Nicholas Brembre 37

by socalledstories

Parliament had assembled in February and dissolved in early March. It spent most of its time revisiting the issue of French aggression in the low countries. There was fierce conflict within the walls of the palace before ever an army could be assembled, with the duke of Lancaster dancing a morisca in support of his favourite cause of Spain before flouncing off in a temper. Parliament decided once again in favour of the proposed crusade of the bishop of Norwich to free Flanders, which was in turn supporting of and supported by pope Urban VI. King Charles of France, in the name of the rival pope Clement, had now come almost as close as he could to his true enemy and much fretting filled the land of Albion. But parliament was less generous with its money than its righteous enthusiasm. The word went out that bishop Despenser must raise a good share of the finance himself and London was bright with women offering their jewellery, men their gambling money, children their toy swords, and even the poorest scratched in the corners of their hovels for anything that might save the holy father and the nation. Nicholas himself gave generously, not so much for Urban but for trade, and perhaps in gratitude for the duke’s humiliation.

John Philipot was heavily involved in helping the bishop with the fitting out of the venture and Nicholas saw little of him during the weeks that followed the conclusion of parliament. He was present, however, at the common council meeting at the beginning of May, by which time preparations for the crusade were close to complete. He looked weary and greeted Nicholas with less than his usual cheer, waving at him across the hall rather than rushing to meet him.

The Guildhall was steaming: rain and fog had soaked it and the sudden heat of May kept it simmering. The flat air and wet surfaces produced stripes of mat and shine, while the dampness enhanced the smell of the wood. Nicholas had a affection for the building which had been depressed for a while but was now reviving: stripes in time. Today there was nothing to drag him back into gloom and he smiled through discussion of the repair of Cripplegate and the barge of London, of rubbish in the Walbrook and yet more on the topic of brewers and hucksters. The last item traced his recent steps over London Bridge to Southwark, where many of the hucksters had fled. Two officers were to be appointed to stop illicit ale crossing after them, and the bailiffs of Billingsgate and Queenhithe were sworn to assist. These were problems that no-one could truly solve, but he looked forward to making the attempt. His friends were around him pulling faces at the bluster, but he was not sure if anger or boredom led their subversion. For him it was neither: he was rubbing his hands at the opportunity.

Afterwards they gathered in the yard. Hugh Fastolf clapped his hands and laughed when Nicholas approached him: ‘It had to be you. John the swan has known it for a long time – perhaps longer than you. He is a clever man. So are you. The two of you have been entertaining us with your pre-election sparring. Otherwise we would all be frozen to our benches. Of course I will support you. What else would I do?’

Hugh was a lively fellow but alongside his grand poses there was always room for a wriggle and a fidget. A gift would insult him but occasional visits might keep him on course. Nicholas had hosted some of Hugh’s cargo in the past, notably on the occasion Hugh’s ship had been claimed by the king at short notice and his wool was in need of a ride. Hugh was a fellow grocer who attended guild services and meetings without fail but always looked amused by them.

‘I will look for you on Sunday. Should be fun!’

‘It was very odd to say that a service would be fun – blasphemous probably – but Nicholas liked it and he liked Hugh. Tomorrow he might change his mind as Hugh wandered off the path in another direction, but today he liked the challenge of the imp’s view.

John Philipot invited the party back to his house in Cornhill. The hall was fuller than usual, with boxes and pieces of parchment strewn around, the disarray doubtless explained by the volume of his recent work.

‘London is frayed and itchy,’ he worried. ‘She needs shaking up and hosing down. John de Northampton thinks only of putting people in the stocks as if that will make things tidier, when it just makes more of a mess. We need a deeper sort of tidiness. But you all know this.’

‘If tidiness is the issue I am sure that mayor Nicholas can arrange it.’

John nodded: ‘Where are you Nichol? Many men agree with you. You cannot fail to win. Perhaps. I am sure you will not fail through lack of effort – that seems to be the key. But there are other considerations…’

Henry followed into the hall: ‘How do we win this election? The need is urgent. All who have sense know that John de Northampton must be felled. All those who are without – well, we can think for them. We know their true interest. The city is one body and its leader works either for its glory or against.’

‘You put it well, Henry,’ said Nicholas. An eloquent fool could weave a pretty screen for him to work behind. ‘The problem, then, is of persuading men to see sense who do not do so on their own. I can do that.’

John resumed: ‘After two years of crookedness it would be good to follow a virtuous path…’

‘Good but risky. We have a battle here. Do we want to fight without swords?’

‘Does it matter that every blow is struck in virtue?’ asked Thomas Goodlake. ‘Is any blow virtuous? The test is whether each blow is struck in a virtuous cause. It is not just about winning a race, but about the effect on every-one in London, down to the poorest child. If the right degree of men is in charge then every-one benefits…’

‘Apart from John de Northampton,’ interrupted Henry.

‘Even he, if he understood it. He is a merchant as our we, even if he is a lesser one. We have to fight for our place in the world and are discounted by many others – barons, knights and clergy – how important then is the standing of the mayor who represents us? This election will shape everything about us: the integrity of our world, how we conduct our business, whether we can live in the way we should.’

