Nicholas Brembre 44

by socalledstories

Mid October burned in fierce bright days, during which the high windows of the hall let in the sun to blast the tops of the walls but Idonia, far below, struggled to emerge from twilight. Nicholas watched from the west door as she crossed the floor, pausing for a moment over a flower in an Italian vase. But she hurried on and he could not catch her. He decided not to call. What did she need to rush after? He had no idea.

Outside the leaves were beginning to curl and take strange hues. Among those still green were stripes of blazing death. By contrast the buildings of La Riole had benefited from the autumnal rain and were facing the winter with gleaming scorn. Nicholas was not concerned with winter, which had never caused him much harm in the past. October itself was the obstacle. Would he leave it as mayor or would his efforts lead to spectacular but withered calamity like the leaves?

The pomp began on the eve of the feast of Saint Thomas the King and Confessor with proclamation across the city that no man should attend the Guildhall on the morrow unless summoned. This was in line with a writ of 1315 reflecting riot and tumult in the time of king Edward II. There had been cause for city ordinances to reinforce this message since then but surely there had never been a contest such as this nor such likelihood of trouble. According to tradition the commonality proposed two names to the aldermen and they chose the winner. Often the result was well known in advance; often either name was acceptable. But this year London was taken over with conflict and the name of the next mayor was like a flame that burned through everything though no-one was certain which name it would be. John de Northampton hoped that the king or, more likely, the duke of Lancaster would support him in his bid for a third term. But Nicholas had been gaining in the king’s favour over the last year. He had loaned him a large sum and had spoken with him in person about the affairs of the city. Meanwhile John de Northampton, according to the Jankin’s spies, was finding it harder to gain a response of any sort from John of Gaunt.

On the morning of the election Robert brought a breakfast of bread and fruit for his father. ‘Juliana helped me.’

‘Who is Juliana?’

‘The new maid.’

‘You did well in choosing her,’ he said between bites. He forgot the election for a moment while he tried to remember what Juliana looked like. When the occasion came back to him his appetite failed. There was too much for someone who, like most citizens, did not usually eat until Nones. He was seized by what was to come. Jankin’s calculations had him in front but calculations were never sound until the race had been run. His stomach wallowed and then leapt up. He thought he would be sick but the matter stopped in his throat and retreated leaving a foul taste. Let Robert look critically at the remains of the breakfast, he did not want to slosh his way to the Guildhall and perhaps have to dart into an ally or behind a bush to avoid embarrassment.

‘Thank you Robert. That is more than enough.’

The Guildhall was packed like a stew. Each ward had sent twelve men as requested of their aldermen and there were officers and servants in addition. But among the hundreds of excited exchanges Nicholas could detect no news of a last moment letter from the duke or the king. The city would make its choice without royal intervention and that would favour the chance that Nicholas Brembre would be mayor. The idea of it burst in his head like a flower that is suddenly struck by the sun. He would take his oath at the Guildhall and then at Westminster. He would sit at the head of the hall for the year to come and the city would be transformed. What would he do with John de Northampton? Leave him alone in the hope he would limp away? Nicholas would not do so himself so why would he expect it of John? But this was casting too far ahead. None of it had happened yet. The candidate must reel back to the beginning and tackle each truth as it emerged from the sweat.

Silence was finally achieved in the hall. The recorder, William Cheyne, bayed out the reason for the summons to the Guildhall with the usual pretence of revelation and the commoners retired to the far end of the hall to make their selection. Nicholas was left at a distance from the action and had to fix his feet to the floor to stop them wandering in torment. John de Northampton was standing in the corner under the arms of the drapers. His face was fixed and his eyes moved only occasionally towards the business, before snatching back again. He was thinking of the letter than never came.

The commoners began to step away from their huddle and the common pleader led them to the middle of the hall, where he pronounced the names that had been expected: John de Northampton and Sir Nicholas Brembre. The battle was set now that the foes were identified. The mayor and aldermen rose to the upper chamber to decide between them. The common clerk went from alderman to alderman, recording their choices. Some voices were raised to make clear their allegiance but most kept low enough to preserve their options. Nicholas did not bother to open his mouth when approached and the common clerk did not insist on an answer. ‘Let the mayor complete his work,’ said John de Northampton when it was his turn but what began with the fierce tongue of an imperative tailed off into a plea.

The aldermen marched back down the stairs behind the candidates, who stepped in time but kept an uncustomary gap between them. The procession was led by the recorder and the common clerk who, on reaching the floor, began prodding and coaxing the aldermen into a suitable shape for the announcement. The main hall had become hot from the bodies squeezed within it. Nicholas wished he were not a candidate so that he might sit down, although all the benches were taken and everyone would stand in a moment in any case for the final announcement. Perhaps he should leave the Guildhall all together or at least go out into the yard. He was sure it would be impossible to go on breathing through the smother of events that would continue in the hall. Strangely his lungs kept pumping and, even as they admitted the air he needed to survive, his ears let in the sounds that revealed the quality of that existence in the coming year. The recorder was speaking but Nicholas was hardly able to untangle himself from the verbal flourishes to find his own name among the rhetoric. There was movement in the hall. It began as a swell to his left and became a whirl of bodies pulling toward and apart from him. His friends and supporters whipped around him in the centre, while his detractors spun off towards the walls. The recorder raised his voice to announce the day for the oath to be taken by the new mayor but nobody listened. All knew that it would be the feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude in fifteen days time and that on the morrow he would ride to Westminster with the inhabitants of London lining the route.

