John Harper

My resolution for 2014 is to make some real progress on the edition of York’s Wardmote Court Book, that I have been working on for the past nine years.  I finally got myself set up today.

Editing records

Barely had I started than I came across the name John Harper.  Harper was a Scot, a tailor who lived in Stonegate in the late 16th century, and who was frequently at odds with the authorities.  In 1576, he was disenfranchised (stripped of his rights as a freeman of the city) for his anti-social behaviour.  He was said to be a breaker of the Queen’s peace ‘to the great disquiet and trouble’ of many citizens, and in spite of frequent presentments in various local courts had continued to behave badly ‘without anie shewe or hope of amendment’.  Harper was ordered to ‘shutt uppe his shoppe wyndowes forthwith’, which meant that he couldn’t trade, but by July that year he had paid a fine to be re-enfranchised.  (B26, fol.60v)

He was in trouble again in September 1578, with complaints about the  way he had built the stall in front of his shop a whole foot deeper and wider than his neighbours (B27, fol. 111v).  In June of the same year, he had been ordered to pay the costs of ‘a childe by hym base begotten’.  He was to pay the mother, a single woman called Katherine Roxby, 12d a week for the child, an early form of child support.  The following year, he lost his franchise again, and was sent to prison for ‘certayne evill, contemptuose and unreverrent words’ about the Queen.

John Harper

Harper appears in the records so often that he came to seem a familiar figure, and I began to feel that I knew what he was like: a troublemaker and a misfit, but with his own attraction, especially for women who like bad boys … No surprise then that when I came to write novels set in 16th York, I would include John Harper. He makes a cameo appearance in Time’s Echo and The Memory of Midnight, and has an even bigger role in The Edge of Dark (out later this year) when he fathers another ‘base begotten’ child whose birth has such far-reaching consequences for Jane …

Here he is in The Memory of Midnight, appearing as Tess turns up Stonegate …

It was crowded as she turned into the street, and she had to pick her way along the mid part between the gutters where the cobbles lurched drunkenly in the mud.  A needle-fine rain was stinging her face.  It had been wet for days now and the sewers ran as fast as a goodwife’s tongue.  She fisted her skirts up to keep their guards out of the mire.

She was thinking about Tom and whether it was raining in Hamburg.  Every night in the attic chamber she shared with  Alice she would peer out of the casement and hope to get a glimpse of the moon.   The best nights were those when the sky was clear and the moon was full.  Then she imagined herself throwing her longing for Tom up, up into the dark sky, bouncing it against the silver moon like a ball against a wall so that it would fall back to where he could catch it and know that she was thinking of him.  That she loved him and missed him still.

That she was waiting for him.

‘Well now, if it isn’t little Nell Appleby come home to see us.’

The voice with its blurry edge jerked her out of her thoughts, and she looked up to find John Harper leaning in his doorway of his shop under the shelter of his pentice, watching her from his hooded eyes.  Through the shutters, Nell could hear the snip of shears as his apprentice laboured over a new doublet.

The man was a rogue and a Scot, her father always said, and indeed Harper had few friends amongst his neighbours.  He pushed and needled the good men of the city until they snatched off their caps in frustration.  Their wives thought differently.  Say what you wanted about him, the man knew how to sew a gown, and those heavy lidded eyes could make a beldam blush.   To Nell it always seemed as if he was unpeeling her garments one by one in his mind.  As if he was pulling the pins from her sleeves, one by one, until they slid down her arms, and then very slowly taking hold of the laces that held her bodice together, tugging  them apart so that her smock billowed free and her breasts with them …

She swallowed.  She had always been slightly repelled by John Harper, by the carnal mouth, the redness of his lips, the coarseness of the black hairs on the back of his hands but there was something inexplicably attractive about him too.  Whenever he looked at her, she could feel the blood pumping hot around her body, and her cheeks would burn.

Nell wanted to ignore him, but how could she?  When all was said and done, he was a freeman and a neighbour.

‘Good day to you, Mr Harper,’ she said primly, very glad of the cloak that laced high on her throat and the modest ruff that hid her neck where she could feel blotches of heat.

‘You still pining for young Tom Maskewe?’ asked Harper.  ‘He’ll be away a year or more, you know, and a lass like you will get lonesome.  I’d be happy to keep you company until he comes home.’  He leered and winked, and Nell’s blush reached her cheeks.

‘You are too kind, sir,’ she said, without quite meeting his eyes.  She wanted to sound cool and composed, but she was only eighteen.  ‘I fear I must refuse.’

John Harper only laughed, a laugh that made her think of tangled sheets and hot nights and the dark pulse of desire.

‘You on your way to see your pa?’ he asked. ‘I heard he was sick.’

‘Yes, I –‘ Nell broke off,  suddenly confused.  What was she saying?  She wasn’t going to see her father.  Her father had been dead for years.  She was going back to work in the flat.

Her heart was racing with a fear she didn’t understand.  She looked down at her feet and in place of her sturdy clogs saw a scant strip of leather and bare toes tipped with paint the colour of blood.  Her breath jammed in her throat and her stomach tipped as if she had tripped even though she was standing quite still.  Desperately she glanced up at John Harper, but he had gone and she was staring at a window made of a single pane of glass, with a great red banner slanted across it: SALE.

From The Memory of Midnight, pp.156-8

© Pamela Hartshorne 2013

Stonegate FB

2 Responses

  1. Tess Wysocki says:

    I wonder what he actually did when the records say “a breaker of the Queen’s peace ‘to the great disquiet and trouble’ of many citizens”. They didn’t seem very specific back then.

    He sounds like a rogue who had a way with the ladies. lol

    • Breaking the peace was a very serious offence in the 16th century. I think it would have covered disturbances, assaults and generally noisy and aggressive behaviour. Harper certainly didn’t seem to be concerned about what his neighbours or the civic authorities thought about him, but however much trouble he got into, he always seemed to end up back in business. Rogue is a good word for him! It’s difficult now for me to distinguish the real John Harper from the one who exists so vividly in my imagination!

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