Nicholas looked at him through eyes like fists: ‘And what way is that?’ he demanded.

Thomas was surprised and took a moment to recover his stance: ‘You are not a philosophical man, Nichol.’

‘He is, in truth,’ argued John. ‘If you watch him as he listens he is working it all out. You see the way his nose twitches: he is sniffing out your arguments. But when he speaks it is always as the master, who does not waste on words what could be put into shifting a sack of wool, smelling spices, drawing his accounts, collecting rent, or winning an election.’

John was smiling but the ends of his mouth seemed to pull too far. Nicholas traced the strings to Thomas, who now dropped them and sat down beside Margaret: ‘You know him best.’

Nicholas agreed with them all, for so far as they could get, but each was tethered to his favoured spot. John clung to probity; Henry saw only the obvious end; Thomas was more flexible but mistook his cleverness for wisdom. None could do as the juggler and cast more than one club at once. You had to see everything and think about everything. That was the measure of life. Do not rest with the quivering words of those who went before you, nor the hissing from the snake pit to either side. These sounds have something in them but you have to make your own selection, otherwise it will be chosen for you.

Rules – good or bad? Stick with them or subvert them? That old one could be debated forever without ever reaching new ground. It was true that in the best situation following the rules ensured its continuation. The most orderly city could rely on its ordinances and the good behaviour of its citizens – Nicholas had often enjoyed this fantasy. But when chaos threatened, new rules were needed, ones that bent in the right direction. John de Northampton had not respected the traditions of the city. He had set many of them aside, as if fools had thrown them together. He felt himself to be so important he could make history like Brutus, Arthur or William the Bastard. Well Nicholas could turn it back again. A rabbit does not allow another into its burrow if the second rabbit intends to pull it down. A lion does not let its rival onto into its pride if it wants to steal its wives. Rules are a refinement, a more precise way to live once the basic shape has been established.

John had a new set of tapestries. Nicholas saw that they were as fine as his own but showed scenes in the life of Christ rather than of Arthur. Beside Nichol’s ear, our lord was casting the money-changers from the temple. The stitching was exquisite. Had Margaret done this?

‘No,’ she laughed. ‘I cannot compete with Idonia.’

Margaret’s laugh was a great prize of the Stodeyes. Was this why Robert favoured her? She liked to wear red, an observation Nicholas made after fifteen years of close acquaintance. Idonia said it didn’t suit her. But it was a grand colour and Margaret looked good in anything.

John and Margaret stood together. They made a fine shape in the doorway as he stepped out into the silver light.

‘Bring Robert round,’ said Margaret as if everything that day had worked up to that point. Nicholas nodded to the moon.

The work of winning an election is not much different from securing a deal in business. You approach likely men – men who have similar interests and beliefs or are vulnerable to extortion or duress. The right approach must be made to each one – a smile that encourages or threatens, a present or an invitation. But although the process is the same, the consequences differ. If a business deal is lost, the trader moves on to the next; if an election is lost there is no new chance for a year and the city will be rotten in the meantime. So it must be done as best can be, to a royal standard. Failure drops the lances of all the knights in Christendom – or in the city at least.

While fingering rare spices, collecting rent, waiting for summons for debtors at court, arranging payment to monasteries for wool or listening to bids from young men with shiny ideas but dull complexions – in the midst of business Nicholas was thinking of the election.

Giles Bedeford said he could feed Nicholas’s sheep herbs that would make their wool as fine as could be found in the Cotswolds. Nicholas was silent while he savoured the shock of the revelation but soon lost hold to memory of a baker who claimed influence over the election through the colour of his buns.

‘Tell me one thing. How has this been missed before?’

‘I cannot speak for others, Sir Nicholas. Perhaps they did not look in the right place.’

‘Where is the right place?’

‘Sir Nicholas, you would not expect me to…’

‘Perhaps not. But I would expect to see it before I believed it so there is little chance of a deal between us. God go with you.’

The sage youth was replaced by a merchant of middling age and means who fidgeted and fought a grin but would not quite put his name to his cause or his hand in his purse. Nicholas, who did not have time for riddles, began thinking instead of John Pyel, who was becoming politically impenetrable, even as he became increasingly soused. More riddles. He dismissed the merchant.

An older man, a master weaver, came to him with ideas for diverting some of his wool to home-made cloth. Nicholas was interested in this alternative to war-torn exports, given that English manufacture was succeeding where it had not done so before. Nicholas looked at the man but all he could see was the brown face of the ship owner who had offered his support in the mayoral campaign.

‘I am pleased,’ he said. ‘ Speak to Jankin. He will arrange things.’ But what things should Jankin arrange? Was it the payment for the vote or was it to speak to the carder and the fuller?’

Nicholas saw little of Robert and Idonia while he campaigned to be mayor. He was often at the Guildhall or the stocks market, on Chepe or visiting councilmen. When he held meetings at his own house his family did not attend. They would be of no help and he did not want them to hear all of what was said. At night Idonia lay beside him in the dark and listened, or seemed to listen, to a version of the day’s events. He told her there would be more time when the election was over. She seemed to agree.