The Weepers – Helen Barre

A hand quilted figure of a kneeling woman, wearing a cloak, long skirts, and holding a book.
A hand quilted figure of a kneeling woman, wearing a cloak, long skirts, and holding a book.
The Weepers – Helen Barre

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.

A green notebook with a packet of sail makers' needles resting on it. The needles are out of the packet and can be seen to be large and thick,
Sail Makers’ Needles

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.

A hand inside a large leather strap which has a hard surface resting against the palm.
Too big for my hand…

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.

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.

The Weepers – Gregory Cromwell

A delicate looking youth, kneeling and holding a book, is stitched on to light grey fabric
Sweet Gregory

Thomas Cromwell’s son Gregory is a delightful character in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy. He is one of my favourite people in the books: I am like the servants at Austin Friars, who ‘cluster round Gregory, admiring him from hat to boots; all servants love him for his pleasant ways.’ (Bring Up the Bodies, Crows).

His pleasure in reading tales of King Arthur; in believing tall stories to give pleasure to the tellers; his uninformative letters (‘And now no more for lack of time’); his kindness to and concern for poor Anna of Cleves – Gregory’s innocent good nature runs through the Trilogy. I see him as a delicate youth, finely dressed in black velvet.

Accordingly to Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent biography of Thomas Cromwell, the real Gregory was younger than has long been assumed thanks to the long-ago misdating of some of his and Cromwell’s letters. MacCulloch argues that Gregory was born in either 1519 or 1520, ‘not 1516 as many commentators have asserted since the early nineteenth century. Much patronising nonsense has been written about Gregory based on that persistent miscalculation of his age. He has frequently been denigrated for not having the educational attainments of a teenager at a time when he was in fact ten years old or less.’ (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell: A Life, 2018)

When writing her Cromwell trilogy, Hilary Mantel had a suspicion that this might be the case, but didn’t have the archival evidence to challenge these long-held views. During a discussion between Mantel and MacCulloch in the summer of 2019, held at Launde Abbey where Gregory Cromwell lived in the 1540s, Mantel remembered:

So what I did was I very surreptitiously started reducing his age. But I didn’t quite have the courage of my convictions – I didn’t reduce it enough. If I had had the good fortune that Diarmaid had written before my novels, that would have been a big change, because I would then have had chapter and verse for my strong feeling that we were getting Gregory all wrong.

Church Times, ‘Make something of me’: creating Thomas Cromwell, 2 August 2019. This discussion can also be heard on the Church Times podcast.

In the trilogy, one of Cromwell’s major preoccupations is to protect Gregory from the realpolitik of the Court of Henry VIII. Prior to the fall of Anne Boleyn, he sends Gregory to stay with a friend out of London, because ‘if he is to place all in hazard, and he thinks he is, then Gregory should not have to go through the pain and doubt, hour by hour. Let him hear the conclusion of events; he does not need to live through them.’ (Bring up the Bodies, The Black Book). Gregory’s tougher cousin Richard, or Cromwell’s chief clerk Rafe Sadler are always with his father, always taking action and supporting Cromwell’s actions and negotiations – while Gregory is shielded from the harsher aspects of life.

But in seeking to protect Gregory, Cromwell also fails to understand him. In Wolf Hall we learn that ‘little about Gregory is clear to him. “What is it,” he asks him, “what’s wrong?” The boy won’t say. With other people,he is sunny and lively, but with his father guarded and polite, as if to keep a formal distance between them.’ (Wolf Hall, An Occult History of Britain). Gregory wants to be recognised as Cromwell’s son, he wants to be useful to him like Richard or Rafe. And eventually, Cromwell’s underestimation is a source of tension and bitterness. As Gregory tells his father, ‘You do everything. You have everything. You are everything. So I beg you, grant me an inch of your broad earth, Father.’ (The Mirror and the Light, The Image of the King)

When I started working on my Weepers, I asked myself who would weep for Cromwell. Would Gregory? At his arrest, Cromwell imagines Gregory ‘inconsolable, crying like a child’, but is told that Gregory is simply ‘pensive’ (The Mirror and the Light, Mirror).

Protective of him to the end, Cromwell decides ‘it is time for Gregory to write a letter repudiating me. He should speak ill of me. Say he does not know how he comes to be related to such a traitor.’ (The Mirror and the Light, Mirror). Gregory’s wife writes the letter for him. Poor Gregory. His whole world has been rocked, the protection he has always known, the stability of Austin Friars, has gone. And so, at the age of just 20, he is one of my weepers.

