Master of the Rolls

Three sets of rolled and embroidered fabric, on a wave designed background
Three Cromwell Thames Rolls

My Cromwell trilogy stitching project seems to have found a recurring shape: I keep rolling my stitchery.

Rolling started as a practical solution to making the first Wolf Hall quilt: a very long (forty six feet) quilted piece. I had to store it somehow and the best solution was to roll it. Then when I had finished it, and was wondering what have I made? I came to the conclusion that rolling felt entirely natural because I felt strongly that the whole piece should not be visible at once.

A white woman stands in front of a fence, holding a rolled piece of quilting which is predominantly pale grey.
The Rolled Wolf Hall Quilt, August 2021

This is also a play on words. Thomas Cromwell became Master of the Rolls on 8 October 1534, a post he held until 10 July 1536. Hilary Mantel describes it as ‘an ancient judicial office, it commands one of the kingdom’s great secretariats’. (Wolf Hall, ‘The Map of Christendom’); and in this lucrative role Cromwell had access to official records; inked on rolls of parchment.

A black and white illustration of Sir Thomas Cromwell, Knight. Cromwell is seated behind a table, holding a roll of parchment in his hand.
Thomas Cromwell Earl of Essex by Unknown artist, by Wenceslaus Hollar etching,
mid 17th century NPG D9736 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
This work is licenced under *

A couple of weeks ago I went to the National Archives at Kew in order to look at some sixteenth century documents. I ordered up various papers including Cromwell’s ‘remembrances’ or to do lists, some dating from his years with Cardinal Wolsey and some dating from the 1530s when he was high in the King’s favour. These documents were all flat and had been pasted into a book by some 19th century organising hand; but I then had the thrill of opening boxes of rolls.

Two cardboard boxes containing rolls of parchment labelled Henry VIII
Boxes of Henry VIII’s rolls

I was looking for a specific item that I hoped was listed in an inventory roll; I didn’t find it.

I had – optimistically – neglected to take into account two basic facts: firstly, I don’t read Latin, and secondly, Secretary Hand is a challenge to my 21st Century eye. I also hadn’t appreciated how difficult rolls can be to handle. Some are single sheets and can be unrolled very easily, but others are made up of multiple sheets stitched together.

The inventory to which I was particularly drawn defeated me: not only were single sheets stitched together to create one long piece, but in places multiple sheets had been stitched on top of each other. I simply could not work out where the different elements ended or find a way to unroll it without fear of damaging it. So I didn’t gain a full impression of the content – but I did find treasure nonetheless.

An old roll of parchment
I couldn’t find the end of this roll…

I spotted a magnificent “S” – and then another in a different style. Then another… and I started to suspect that the clerk who had the task of writing this document – a very long inventory of property and land – had been bored, and to alleviate that boredom, had started to play a game with his lettering.

Four elaborate S shapes written in ink on parchment
S is for…..

And as I looked for more of these elaborate “S” shapes I had a splendid surprise! A 500-year old face popped out to say hello. The bored clerk had left a gift – but I suspect they did not know that they would make someone laugh centuries later. I salute you, unknown clerk. I hope you and your sense of mischief did well in the 1540s.

A bearded face doodled on a roll of parchment

* Portrait of Thomas Cromwell provided under Creative Commons license as at

4 thoughts on “Master of the Rolls

  1. Hahaha! Some of my pupils do fancy letters and doodles in their class notes. Perhaps they’re descended from this clerk.

    It must have been wonderful to be able to look through some of these rolls. I love looking at old books and manuscripts. The simple fact that they’ve survived to our time is awe-inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a sort of sense of connection about touching documents, which we don’t get from digital records. Finding this face was such a magical moment; I’m a doodler myself but this clerk was something else! I also had the opportunity to touch some of Cromwell’s own paperwork and handwriting, and that was a very special moment.


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