Nicholas Brembre 49
Parliament had originally been been called for the purpose of considering a treaty with king Robert of Scotland but by the end of October eyes to the north had become eyes to the south as the complete failure of the campaign in Flanders became apparent. A new project had become favourite. This was the impeachment of bishop Despenser of Norwich and his captains. The bishop was accused of failing to produce the number of men he had promised, of returning before the year was up and of not keeping the king informed of the names of his captains. In addition he and the formerly anonymous captains were alleged to have received gold in return for the surrender of castles to the enemies of the king.
John Philipot had a keen interest in all this since he was a chief financier to the crusade and would have been struck to his patriotic heart even if his money had not been involved. Nicholas was less concerned since his exports had settled to the way of Middelburg, although it had not yet been officially recognised as the new staple. Each evening there was a meeting at Henry’s house to review the day at Westminster. Nicholas sat quietly through the members’ treatment of the bishop of Norwich.
‘The man has lost half his height,’ said Henry.
‘As if he had been sliced at the knees,’ agreed John.
‘I remember his fervour when he claimed the crusade in the spring. He looked as if he had already taken the field.’
‘He was so sure of his task he could have been a boy at play. He convinced me,’ said John with pain.
‘Instead he has abused the trust of the king and has enriched himself at the nation’s expense.’
‘Do you think that?’
‘It has been said in parliament.’
‘They are squashing him like fallen fruit. He failed in battle but I do not believe he sold castles. They are shrinking him until he fits under the boot. I believe he is an honourable man and an honourable man must be dirtied before he hits the ground.’
‘He should not have put himself forward,’ said Henry. ‘One of the royal uncles would have led us better.’
‘To Spain, perhaps.’
‘We could not have been worse off in Flanders.’
‘The French were distracted at least. They have not attempted to invade for a a year or two.’
‘Have our petitions been considered?’ asked Nicholas in the pause that followed these words of tepid cheer.
‘Not yet. The affairs of the city have to wait, Nicholas. The king must first tackle his enemies abroad. Business, as we all know, has been badly affected by the war, so the city has an interest, but the wider world must come first.’ Henry was still sitting on his bench in the Painted Chamber, stretching up to see the famous faces at the front. ‘I do wish the duke of Lancaster had led the way of Spain.’
‘I wish him king of Castile and no longer plaguing us here. But I wonder if he would have more success in Iberia than the bishop of Norwich had closer by.’ Nicholas floated like a fog around the vintner’s buzzing head.
‘He is still calling for it. We may yet discover.’
‘Of all the sons of king Edward, why did the first die young while the rest were left to play at being kings?’ asked John.
Why did the first die and leave a fledgling to hop around the throne? If the prince of Wales had lasted longer – ten years perhaps – this son of his would have learned to fly according to his example, and away from the most unctuous of Westminster eyes. Nicholas felt sudden sorrow for Richard and his task. The beautiful boy who had no nothing in his way and so had everything. Was this the way to chose a leader? It was not so much choice as chance – chance that the heir would be competent and amenable, chance that whatever his qualities he would be fully grown and possessed of his faculties when the old king departed. Was an election a better plan? To have choice among many and a vote to settle it. But it was not settled. Though he had won the election, it was not settled and he wondered how he would persuade the deniers to accept what happened in plain view. In any case election was not the mode for kings. Divinity intervened. That was what Richard believed, it seemed. He was still so young, so slight beneath his crown, yet he inflated his kingship not only with the babble of tradition but also with the breath of God.
A few days later there was word of the war with France, or perhaps the end of it. King Charles had written to king Richard suggesting talks to discuss peace. Parliament was still on the subject. No-one wanted to admit his relief nor give into it. Henry held onto his until he reached home but before his foot touched his earth he had begun happy musings on the recovery of the wine trade. He reached back to stroke the mane of his horse, which had tangled in the rough weather.
‘My petitions?’ demanded Nicholas as he passed his mount to a servant.
