Nicholas Brembre 45

by socalledstories

On the feast of Saint Simon and Jude Sir Nicholas Brembre returned to the Guildhall to take his oath as mayor of London. He promised to serve the king and keep his rights; to treat lawfully the people of the city, stranger or denizen, rich or poor; to set good ward on the assizes of bread and wine, fish, flesh and corn and on the weights and measures of the city; and to do well and lawfully all things that a mayor should do. He kissed the book on which he had sworn and accepted the two seals of office from their grim-faced former keeper. Then he spoke to the assembly: ‘We thank God for the freedom or our city, for the protection of our king, and for the great office of mayor that serves as a link between them. John de Northampton has been our mayor for two years and has worked hard to make a difference to our city. I cannot fault his enthusiasm for his project nor his eloquence in explaining it to us. He has brought favour to sections of our community who have been used to getting on with their work without fuss and has shone light in places many of us would have preferred not to look. He has introduced changes to our customs of trade, which have had a dramatic effect on the fortunes of those used to working in more familiar ways. And he has skilfully managed our electoral practices in order to bring a new balance to the corporation.

‘For all this I propose that we thank him heartily and move on. In my time as mayor I hope to bring the city back to what it was. We have a long history stretching from the time of Brutus, who, as you know, came to Albion from Troy. We have learned much since that great beginning, through the thousands of generations that have followed, down to our own brief time as mortals in possession of this space. Our customs live alongside us in this knowledge. We should cherish the link to that beginning and ensure there are no snags in the line. We have accepted London as the name of our great city but it is recent, in truth. Perhaps we should reconsider with pride the one that Brutus chose himself: New Troy.’

In the sudden silence Nicholas turned to follow John Blyton, the mayor’s esquire, out into the yard. John Blyton had stood with William Walworth against the rebels on Smithfield and had played a part in the felling of Wat Tyler. Two years later it was he who bore the sword at the head of the procession that left the Guildhall after the mayoral oath. Behind him marched the mayors, old and new, and the aldermen in their purple livery: down St Lawrence Lane and onto Chepe, then via Soper Lane and Watling Street to La Riole. Tradition required that the new mayor hold the hand of the old and it was difficult to say which was the more relieved when they arrived and could break the link. Having delivered Nicholas to his home, the party moved off to repeat the courtesy for John de Northampton, thus completing the ritual for the day in the knowledge that it was but a shadow of what was to come.

Nicholas had sworn to the city but not yet to the crown. He had made his oath to his peers, the freemen of London, but they were not free to the ends of their fingers. The king had granted their liberty, but the king could withdraw it and each year the mayor must repeat his oath at Westminster to keep the landlord happy.

So it is that Sir Nicholas Brembre rides to Westminster on the morrow to repeat his oath as mayor. His sheriffs and aldermen ride behind him in long scarlet gowns similar to his own but the mayor is distinguished by a black velvet hood and gold collar. Before him once again is the sword bearer, John Blyton, as well as the banners of the city and the mistery of the mayor. The grocers themselves, in full livery and led by John Hadley and John Churchman, distinguished masters for the year, come next after the aldermen. The other guilds follow behind, many bearing banners and emblems depicting their trades. At intervals along the line there are musicians wielding hautboys, flutes, trumpets and drums, doing their best to compete with the fantastic noises of the crowd.

In that crowd he can see glad faces and bodies erect with admiration and expectation. There is energy, enthusiasm – the beat and pitch of the crowd is like a love song. London has sung many of those and received them too. It is the centre of the world and all must have joy of it. He thanks his father for moving him from Norwich before he was old enough to understand why.

John de Northampton sits beside the new mayor, marking his pace. Their steeds scratch at the street, the hoof of one edging ahead before the second steals its lead. Nicholas looks past the stone face and over the heads of the crowds, though often their flags blow together and frustrate his search. People are at the windows of tenements from which they have hung rich cloth and tapestries. Others have climbed the shop fronts and are standing on narrow sills. Ahead he sees a crowd around the stiff shape of a woman holding her head after a fall. A child has scaled Queen Eleanor’s cross and is dragged down by a beadle. This stretch between the conduit and Saint Paul’s is the most crowded of all. Whoever processes in London does so along Chepe, as has been the case for hundreds of years, from Alfred the Great to Anne of Bohemia.

