This post contains spoilers relating to Jenneke’s identity, as revealed in The Mirror and the Light.
In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell welcomes home his protégé Thomas Avery, who has travelled from Antwerp carrying a woollen jerkin. The jerkin conceals a letter from Bible translator and religious scholar William Tyndale who is in hiding in Europe. Tyndale’s letter is hidden in the lining – stitched in behind a seam. Cromwell slits the seam with scissors, and asks ‘Neat stitching… Who did this?’ Avery answers ‘Jenneke’. The unknown Jenneke is clearly a proficient stitcher (Wolf Hall – Arrange Your Face).
When I first read Wolf Hall back in 2009, I noted Cromwell’s interest in this neat stitching, and also noted his implied knowledge of the skill involved in creating a neat seam, strong enough to hide smuggled paperwork. The exchange with Thomas Avery still fascinates me – Cromwell looking at the sewing, admiring it, and still destroying the work to get to the information he wants. And, at the same time, appreciating that the unknown stitcher had taken the trouble to produce good work, in the full knowledge that it would soon be ripped out.
From my first reading, I fell in love with the idea that Cromwell knows that neat stitching isn’t just something that happens. He recognises that there is a person (usually a woman) behind it, and that neat stitching has to be a deliberate act on the part of the person who plies the needle. He knows this because he recognises the vital importance of the cloth trade to England’s economy and he values the people who work within it.
Jenneke remains an unknown and unseen stitcher until some years later, in The Mirror and the Light , a young woman appears at Cromwell’s door. She looks familiar, so he invites her inside, offers her wine and an apple, and conversation. She has come ‘from over the sea’, from Antwerp. And when he asks her who her father is, her reply is direct:
‘You are.’Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light – The Bleach Fields
Jenneke has come to England to see her father. She knows he is an important figure, a rich man, but that he is now in some danger politically. But until her revelation, Cromwell has no idea of her existence – although when he looks back on certain conversations, with certain individuals, he realises that some of his friends and acquaintances knew of her, and kept her a secret. ‘How could I have a daughter and not know it?’ he asks her.
She unsettles him. She asks him questions – about women, about his dead daughters, about his work, about his religion. She is blunt, and employs no artifice. He tries to take control of the situation; asks her to stay in England; says he will arrange a marriage for her; he will arrange a house for her. But Jenneke is independent. She has not come to stay. She has come to meet her father briefly, to tell him of her life, of how she has lived and what she has seen. And in an echo of the letter she once stitched into a seam, to tell him of the death of Tyndale. She then returns over the sea to Antwerp. And although Cromwell writes to her, he receives no reply.
Her visit marks her place in the book of his life – a book which falls back into loose leaves. Printers can read as if through a mirror. It is their trade. Their fingers are nimble and their eyes keen. But examine any book and you will see that some characters are upside down, some transposed.Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light – Corpus Christi
Jenneke is a fictional character, but as Hilary Mantel notes in the afterword to The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell might indeed have had an illegitimate daughter, who was possibly called Jane. Who Jane Cromwell’s mother was is unknown. According to Tracy Borman, Jane ‘appears in the archives of the county of Chester…. [but] here is little other than the girl’s surname to suggest that she might have been his daughter.’ (Tracy Borman: Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant: ‘Not without sorrow’, 2014). And a cautious Diarmaid MacCulloch notes that ‘her chronological place in his story is a matter of back-projecting much later facts with the aid of a fairly generous dose of supposition’ (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell: A Life – ‘Managing Failure 1528-1529’, 2018).
From such tiny fragments and her magnificent imagination, Hilary Mantel created a memorable fictional character to be Cromwell’s unknown daughter. And in his admiration of her neat stitches, Mantel’s Cromwell demonstrated his interest in and knowledge of textiles, an interest that sparked neat stitches of my own.