March, from "The Golf Book" Book of Hours, Use of Rome, workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 20v

From Sebastian Foxley - my fourth and latest letter

Most esteemed reader I greet you well

It is long since I wrote last – forgive my tardiness I pray you – and the year is turning, God be thanked. The chills of winter and the cold days of spring are in retreat as the sun gains strength and the days lengthen. We feared that the joyous celebration of May Day might come and go without the blossoms that bear its name having opened their pale flowers but the sun shone and the buds burst timely.

I welcome the warmth that soothes my very bones. The fresh hedgerows lift my spirits, verdant with more hues and shades of green than even my artist’s skill can put a name to, every bush and tree clad in its finest summer livery. This morn I sat beneath my favoured oak tree by the Horse Pool at Smithfield and drew the flower-dappled mead before me, birdsong delighting my ears and the perfume of a clump of bluebells heady on the air. I plucked the first wild rose of the year from the briar, delicate as a virgin’s blush, butterfly petalled, golden hearted, and drew it in fine detail, how the centre is like a dainty crown, honey-jewelled. A bee came to share my pleasure in the flower, examining it yet more closely than I in his quest for nectar and I thought how wondrously well God had made his Creation, that insect and blossom can live in such beautiful harmony.

Matters are not always so harmonious in the world of men – a sadness indeed – and in our own household, Tom Bowen and Jack Tabor are become a source of conflict of late. Jack has grown apace since Christmas last, his voice breaking, his clothes and shoes continuously outgrown. By our best reckoning – since the year of his birth be uncertain – he is aged around fourteen but by his looks, I now wonder if he has not two or even three years more than that. Whatever the case, he and Tom – whom we used to believe was by far the elder – behave like a pair of well matched fighting cocks, forever sizing each other up and venting their aggressive temperaments on the least excuse. Jude says we should beat the pair of them, knock their ill-humours out of them but I suspect he be jesting. He was so like them just a few years since and beating made no difference to him. Em has a better means of cooling their tempers. Every wise stationer, with so much flammable paper in his shop, keeps a full water bucket to hand in case of fire. Em uses ours regularly these days to douse the flames of anger betwixt the lads. A cascade of cold water poured upon their hot heads works well indeed and no welts nor bruises need tending after.

As I write this in the parlour – when I had intended to do the Accounts, my weekly trial – I hear raised voices coming from the workshop. Did I refill the bucket after their last spat? I hope so. Young Kate’s footsteps approach in haste and she will knock upon the parlour door. There. I knew it. Fear not, lass, I am coming to separate those sparring alley cats. Such is life.

I bid you farewell in haste. God’s blessings be upon you this fine Saturday in May. Written at Paternoster Row.

From Sebastian Foxley - my third letter

Most esteemed Reader, I greet you well.

How the weather has improved since last I wrote. The days grow longer, there is warmth in the sun at last and I pray we have done with winter.

This morn, I went out early to my favourite spot beside the Horse Pool at Smithfield, just beyond the city walls, to do some drawing afore I began my day’s work. The signs of spring were all around me, even though some were needful of a sharp eye to see them. Most clear were the snowy blossoms of the blackthorn bushes, already promising a crop of sloes next harvest time. They spread a carpet of petals beneath my feet and clung to my boots at every step, like a sugar coating. The hazel catkins flaunted themselves and danced to every breath of wind, showering gold dust on the breeze. A bee, still drunk with winter sleep, buzzed and hummed to himself, no doubt delighted as I to espy a clump of pale primroses, half hidden beneath the hedgerow, holding their virgin faces to the first rays of sun. Sweet-scented violets were there also, though I had to part their heart-shaped leaves to find the tiny flowers of royal purple velvet, fine as a king’s robes. It is true: God sees the flowers of the field dress in as fine array as any noble lord.

The birds were singing joyfully as the sun warmed them. A chaffinch, rosy as the dawn sky, hopped along the path before me, quite unafraid. He seemed content to pose whilst I sketched him and only flew off to continue his quest for a mate when my drawing was done. By the Horse Pool, the first green spears of the water irises are just showing and black-eyed frog spawn clusters in the shallows. That stuff has always intrigued me. I know ’tis put there by the frogs yet the hatchlings are wriggling black worms, not frogs at all. I suppose it is another of God’s miracles of Creation that I do not understand.

But I certainly understood the bleating of newborn lambs on the common land and the gilded glint of celandines beneath the still-bare oak tree. Spring is here and I thank God for such wonders at winter’s close.

