, familiarity; it was a place beyond knowledge.

Peter remembered the way. He had been here more often. At the end of the alley the world opened out a little allowing light onto the tenement. There was green space ahead, turning eventually into fields. It was not as bad as the approach suggested but it was bad enough. Her door was scrubbed clean but retained a curious pattern of dents and the spots of rot still shouted from the surface. She had one servant with her, a slight young woman, who opened the door as if it were a shield and seemed not to want to come out from behind it even when it was squashing her into the wall. Her lips moved like a bird’s beak but no song came forth. Nicholas listened instead for evidence of her mistress and heard a series of sharp taps from the room to the right.

‘It is Nicholas Brembre. May I enter?’

She was surprised and her voice was full of bubbles as she repeated his name: ‘Sir Nicholas, I am so grateful to you.’

Nicholas did not feel generous. He felt mean. She had refused a tenement free of rent in the city and had found this place for herself. All she would accept was a small allowance to keep her alive, since she had nothing else. She had finally agreed to receive her son’s wages now that he had no need of them himself. Adam’s mother – what a different Adam: one so high in the church, the other so deep in the sea – rushed from the room and reappeared with a piece of blanket to place over her trunk so that he could sit.

‘How do you manage?’ he asked.

‘Well, thank you,’ she replied. ‘I am as happy as I might be without a child to visit me. He visits me when I pray. I ask God to take care of him and of course he tells me he is content. So must I be.’

Nicholas remembered that she had been planning marriage at the beginning of the year. Nothing seemed to have come of this and he had no information about the lost groom. ‘You have no-one else who visits you?’

‘Just Peter when he brings my pension, for which I am so grateful.’

‘You do not speak to the people who live around here?’

‘Oh no. I am happy to be here since it is what I can afford. But I am not of this place and I do not want to become part of it.’

Peter and Nicholas rode back to the bridge. The horses were hushed, keeping their heads down and stepping lightly on the sad surface of Southwark. Nichol’s extremities ached in the chill before Vespers and he hoped that he would be able to cross quickly to the city. On the other side was Thames Street, Dowgate, Budge Row and La Riole, and there one of the houses was his own, its contents familiar as rain. Idonia would sit and eat with him and ask about Lambeth and Peter would clean his boots.


Idonia was showing stitches to Agnes as they sat beside the body of Pieryne, which was a little too pink for a corpse. Surely Agnes knew them all by now, but she stood behind Idonia with nothing on her face to show that she was bored or frustrated with the lesson. Nicholas saw that the object of the exercise was a pair of his own braes. Idonia glanced up and Agnes smirked.

‘There are no signs of the plague and I haven’t heard of an outbreak elsewhere in the city. We’ve made a bed for her on the trunk as you can see. Warmth and quiet will work if God allows,’ said Idonia. ‘This stitch is good where the cloth is thin but not torn.’

‘We will pray for her this evening.’

‘Yes, Nichol. Let’s have psalm thirty seven: there is no health in my flesh because of your wrath. I have another prayer I think will do. Felice is back now and can take Pieryne’s work until she is better.’

The household gathered in the eerie mix of sunset and candlelight. Nicholas read passages from Bede and then began the prayers for Pieryne. Idonia recited her own.:

‘Behold the blood that runs from nailed feet and hands, feel the pain endured to save us. Let us bear our sickness and woe quietly in that knowledge. Jesus make us worthy of your love and grant us the ability to love you in return. Forgive our sins and help us at our ending. Comfort our souls that they dread no wickedness.’

Jankin stood with eyes closed. Surely he could not sleep on his feet? No – after short while his eyes unclasped and were bright with attention. Idonia had finished her prayer and the company began to order itself for the night. Guy and Gombert moved from candle to candle around the hall bringing darkness blot by blot.