Nicholas Brembre 52
In such a large place as London there was challenge in remembering names and even places. There were at least a hundred churches, many with similar dedications. It was best to be clear when agreeing to meet at one of them. Was it Saint Botolph Aldgate or Saint Botolph Aldersgate? Saint Mary Aldermary or Aldermanbury – or Saint Mary Woolchurch, Abchurch, Axe? Saint Katherine Coleman, Cree, le Querne? Saint Michael Paternoster, Bassishaw, Cornhill, Wood Street, Ludgate or Crooked Lane? As a youth Nicholas had lost the pleasure of an assignation through the Botolph confusion. He was still annoyed at being so clumsy, though he could no longer remember the woman involved. Could the old man be disappointed in the same way? She said she would be praying in Saint Mary Axe. He doubted she was praying and he was certain she was not in Saint Mary Axe. Would she still come or should he try somewhere else, somewhere similar but probably equally frustrating?
London was too large to track its edges. It might go on forever, covering all the land. Ships might touch its walls as they beached in Kent or Essex. So it felt sometimes when he stood on Cheap at the cross and looked in all directions. So he had done on his first visit as a boy when his father brought him from Norwich on a cart. So he felt now as he left the church and bounced his eyes between the buildings without success. Where was Beatrice?
Nicholas stepped from the porch of Saint Mary Axe, pulling his cloak across his chest and his hood over his head. The other side of the street was lined with workshops. His lowered sight caught green water in a gutter flecked by grey foam. The juices of the world oozed free in places like this but even the brightness of the sun could not soften the colour of bile. And what was under the crust that held the water? Men would stamp and hammer, scratch and dig, and soon would land us all in the swamp. Where then would be our pride and our hope, our fine wine and our white wool, our rules, regulations and ordinances – all would be slime. Men would scramble on the backs of women and children to get a lung full of air. Kings would be coloured as clowns and none would know the difference between them. Only giants would rise above the mire and Albion would once more be theirs. Nicholas had never felt before how perilous was the existence of man. He wove such a sheet as might cover the naked violence of the world but the material was thin. Women were supposed to be there to catch their masters in their trouble and to give them comfort. Where was she?
Jankin was standing in an ally beside a fletcher’s shop. They walked back past Saint Andrew Undershaft to the corner of Cornhill.
‘You say that they have been meeting in John More’s house?’
‘Yes, when they want to be less flagrant about it. Otherwise, as you know, Sir Nicholas, it is the goldsmiths’ hall or the drapers’’.
Saint Andrew Undershaft could not be mistaken for Saint Mary Axe, though they were on the same street. Nicholas looked down Cornhill, which lead to Chepe and the parish of Saint Mary-le-Bow, where stood the house of John More. He swung back to Saint Andrew – should he check it since he was here?
‘Jankin, go into the church and tell me if it is empty.’
‘Three women and a priest,’ said Jankin on his return.
Nicholas had almost hoped there was no chance. Now he had to give it up, else shred his pride beneath his feet as his lust dragged him back to the church. Saint Andrew Undershaft was deathly cold as if in warning. One woman had left off praying and was moving towards him. She was slow and short and ugly. The others were facing the alter. Neither could be Beatrice, their devotion was too apparent. To cover his stupidity he knelt to pray himself. First he prayed that he would find Beatrice in another place and she would laugh at their misunderstanding. This prayer was vicious. Then he prayed that God would rid him of the temptress. This prayer was weak. Finally he prayed for the wisdom to resist. Though he had scant control over the stirrings of his body, his mind might order his feet to walk the other way.
Nicholas Brembre’s feet walked swiftly along Cornhill with Jankin’s trailing behind them.
‘I’ve got blisters, Sir Nicholas. It’s the new boots.’
‘So! You can no longer complain you have wet feet but you’ve thought of something else. It took you a while.’
‘It took a while for the blisters to work themselves up.’
‘We’ll stop at John Philipot’s house and you can get something to bind them.’
Margaret was tidying dead plants in her garden in the corner of the yard.
‘God keep you sister. Is John here?’
