Soper’s Lane, the city of London, 1463
At fourteen, we make mistakes. I had been a fool to come to this old man’s chamber on my own but I was desperate for legal advice on how to annul my marriage. He had told me he was a former proctor, a church lawyer – exactly what I needed – and he had seemed as friendly as a kindly grandfather when I spoke to him after Mass on Sunday. But now he was tonguing his cheek as he eyed my body and dancing his fingers slowly on the table between us. Behind him, in the corner, I could see his half-made bed.
I would not scream, I decided, slowly rising to my feet. Shrieking for help would mean my name would be all over the city by suppertime. No, I had to deal with this on my own.
‘Thank you, sir, I shall pass your counsel on to my friend, but now I have to go.’ My voice emerged creakily. I had meant to sound brisk.
He smiled, nastily now, no longer bothering to mask his purpose. Both of us had been lying. In truth, I was ‘the friend’ who desired advice, and his legal counsel was not ‘free’; it came with a fee that was still to be exacted.
‘If you are desperate, Mistress Shore,’ he declared, rising heavily to his feet, ‘you’ll be willing to please me.’
Yes, I was desperate for an annulment, but I had rather be hanged than ‘please’ this revolting old goat. My maidenhead was intact and I intended to keep it that way.
‘I made no such bargain,’ I said, fisting my hands within the folds of my skirts, cursing I had not brought a bodkin to defend myself.
‘We won’t go all the way because that would spoil the evidence,’ he wheezed, fumbling at the ties beneath his tunic. ‘Some fondling will do. For now.’
‘Oh, just fondling,’ I said with a pretend smile of relief. ‘I thought you meant—’
I rushed to the door but the latch tongue stuck. He grabbed my left forearm, dragging me back.
This was the moment, or never. I swung my right fist with all the fury I possessed into his face. I heard something crunch. He went staggering back and crashed against the table, the bright blood spurting from his nostrils. That and the toppling inkpots would spoil his clothes or so I hoped as I ran down the stairs.
It was realising the enormity of my folly that rearranged the contents of my stomach once I reached the street. I did manage to hide my face as I retched and the moment I could stand upright, I ran past the tenements up to Cheapside and with a gasp of relief, plunged into the chaos of carts, pigs and people. My mind was still in panic. What if the old man threatened to blab to my husband or to my wealthy father?
My slow progress through the crowd calmed my shakiness. Being small, I felt concealed. Outsiders might be afraid of London cutpurses but this wonderful, raucous hub of noise was my neighbourhood, safer to me than any quieter lane. I pushed further along to where a tight press of people was clogging the thoroughfare and wriggled in amongst them. In their midst, a hosier’s apprentice was standing on a barrow. I had heard his silver-tongued babble before. He was good.
‘The best price in Cheapside,’ the lad was yelling, waving a pair of frothy scarlet garters. ‘Just imagine your wife’s legs in these, sir.’ Laughter rumbled around me. His gaze scanned our faces. ‘And what about the jays and robin redbreasts among you sparrows?’ he challenged, flourishing a pair of men’s hose – one leg pea green, the other violet, and then his cheeky stare sauntered back to my face and slid lower.
Lordy! Squinting downwards at the gap in my cloak, I realised what the proctor had glimpsed as well – a woman’s breasts straining against an outgrown gown. And it was not just on the outside my body was changing. I knew that. Dear God, that was why I needed the urgent annulment. I was an apple almost ripe for plucking and my husband Shore was watching – waiting – like a hungry orchard thief.
I gave the apprentice a hands-off glare, tugged my cloak tightly across my front and, aware that the proctor’s neighbours might still raise the alarm, I determined to stay where I was with every sense alert.
No hue-and-cry was coming from the direction of Soper’s Lane and I said a silent prayer of thanks for that. Maybe the foul old fellow was as fearful for his reputation as I was for mine. That welcome thought made my shoulders relax. And, apart from learning that men of all ages were not to be trusted, I had at least gleaned one piece of useful advice. The proctor had told me that ‘my friend’ needed to have her case heard by the Court of Arches, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s especial court for hearing divorce petitions. St Mary-le-Bow, the church, which housed the court on weekdays, was just a few moments’ walk back along Cheapside. Perhaps the Almighty was watching over me, after all. If I went to St Mary’s straight away…
‘Pretty mistress? Hey? Anybody home?’ Lapis-blue garters pranced before my eyes. The glib-tongued apprentice had singled me out again. ‘Pet, you’re not listening,’ he declared with feigned dismay, reaching out to tweak my nose. ‘Come, give your husband a surp––’
‘Exactly my thoughts!’ I exclaimed fervently and elbowed my way out.