Nicholas stretches in his saddle and the city jumps up around him. He feels it is a part of him. There is no gap between his limbs and the nearest labourer, waving his flag and pushing against the beadles, or the wife of a mercer flapping cloth of gold from a penthouse. Even the wood and plaster – the houses, shops and churches – seem part of his flesh. Everything is stuck together. Great flaps of stuff like wings stretch out from his arms and cover the city. It is all part of him. He is mayor.

Every Londoner has put on his best to view and be viewed, as the mayor rides towards Ludgate and Fleet Street beyond. Some shadow his progress from boats on the Thames. Those with a little money wear special outfits and disguises. Bears are common since easy to imitate but many other creatures are attempted. A beautiful yellow bird is flapping its arms but fails to fly. Nicholas doubts that a bird that big would fly even if it had real wings. Further on a pair of giants totter. Why two? The common people are so ignorant. They talk of two giants named Gog and Magog and believe they attacked Brutus at London. Once such ideas have surfaced from the mire, they are hard to resist. The mass of Londoners, of course, have not been to school and have no access to the books of learned men.

Three women are selling roast birds illegally by the road side. In their loose clothing they look enormous but could just as easily be thin. Have they been eating too many of their wares or have they been denying themselves? Perhaps the beadle of Faringdon ward will round them up and take the birds. Near the gate there is a woman in green with black hair in plaits and a face like a trumpet: I will play you a tune that can be heard wherever you stand. Beatrice. How did he find this name? Was it from a story? Her image sticks in front of his face as the sword passes through the arch ahead.

Now the procession is moving out of the city into the world beyond. Fewer dragons are to be seen as harts and lions take their place. Soon they are in the Strand and the countryside breaks through. Small children bored with waiting have fallen asleep in a field. A mother wakes her son with a stick. Nicholas feels the blow and looks away in panic. Then he laughs. A second feeling follows the pain. It is close to it. A blow can cause warmth and the new feeling is warm too. He wriggles a little in the saddle but his pleasure is confusing. There is plenty to give rise to it: London is still cheering him, though its confirmation weakens as he leaves the city behind. He is entering the kingdom and Richard is waiting for him.

The sword-bearer slows as a group of peasants lurches too close to the road. Nicholas looks back down the procession, through the stiff scarlet ranks of the aldermen and the particoloured guilds. He has been part in this extravagance many times before. On the last two occasions he has sat in mute frustration in his position down the line wishing he could ride to the front and knock the mayor from his nag. Now he laughs from his guts and his mount staggers under him.

Where are the sheriffs? Simon Winchcombe is sat soberly in his saddle waiting to pick up the pace. But John More has dropped behind to greet an old woman by the side of the road. By God, it is his mother – she who set fire to Clifford’s Inn because she thought one of the scholars had stolen her pig. How would she have found it? Where would the pig have been? In their stomachs, of course, and no longer able to squeal for her attention. She was fined for trying to destroy the Inn and its business and thereby ruined her own. Why would John want to acknowledge her, unless it was an insult to the occasion? Nicholas wonders if all his female relatives are in disgrace, given what the sandy-haired skinner had said about the sister in Southampton. This great ceremony belongs to men. Only men ride in the procession. Only men are involved in the taking of the oath. Why do women always seem to gain sway over it?

Finally the procession arrived at the palace and the riders began to dismount. Nicholas walked behind the sword bearer across the precinct to Westminster Hall. It surprised him to see that the sun had crossed the Thames. He felt as if it had been stopped in the sky since he left the Guildhall. But now time lurched forward and the thud of his feet sounded the return to regularity.

The reduced procession of mayor, sheriffs and officers entered the hall. There was a strong hint of competition between this great construction of William Rufus and their own Guildhall, built soon afterwards. The city succeeded with an imitation that came close without falling into the disrespect of equality. The roof of Westminster Hall, built to be the highest in the world, was supported by stout pillars and crossed by oak beams, as if a great forest had lent a corner of itself as a shelter for kings. The courts which sat in the hall – chancery, common pleas and the king’s bench – suspended their sessions for the occasion, leaving the huge space silent for the mayor-to-be-sworn. Nicholas wished that he could take his oath here and now so that he might project it into the clear air of the forest and claim a part of it for himself. But the mayor’s sword continued towards the north west corner and Nicholas was obliged to follow it up the stairs to the room of the exchequer where the chancellor, treasurer and barons were waiting.

