SALT & SILK - CHAPTER 1: LONDON BECKONS
My name is Morgan Aubrey and this chronicle is at once mine, and that of the children of my children. In the bloom of youth and in my dreams of the future, I their progenitor, saw these little ones, soon now to live again, as nine stars each further away in the heavens from the last, but all linked by a line of blood, mine.
There on earth, out of the boundary of space or time, when the past has mocked us all, we have been given again the breath of life. Each one played his role in the world, living out his allotted span, blessed or cursed as God ordained – and with a tale to tell.
My own second coming on these pages, pales in comparison with my first, when I left my mother’s womb as the son of William Aubrey of Abercynrig and Maud, the daughter of Philip of Glyntarrel. There, in that little Welsh village of small cottages with ageing thatch, dominated by the parish church overlooking the green, dedicated to the Celtic Saint Brynach, I once walked and rode, laughed and cried; I lived and breathed and had my being in the flesh. We know who we are, but know not who we may be. Apt words in this case, from the mouth of the young man playing the part of Ophelia.
I remember Joan insisting we see William Shakespeare's play at the Globe Theatre, even though it meant us leaving Candlewick Street in good time and making our way to the other side of the Thames. The story of a prince of Denmark held little interest for me, but I had early learnt that objections to my dear wife’s wishes always came at a price, so off we set.
At that time I walked with the aid of a stick, which slowed my gait somewhat. I told Joan I carried it just to ward off any cutpurses who barred my path, but she jokingly called it ‘my third leg’. She paid the waterman well – first checking his licence - to see us safely across the Thames to Bankside and back and so for some hours, in that little wooden we were transported in our thoughts to Elsinore Castle. But I digress, memories playing strange games with a life, now twice lived.
God gave me a quick mind, and a ready disposition and although my bones have long since been pounded into the London dust when the burial grounds of St Mary Abchurch fell victim to encroaching buildings and roads, they were once of a man somewhat short in stature. I never forgot my Welsh tongue, which forced me to speak English in a way that those I would meet on my travels, would identify me as a Welshman. Not that I was ever ashamed of being one, especially since Henry Tudor triumphed over King Richard III at Bosworth. A divine victory for the race that can trace its origins back to Simon of Troy, or in our family's case, the Counts of Boulogne and Danmartin when we were known before the Conquest by the Norman name de Alberico.
I grew up at Abercynrig in the parish of Llanfrynach that still nestles comfortably beside the River Usk in the shadow of the Brecon Beacons. In my mind’s eye, as I remember the prince’s friend saying of the ghost, I can still see the green fields rolling towards the watchful, purple hills, stark against the sky. On a clear day from a high window of our house, I could watch the Cynrig across the meadows, rising below Pen y Fân and rushing down to join the River Usk, as if in a hurry to leave those Welsh hills behind and surge into bigger waters. Water flowed aplenty near the house too: a pond and three springs gave life to the orchards and the flowers growing in abundance in the nearby fields.
Lush and green as they were, I early on had set my sights on London. My brother Hopkin and his farm, locked into the vagaries of the seasons in that Welsh valley, held no interest for me, and thoughts of my father – well, they set my blood racing for many a year after I left the land of my birth.
I went to the English capital, as every young person does, who wants to grasp hold of life and make something of himself. I vowed to make money there, marry, purchase land near the Welsh border and prosper for my children, should God so bless me. In truth though, London provided a simple excuse for leaving a hated father and a maligned mother.
No man whose father has wronged him can ever see the world through confident eyes. One is suckled by one's mother or wet nurse, but in the power behind the love behind the nipple, looms one's father. You take his name, and if the stars are in the right place at your birth, you eventually inherit his land.
Mine were not, and I even felt a curse had been put upon me. My father, ever a jealous man, had renounced my mother on a trumped up charge of infidelity, on the strength of which, had angrily disinherited us. His new wife Jane, the woman who so easily had usurped our mother’s place, enjoyed her position as the daughter of Sir Richard Herbert of Cwmystwith, a proud and wealthy man.
It seemed no time at all before she gave my father a son. They called him Richard and to my secret disappointment, he thrived. Then came a daughter named Janet. Richard would now inherit Abercynrig, the place that had been in our family for generations and for this I hated him.
When I allowed my father’s betrayal to overwhelm me, in the hours of darkness I would wish him and his bastard son dead and summon up curses in my childish way. But in the hours of daylight, fearful that the Devil had heard me, I would pray to Saint Brynach, our parish saint for forgiveness.
All too soon, youth pulsed into life and talk of marriage drifted into the air. Many times, she of the pale skin and dancing eyes – was Mary her name? - had taunted me behind her joking talk as we walked across the fields after early Sunday Mass. She would let me kiss her and then run away, always laughing, always teasing. In spite of her bright face and tempting body, deep in my heart I knew she would never be the mother of my children.