‘He will come to them, Nichol,’ said John softly. ‘It was a hard day. I’ll leave you and Henry to rescue the world.’
‘Why did he ride into the yard if he was going to ride straight out again?’ asked Henry as brother John escaped into Thames Street.
Nicholas squared his shoulders in order to take the full onslaught of Henry’s enthusiasm, which soon moved to the main business of the day: ‘We put up a fight, Nicholas. You should be proud of us. We argued about the levy of a fifteenth and a tenth and managed to reduce it to half, that is with a delay before the second half is paid, and perhaps it will not be paid at all. The chancellor spoke doggedly – sometimes shouting – of the threats from our enemies, but it seems that most of them are suing for peace. If the money is to fight them then the argument weakens. Eventually we accepted that the tax may be needed but we insisted that the clergy come up with their share and that the disgraced bishop gives up anything he has left from the rout in Flanders. There was also argument about the staple, which will interest you, Nichol. The king answers that the staple should remain at Calais so long as peace talks are being held but that it should otherwise return to England. I am sure that is not your preference, Nicholas.’
Henry Vanner, born as a fly, would have circled every candle until his wings tore. As a man he moved and made noise as if his life were indeed no longer than a gnat’s. It seemed that his message must be delivered against the chance of sudden death. The restlessness did not however depart once the deed had been done, thereby denying the necessity. He continued to twitch and flap, resting for no more than a few moments in any one place. How did Margery suffer him?
‘John thinks there is tension between the king and some of the lords. He waves his hand at them as if he does not want to hear what they say. The earl of Buckingham looks affronted and the duke of Lancaster crouches behind his nephew like a cat waiting to spring.’
Margery came in with servants to light more candles. The afternoons were being sucked into night. Better go home soon.
‘Joan and Thomas have been here today. With the miracle.’ Margery smiled as the old hen smiles in enjoyment of the fuss made by her juniors, forgetting that a hen that cannot lay is soon dead. ‘She speaks a hundred words, although we have heard only three, and can knock over most of the ornaments in the solar before any greetings have been exchanged.’
‘Thomas is still shooting off to Homerton. He showed me a plan. I’ll get it for you.’ Henry shot off himself, sliding in the doorway but recovering his poise before disappearing on his quest.
‘Henry is enjoying his time as member of parliament,’ said Nicholas into air that was increasingly chilly though the fire raged.
‘I am enjoying it too.’
‘Because he is away all day?’
‘No, because he tells me about it.’
‘You are interested?’
‘Yes, very interested. Why not?’
‘You are interested in the ramblings of a hundred men showing off their best clothes like young girls?’
‘I don’t have to sit through the ramblings or see the girls. Henry picks out the good bits for me, as he does for you.’
‘Does one man’s selection give you a picture of the whole?’
‘Of course not. But it is more than most wives are offered.’
‘Most wives have no interest.’
‘Probably not, but this one does. Maybe I am not the same as other wives.’
‘Henry has much to be glad of – you too.’ The gap was too long and Nichol’s voice struggled to keep its pitch but Margery was untroubled.
‘There is a particular trick to marriage, presuming it lasts beyond the early years. Make sure you find out what you really want to know and ignore the rest.’
Was it difficult to be cleverer than your husband? Perhaps Margery was saying that it was and that she had achieved it nonetheless. But why was she telling her sister’s husband? What did he have to do with it?
‘Nothing, Nichol. Nothing is so bad that you cannot take action against it or turn your back.’
Henry returned but without the plan. ‘Perhaps Thomas took it with him.’
‘He wants to build a mill,’ said Nicholas.
‘He told me it was a storehouse…’
‘Right on the edge of the river?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Is it not our practice to discuss projects that are of interest within the family?’
‘Often, sometimes, usually.’
‘The house at Homerton is of interest to us all but Thomas has swept into the family and taken it over.’
‘Have you a particular interest in it, Nichol?’ asked Margery.