‘He is, but he is not well. You can talk to me if you like.’
Nicholas followed Margaret into the house and stood by the fire in the hall wondering whether to sit down. ‘There is trouble in the city,’ he said.
‘There is. John doesn’t want me to go out of the house. He thinks it will get worse.’
‘Because there is so much of it so soon and it has not been checked.’
‘What does he think I should do?’
‘Chose a target and jump on it, otherwise you will encourage the others.’
‘Well, there it is. You have given me John’s answer though he could not speak for himself.’
‘Actually, I gave you my answer. I don’t know what he would say.’
The advice sounded good and continued to sound good even after Nicholas realised the subversion of his request. Margaret was animated. She moved from foot to foot, perhaps reflecting his failure to sit. There was something odd about this rocking motion. It was odd because she was a woman, but particularly because she was a merchant’s wife. There were women who fidgeted like this but they were not the wives of merchants. Margaret had always tended against convenience. She was not like Idonia, who probably did not wiggle or twitch even when she was a baby. No spillage of any sort would have troubled her nurses. But Margaret – piss and vomit everywhere!
‘God’s grace to John – hope he is well soon – and to you.’
The Philipot precept confirmed his own intention to wield force against force. The servants of order must be ready and under proper control, as was written in his book. But it was not an easy business to catch the factors. Even a well-intentioned constable or beadle lacked the necessary punch and the watch was a blunt force with which to target the truly dangerous amidst the merely vexatious.
What did Idonia think about the unrest? She sometimes seemed perturbed though unwilling to admit it. Pieryne said that her mistress went out less often now and with a larger escort, which tended to include Juliana rather than Pieryne. Pieryne was annoyed.
Nicholas stepped firmly through John Philipot’s gate followed by Jankin in his bandages. There was a group of men lurking outside a building further along the street. Nicholas stopped and pretended to look up at the weather. Jankin stared directly at the congregation but seemed unconcerned.
‘This is an unhappy chance,’ breathed Nicholas. ‘To be caught like this without a guard.’
‘Because you think we might be set upon?’ asked Jankin calmly.
‘More so because my wife might find out.’
‘They don’t have any weapons.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Daggers maybe, but otherwise their movements and the fall of their garments suggest they are unarmed.’
‘Whatever you say Jankin, there are more of them than us and daggers are ruinous to the gut. They look suspicious enough.’
‘They are Lollards, Wycliffites.’
‘How do you know these things?’
‘I know the places where they meet and I recognise their style. They have a way of shrinking without losing their arrogance. I know these things because I need to. It is my job, Sir Nicholas. You study the king, the lords and the merchants. I study everyone else.’
‘There are plenty of Wycliffites among my study – the duke of Lancaster, for example.’
‘These are the ones who fear they may be caught and accused of heresy.’
‘The devotees then, not the ones who chose the parts that most oblige.’
There was indecision in the group about which way to proceed. Some turned towards the mayor and his man. The former wondered if he trusted the analysis of the latter. He was still lodged with his stupidity – the stupidity of crawling across London after a woman and the stupidity of doing so without proper protection. There was a shudder within the group and it turned the other way.
‘Do you know what they believe, Jankin?’
‘Something about the host…’
‘That bread is bread and divinity divinity.’
‘And that plain men like me should read the bible.’
‘Sounds seditious to me, Jankin.’
It was Saint Nicholas’s day and the boy who shared his name held in hoary hands the item he had most wanted as a gift. The Charter of Inspeximus, granted by the king in parliament and now skin and ink in the Guildhall, confirmed the liberties and practices of the city of London as they had been before the desecrations of John de Northampton. The familiar customs were restored regarding alien trade, forestalling, weights and measures, local justice and freedom from interference. There was a grin on young Nichol’s face that shocked the old fibres back to life. He had written to thank the king for the charter and to inform him of the riot and dissension in the city, which the former mayor continued to direct even though he was on bail. Of course the king knew already of the trouble but his help was finally requested, something which the current mayor had hoped to avoid.
