John Smallwood, or Jack as his friends knew him, was a young novice at Winchcombe Abbey (Glos). He had not wanted to join the church and, like so many young boys of the fifteenth century, it was only the insistence of his parents that had persuaded him to enter the enclave. He hated the daily rounds of prayers and chanting, the strict rules and the solitude of the enclave. He decided to run away. One day, he slipped out of the work party going to the orchard to pick apples, and off he set on a long journey south.
Along the way, Jack bumped into a band of strolling players, and decided to fall in with them. They were a jolly enough bunch, and travelling the highways alone was not a good idea. The players told many stories of the places they had visited with their troop, and opened Jack's eyes to the World outside Gloucestershire. Right now, they were heading for the great fair at Newbury. Jack had heard of the place. The monks had sent their sheep there occasionally. He couldn't believe he was actually going to go there.
Newbury Fair was all hustle and bustle to Jack, with new sights, new smells and new tastes to excite his senses. He wandered round agog at first, but soon settled into the mood of the occasion and began to help out the stall-holders here and there. One man who made particular use of Jack's eagerness to help was a stout bearded weaver who was selling an especially fine array of cloth. He rewarded Jack with several pennies, and told him that, if he was looking for work, he should go to a certain house in the town and ask to see the master weaver. He always had room for capable young apprentices like Jack.
Inspired by all the money he had seen changing hands on the weaver's stall, the boy did as he was bid. The master weaver was impressed by the attitude and bearing of this Jack of Winchcombe, and took him on at once. Jack learnt quickly and he enjoyed the work too. He sailed through his apprenticeship and later became a journeyman. In time he too became a master weaver. His master was growing old by now and he appointed Jack manager of the workshop.
Eventually the old man died. Jack found himself managing the business for a new master, or rather mistress, his master's widow, Lady Alice. She was a striking beauty about ten years Jack's senior and, though strong willed, she had little interest in the cloth trade as long as the money kept rolling in.
Jack liked to meet with his mistress as often as possible to keep her informed of all their business dealings. The lady quickly began to rely more and more on Jack, and as her reliance increased so did their meetings. Alice, however, did not wish to hear about wool and cloth and the cost of housing apprentices. She did, on the other hand, want to spend a little time alone with Jack and was happy to simply listen to his voice. Jack was a fine dashing young man and she had become quite enamoured of him.
One day, while Jack was trying to discuss the pros and cons of purchasing some new looms, Alice announced that she intended to remarry. Jack was quite shocked. He had never been quite sure how his mistress had viewed their relationship, and she continued to surprise him. To his relief though, she went on to list some three men who had, apparently, requested the honour of courting her: A tailor from Hungerford, a parson from Speenhamland and a tanner from Wallingford. All were quite affluent, but she could not make up her mind. Jack promised to help the lady in any way he could. The conversation turned to Jack's own marital status. Alice was interested to know if it was ever likely to alter. Jack quickly changed the subject and made his excuses to leave.
The Lady Alice had surprised Jack with the suggestion of marriage. At first he had been shocked at the thought that he was her intended prey, but later he had been reassured that he had nothing to worry about. Now he was not so sure though; and the more he thought about it the more appealing the idea became. He was very fond of Alice. She was stunningly beautiful and, of course, exceptionally rich. She couldn't possibly be interested in him though, she had three wealthy suitors to choose from.
Jack should have stuck with his initial instincts though. For three days his mistress set about laying plans to capture him for her husband, yet nothing she came up with seemed quite satisfactory. On the third day she decided to give her mind a rest, and went out with a friend to Newbury Market. For once her mind was not on Jack. Then suddenly she spotted him through the crowd. He was standing by a hosier's stall laughing and joking with a pretty maid - one from her own household. Then Alice saw him pick up a pair of gloves and buy them for the girl. The maid was obviously delighted and threw her arms around Jack's neck, giving him a big kiss. Alice was furious, and stormed off in the opposite direction. She was so busy trying to avoid her manager, that she did not look where she was heading. She marched straight into a spindly young man and almost knocked him off his feet. As she turned to apologise she realised it was none other than her admirer, the tailor from Hungerford.
