Authors: Margaret Frazer
The Sempster’s Tale
The day was warm midsummer. At both front and back of the long chamber running the length of the narrow house on narrow Kerie Lane in London’s heart the windows stood open, letting in the blackbird’s bright singing from the small garden at the rear, while at the front were the talk and hurry of folk coming and going below the streetward window where the house thrust out above its lower floor and overhung the paved lane there.
It was a house much like the houses around it, with a shop in its narrow front toward the street and its kitchen at the back opening to the garden, with between kitchen and shop a steep wooden stair up to the first floor’s parlor bedchamber, and an even steeper stair from there to the top floor under the bare-raftered slope of the roof, where children would have slept if there had been children, or the servants if there had been more than old Bette, whose arthritics kept her mostly to the kitchen from where, this afternoon, came a most promising smell of baking tansy cakes.
Breathing in the spicy smell of them, Anne smiled to herself over her embroidery frame beside the parlor’s garden-ward window but did not pause in carefully setting the slightly twisted yellow silk thread in small, encroaching flat stitches along the outstretched wing of the St. John’s eagle centered in a roundel that would, when done, be sewn to the green silk chasuble ordered by Lady Hungerford for a church in her patronage. The roundels with St. Luke’s ox and St. Matthew’s man were already done, and Anne was doing the eagle’s last careful shading by way of small stitches laid over larger, couched ones, but there was still St. Mark’s lion to do to complete the Apostles and then the chasuble itself to make, and it was wanted by St. Mary Magdalene’s day. With just less than a month until then, Anne sewed steadily but even so kept an eye on Lucie on one side of her, embroidering a pillowbere’s edge with a double-running stitch of red-dyed linen thread, and Jenet on her other side, plain-hemming a white towel, while Mary, having yesterday finished the belt she had been embroidering since Eastertide, read to them all from Hoccleve’s
Regiment of Princes.
The three girls were as much her duty as Lady Hungerford’s chasuble, their parents paying good pence for her to teach them reading, writing, plain reckoning, and skilled sewing. The reading, writing, and reckoning would be needed when they were London merchant’s wives, and there was never harm in knowing how to sew; and if any of them proved well-handed at it, she could go on to teach them fine needlework by which they could earn their own living, should life come to that, as it had with her.
She put out a hand to stop Jenet’s impatient tugging at yet another unwanted knot in her thread. Jenet put knots in thread more often than Anne had ever thought possible, but the girl’s sigh as she let her sewing fall into her lap was so heavily discouraged that Anne took the sewing to herself, gently teased the knot loose with the needle’s point, and took a few stitches along the hem before giving the work back with, “Just a few more inches and it’s done.” Jenet sighed again, without hope, and went on.
Today was the last of lessons before summer’s two blessed months of break, and Anne meant that towel to go home, finished, with Jenet. She meant, too, to tell Jenet’s mother that Jenet was skilled enough now at her reading and reckoning, that her writing was never likely to be better than it was, and that she should be set to learning some large-handed skill. Like ale-brewing. Anything except fine needlework.
Anne took up her own needle again but paused to watch Lucie, who—unlike Jenet—was happy in her sewing, her stitches even, her counting of threads sure. The fine linen pillowbere was meant for her wedding bed, and with young ambition, she intended to embroider another after that and then bed-hangings. Anne’s inward, smiling thought was that it was just as well she would be only fourteen come the autumn and not likely for marriage any time soon.
Mary read steadily, “Avarice is love immoderate Worldly riches for to have,” in her clear voice, but Anne, beginning to sew again, listened past her to the blackbird in the garden. There had been a blackbird, though surely not this same one, in the garden all the years since she had moved here as Matthew’s bride. Twelve years. Eight mostly happy ones as Matthew’s wife. Four now as his childless widow, learning by broken fits and starts to be happy again. Her needlework and the blackbird had seen her through those first grief-blinded months after his death, just as her needlework had seen her into her marriage and the blackbird been part of her happy years. She had not been unduly surprised, aged twenty and a tailor’s daughter, when her father had told her that he and Matthew Blakhall had agreed together on her marriage. She had only somewhat known Master Blakhall, ten years older than herself, a well-formed, well-spoken man, and a tailor like her father, but she was willing to her father’s choice, had only asked for chance to talk with him before she accepted, wanting to know something of Matthew’s mind and pleased when he told her that he wanted a wife who would partner with him in his work—that he had seen her needlework and thought that together they could move from his plain tailoring to the richer business of church vestments. Presently he had to hire out the embroidery that enriched the garments; if all the work stayed in his hands, the profit would be the greater.
Anne had liked the thought of that, had liked Matthew, too. They had married, and he had set to teaching her like an apprentice. It helped that she already knew how to make the plain chemises and shirts and veils that any woman could do, but Matthew had taught her the making of the deep-pleated tunics, close-fitted doublets, many-yarded gowns with trailing skirts, and the difficult hanging sleeves now well into fashion. He had lessoned her in judging all the sorts of cloth there were, including which were best used for what and what could be used almost as well if a customer could not afford the best; and, not least, how to deal with the drapers and mercers from whom both cloth and thread were bought, and with the silkwomen who could provide her directly with the best silk thread to be used for her embroidery.
Besides all that, he had hired Mistress Shaw, an older woman of the Broiderers’ Guild, to teach her the embroidery skills of gold and silver thread that required such a delicacy and certainty of eye and hand that, “In not less than five years will you have it right, no,” Mistress Shaw had assured her—and been right.
Their marriage had been six years old and they were comfortable with each other when Matthew had stood here in their parlor one afternoon silently studying her almost-finished work on a priest’s stole—a pattern of vines and grapes in greens and purple and gold on tartaire silk, for the first time all her own work—then looked up from it to ask quite simply, as if asking her what she thought of the weather, “Would you care to become a femme sole?”
