Follow the River

Hampton Court Palace - a brick building with numerous tall chimneys is shown on the opposite bank of the river on a sunny day. The Palace is reflected in the ripples of the water.
Three sets of rolled and embroidered fabric, on a wave designed background
Three Cromwell Thames Rolls

Since finishing the first Wolf Hall quilt, and reframing the shape of the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt project, I have been working thematically, rather than novel by novel. Closely following the structure of Wolf Hall worked well for the first piece, but the temporal shifts and reassessments of past events that run through Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light mean that continuing this approach would not satisfy me and, more importantly, would not do justice to Hilary Mantel’s work.

For a while, I was stuck, but once I realised that a thematic approach would serve the project better, I knew I had unlocked something creatively. I have already noted how the role of the river influenced the shape of the Wolf Hall piece, and how it led me to make something long and flowing. This is because the River Thames plays such an important role in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. And now my stitching is seeking to answer young Thomas’ enquiry in the opening chapter of Wolf Hall:

If I follow the river, is that as good as anything?

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Across the Narrow Sea, Putney, 1500)

From sixteenth century Putney where he begins, to the Tower of London, where he ends, travelling by water is part of Thomas Cromwell’s routine. There is only one bridge over the Thames – London Bridge – so many of his journeys to and from Westminster, Whitehall, Richmond, Greenwich, the Tower, and Hampton Court are by boat. Travel unfolds at a slower pace than many of us are used to today, and it’s not always straightforward.

Hampton Court Palace - a brick building with numerous tall chimneys is shown on the opposite bank of the river on a sunny day. The Palace is reflected in the ripples of the water.
Hampton Court Palace from the river

Cromwell can’t go about his business without the services of the Thames boatmen. We first meet him as an adult, made late by the revelry of boatmen on the river who are celebrating the eve of one of their patron saints. His later elevation means his travel will be far easier:

It would be convenient, he thinks if I had Master Secretary’s barge, instead of making ad hoc arrangements when we have to cross the river.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Devil’s Spit, Autumn and Winter, 1533)

But while he is still making ad hoc arrangements, Cromwell gets valuable information from the gossip of Boatmen, who are a reliable – and salaciously filthy – source. His conversation about Putney’s opinion of the Boleyn family with his old acquaintance Sion Madoc reminds him:

… how much you can learn from boatmen, their argot blasphemous and rapid. At twelve he spoke it fluently, his mother tongue, and now it flows back into his mouth, something natural, something dirty.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Arrange your Face, 1531)

There is much inspiration in Mantel’s writing of Cromwell’s river, and I am currently enjoying making a series of Thames Rolls to explore the many references and images that run through the trilogy. It’s going to be a long job but it’s endlessly pleasurable – and I want to ground this part of the project with a sense of place.

The first Thames Roll, representing the river in Wolf Hall (Across the Narrow Sea)

I am not yet sure how this will materialise in the finished work, but I have been accompanying my stitching with visits to the Thames. Of course I can’t recreate the experience of Cromwell – either the real person or Mantel’s version – growing up alongside or travelling by the river but I can experience the Thames as it is now.

Cobbles and a brown stretch of water, shadowed on a sunny day.
Cobbles leading into the Thames, near Ship Lane, Mortlake

I can visit Ship Lane in Mortlake and see the perimeter wall of Mortlake Manor, once owned by Cromwell.*

A white woman with blonde hair and dark glasses, in a blue dress, holds a strip of fabric in an alleyway between two brick walls. The wall on the right of the picture dates from the Tudor period.
Unrolling a Cromwell Thames Roll (Across the Narrow Sea) by what remains of Mortlake Manor

I can take trips on the river between Greenwich and Hampton Court and get an inkling of the time it takes to travel by boat, albeit by motor rather than oarsmen. If I focus hard, I can tune out the running commentary by the boat crew, and imagine the tales of Sion Madoc. I can ignore buildings on the banks and wonder what Cromwell saw. I can look at the river and wonder at the stories it can tell and what it has seen.

The river with a bank of trees and parched grass on the opposite bank.
Thames bank from the river on the approach to Hampton Court, July 2022

* If you want to know more about Mortlake Manor, this post by the Tudor Travel Guide is very informative. It was invaluable when I took a trip to Ship Lane earlier this year.

Master of the Rolls

Two cardboard boxes containing rolls of parchment labelled Henry VIII
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