The Weepers – Anne and Grace Cromwell

CW: This post contains references to the deaths of children.

Thomas Cromwell’s daughters, Anne and Grace, are included in the Weepers series; and I felt that, as children, they should share a panel rather than be placed alone.

We know that Anne and Grace were once alive; they are both mentioned in the will Cromwell’s made in 1529. But Cromwell had to cross out the references to ‘my littill Doughters Anne and Grace’. They both died, young, later that same year. He had planned to leave them both money, to be passed to them when they reached ‘lawfull age or be maryed’. Poignantly, his will anticipated their deaths – the sweating sickness, the recent death of his wife Elizabeth, and high rates of child mortality being perhaps on Cromwell’s mind. The will therefore makes provision for the bequests to be passed on to his son Gregory, should his daughters be already dead at the time of his death.*

Hilary Mantel fictionalised Anne and Grace in the Cromwell Trilogy, and in so doing, she left a moving picture of Cromwell as father. In Mantel’s version, Anne is ‘a tough little girl […] she is no respecter of persons and her eyes, small and steady as her father’s, fall coldly on those who cross her.’ (Wolf Hall: An Occult History of Britain).

We learn that Anne has no interest in stitching, and that when she ‘applies to her needle, beads of blood decorate her work’. (The Mirror and the Light: The Bleach Fields). Anne is more interested in learning Greek, studying Latin, working with numbers. After her death, Cromwell would like her to be buried with the copybook in which she has written her name – Anne Cromwell, Anne Cromwell – over and over, but ‘the priest has never heard of such a thing. [Cromwell] is too tired and angry to fight.’ (Wolf Hall: An Occult History of Britain).

Grace’s wings made of peacock feathers

Because we are seeing events through Cromwell’s eyes, we know less about little Grace. When she dies, he thinks ‘I never knew her. I never knew I had her.’ (Wolf Hall: An Occult History of Britain).

Grace is a beautiful child, leading Cromwell to wonder whether she is actually his – after immersing himself in the flirtations and accusations of adultery at Court, he speculates that Lizzie, now dead, might have been with another man. Lizzie’s sister says no – Grace was his child. ‘But he cannot escape the feeling that Grace has slipped further from him. She was dead before she could be painted or drawn.’ (Bring Up the Bodies: Spoils).

But during her short life, he makes wings out of peacock feathers for Grace to wear during the parish Christmas play, and she loves them. She doesn’t want to take them off, and he watches her, standing glittering in the firelight. And Cromwell keeps the wings for ten years after she has died, until they become ‘shabby, as if nibbled, and the glowing eyes dulled.’ (Bring Up the Bodies: Spoils).

An embroidered and quilted peacock feather on cream fabric
Peacock feather on the first Wolf Hall Quilt.
Photography: ©Michael Wicks

And when Cromwell reads his dead wife’s prayer book, it is the dead Grace’s hand he can see, reaching out to touch it. In life, she liked to look at the pictures; in death she does the same. As he turns a page, ‘Grace, silent and small, turns the page with him’. (Wolf Hall: Make or Mar).

A quilted hand reaching for blue letters that read Matins, Lauds, Prime, Sext, None, Vespers, representing the canonical hours,
Anne’s hand reaches for her mother’s book of hours

I realise now that I included references to Grace twice in the first Wolf Hall quilt – her peacock feather and her hand reaching for her mother’s prayer book – but there is no representation of Anne. Anne has the stronger personality on the page, we hear the noise of her feet, admire her determination, watch her assertive intelligence. Her family wonder ‘what London will be like when our Anne becomes Lord Mayor’. (Wolf Hall: An Occult History of Britain.

Anne’s omission from the first quilt now feels like a mistake. I can only explain it as a response to the grief in the text: listening to parts of An Occult History of Britain and Make or Mar while making the quilt was so painful that I had to move on from them. I expect I intended to return to them and add Anne at a later point. And now perhaps Anne’s absence from the quilt now represents her absence from Cromwell’s life.

Anne is now presented as a weeper, wearing the cap with seed pearls that she liked to take off. Grace has not been painted or drawn, but she has been now stitched. Wearing her peacock feather wings.

* Cromwell’s will, including notes of the deletions, can be read in Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell by Roger Bigelow Merriman, in two volumes, first published in 1902.

