When I gave my paper about stitching in the Cromwell Trilogy at the Huntington Library in October 2021, I called it She is embroidering her thoughts with Helen Barre’s Needle. Why Helen’s needle? Why not Liz’s? Or Jenneke’s? Because Helen’s needle was, for me, central to understanding the significance of stitchery in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy.
Helen is a beautiful young woman with two children who comes to Thomas Cromwell for help in 1533 after being abandoned by her husband. She becomes part of his household, and, within a few months, marries Rafe Sadler in secret. She is a stitcher of some talent, and can turn her hand to markedly different types of needlework.
In Mantel’s words, Helen ‘unwinds the thread of her tale’ to Cromwell, and is therefore inextricably linked – to a reader interested in textiles – to needlework tools and techniques. When he first meets her, she explains that, when her husband first left her in about 1530, she was ‘stitching for a sailmaker’ somewhere in Essex. Cromwell notes that Helen’s hands are ‘skinned and swollen from rough work’ (Wolf Hall, Anna Regina). The state of Helen’s hands is not surprising: while I am not an expert in antique sailmaking tools, I can confirm that, from a 21st century stitcher’s perspective, sailmaking continues to be rough work. Sailmakers’ needles are terrifying things: long, thick, and lethal. You would not want to get on the wrong side of one.
And then there is the question of how to get such a needle through through heavy sail canvas. A finger thimble would be useless; you need a Sailmaker’s Palm – a leather strap that goes around your hand with a metal pad that fits in your palm. That way, you can employ all your strength to push your needle through the canvas. I have a Sailmaker’s Palm in my sewing basket, but it is far too big for my hand. I suspect such tools are designed for larger and stronger hands than mine, and indeed Helen’s. No wonder her hands are battered.
But once her hands are healed, Helen is destined for finer fabrics. When he first sees her, Cromwell ‘mentally… takes her out of cheap shrunken wool and re-dresses her in some figured velvet he saw yesterday, six shillings the yard.’ Some years later, when Helen prepares a room for a visit of the Princess Mary, Cromwell watches her pleasure at the opportunity ‘to handle the fine stuff and have a brigade of cushions at her command’ (The Mirror and the Light, Salvage).
And as Helen learns to ‘handle the fine stuff’, the nature of her stitching changes. As Rafe’s wife, a sailmaker’s needle is now no tool for her gentlewoman’s hands. By 1536, she is working on fine embroidery; her thread is now fine silk rather than coarse twine or rope, her needle is thinner, shorter, and sharper. She sews for Dorothea Wolsey ‘a kerchief of fine linen […] worked with the three apples of St Dorothea, and with wreaths, sprigs and blossoms, the lily and the rose’, in ‘loving stitches… to give pleasure to a stranger’. (The Mirror and the Light, The Five Wounds).
In Mantel’s telling, Helen’s needlework tools change with her marital status. But, as she asks Cromwell on first meeting him, ‘which am I – wife or widow?’ (Wolf Hall, Anna Regina). The real Helen – or Ellen – Barre was indeed abandoned by her first husband before appealing to Cromwell for help, and going on to marry Rafe Sadler when her husband was presumed dead. But after Cromwell’s death (and therefore outside the timing of Mantel’s trilogy, and my stitching), Helen and Rafe received bad news:
In 1545, after fifteen years of marriage and with seven children by Sadler (three sons, the eldest of whom was named Thomas in honour of the master, and four daughters), Ellen discovered to her horror that her estranged first husband was still alive. She was therefore guilty of bigamy. A drunken Barre had been over heard by one of Thomas Wriothesley’s servants boasting that he was Lady Sadler’s husband.Tracey Borman, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, ‘The suddaine rising of some men’ (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2014)
Ralph Sadler was able to petition Parliament to have his children legitimised, and, in a private Act of Parliament, had his marriage to Helen confirmed. The thread of Helen’s and Rafe’s tale thus outlasted Cromwell himself. But for my purposes, and for my Weepers series, Helen is depicted as the young woman with whom Rafe Sadler fell in love, and who was a talented needleworker, adapting her skills to her circumstances, and plying her needle with loving stitches.