‘No. We have all used it as a retreat. It is special to Joan. It is she who has the particular interest and it is supposed to be hers now. I don’t think she has any idea what he is doing with it.’
‘You are annoyed because Thomas has plans to make money?’
Nicholas saw his sister’s challenge but there was so much more to this question. He opened his mouth and shut it again. He was weary of mazy conversations. ‘Enjoy the remainder of the parliament,’ he said to both parties. ‘I must crawl away before the light is gone.’
The mayor received a writ from the king on the day after parliament was prorogued. Nicholas broke the seal and smoothed out all the creases. Richard had granted his requests. Last year’s statutes regarding fish were repealed and city fishmongers were now free to go about their business, save that they, as all victuallers, would be under the rule of the mayor and aldermen. In addition, no mayor would be forced to take any oath other than the ancient one used in the time of king Edward. The Northampton net was rent, while the fishmongers were lined up with the rest of the citizenry under corporation supervision. The fishmongers had been heartily abused but there had been some merit it criticism of their independence, particularly the maintenance the Halimot.
The writ was still displayed on the desk when a second royal missive arrived. Nicholas sat upright on a stool holding the new writ to the light. The king ordered the arrest of John de Northampton and John Bleton following a claim from John Yorke, a London brewer, to be in danger of life and limb from them. The mayor called the sheriffs, who were less pleased with the news than he. John More gripped the writ as tightly as a pauper with a crust, his thumbs turning white as he read it several times. Memories wormed the space between sheriff and mayor – memories of past opposition, arrest and resistance. Calculation was cold in John’s eyes. He handed back the letter and led Simon Winchombe from the room.
There was conflict everywhere. Nicholas stood still in the porch, let his arms drop by his sides and imagined something else. Wheat and grass and a ridge of hills; woods like old wizards with smoke creeping from hidden holes. He trotted past them on a lazy horse. A city at a distance but it could hardly be London? He dismounted in the yard of a country house but when he turned to go inside the lines distorted and he was back in La Riole. There was no other house; there was no other life. God has his reasons, though they might not be understood. The world is a loud and prickly place and a man might tackle only a tiny piece of it, and even then would be confounded. He must rest where he was put. God grant him small power to improve on what he had.
‘Do you want to know what I have been doing today?’ Nicholas asked his wife.
‘Do you need to eat? Felice can find something for you. We have finished – well, most of us.’
‘You must eat, Robert,’ said his father following the line of his mother’s eyes. Robert nodded but otherwise made no move and Nicholas turned back to Idonia. ‘I received another writ from the king.’
‘More statutes repealed?’
‘No – more exciting even than that. Have you given him dried figs?’
‘He likes figs.’
‘We know what happens when he eats figs.’ But not today: the bowl, still full of figs, was pushed away in a corner.’
‘Tell me what happened.’
‘The king ordered the arrest of John de Northampton.’
Idonia looked at him intently as if unravelling a puzzle. ‘I don’t know whether to be pleased. Will it mean more upset in the city?’
‘For weeks he has been organising trouble but we have had no means to strike back. Jankin has been tracking covins in drapers’ houses, taverns and Goldsmiths’ Hall. I am sure the recent riot was set by John. But now someone has made a claim against him and there is a chance to stop the slide.’
Robert leaned on his mother. He had done it since he could stand but now that he was seven years old he must stand without her. Idonia had ceased to ponder public order – why had he bothered her with it? – and was smiling and serene. She was so much better than in the year of the last baby’s death. It hurt him to admit the sense of having no more. But it had been accepted between them without a word. They shared a bed but the linen was frozen between them. In the night he sometimes heard her moan and felt her body press against him. She was asleep and he was in an agony of wakefulness.
‘Soon I will lean on you, little man,’ said Idonia. Robert pushed her gently and laughed. But his laugh became a cough and he leant on her again.
‘Should we send for a physic?’ Nicholas thought they should, although little good was likely from it. Why did he ask when he knew what Idonia would say?
‘It’s just a cough. I will pray for him.’