The whole household was waiting for the victorious knight when he returned to his castle. Robert and Idonia had been standing together just inside the front door but the boy ran out when he saw his father, stopping just in time to preserve the solemnity of the moment. Nicholas surveyed the servants and apprentices who circled the yard, from Peter, whom he had always known, to the newest maid, who had prepared his breakfast though he could not remember her face.

Inside the hall family members were grouped around the fire in mock-easy poses, beginning to relax since the news had arrived a little ahead of him. Robert, oblivious, began to play games with his larger cousins, who indulged him though they now looked towards the affairs of the adult world. Thomasine toddled close to the fire and Idonia seemed the only one available to prevent her from catching alight. Joan and Thomas were laughing in the distance.

John Philipot stepped forward to congratulate him and every-one turned to the centre and roared their agreement.

‘Thank you all. Where’s the wine!’ he shouted in response and sat heavily down by the fire to sweat out the worries of the day.

There were celebrations that evening, though not on the scale of the public revelry that was to come. Idonia had organised food and drink but no amount of it seemed capable of calming the company. Eventually Robert was put to bed but Thomasine continued to squawk at the flames. Margaret’s young men tired of political discourse and went out into the yard to look at the stars and discuss those things about youth that adults have never experienced themselves.

Peter moved between the guests nodding and mouthing soothing but indistinct syllables. The new maid was standing by her mistress, who had given up on the preservation of her tiny niece and was resting on a bench. What was her name? Matilda? Isabella? Johanna? Juliana.

Juliana had a face like that of a horse and yet was beautiful. It is true that a horse can be beautiful but a woman is generally suited by less robust dimensions. Juliana was thin and that emphasised the vertical. Her face fell in with the theme. She was not like Agnes. There was no fire in her, no glow, just the silky slide over the mare’s camber. She had poise but no animation. She was as a woman should be: soft and manageable. Nothing. Nothing to guard against.

Idonia kept the servants in line. Nicholas did not have to be involved if he did not want to be. But he was the head of the household and was ultimately responsible for everything, like the king for the country or God for the world. Idonia rarely criticised him or told him what he should do but she often went ahead with her choices and omitted to inform him. He had plenty for other things to do and left her judgment untouched. Occasionally such quiet wisdom as this gained weight in relation to his own error. Nicholas knew this to be the case when Agnes was removed. He had not committed the error in fact but that was because Idonia had prevented it. She protected him, Agnes and the household. Which of the three had been at greatest risk was the cause of much thought and some prayer.

‘What do I look like?’ he asked his wife as they climbed the stairs to their bed.

‘Oh!’ Idonia’s eyes flickered and then went bright. ‘I think I know what you mean. But I can tell you only what you look like to me.’

‘So?’ Was what he asked so complicated?

‘You look strong, a bit grim, like someone who is waiting for a dragon to return or an idiot to stop talking. Your skin is weathered. It’s darker than when you were young. Your nose is quite big and its bent in the middle. I never asked you about that. How did you break it? You are tall or at least taller than average. But you walk below your true height because you hunch your shoulders a little. Your shoulders are broad. I have always liked your shoulders. Your hands are also broad, like a lion’s paw. Your hair is brown, as you must know since you can hold it in your hand when it has been cut. It is thinner than it used to be and it had threads of grey in it. Your eyes are blue.’

Did he know his eyes were blue? Yes. But he had forgotten. Why would it matter anyway? Eyes were things to look out of at the world. That ability was far more wonderful than any accident of pigment. It was women who cared about these things. They had a narrow frame on the world. They settled on what the vision of a man would sweep across. No father would care about the colour of his son’s eyes, but a mother did. His mother had told him. That was how he knew and why he had forgotten: because it was so long ago.

He blew out the candle, settled into the dark, heavy bed and smiled like a lion, though no-one could see.


In the days between the election and the taking of the oath, Nicholas went in search of a goldsmith, Thomas Cornwaleys, although he was unlikely to present a welcome profile in his doorway. Thomas ran slow cold eyes around the outline of the mayor elect. However, political hostilities were set aside once he realised the proposition was one of business and he listened carefully to Nicholas’s instructions.

‘I remember making such a ring many years ago.’

‘Yes, you made it for me. If you remember it, that will help. I would like it to be as close as possible.’

‘Has the original been lost?’

‘Yes. My wife’s servant dropped it in the privy, or so she claims. But even if its fate was cleaner in one sense, though dirtier in another, I still want a new one.’

The goldsmith made a drawing and wrote down the size of Idonia’s finger. He would have to wait for the stone, which was unusual.

‘God reward you for your care,’ said Nicholas as he left.