One of St Anthony’s wretched sows blundered along in front of me, as though she had some similar mission. At least she cleared my path.
St Mary-le-Bow lay almost a stone’s throw from the alley off Bow Lane where I now lived. Richard Lambard, my grandfather, was buried beneath the church’s nave so that was why my family sometimes worshipped there to pray for his soul. My brothers used to tease me that the steeple was haunted and if you stood in the churchyard for long enough, you were sure to see a chunk of masonry fall from the roof and that was Grandfather’s ghost making mischief.
To my relief, the doors of St Mary’s stood open. I crossed myself and prayed to Our Lady the Virgin to give me strength. After all, Our Lady’s marriage had been arranged, too, and I doubt she had cared for St Joseph at first, especially when he was so angry about the Angel Gabriel.
I could, would, do this now – go in, swear on the Gospels that I had been wed against my will and that the marriage had not been consummated. They might insist upon a midwife to examine me but my body’s evidence would prove I was no liar. Of course, I’d need to move back to my parents’ house and I could not be sure Father would take me in; but first things first. With a deep breath I grabbed up my skirts. Freedom was just steps away.
But I was wrong. A pikestaff dropped obliquely across my path. I had not noticed the sergeant on duty.
‘I have business inside, sir,’ I announced, imitating my mother’s tone when she addressed the household. ‘It’s a matter of urgency.’
The soldier jerked a thumb at a parchment nailed on the door. ‘Plaintiff or defendant, mistress? What time is your hearing?’
He propped the pikestaff against the wall and shook his head at me. ‘The rule is you cannot go in unless you are on today’s list.’
‘But I need a marriage annulment, sir. By the end of this week. Today, if possible.’
‘Bless me, young woman,’ he clucked. ‘Have you been sleeping in some toadstool ring? Don’t you know it takes months, sometimes years, to get a hearing?’
Months? Years? My first monthly flow might be only days away.
‘They’ll understand the matter is urgent,’ I assured him, wondering if I could duck beneath his arm, but he was no fool.
‘Listen, first you find a proctor to write your petition, then it has to go all the way to Rome and the Pope himself must be told of it. His Holiness may say you have a case to be heard or he may not.’
‘But I do. Oh, please, let me through.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Almost fifteen, sir.’
‘Fourteen, then. Well, pardon me for asking but does this husband of yours cuff you around when he’s had a bellyful of ale?’ He peered down, inspecting my face for bruises. ‘Is he unkind to you?’
‘No, sir.’ This was becoming embarrassing. Next he would ask whether Shore had lain with me. Instead he said, ‘Does your father know you’ve come here?’ And that angered me.
‘No, sir, this is my business. I am quite capable of handling it.’
‘I can see that.’ I could tell he was trying not to laugh. ‘So, who is to pay the legal fees?’ He cocked his head towards the door. ‘None of the carrion crows in there will take your part unless you pay ’em. They can’t live on air, you know. It’s business, see.’
How naïve of me. I thought it a matter of justice.
Dismayed, I stared down into the churchyard, biting back my tears, looking so forlorn, I daresay, that the soldier creaked down upon his haunches and took my gloved hands. ‘Give your marriage time,’ he advised, with a kindly tug on the end of my blonde plait that must have been showing beneath my coif. ‘Lovely girl like you can twirl your husband round your little finger if you play it right. Now you go home and make him his supper, eh?’
Someone cleared his throat impatiently behind me. Three churchmen were waiting to pass. My self-appointed counsel snapped up to standing, his chin turning a dull red beneath his stubble. ‘Go home an’ forget all about this, eh?’ he muttered after he had waved them through.
Forget? The rest of my life is staked out unless I cut the ropes.