Early one sunny morning we bade each other adieu, uttering false words of undying love as I turned my horse to the path that led to the River Wye and the old Roman road that would take me to Hereford and on to distant London. Only my mother shed a farewell tear and feared for my life, but my future and my stars beckoned.
Safety lay in numbers, so I travelled to London with a group of friends, youths from the village, each eager to push his horse to the limit every day. We looked like the plain country fellows we were, well and cleanly apparelled with leather jerkins under our gowns, but we knew to arm ourselves with swords and daggers, ready to counter any gangs of robbers that saw us as rich pickings. We made good progress without incident, but even when we first glimpsed London in the distance, danger still lurked along the Oxford Road. Soon the City walls and spires took shape and we urged our horses onwards, tired as they were after four days of constant travel.
Foul smells from the pits and troughs greeted us, and for a fleeting moment, I thought of the sweet scented honeysuckle that grew in profusion in the place of my birth. Then as if welcoming us to the great city, a rotting body swinging high from a gallows beside the way, brought me back to the place I now found myself. His stinking corpse proclaimed the fate of a felon. I still remember the sight of his staring eyes and protruding tongue; it made my horse stumble and my friends laugh.
We finally crossed Holborn Bridge and passed through the old New Gate with its unbroken line of timber framed houses standing like sentinels on either side. For my companions, their journey had ended; for me, mine had just begun.
I lay first at my Uncle John Aubrey’s house near Mincing Lane, not far from the Clothworkers’ Hall, a cramped and noisy place with his workshop that gave onto the street, above which were rooms where he and his wife Joan slept and a garret. The contrast between the dark narrow streets with their houses leaning towards each other at each successive storey as if trying to encroach on his neighbour’s space and that of my father’s manor house in midst of the endless green fields of Llanfrynach, I determined not to heed. I knew the discomfort and dark smells were but a stepping stone and a prelude to a brighter future.
One day I awoke to the sound of muffled church bells. The great Henry Tudor’s son, King Henry, the eighth of that name had died – of the French pox - as rumour quickly explained. I remember my uncle saying to me in Welsh, we always spoke together in Welsh, especially when what we said needed to be hidden from our listeners. ‘There’ll be trouble aplenty now the boy king is come to the throne. Edward’s not long for this world and there’s only the old King’s two daughters to follow him. I call ‘chalk’ one, and ‘cheese’ the other,’ he said and then looked quickly around him in case he had been overheard.
As if to presage the shedding of much blood, neighbours told us of a most bizarre happening. King Hal’s body was moved from his house at Westminster they call Whytehall, to lie in state at Syon House in Isleworth. The next morning, to their horror, the guards found the lid of the coffin open and a pack of dogs licking up the remains of the royal corpse. I knew not whether to believe the story, but nevertheless said an extra prayer for his soul that night.
Within days after his funeral, London became awash with excitement and nothing would keep me from joining the crowds along the route through the City to Westminster Abbey all agog to cheer the young Prince Edward on the day of his coronation.
The boy’s uncle, Edward Seymour the Earl of Hertford, looked to dominate the procession of worthies resplendent in their red gowns. It seemed as if it was he who was about to be crowned, not the pale sickly child sitting uncomfortably beside him. The boy looked younger than his nine years. Even the Spaniard who flung himself down a rope suspended from St Paul’s steeple to the cheers of the crowds who had lined the route, failed to produce any joy in his demeanour.
As my uncle predicted, Edward Seymour was given the title of Protector and made Duke of Somerset. He at once began building a resplendent palace for himself on the Strand, with gardens down to the Thames, first demolishing the houses of five bishops and numerous church grounds - to the despair of their hapless parishioners.
Almost immediately, statues and other images associated with Catholic ritual were removed from all parish churches and destroyed, and jewels and plate seized. The boy King had decreed that such familiar and comforting objects of worship were unwanted symbols of Popery. When I protested at this desecration, my Uncle John advised me to keep my peace and say my prayers as I had always done.
‘Never fear, the Day of Judgement will come all too soon – too quickly for some when they blow against the wind.’ He lowered his voice. ‘You want to prosper in ways that God gives you breath in your body, do you not?’ I nodded, thinking of my half-brother Richard enjoying the land that should have been mine.
‘Then I advise you, when the wind changes as it must surely do again, be like the willow, not the oak, and so care for your earthly life first. Follow my precept, and you will bequeath riches unto your sons, and to their sons – for ever.’
This I determined to do, vowing that with the wealth I made, I would purchase my own land and be the lord of my own manor. So Mammon won over God, and London embraced me.
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