Alice immediately fell into polite conversation with the young man and, having scorned Jack, became more familiar with the tailor than she had previously been inclined. She allowed him to accompany both her and her friend to a nearby tavern where they sat in pleasant banter for a time. Eventually, as so many times before, the tailor brought up the subject of marriage. Still mad at Jack, the lady told the young man that he must come to supper that Thursday and she would give him his answer. No sooner had the tailor left than Master Craftes, the tanner from Wallingford, entered the old inn. He was an older balding man, round in the belly but still athletic. He had been keen to fill his empty bed ever since his wife's untimely death about a year ago. He spied Alice instantly and made straight for her table. Craftes was loud mouthed and brash, but jolly all the same. He was about to ask for the third time if Alice would marry him, when the Vicar of Speenhamland arrived. The ladies decided it was time to leave, but Alice again invited them both to dinner on the following Thursday.
On the day of the dinner party, Lady Alice received three very welcome deliveries to her door: the tailor sent a fat pig and a goose, the parson sent two rabbits and a capon, but the wealthy tanner out did both with a shoulder of mutton, six chicken, a gallon of wine and half a pound of sugar. Thus, by the time evening descended, there was plenty to eat. As the guests arrived, each was shocked to find others at their romantic rendezvous, but Alice gave them no time to discuss the matter and promptly sat them down to eat. They were joined by an old crone of the lady's acquaintance who proceeded to spend the whole evening insulting the guests and their presents. Jack served at the table as butler and smiled to himself as he eaves-dropped on their conversation.
After the meal the five diners sat around the fireplace chatting for a while. At last, however, the lady of the house decided to put her suitors out of their misery. She asked Jack to bring them more wine, and then she announced to all present that they could leave whenever they pleased, for she had no plans to marry any of them. All three protested loudly, but to no avail. Alice thanked her admirers for their attentions. She had not wished to string them along, but she could not, in all conscience, become wife to any of them. "Never have I spent a pig and a goose for so little reason," declared the tailor. At this outburst, Alice became quite cross.
"I did not ask for your gifts, yet you sent them still, and when presented for your supper you ate them quickly enough. If you are not satisfied I suggest you take home the left-overs." She stormed up to bed.
The weeks passed and Lady Alice endured her life alone, while Jack continued to see that money from the cloth trade filled her purse. But as winter approached, she could bear it no longer. She was not prepared to spend the cold winter nights alone in her bed. She threw subtlety to the wind and sent for Jack. They ate a hearty supper together in front of a roaring fire, and chatted the evening away. Outside the snow fell thick and the wind blew cold. Eventually Alice retired to bed, instructing her maid to have Jack settle into the best bedchamber. "You need not brave the winter weather tonight." Jack was delighted, and thought himself well favoured to be given a bed for the night within his mistress's own house. He must have impressed her with his latest set of figures from the business.
Jack quickly fell asleep; but in the rest of the house there was still movement. Alice had left the coldness of her own bed and was creeping along the empty corridor towards the best bedchamber. She silently lifted the latch and entered. Jack did not stir. Lifting the covers from the bed, she climbed in beside him. Jack started. "Who's there?" he cried, fumbling for a candle in the darkness.
"It is I," replied Alice innocently. "The night is so cold and my bedroom walls so thin that I thought you might suffer my company rather than have me freeze." Her little face shone in the candlelight. Jack smiled as she blew it out.
The next morning, Alice was up with the lark, running about the house, dressing in her finest apparel. "Come Jack, we have earnest business this morning," she declared and bade him fetch a flaming torch from the kitchen. A puzzled Jack did as he was told, and off the two set through the snowy streets of Newbury. Alice had Jack carry the torch before her, so he had no chance for questions. At length they reached St.Bartholomew's Chapel, where Jack's mistress decided they should stop and pray for their better business. Jack began to protest that he hadn't got a clue what their business was about this morning, when he was interrupted by Reverend John's greetings.
