The Weepers – Rafe Sadler

A quilted figure of a young man kneeling and wearing a Tudor-style coat and hat, and holding a book
Rafe Sadler: work in progress

In Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, Rafe Sadler is a key support to Thomas Cromwell: his chief clerk, his confidante, his protégé, his ideal son. Rafe has been with Cromwell since childhood (‘Heaven direct me, boy or hedgehog?’), brought up at Fenchurch Street and Austin Friars, one of the very few people for whose good opinion Cromwell cares.

Rafe sometimes acts as Cromwell’s conscience, sometimes as his advisor, sometimes as his ally. He is not afraid to challenge Cromwell, and to warn him when he thinks he is taking unnecessary risks. Most of all, ‘ he is a tribute to the man who brought him up: dogged, sardonic, quick on the uptake’. (Wolf Hall, An Occult History of Britain).

When Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth is dying, it is Rafe who tries to find him. In the month after her death, it is Rafe who is there for him. The pair play chess together until they reach stalemate. During Anne Cromwell’s short life, she hopes that she will be able to marry Rafe when she is older. This idea gives Cromwell comfort, albeit briefly:

For a minute, for two minutes together, he feels his life might mend.

Wolf Hall, An Occult History of Britain

But Anne does not live long enough to fulfil her hope. And Rafe later does the one thing that disappoints Cromwell. As they travel home together by river in Master Secretary’s river barge, Rafe confesses a secret:

‘I have been married half half a year,’ Rafe says, and no one knows, but you know now. I have married Helen Barre.’

Wolf Hall, Supremacy

Cromwell is initially aghast, wondering how this relationship could have developed under his roof (and he recalls a specific occasion when he could perhaps have guessed). He says that, in marrying the beautiful but penniless Helen, Rafe will be ‘held up as a prime example of how to waste your connections’. But Rafe replies that he is ‘violently in love’ with Helen, and Cromwell is quickly reconciled to their marriage. After all, he reflects, he has not brought Rafe up without feeling, and he is witness to the happiness that Helen and Rafe share.

When Cromwell fell from power, Rafe Sadler remained loyal to him. Mantel gives us scenes of Rafe visiting Cromwell, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and taking his final letter begging for mercy to the King. And her imagining of the last meeting of Rafe and Cromwell is heartbreaking. The stage play of The Mirror and the Light ends with Rafe weeping at Cromwell’s death, until he is pressured by Cromwell’s enemies to shout ‘Long live the King!’

Years before, when he first brought the child Rafe home to Fenchurch Street in the pouring rain, Cromwell cheered him by declaring that ‘We drowned men will stick together’. And Rafe sticks to Cromwell, the man who brought him up, the man he loves, until the very end.

A digression, and an unexpected link…

Three copies of A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley resting on a patchwork cushion.

When I was eight years old, I read Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time, a story of Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington Plot. I loved that book and read it over and over. It includes wonderful textile descriptions including some magnificent patchwork quilts, and I always dreamt of making a quilt just like those Uttley describes. But until this week, I hadn’t noticed that A Traveller in Time contains four references to one ‘Sir Ralph Sadleir’, the custodian of the imprisoned Queen at Wingfield Manor, Derbyshire, in 1584-85.

This is, of course, Cromwell’s Rafe in later life. During his long career, he was briefly in charge of the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots. A Traveller in Time awakened my early interest in history and planted the seeds of all sorts of study choices when I was older. Decades later, I am delighted to find a link between my favourite childhood book, and the magnificent trilogy that has played such a central role in my life since Wolf Hall was first published in 2009.

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