The Weepers – Elizabeth Wykys

Two quilted figures on grey fabric: one a man wearing long robes and a hat; the woman wearing a long dress and cloak. Both are kneeling and holding books
A stitched figure of a kneeling woman wearing a long cape and skirt, holding a book

Since my earlier post about commemorating the dead, and my explorations of weeper tombs, I have started stitching characters from Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy who are to be included in my Weepers series. It’s quite an intense process: sketching out ideas, reminding myself of small details in the text, noting down some of their words, or what is said of them.

Once I get to the stitching stage, I start with outlines. Then I add a little detail. Then the figure sits for a while, waiting. Eventually, once I feel that the future is ready, I draw in a face. I am yet to add any text – and yet to decide exactly how I will do this; and I am still considering whether to also add objects relating to each figure. Maybe, maybe not.

Yesterday morning I finished the initial work on Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth Wykys. We know very little about the real Elizabeth Wykys, but in fiction, Hilary Mantel conjured a memorable character, and chose to give her great proficiency in textiles. In the Play Script, she wrote:

We know nothing about you, so we can only say, ‘women like you’. City wives were usually literate, numerate and businesslike, used to managing a household and a family business in cooperation with their husbands. In Wolf Hall, I make you a ‘silk woman’, with your own business.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton. From the novels by Hilary Mantel. (Notes on characters by Hilary Mantel)

My stitched Liz took a while to emerge. Although I quilted her outlines some weeks ago, she wasn’t fixed. For a while, I thought she might turn out to be Jenneke. I stitched another set of outlines, but my second attempt turned out – very definitely – to be Helen Barre. Liz was difficult to capture, as Cromwell himself finds after her death. He wishes Hans Holbein had painted her while she was alive, as in his memory:

even Liz’s face is a blurred oval beneath her cap.

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and The Light: Augmentation, London, Autumn 1536

In the Cromwell Trilogy, Liz represents the happiness of Cromwell’s private life and domestic stability during his marriage. She and Thomas enjoy each others’ company, they relax together, and make each other laugh:

‘Men say’, Liz reaches for her scissors, ‘”I can’t endure it when women cry” – just as people say, “I can’t endure this wet weather.” As if it were nothing to do with the men at all, the crying. Just one of those things that happen.’

‘I’ve never made you cry, have I?’

‘Only with laughter,’ she says.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall: An Occult History of Britain, 1521-1529

Liz plays another vital role in my reading of the Cromwell Trilogy: that of a very skilled maker. My analysis of the practice of stitching in the Trilogy indicates that she is the most proficient stitcher in terms of the number of techniques she uses. At various points in the novels, we observe her working with fabric and thread – she embroiders Gregory’s shirts with a black-work design (and I think it is reasonable to assume she has made said shirts); she makes costumes for the Christmas celebrations, using quilting and patchwork; professionally she is a silk woman, making braids, tassels, and net cauls. Less successfully, perhaps, she also teaches her daughter Anne to sew, but Anne struggles with a needle, asserting her own interests instead.

After her death, Cromwell finds a cushion she had started embroidering. She didn’t finish the piece but she left her needle in the fabric. Cromwell can feel the path Liz’s stitches would have taken, the bumps that have been left by her abandoned needle.

Like many experienced stitchers, Liz has the muscle memory to work without thinking. When Cromwell asks her to slow down so he can see how she spins loops of thread for a braid, she laughs.

“I can’t slow down, if I stopped to think how I was doing it I couldn’t do it at all”.

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies: The Black Book, London, January-April 1536

While her work may be automatic, it is not without intention. Liz’s confidence in the tiny movements of textile work is brought about through long experience and repeated practice.

I hope my representation does justice to the character that Hilary created. Liz is now hanging up in my studio next to Cromwell himself, waiting to become part of a larger piece of work.

Two quilted figures on grey fabric: one a man wearing long robes and a hat; the woman wearing a long dress and cloak. Both are kneeling and holding books
Thomas and Elizabeth, hanging in my studio, awaiting further development

The Object and the Image

Cream fabric quilted with a motif of a Tudor rose combined with a pomegranate, leaves and a stem at the bottom. To the right of the motif is a quilted bird with large feet
The Pomegranate and the Tudor Rose combined
Photographer: © Michael Wicks

When I was working on the first Cromwell Trilogy Quilt back in 2020-2021, we were in lockdown in England, and all my research was home based. Museums were closed and I relied on online catalogues and images for both reference and inspiration.