It was quiet in the Guildhall – most people were celebrating the saint’s day. He should go home himself. Nicholas pulled paper towards him and began drafting a proclamation to the city that would make clear the contents of the Inspeximus Charter and the triumph it represented. Robert would be looking out for him, but there was work to do before the giddiness could begin. He drafted a second proclamation. This one was against congregations, covins and conspiracies, giving power to all freemen of the city to arrest malefactors and bring them before the mayor or to Newgate. When he had finished he leaned back to ponder the issue of communication. He reached again for his pen and added instructions that the proclamation, as well as being read out in the usual places by the common crier, should be copied into the city records in the English language. Why should study be restricted to those who knew Latin or French? He wanted as many men as possible to be able to read what would become part of the history of the city.
As he put down the pen he heard footsteps in the hall. Expecting Richard Odyham he shouted: ‘In the office!’
It was William Walworth. The fishmonger stepped into the doorway in a cloak spangled with ice, which dropped to the rush floor as he stamped his feet. He surveyed his old territory, resting finally with the work on the table before his friend. ‘Why are you doing that?’ he asked.
‘It is important.’
‘Yes, but why are you doing that?’
Nicholas remembered that William had been a delegating mayor. He would certainly have passed the charter to a clerk and told him to draft the proclamations. ‘I prefer to do things myself rather risk the incapacity of others.’
‘No wonder you are here all the time – even on your own saint’s day! The Guildhall has captured you completely. What about your wool exports and your grocery?’
‘They manage well enough.’
‘Nicholas, you are no longer a merchant but have become a scribe.’
‘God keep you, William. Why are you here?’
‘I have an apprentice coming to the end of his term, although I realise this is not a good day to seek advice. Is anyone here who can help me?’
‘Not at the moment. You need Richard Odyham. You can wait if you like.’
William sat as if on a jetty and launched a smile which sailed around the room and then disappeared over the horizon. Nicholas thought he knew where it had gone. These days William was present only in the past. His words began their soundings there, his eyes were in shadow until a story was told, his body moved slowly as if tethered to a forgotten post. He talked of his travels abroad: ‘In Florence I met a young merchant who flew from one disaster to the next and yet made money as if he was growing grass.’
‘It is not so easy to grow grass in Florence. That is why we have the export trade.’
‘True, and may we thank our maker for it. This young man came from a rich family. His life was more exciting than ours, by God. He continually lost and made his fortune playing dice and fought duals on any pretext. We would not hold our money or our lives so lightly, I’m sure.’
‘You talk of Buonaccorso Pitti. I met him in London. He came last year as an ambassador for his city. He was certainly restless. It seemed as if his duties were less interesting than what might be happening along the corridor or out in the street.’
‘You have a number of associates from the Italian cities, don’t you Nichol?’
‘I find Italians increasingly unreliable. They enter into agreements happily enough but things get more and more entangled and what seemed like an opportunity becomes a trap. Mind you the merchants of other parts are hardly better.’
‘Is that why you retreat into city affairs?’
‘No, I retreat from nothing. City affairs are crucial to business, as you well know, William. The corporation exists largely to regulate trade. The wrong policy blocks business or admits rebellion. I am not sure, in any case, that administrators are an improvement on merchants, especially since they are often the same men.’
William’s face had gained some presence: ‘Are you suggesting that I allowed the rebellion to enter the city when I was mayor?’
‘No, certainly not,’ said Nicholas. ‘Perhaps it was the wrong choice of word. On that subject, however, we are still awaiting answers about what happened at Aldgate and the bridge.’
‘The case drags on for the four suspects.’
‘Are they suspects or conveniences?’
‘Perhaps we will never know.’
‘I have often wondered, William, what happened after you shut the bridge on the night we went to the tower. Do you know anything I don’t? The city records are no help at all.’ He had soon discovered that the official account was little more than a patch, a piece of bland embroidery that a woman would tack across a ravaged pillow. It told him less than he had observed for himself.
‘I can’t help you, Nichol. It was easier to add a summary later than attempt to keep up with the details at the time.’