Anne had stared at him. To be a femme sole was to be a woman legally able to act in her own right in all her business dealings, with herself rather than her husband answerable under the law for all she did; and her answer had come slowly and as a question. “Why?”
Matthew had smiled at her. He had had a wonderful smile. “Because you are good enough at your embroidery that it would be shame, should aught happen to me, for you to have to work for someone else.”
Such was the love that had grown between them since their marriage that she had felt ill at even thought of something happening to him, but she had been neither so young nor so foolish as not to know that things happened to people, no matter how loved, and she had taken hold of his hand, to feel him warm and there while she found her way through her thoughts before she said, “Mistress Shaw has said she’ll see me into the Broiderers’ Guild. Then, as femme sole, I could work in my own name.” And had smiled at him with sudden mischief and asked, “What if then someone offers to pay me more for my work than you do?”
Matthew had thrown back his head with laughter and caught her into his arms and said, “Then I shall become a man of ease and live off your earnings instead of mine.”
It had never come to that, but when Matthew did die, she had been left with not only the house but the right and ability to continue on her own their work of church vestments, altar cloths, and embroidered banners and hangings, with a widow’s right to the business and her place as a femme sole in the Broiderers Guild to back her. For all of that and from her love for him, Anne still blessed Matthew every day in her prayers and on Sundays lighted a candle for his soul in St. Vedast’s, where he was buried in the churchyard.
Prospering London widows commonly remarried, but she had not. There were offers, yes, including from two tailors of the Tailors Guild interested in joining Matthew’s business to theirs, but in the first months after Matthew’s death her grief had been too raw for her to think about marrying again, and by the time the rawest edge of her grief was gone to ache instead of agony, she had found she enjoyed running her life entirely to suit herself.
And then Daved had returned.
‘Please, Mistress Blakhall,“ Jenet said despairingly, this time with a triple knot in her thread. With patience born of certainty that this would be the last time, Anne worked the knot loose and handed the bedraggled towel back to her. Instead of taking it, Jenet looked at her hopefully, but Anne said, ”Four more stitches, and you’ll have it done,“ and watched while Jenet labored through the last stitches and fastened the thread. That safely done, Anne handed her the scissors, and Mary stopped reading and Lucie ceased stitching to watch Jenet snip the thread, and then both clapped with goodwill for her survival of trial by thread and needle. Jenet heaved the great sigh of someone finished with heavy labor, and smiling on her with no less relief, Anne said, ”There then. Do you and Mary go down and see if the cakes are done.“
Both girls went readily, but Lucie, returning her heed to her embroidery, said despairingly, “I’m not going to finish today.”
‘Not today,“ Anne agreed. ”But you may take it home to work on if you will.“
That was a thing Anne never allowed, and Lucie looked up at her with shining eyes to ask, “May I?” She was still all long-legged, half-grown girl, with fair hair that sprang every which way from its braid and childish freckles patterning her nose—nothing like her brother Hal’s thick spattering, thank goodness, her mother often said—but her hands had almost a woman’s deftness at her sewing and would only grow more deft, Anne judged and smilingly assured her, “You may. Let’s ready it to go with you.”
They did, finishing as Mary and Jenet returned with the tansy cakes and a honey-drink and much merriment at being done with school. For the week to be ending so simply, so quietly, was a blessing of which Anne was silently aware and very grateful. Through much of this month of June in God’s year of grace 1450, London had been fraught with fears and wild-running talk about a rebellion rising in the countryside south and east of the city. The leader of it, a man called Jack Cade, had gone so far as to send demands to King Henry that he reform his government and rid himself of false councilors and favorites. That was well enough, and there had been much talk in the rebels’ favor, it being nobody’s secret how badly the royal government was befouled with corruption. But rebels sending demands from a safe distance were one thing, and word that thousands of them were massed and closing on London was another.
The whole year had been a boiling of trouble, beginning with the bishop of Chichester’s murder, followed by the Commons in Parliament demanding they be allowed to try the all-powerful duke of Suffolk for treason for his greed-ridden mishandling of matters in England and abroad. That had brought on Suffolk’s exile by the king to save him and then Suffolk’s murder at sea on his way into that exile; and through it all there had been seemingly constant reports of one small rebellion after another breaking out across the south of England and in other places.
Most had faded away to nothing or been easily put down, but Cade’s had not. Instead it had built until there were said to be forty thousand rebels barely ten miles from London, encamped on Black Heath and sending demands to the king against the others in his government hated even now that Suffolk was gone. King Henry had finally ridden against them with a force of lords and knights and their armed retinues, and Anne had gone with most of London to watch and cheer them through the city and across London bridge in a clatter of armor and horses, with banners brave in the sunlight, certain that Jack Cade and his rebels were finished. But after days of rumors and reports flying back and forth and all around, nothing had come of it. King Henry had kept safe at Greenwich, only sending his lords to talk with Cade until the rebels had begun a sudden retreat into Kent from where they had come. The earl of Northumberland and some lesser lords had ridden in pursuit, been ambushed, and some of the king’s own knights had been killed in the harsh skirmish.
London’s rush of alarm at that news had been kept in check by the plain fact that there was still the wide Thames and London bridge’s heavy gates and drawbridge between the city and Cade, and that surely now King Henry would move in full force against the rebels and make an end to the whole business. But he had not. Had only had two of his own men, the greatly hated Lord Saye and his son-in-law Thomas Crowmer, the equally hated sheriff of Kent, arrested and put into the Tower of London, maybe because he feared that London, in its loud and growing anger, would close against him.