The Merchant of Lynn's Tale

See David Norfolk's premiere performance 

 Merchant John Brunham (Margery's father)

Lynn born Geoffrey Chaucer exuberantly 
played by Lynn historian and ex-mayor Dr Paul Richards

Brunham is mediaeval ‘Trade’ but aspirational– a powerful agent of the landed class of kings and courtiers. 
Ocean Eyes plays.
Scene 1. In St Margaret’s. 

Brunham: Allow me to introduce myself.  John Brunham of Bishop’s Lynn, deal-broker. Navigating treaties, steering rivals, roping in partners. Exporting and importing whatever the Warehouse of the Wash needs. Five times Mayor, twice MP, alderman, coroner, justice of the peace, chamberlain, royal agent, merchant-statesman, benefactor-
Enter Geoffrey Chaucer, flustered, late.
Chaucer: Sorry.
Brunham: Pray do not be. Take a pew. (as Chaucer sits) First time in Lynn?
Chaucer:  (from audience) Second.  I was born here. My wine merchant father paid nativity dues to a Lynn church. London has no birth evidence at all.
Brunham: (recognising this) Ah Master Chaucer! The Father of English Poetry. And a true son of Lynn. I hear you’re up here researching a Merchant’s Tale?
Chaucer: A Reeve. (sings) "Of Northfolk was this reeve of which I telle/Byside a toun men callen Baldeswelle".
Brunham: A Magistrate’s tale? What for? (sings back) ‘Of Northfolk was this merchant whom you should sing/ In a port that men call Bishop’s Lynn.’ – Are you familiar with the work of Anonymous?
Chaucer: Didn’t he write The Castle of Perseverance?
Brunham: He did indeed. A Norfolk scribe like yourself. Let me give the gist of his World. It’s the Merchant’s life to a T. 
Scene 2. Brunham in his mayor’s seat in 1388. 
Now I sit in my seemly sale,

I trot and tremle in my true throne;

As a hawk I hop in my hende hale;

King, knight and kaiser to me maken moan.

Oh God ne of good man give I never tale.

As a liking lord I leyke here alone.

Whoso brawl any boast, by down or by dale,

Those gadlings shall be ghasted and grisly groan iwis.

Whoso to the World will draw

Of God ne of good man giveth he not a hawe

Such a man by lands law

          Shall sitten on my dais. 

Scene 3. (goes to pulpit)
A wooden tower on Common Staith. (heartily) You can see the whole world from up here – and what a world!  A Lynn ship sailing out on the tide on the King’s service. The salt on the wind. (breathes it in.) The dance of the Hanse! Important men aboard, stirring deeds to be done! (rises, calls to these men of the royal embassy) See you in three weeks! God save the King! (aside) Just make sure you do save him! (to the men) Gute Reise! (explaining to audience) Prussians attacked English ships over there, so we arrested theirs here. I hold King Richard’s writ to do so! And now I send his royal ambassadors to scold the (grandly) Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights at his fine castle at Marienburg. And a pretty three hundred and forty pounds it’s costing, raised in Lynn on those arrested Prussian ships. (preens himself) By me.  It doesn’t stop them grumbling about me in church of course (a conventional afterthought, he is not naturally religious) when, as my daughter Margery says, they should be praying.  Merchants are only merchants if they trade and I’ve stopped every port in England sending its corn and cloth to Prussia until the embassy succeeds. King’s orders! And charged twenty of Lynn’s richest deep in the purse for the mission. Better than having our ships attacked in Prussia. King Richard’s made his position on that quite clear: the English merchants must pay. And they’ll benefit it from it in the end. Money makes the Hanse go round. And by collecting English merchants’ money for the king, I collect royal favour for Lynn. (weary) It’s a thankless labour – but you don’t get to be mayor and alderman and MP and very rich indeed by talking about it, as I’m always telling Robert that lazy so-called merchant son of mine. Lynn wasn’t built by fine words, not even yours Master Chaucer.

Scene 4. In St Margaret’s church.  

Nor by prayer neither, whatever the church says. Lynn was built by merchants like me beavering away on our busy waterfront long before Bishop Losinga of (sarcastic) Norwich was good enough to recognise ‘Bishop’s Lynn’ as a market town seaport on the Western toenail of his Gaywood estate. Meaning Norwich Benedictine monks built this magnificent Priory church of theirs – one tower for the monks, one for the parish – and presented wealthy Lynn merchants with the bill! God may have been born in a common stable but in his First Person he is our landed Lord in the clouds. And this (St Margaret’s) is his Norman conqueror’s castle built for Norwich by Lynn. And, credit where credit is due, by the Jews (irritated by the financial folly of this) until that crusaders’ pogrom rampaged through here en route to the Holy Land in 1189. And though Good King John gave us some independence from our ecclesiastical overlords in 1205 – Lynn’s Magna Carta - our elected mayors still have to kneel for approval at the Bishop of Norwich’s palace in Gaywood to this day. And suffer his stewards to manage our Tuesday and Saturday market place law courts and summer fairs. That’s the advantage - to Norwich, the hand that holds us- of Lynn being at the over-running cup of England’s Europe-facing waterways. But the King knows Lynn men are the experts. Better us running the show than English privateers upsetting the cloth cart! (taps nose) And we make our own settlements with the Hanse cities as often as we broker them for England.

Scene 5. Back on the quay. He looks out to sea, seeing a world of trade and mercantile power, the Hanse.