To Jack's astonishment, the priest, clerk and sexton all appeared to be very worried because his mistress's bridegroom had not yet arrived! Alice agreed that she too had expected him to have been there already, and sat down to pray with her rosary. What was she playing at now? Jack hadn't heard anything about a new suitor. Had last night just been her last fling of freedom? Jack slumped down in the corner of the chapel. He was not amused.
After about half an hour, the priest approached Lady Alice once more. It did not look as if her intended was going to turn up. Alice seemed inconsolable. "But I have sworn to marry today," she explained to the priest. He merely shrugged his shoulders. Then Alice seemed to pull herself together. She got up and marched to the back of the chapel. Standing next to her servant, she declared, "You must marry me to my man, Jack".
Jack was stunned. He protested vehemently, but she would have none of it. Alice had promised God, and herself, that she would be married that day and Jack had sworn to help her. Eventually he was forced to relent, and the two were married.
* * *
Theirs was not an easy marriage. They grew to love each other dearly, but both were of such strong character that there were often clashes. Though young and handsome, Jack was not a socialite like Alice. She would go off and party with her friends, while Jack stayed home and checked the accounts. He loved his work and had big plans for the business now that it was his to do with as he pleased. He wanted to set up a proper production line, so he could make more cloth than ever and really have the money roll in. This he did with such success that he became one of the wealthiest and best known cloth merchants in England. Everyone knew the name "Jack O'Newbury". Yet still it seemed, no matter how much money he made, Alice always managed to spend it. "She should be more frugal," he thought to himself. Many times he had tried to tell her this, but she would simply get angry and start to rant about how it was her money, not his, and she wasn't going to have him telling her what to do with it.
One evening, when Alice had again been out all day with her friends, she returned home about midnight. Jack had waited up as long as he could, but had eventually locked up and retired to bed. Now he was woken by Alice's loud bangings at the front door, and he decided to teach her a lesson. Going to the window, he called out to his wife below, "If that's you making all that row, you'd better seek out the constable and ask him to find you a bed for the night - 'cos I'm not going to let you in!" Alice was shocked by his sharp words and protested loudly,
"This is my house, you know. You can't treat me like some dog on the streets." But Jack would not budge. He reminded his wife that she had spent the whole day enjoying herself and he wasn't going to let her ruin his sleep now. "Even animals go to bed at decent times!" he shouted from the window.
Alice was sly, however, and knew just how to win her husband over. She sat down on the doorstep and began to cry. Jack could hear her sobs from his lofty vantage-point and took pity on his wife. She had suffered enough. So he slipped on his shirt and descended the stairs. Alice was overjoyed when Jack opened the door for her and she threw her arms around him. But suddenly Jack saw her joy turn to sorrow. She showed him her hand. Alice had lost her wedding ring. She must have dropped it outside. Jack fetched a candle and began to scramble around searching the bushes. Alice was not going to help look for something she hasn't really lost though. She slipped through the doorway, slammed the door shut and bolted it tight.
Jack was furious. How could his wife be so deceitful? He began shouting loudly, but she pretended not to hear and went on up to bed. Eventually, when he started knocking loudly at the door, swearing he'd break it down, Alice appeared at the window. "Who is it?" she enquired, pretending not to know.
"It's me of course," shouted Jack. "What's going on? Let me in!" But Alice was not done yet. She jeered at her husband, asking him what he was doing, dancing in the street at such a late hour. She gave him some of his own medicine, reminding him of his own words to her. Finally though she threw down the key.
"You can sleep across the yard with the apprentices tonight," she cried. "I'll not have you in my bed."
Jack spent a cold and uncomfortable night with the young weavers. In the morning, however, Alice appeared with some hot broth and kind words, begging him to make peace. Jack swore she could do what she liked. If she wouldn't listen to reason, then he was beyond caring. Alice, seeing her husband wounded so, promised that she would curb her socialising so it would offend him no longer. Jack smiled, kissed her on the cheek, and they walked back to the house, arm in arm.