‘But the damage to the city was so great. Nothing as calamitous has happened here for many years and the details are exactly what is needed to understand our mistakes. If there were any, of course. Do you know anything, William, about what happened with the bridge?’
‘You were there, Nichol. We tried to shut it during the day but it was not possible. So many people were in a frenzy to cross. Then, as you know, I shut it at night. Don’t you remember?’
‘I do, but what happened next?’
‘That I cannot tell you.’
The mayor stepped carefully through the ceremonies of Christmas. There were the usual obstacles: overdone family and underdone food, strange servants hired at bloated fees, children screaming in glee and then again in punishment, women fussing, men strutting and wine taking the place of blood. John Fresshe was king of the bean again; Robert brought his father another book; Idonia was almost beautiful in a new silk dress.
In between came his civic duties, including a string of services at Saint Thomas Acon and Saint Paul’s. On the day of the nativity itself he processed with the aldermen and sheriffs from one church to the other to hear Vespers and Compline, repeating the process for Saint Stephen the following day. All along he could hear the enduring hum of discord:threats and accusations circulating without source, groups of artisans waiting at junctions for nothing in particular, demands for impractical action from ‘friends and supporters’.
Clear of Epiphany, the hostilities that had been muted by contemplation of our lord’s nativity, or by too much food and drink, resumed at full volume. John de Northampton, Richard Norbury, John More and the scribe, Thomas Usk, were reported by Jankin to be moving around the city gathering support. At their half-hidden meetings they spoke of sweeping aside the false mayor. Though riot and sedition filled their mouths, they claimed righteousness, as if they were angels thwarting the work of fiends.
Nicholas began a campaign of curfew enforcement and prosecution of as many likely-miscreants as could be seized. But there was little reduction in the volume of unrest. Finally the king summoned John de Northampton to the council at Westminster, and Nicholas with him. When they arrived Richard was in his chamber surrounded by friends and advisers. Nobly born youths grinned like pink petals around the green stem of the king, while the gnarled old trunks of Simon Burley and Michael de la Pole stood to either side.
The king looked at Nicholas and then at John. His expression was stern and did not change as it swung between them. ‘There is discord in the city, which is disturbing to the whole realm. You, John, are already mainprised with regard to another matter and yet I hear that you continue to be involved in riot and conspiracy. You should be back in prison.’ The king paused and turned his head as if it were a great weight: ‘Now, Nichol, can you see a way to make an agreement with your predecessor?’
Nichol was confounded. ‘My lord, I am willing to hear any offers of good behaviour John might want to make.’
John took the king’s gaze once more. ‘I have felt aggrieved, my lord. The election was not conducted as I thought it should be. I discussed this with others and sometimes those attached loosely to us have become violent against our will. I regret this, my lord, and I pledge to prevent anything similar happening in the future.’
To Nicholas the final promise was entirely undermined by the fantasy that preceded it. He knew that John was working his words, looking for an arrangement that might satisfy the king without completely abandoning the truth. ‘If John is sincere, my lord, I will accept his allegiance as a citizen of London.’
‘Good. We will take this to the council and seek to satisfy them on the subject.
Don’t test my faith in you and the city.’
They proceeded to the room between the Thames and the exchequer which was often named the star chamber from the illustrations on its ceiling. As they passed the great hall, Nicholas thought of the journey he had made to be sworn as mayor only three months before. John had been beside him then as now. The members of the king’s council – many of whom would otherwise have been sitting as the courts of chancery, common pleas or the king’s bench – stood in loose groups. The volume of their chatter dropped a little on the entry of the king, and almost to nothing when he slashed them with a sharp stare. The council pulled itself into a smarter shape and became ready to listen and advise.
‘What I want to know,’ said Richard himself, ‘is how to resolve the crisis in the city so that there is time left to consider the other problems on our list. The two men we need to hear from are before us and surely know more about the matter than any of you.’
‘John de Northampton is summoned to answer accusations that he has acted against the peace of the city and of the king,’ announced the chancellor Michael de la Pole.