It’s the way of the world. Lynn merchants look out to sea to that war by another name, trade. And we see the Hanse, a bond of German cities with ships travelling together in convoys for safety, against pirates and rivals. We’ve always been a trade target for them. They sail into Lynn with their fish, furs, timber, wax and pitch and sail out again with English wool, cloth and salt. We couldn’t beat them, so we joined them. Apart from when, after months of peaceful trade, English vessels get arrested in Danzig and commerce goes under.

(stumbles on a step)

In this world, Master Chaucer, nothing is certain. The Ouse didn’t even flow out to the sea at Lynn until the thirteenth century. The Well and Brandon Creek gave us the greatest inland navigation of any English port outside London and made us the richest English town, importing Europe into the heart of England. Then in the blink of an eye we slip to eleventh richest. Now (crosses himself) thanks to the Black Death we’re back in the top three. (points) And until Europe finds something better to eat than salted fish, we’ll be harbouring a dock full of German ships carrying half a southern Baltic of cod and herring on every tide…

Music: Ocean Eyes. (tune only) Time passing. Brunham 'meets the audience' as popularity-chasing Mayor and MP

Scene 6. In a Saturday Market Place tavern a year later.

Well the treaty’s signed, and the Germans won the peace. German ships are sailing up the Great Ouse and leaving in normal convoy again. (amused) Some Lynn merchants wouldn’t cough up their dues. Prussian goods were still gathering dust in the undercroft of the Holy Trinity Guildhall until the king repatriated them, to stop another trade war. A Prussian ambassador rode north from checking our compliance with the treaty in London to consult Lynn over our special interests in the Baltic. We needed him on board so we showered him with gifts of wine. We laid on a banquet in his honour at the Guildhall, adding a bishop’s cook and other servants to the diplomatic bill. We even gorged his horse with oats. We got our deal, even if he kept the Bishop of Norwich and Mayor Paxman waiting while he nipped back to London. Ha! - (stopped in his tracks) What’s this? (reads headstone) John Brunham. 1346?-1421. Rest In Peace. 

Scene 7. 

A merchant needs a vision of the future, needs to see what’s coming. Lately, as these eyes grow dim, I see it more clearly than Lynn’s present.  Hanse merchants already have houses and warehouses here. Before Lynn knows where it is, there’ll be a German steelyard – a trading post – by royal command, a corner of Lynn that is forever Lubeck – run by Danzig. They’ll call it the Hanse House and build it to last - six centuries hence it will be the only Hanseatic building left standing in England. (taps nose) But not the deep water quay and warehouse they thought they were getting off King St! (laughs) All’s fair in trade and war and not even the king will get that street for them! (annoyed) Why should they? We need the Prussian trade through Danzig more than any other English port – the stakes for Lynn are tide-high. And in return for the privileges we’re royally commanded to give, they house-arrest Lynn men in Stralsund and English vessels in Danzig on a whim; shunt us out of the Baltic; eject us from Bergen! Drive us up to the cod-forsaking ice floes of Iceland to quarrel with the frosty King of Denmark - who will doubtless accuse us of kidnapping Icelandic children and bringing them as slaves to Lynn! 

Oh those Prussians! One third of all Lynn damage-claims for loss of trade are against them, and Danzig’s the usual flashpoint! Lynn men complain of Prussian embezzlement - (an endless list) extortion, robbery, ship-arrest, and piracy - like they complain of the weather. It’s give and take in this business. We give and they take! 

Trade is no respecter of nations, Chaucer: Lynn might do better as a European city state. You’ll meet English sailors and shoemakers in Prussian streets as often as German ones here. Lynn is the Danzig of England; Lubeck the Boston of Prussia. Some English merchants are taking their families to live in Hanse cities already. I often tell that useless lump of a son in law of mine – burgess John Kempe – that he should anchor a trading post by marrying off one of my grandsons to a Prussian. ‘If you can’t beat the Germans, John, marry them.’

Scene 8. ‘Ocean Eyes’ Music along the quay. Brunham cocks his ear, follows, finds himself in an uncertain place.

This world was always as hard to keep a grip on as the Ouse beach. Now it’s slipping away. Like the hermit-beggar watchman; like his Priory bridge. Like the position of the riverbank. Like the river. My daughter hears angels in these whipped sails and seagulls, crying for home. 

And when you gave, then turned away, your ocean eyes, I knew
My heart would break in waves there on the rocks of losing you.

I didn’t ask for this; I only breathed without belief
Unconscious idle prayers: I never dreamed you’d make them true.

My life’s in ruins now; I can’t go home, nor to your door:
In port and inn and chancel, all I taste is missing you.

I talk about you all the time and think I’ve made some sense
But if my words can’t bring you near....what good can they do?

My days were full of waiting for your Christ feet at my door.

They’re empty now the dove in hand is just the bird that flew.

You touched me once; I closed my eyes; your warmth was like a fire;
I let it smoulder gently: now it blasts my heart in two. 

 O lover, don’t complain, “What can’t be lost is never found.”
He answers only shipwrecked cries, this Ancient from the blue. 

Brunham: (resisting the divine music) That’s what she hears. I hear the trade winds. I see a Lynn river paved over for a stable for horseless chariots! The wretched windows of the poor jutting into the mansions of the rich. (pause) All her married life, Margery had her head in the clouds of the next world. Even there, I haunt the future of this one. (stares at audience with 15C eyes, picks up something modern) However strange! (discards the modern object.) I believe Margery hears the music of her own soul, nothing more.  We are all at sea in this world.  Anchorless - and quite alone.  (exit)    


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