One of the first motifs I stitched into the quilt – in the Paternity section – was a symbol representing Katherine of Aragon, based on a livery badge held in the collection of the Museum of London. The badge represents a pomegranate (Katherine’s emblem) combined with the Tudor Rose.

A hand stitched image of a rose and pomegranate combined, the leaves at the bottom of the stem. The image is displayed in a rounded format.
Katherine of Aragon’s Livery Badge, stitched

At this stage in the project, I was still working out my approach, and I used this badge to start thinking about the way in which the emblems of Henry VIII’s queens needed replacing, a theme that Hilary Mantel returned to throughout the Cromwell trilogy, and which I have returned to repeatedly in my stitching.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go into the Museum of London for the first time since lockdown (and the last time I will do so until the Museum reopens in its exciting new home in due course). In the Medieval Gallery, I found that the actual livery badge was on display – so I saw the real, tiny thing for the first time. And in its display case, it is presented the other way up to my interpretation, and indeed in the catalogue photograph.

Part of a display case featuring a dark grey rose and pomegranate design with the leaves and stem at the top of the object. In the case there is also a gold and silver belt buckle on a clear Perspex block, and a round object is also just visible.
The livery badge in its display case

So is it the “wrong” way up in my quilt? As an image, the leaves appear more natural sitting at the bottom like a flower; but as an object, could there be the remains of a clip, a pin, a fastener to indicate it was worn with the leaves at the top? Would I have approached it differently had I seen the object first, or not even looked at the online catalogue at all?

It’s one of those unanswerable questions that result from the first Cromwell Trilogy Quilt being made in a situation of restriction, with no access to actual objects. And access is still restricted for me personally: I am currently living with the after effects of Covid-19 – fatigue meant that I spent most of my visit sitting down whenever and wherever I could and reserving my energy for looking at this one object.

Whether the livery badge should have been worn this way or that, Wolf Hall describes the way in which Katherine and her supporters found themselves the “wrong” way up once their stability was upended by the rise of Anne Boleyn. So there is an additional layer of meaning in its representation in my quilt – however unintended it might have been when I picked up my needle.

The stitched rose and pomegranate motif again, this time the “wrong” way up with the leaves and stem at the top of the motif.
Upended

The Weepers

In recent weeks, my thoughts have turned to the remembering of the dead, to commemorations, and the marking of lives.

A quilted picture of a kneeling Thomas Cromwell, holding a book. He is surrounded by four painted portrait prints of differing sizes and styles.
Work in progress: Thomas Cromwell as weeper

In Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, Thomas Cromwell considers the tombs of the ancestors of the nobility:

men armoured cap à pie in plate and chain links, their gauntleted hands joined and perched stiffly on their surcoats, their mailed feet resting on stone lions, griffins, greyhounds … We think time cannot touch the dead, but it touches their monuments.

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies: Falcons

Coming from modest beginnings, Cromwell himself had no family tomb. And there was no elaborate tomb for him following his execution in 1540. His remains were buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, within the Tower of London, where there is a brass plaque that lists individuals “buried in this chapel”; and there is a plaque marking the site of his execution on Tower Hill.

A plaque containing a list of names of individuals executed on Tower Hill, including the name of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.

In the Cromwell trilogy, Mantel wrote of the tomb commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey – “the black marble, the bronze, the angels at his head and foot” (Wolf Hall, Entirely Beloved Cromwell). Wolsey was not buried in his tomb; in the trilogy, the King expresses a wish to be buried in the “sarcophagus of black touchstone, in which the cardinal never lay” (The Mirror and the Light, Wreckage II). But Henry was not buried in it either: the sarcophagus is now in St Paul’s Cathedral, and is part of the tomb of Admiral Lord Nelson. The Wolsey Angels, which never found their way to Wolsey’s tomb, are now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, after centuries of separation and misidentification.

Looking at the place of tombs in the three novels, I started to think about other memorials. My imagination was particularly captured by the idea of weeper tombs – those tombs that feature kneeling figures, praying for the soul of the departed.

In Westminster Abbey, I visited the elaborate tomb of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox (who plays a significant role in The Mirror and the Light), and looked at the weepers that represent her sons and daughters. And I started drafting out some weepers of my own.

An elaborate tomb, with the figure of a woman lying on the top, four kneeling figures decorate the sides: three male figures are fully visible in the picture, kneeling on red cushions and praying.
Four female figures dressed in black are shown on a tomb kneeling in prayer.
The tomb of Margaret Douglas in Westminster Abbey, London

Through a series of leaps and tangents, I started to muse on the identity of the characters in Mantel’s trilogy who might weep for Thomas Cromwell.