‘Yes, I know. He shall be mainprised once again. Sir Nicholas Brembre will arrange it. But I want to ensure that London comes to an accord that will truly prevent trouble because there is more value in willing submission than in threats.’
Once again John de Northampton made his offer and once again Nicholas accepted it.
‘Nicholas, organise the mainprise where you will and come back tomorrow at the latest to report on it.’
Nicholas chose the relative security of his house in La Riole for the mainprise. John had been there before on a number of occasions, although notably not for the mayoral feast. Today heseemed to enter an unknown gaol, holding his hands before him as if bound and glancing through windows and around doors as if seeking a means of escape. The officers of the Guildhall, who hardly resembled gaolers, stood waiting to serve the process. Simon Wynchecombe and John More came forward with the other sureties, all drapers, and John was bound over in the sum of £5,000 to keep the king’s peace, to obey the city officers, to avoidcovins, congregations or disturbancesand to report any such to the mayor. Nicholas’s expectation of compliance reduced to nothing as the final demand was reached.Richard was wise for his years and remembered the lesson he taught on Smithfield, but not all struggles arevaliant. At the roughend of thingsbattles are fought on the floorwhere knives and sticks sweep below the level of noble words and take no heed of them.
Nicholas returned to Westminster, as requested, on the following day. The king appeared surprised for a moment but quickly found his name: ‘Nicholas, meet the people who are appointed to help me in my tasks – or I am sometimes able to chose myself. You have helped me with your loans so indeed you are one of them.’
Sir Simon Burley stepped up with a greeting for the mayor. Nicholas knew a fair amount about this man, whose chief designation was under-chamberlain of the household. He had been the king’s tutor and there was great love between them. Simon was a courteous man who started at a lowly level and did not shout about his elevation, though some said he was too eager to receive land from the king to make up for his lack of heritance. Whatever the truth of this, he was a intelligent and reliable administrator and the king’s trust in him was well placed.
Sir Michael de la Pole was the son of a wool merchant from Hull, whose promotion to chancellor spoke to his peers of the possibilities of a changing world. Nicholas matched him in class and wealth yet felt less warmth towards him than towards Simon. This was not surprising given the closeness of Michael and the duke of Lancaster. His inclusion in the council had originally been intended as a concession to parliament to balance the royal loyalists, such as Simon, though Michael seemed since to have become one himself.
At a little distance stood a circle of the king’s young companions, looking better pleased with themselves than was the rest of the country. Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, had become increasingly unpopular outside the immediate presence of the king, which he occupied conspicuously. Alongside him were Sir Ralph Stafford, a childhood friend of the king, and Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham, a more recent acquisition. Other young comets orbited beyond the brightest. Great was the complaint on earth about their influence on the king and of his extravagance in response. Nicholas was not yet sure where the blame should be placed nor what its weight might be. Others knew more than he without appearing to possess more information. Were the king’s friends really as worthless as was said? Did they guide him in the wrong direction, put him under malign influence? Perhaps, but it was difficult to tell. Nicholas’s suspicion was that the king’s gifts were the draw for the discontent. Whether or not the friends were worth rewarding, the size of the prizes led to envy and that, in turn, soured judgment of the recipients.
Now Nicholas might discover more. He bowed to the boys and they bowed back, though with less interest. The heads dipped as a sign of distaste rather than deference, but the conversation proceeded politely. Nothing much was said though plenty of noise was made, much as he had recently noted at the Guildhall. Nicholas thought of animals in a field, bleating or mooing between chewing of grass. Such were grazing beasts, however many their legs. Yet there was hope of capacity beyond the stomach (or stomachs), some movement of passion or intelligence which remained hidden for the moment. If Nicholas felt disappointment, he must allow it the chance to disperse. If he was being sucked into this gilded sphere, as the king had suggested, he would need to keep his mind open as wide as his eyes.
Richard was talking of the truce with France: ‘The king of Castile will soon be home to report on the success of our negotiations.’
The boys gathered round in glee at the victory; the older men smiled sadly in relief. Nicholas wondered at the effect on London of the return of the duke of Lancaster.