May the Almighty, likewise, shine His blessed light upon you.

Penned this bright March day at Paternoster Row in the City of London.

From Sebastian Foxley - my second letter

Most esteemed Reader I greet you well.

Snow is falling as I write this and I am glad of the merry fire in the parlour hearth and have much sympathy for any that need to be out upon the street this day.

I recall to mind a day such as this a few years since, when I was still apprenticed to Master Richard Collop, a stationer of great talent who taught me all I know of scrivening and the illumination of manuscripts. The ways were slippery then and hazardous and Mistress Collop – we apprentices called her Mistress Bess – was afeared for us youngsters that, lacking caution, we might come to grief. In truth, she was most concerned for me with my lame leg, as it then was. But I took care at every step, using my staff to aid me, and my master kindly spared me from running errands in such weather.

It was one of my fellows who suffered a mishap. He and others had made a slide in the snow on the steep slope of Garlickhill and went down at such speed, faster than a horse may gallop, so they bragged to me afterwards. It was not a matter for puffery and boastfulness – though his friends were gleeful enough – when the lad collided with a foraging pig, got bitten for his trouble and his course ended up redirected into the midst of a particularly noisome midden heap. He bore the stink for days after, despite Mistress Bess’s best efforts with soap and lavender water. For that while, none of us wanted him our close companion but the tale gave us youngsters much merriment. And I, for once, was not the butt of their unkind jests.

After that, Master Collop forbade such antics. I thought that wise; my fellows declared he was a killjoy, spoiling their games. But of what use is an apprentice with a broken limb? Rather a cost to his master in surgeon’s bills and wasted time. So I have likewise instructed my apprentices, Tom Bowen and Kate Verney – and also Jack Tabor (who likely will not heed me for an instant) – not to indulge in similar activities for fear of hurt. Jude shakes his head, saying I’m as over-cautious as a mother with her first-born and youngsters should play as they wish, as he used to do. But it is in my nature to be wary of injury to those I care for. I cannot be otherwise.

In the meantime, I trust that you also will give due vigilance as you make your way in such weather. God’s blessings be upon you and yours and keep you in safety.

Written this February day at Paternoster Row in the City of London.

From Sebastian Foxley, Stationer and Citizen of London - my first letter

Most esteemed Reader and fellow Citizen I greet you well.

I have been told, reliably but unaccountably, that you may wish to know my likeness. This seems strange indeed to me for I am a humble man of little standing within the city but it may be that, having acquainted yourself with tales of my adventures – both wondrous and woeful – you would take pleasure in exchanging the time of day and a smile, if we should chance to meet amidst the bustle and busyness of London’s streets. In truth, I am not a man to relish such notice but, if you would have it so, I will oblige.

Of all the faces in our boisterous city, of course the one I see least is my own. We be of insufficient wealth to have the needless luxury of a fine polished mirror of the kind my esteemed patron, his grace the Duke of Gloucester, Lord Richard, most likely provides for his good lady. My wife, Emily, makes do with an upturned pewter platter when she would see how best to wear her new cap, or wishes to pin in place more elaborate pleats in her veil for a special occasion.

However, of a morn when I rise from my bed and go to bathe my face in the laver bowl, afore the scented waters are disturbed, an image stares back at me – mine own. Never at my best at such a time, my hair bed-tousled, my shirt donned in haste against the chill, nevertheless, I have used my humble skills with pen and charcoal to capture that likeness. Emily was aghast when she saw it, to think I would show myself all uncombed and improperly attired but my brother Jude laughed and said, to use his very words ‘It’s a bloody good likeness and shows your true humoral temperament, Seb: unkempt and uncaring what impression you make’.

So this is as I am, afore Emily has taken stock of my appearance and commanded that I take a blade to my chin, a comb to my hair and dress correctly for the day’s affairs – I do make more effort with such matters when I am required to attend upon Lord Richard at Crosby Place. However, if you were expecting to see the image of a prince among men, I misdoubt that you be greatly disappointed. In which case, I pray you, look upon the portrait of Lord Richard that he has commissioned me to paint, when ’tis finished, of course, for he is a prince in every aspect, even though he always seems to me to wear a weighted cloak of sadness, I know not why.

I shall write again, if you wish it of me, when time allows. Or perchance you may hear word from Emily or Jude or some other of my family and acquaintances. In the meantime, I ask that God’s blessings be upon you and yours. I remain your most humble servant and friend. Written this day of January at Paternoster Row in the City of London.