Recorder William Cheyne stepped forward and began his request that Sir Nicholas Brembre be accepted by those present as mayor of the city of London. There was a chilly pause during which it became evident that not all were present, that they were waiting for someone else. Nicholas had already turned to bow as the king entered.

‘I am very pleased to see you here to take your office, Sir Nicholas,’ said Richard. ‘And I know you will serve me well in maintaining God’s peace in the city. My servants will keep in touch with you.’

‘Thank you, my lord. I will be pleased to speak to them or to receive your letters.’

‘I would like to visit the Guildhall.’

‘All there would welcome you, my lord, Nicholas Brembre more than any.’

‘Did you know that my father rode through the city on his return from Poitiers with king John of France in chains? He followed the same route that you have taken today. And the queen was greeted so courteously by the city when she arrived from Bohemia. She says it made her happy to be joining me here. And I am very happy that she did. How is your wife, Sir Nicholas?’

‘She is well, my lord, and is your servant.’

‘My lord, Sir Nicholas has not yet taken the oath,’ whispered the chief baron of the exchequer. The king smiled and accepted a carved chair close to the chequered table, from which the office took its name. The mayor was sworn in the palace of the Bastard’s son as he had been in the city of Brutus of Troy.

There was no tiring the watchers. The common people of England could keep their feet dancing and their mouths spewing babble through every day of the year, if there was an excuse to avoid work. As the procession returned along King’s Street, the Strand, Fleet Street and back into the city, Nicholas saw the same faces singing and shouting, arms waving flags that appeared not to have dropped since he passed the other way, vendors producing yet more pies. Chepe was just as full as it had been at Terce but there was more food in hand because the sun had passed its peak and it was time for dinner.

The official banquet was held at La Riole. Idonia stood at the door to welcome the guests, assisted by her sisters. The select but still substantial party of citizens followed into the hall and stood waiting behind the benches. Extra tables had been borrowed from the Guildhall to accommodate the prescribed number of guests. The wooden frames strained under a weight of a confusion of dishes. Meat dominated the display, some of it retaining with pride the shape of the animal to be consumed. Several rabbits looked eager to hop from the table. A hog was more inclined to conversation, well placed as it was in the middle of the table to engage any of the company. Other beasts were sliced or stewed for ease of eating: beef, venison, veal and pork were offered in a variety of sauces. Besides the inevitable chicken, a range of birds were offered: partridge and quail, duck and goose, and plenty of song birds, some with beaks still open to the heavens. On one of the tables a heron was wired to its full height, on another a crane. Fish were laid as if merely resting on their elongated dishes, though surrounded by herbs and other vegetation not usual in open water. Cod, herring and lamprey were interspersed with Idonia’s particular choice of trout, pike and carp. Fruit and vegetable dishes cut between the flesh.

Idonia had arranged everything with an embroiderer’s eye for colour and shape. The boar’s head before Nicholas was accompanied by syrup covered pears on one side and apples fritters on the other, presumably because they made an aesthetic combination. Nicholas knew that some dishes had been held back, and not just the extra fruit and puddings to be presented at the end as an aid to digestion. On a midnight trip to the kitchen he had come across instructions for the cooking of swan and had become consumed by the idea that such a noble animal would adorn his table to mark the height of his fortune. There were few in Albion who could afford such a delicacy and the city of London would be proud to have one of them as their mayor.

There was someone missing. Those present were forced to stare at the food or shift their gaze between the tables and the door. A grand chair had been placed at the head of the hall for the new mayor but there was another beside it that had not been claimed. Nicholas spoke to Peter, who left the hall in the direction of the street. When he returned he merely shook his head and moved back to his station against the wall.

‘I welcome you all to my home. We will eat in a moment, but did anyone see the former mayor on the way from Chepe?’

‘He dismounted at the conduit but I did not see him after that,’ said Adam Bamme. No-one else responded.

Nicholas felt his hands press too hard into the back of his chair. He relaxed them slowly in time with the muscles of his jaw. ‘We have waited long enough. Let us thank God, who offers us this bounty and who permits us to live in this foremost city of the world. Though we can never be as grateful as we should be, let us go ahead and enjoy what we have.’