Anno Domini 1390
When I first saw the Mysteries at York, I was seventeen and as vain as Salome.
All the way from Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk we had ridden, a seven-day journey. We were well rewarded, for the City of York was a moving pageant. Scattered through the streets and squares were the wagons, wains, and carts where the plays were performed that narrated the entire sweep of history from the Creation to the End of Days. Such a spectacle! Yet I can say without lying that as I rode past those decorated stages all eyes were on me. Even the players forgot their lines as they gaped and stared.
How could they not? I rode a dappled chestnut mare, her bridle inlaid with polished silver shining in the June sun. White roses and green ribbons were plaited in her flaxen mane. And I was showier still. As befitting the Mayor of Lynn’s only daughter, I wore gold piping on my towering headdress. My long trailing sleeves were dagged with tippets and slashed to reveal the many-colored brocades beneath. Pearls and coral beads gleamed at my throat. Even my Ave beads, hanging on display from my girdle, were of Baltic amber. My father had grown rich as a trader, exporting wool and grain and importing wine, timber, and fur. His ships sailed as far as Russia. Father was not only Mayor of Bishop’s Lynn, but a member of Parliament and a justice of the peace. A descendent of the de Brunhams of Brunham Manor in Norfolk, his kin had served as clerics for the Black Prince.
My lofty perch in the saddle allowed me to see over the heads of the poorer, horseless folk as I watched the Mystery of Creation. A young man in a flesh-colored tunic—intended to hint at the nakedness of Adam—lay on his side while an old man with a beard of purest white waved his hands. Then, up from behind the reclining young man, rose a girl in a flesh-colored shift, as though she had been conjured from the boy’s side. We gasped as we beheld Mother Eve—a tanner’s fourteen-year-old daughter with long golden hair. She stood beneath a sapling apple tree placed upon the cart. From its branches hung fruit fashioned from crimson leather and a real dead snake—the Tanners’ Guild had stuffed it to make it seem as lifelike as possible. Eve put her ear to the wicked serpent’s mouth before offering Adam the apple. We all crossed ourselves and held our breath as we witnessed the original sin, our fall from grace.
Yet I was lighthearted. Flanked by my parents and our servants, I gladly accepted the cup of caudled ale that the alewife pressed in my hand. Sipping the spiced brew, I reveled in the performance, the sheer pageantry of these Mysteries, so unlike anything I would have ever seen in mercantile, money-counting Lynn.
When the first Mystery ended, we wound our way up Petergate to see the next. We passed jugglers, minstrels, acrobats leaping backward to land upon their hands, and even a dancing bear. Still, I was the one who turned everyone’s head. A confectioner fawned as he lifted his tray of sweetmeats for my perusal. I took my time in making my selection, intently examining his delectable morsels of honeycomb, currants, and almonds as I reveled in his admiration.
Mother rolled her eyes. “Margery, you’ve grown insufferable! Remember, my dear, pride comes before the fall.”
Once Mother had been the great beauty of Lynn, or so Father told everyone in his jovial way, but birthing twelve babies had taken its toll. Though she was no less sumptuously attired than I, she had lost half her teeth and her face looked tired and pale. The greatest injustice my mother suffered was that only two of her children had survived—my brother, Robert, who couldn’t join us in York because he had sailed across the seas to trade, and I. Even our family’s wealth and position were no match for the contagions that killed infants in their cradles.
“Leave Margery be,” Father told Mother. “Soon enough she’ll be married and having daughters of her own.”
At that remark, I only smiled, confident that Father would want me to take my time choosing a husband. After all, my dowry was the envy of Lynn. I’d no intention of settling for the first herring merchant or wool dealer to call at our big house in Briggate near the Stone Bridge, which my father owned. With my riches and youth, my green eyes and honey-brown hair, I could pick and choose a man with the same dreamy whimsy as I’d plucked the most delectable sweetmeat off the confectioner’s tray.
But even then, there was more to me than that, a part of myself I’d learned to hide. Beneath my costly linens and silks, my soul was always hungry, always craving something greater than the narrow streets of Lynn and a future of dutifully bearing babies. I envied my brother, who owned a ship and sailed to the great Hanseatic ports—Bremen and Hamburg and Danzig. How my spirits feasted on the City of York, second only to London in the entire realm. All these new sights, from the castle to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. The great minster put our parish church of Saint Margaret’s to shame. Never in my seventeen years had I seen so much stained glass. With Mother and her maidservant at my heels, I traipsed through the vast nave, craning my neck to examine every window. My favorite was the scene of Saint Anne teaching her daughter, the young Virgin Mary, to read. Mother had taught me to read in English, as befitting my station as the mayor’s daughter. But I hungered for more. I wished I were some high-learned soul who was truly literate—literate in Latin. I burned with curiosity to decipher the secrets hidden in the arcane tomes that the clerks hoarded in their libraries.
I made do with the one book I owned, a lavishly illuminated book of hours, which was my most treasured possession. As the minster bells rang the office of Sext, I knelt beside Mother and opened my book to the appropriate page, moving my finger beneath the beautiful black letters spelling out the words of our Latin prayers.
As ravenous as I was for books, I took the greatest pleasure in maps, which raised me to the heavens and gave me a picture of all that lay below—the jagged coastlines and serpentine rivers. The City of York was marked by its heraldic white rose, its castellated walls, spired churches, and mighty minster. I knew Lynn by its famed harbor bristling with ships. So great was my love of maps that Father nicknamed me Compass Rose.
“Compass Rose,” he said to me when our week in York had reached its end and it was time to journey home. “My eyes aren’t as sharp as they used to be. Read the map for me, won’t you?”
We had just ridden out of Walmgate Bar, York’s eastern gate. The Vale of York spread before us, green hedges glistening with dew. Taking the map from Father, I unscrolled the tableau of rolling hills, towns, and hamlets, and traced the roads and highways with my finger. I felt as though I held the world in my hands.
The journey, I confess, delighted me far more than the destination. What a thrill it was to ride across the land even when the clouds showered hail and forced us to shelter beneath thickly leafed trees. Seeing the terrain constantly change before my eyes made my heart beat