Nobody, he thinks, will ever cry for him.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall, Across the Narrow Sea

I think Cromwell is wrong about this. What about Christophe? Rafe?

I have started to compile a list of weepers who are to be quilted, beginning with Cromwell himself. These weepers won’t be praying. They will be reading. And they will be reading Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy.

A quilted picture of a kneeling Thomas Cromwell, holding a book. He is surrounded by painted portrait prints of differing sizes and styles.

Dame Hilary Mantel, 1952-2022

When in 2020 I started a large textile project inspired by Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, it was initially a way to keep myself occupied during lockdown.

As the project progressed, and grew ever more ambitious, I started to worry about using someone else’s work as inspiration, and felt I should seek permission. I nervously wrote to Hilary’s agent, explaining what I was doing and hoping she wouldn’t mind. Four hours later I had an email from Hilary herself, expressing interest and encouragement and asking me to keep in touch as my stitching developed.

Over the last couple of years, we corresponded by email. She was unfailingly encouraging, kind and generous, shared personal stories, and seemed genuinely touched that a textile artist was stitching her work.

I was last in contact with her 10 days before she died, when I emailed her about the next part of my Cromwell project: working with yellow satin to create a piece inspired by Cromwell’s own “quylte of yelow Turquye Saten”.

The last thing she wrote to me was “I look forward to hearing about the yellow satin”.

I am devastated that she is no longer here to see it, and that there will be no more of her glorious writing, her sharp wit, and her stretching of the imagination. She was a truly wonderful writer, and I will miss her enormously.

My thoughts are with her husband, friends and family, and all who she touched with her generous spirit. My heart is broken.

Pieces of yellow silk, laid on a white surface. A yellow cardboard template of a bird rests on one piece of silk. A pair of scissors is just visible.

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.

Serpents

A stitched woman's head with snakes for hair.
A stitched woman's head with snakes for hair.
Anne Boleyn as Medusa

The more I immerse myself in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy, the more strands I see running through the three books. One of my favourite strands is serpentine: snakes slither through the narrative. The snake Cromwell picks up in Italy for a bet is his companion in dreams and during fevers. It bit him, sank its fangs into his wrist, but he survives. The nature of the snake lives on in him, but he also lives on in the snake, after he ‘let it slip away to its future’.

The bite leaves Cromwell with a snake-like duality which enhances his usefulness to the King, but is also a potential threat: Henry tells Cromwell he is ‘as cunning as a bag of serpents’, but warns him against being ‘a viper in my bosom’. Cromwell himself resists his serpentine nature: when Margaret Pole calls him a snake he corrects her: he advises her that he is a dog, not a snake. Later, tiring of the need for endless reinvention, and the constant assessing and reassessing of political and religious factions, enemies and allies, Cromwell notes that ‘he is not a snake who can slip his skin’.

In Cromwell’s world, women who don’t comply with male wishes are likened to snakes. ‘God punish these women, they are serpents!’ rages the King. The mythical queens of England have serpents’ tails; the snake in the Garden of Eden was a woman.

The most destabilising woman is, of course, Anne Boleyn. Cromwell likens her to a snake waiting to strike, and dangerous because you do not know when that strike will come. She is Cardinal Wolsey’s ‘serpentine enemy’. All three novels – Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light – contain references to her as Medusa, the mythical gorgon with hair of writhing snakes. If you look Medusa in the eye, you will turn to stone.

When the painter Hans (Holbein) tells Cromwell he wants to paint Anne, Cromwell points out that Anne may not want to be studied. Hans considers painting her as Medusa: a risky proposition. At this stage in the trilogy (Wolf Hall, ‘Alas, What Shall I Do For Love?’) Anne has power: like Medusa, she has the power of life or death. Even when Anne’s day is done, Cromwell knows he should not look her in the face. After her death, he cannot sleep. The image of her head, her Medusa head, stays in his mind. He wants to keep her head hidden wrapped in cloth, trapped in the steel of the sword with which she was executed.

You know what Medusa does. You cannot look her in the face. You must trap her image in polished steel. Gaze into the mirror of the future: the unspotted glass, specula sine macula.

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (Salvage), 2020.

My series of Faces of Anne includes an image of Anne as Medusa. It’s probably the one I like best. As I continue to work on this project, I expect I will sew more serpents. The snake that bit Cromwell in Italy is still waiting to be committed to stitch.