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.

Falcons

Quilted grey fabric depicting a bird presented within a shield shape
A grey quilted piece of a falcon, which is standing on top of a Tudor rose. The falcon is crowned and holds a sceptre in its claw.
A quilted representation of Anne Boleyn’s falcon symbol.

Since finishing the first Wolf Hall Quilt, I have been reflecting on the way in which I will continue this project, and over the last few months I have changed my approach. It hasn’t been an easy process; I have thought a lot about what worked in the first stage (the detail) and what didn’t work (the overall shape of the quilt unrolled), and how I restricted myself too much when working on the first piece. After various false starts and a period of being stuck, I now feel very clear about my direction of travel – and that’s partly because of my experience of making a couple of small falcon pieces. Falcons might be the name of the first chapter of the second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, but the Falcon was also the symbol of Anne Boleyn and her family.

I have always been struck by the way in which Hilary Mantel writes about the symbols relating to the various Queens of England in the Cromwell Trilogy. Mantel writes a lot about the changing of symbols with the changing of Queens – from the pomegranate (Katherine of Aragon) to the falcon (Anne Boleyn) to the phoenix (Jane Seymour), how they have to be painted over, unpicked, or otherwise obliterated. Over the last few months I have been stitching representations of these symbols with a view to eventually putting them together into a Book of Queens. And that has meant stitching falcons.

Although Henry VIII wanted no reminders of Anne Boleyn and her symbols, nearly 500 years after her fall, falcons can still be spotted at Hampton Court, in the ceiling of what’s now known as the Anne Boleyn Gateway. In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel’s Cromwell pictures himself “perched like a carved falcon over a doorway” – and, like him, these remaining falcons can now watch the comings and goings of those who enter the Great Hall and the chambers beyond.

And at the Tower of London, in the Beauchamp Tower, there is a rough falcon carving that might relate to Anne Boleyn. Historian Eric Ives, in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004, p.364), wrote that this is Anne’s

“most poignant memorial… Which of her ‘lovers’ made it we do not know, but the image is unmistakable. The tree stump is there – the barren Henry – the Tudor rose bursting into life, the perching bird whose touch wrought the miracle. But there is one change to the badge which Anne had proudly flourished in the face of the world. This falcon is no longer a royal bird. It has no crown, no sceptre; it stands bareheaded, as did Anne in those last moments on Tower Green.”

Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004) p.364.
A crudely carved falcon on a stone wall, contained in a shield shape
The Beauchamp Tower falcon

The Tower’s own description, to be found on the wall nearby, is less definite and reads “Unknown. The shield is thought to be Anne Bolyen’s falcon carved by one of her supporters”. I’ve seen speculations that it might have been carved by Anne’s brother George, or by the poet Thomas Wyatt, both prisoners at the Tower, and probably the best known of Anne’s supporters, but really we cannot know who made it.

Does Mantel present a scene any of Anne’s alleged lovers (Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton, brother George, or Thomas Wyatt) carving this uncrowned falcon? No. In Mantel’s telling in Bring Up the Bodies, George Boleyn is imprisoned “in his light circular room in the Martin Tower”. Thomas Wyatt is seen by Richard Cromwell “looking down from a grate in the Bell Tower”; and as Mantel notes in The Mirror and the Light, Wyatt’s own poetry references the Bell Tower. And the exact location of the other four prisoners is not present in the text.

In fact there is just one mention of the Beauchamp Tower in the trilogy, and that is by Cromwell himself. After his arrest, in The Mirror and the Light, he is held in the Queen’s Apartments, before being moved to the Bell Tower. “Can I not go to the Beauchamp Tower?” he asks, to be told that it is already occupied. 

Quilted grey fabric depicting a bird presented within a shield shape
A quilted representation of the Beauchamp Tower Falcon

While the trilogy does not mention this carving, The Mirror and the Light makes reference to “The Boleyn’s’ white falcon [hanging] like a sorry sparrow on a fence, while the Seymour phoenix is rising”, and that makes me think of this carving. And there’s something else for me to think about. To me, the “tree stump” on which the carved falcon is perched looks a little like a pomegranate; and my stitched adaptation deliberately plays on that. I wanted the now defeated and uncrowned falcon to still be determined to show dominance over the pomegranate, even in its final days.

Looking at these falcons, and their recurrence in the text throughout the trilogy has been invaluable in working out my approach to the next stage of my sewing project. Rather than taking the books individually, and working in order as I did with the Wolf Hall quilt, I am now working thematically across the three books. I’ve been thinking about snakes and eels, the river and the buildings. Last night I even dreamt that I was embroidering the food Cromwell eats. The Cromwell trilogy continues to captivate me and my stitching hands.

The Wolf Hall Quilt: Designing around the text

In the summer of 2020, when I started embroidering the chapter titles from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light, there was a distinct absence of planning. Yes, I made sure there was some regularity about the lettering I stitched, but I didn’t have any sort of scheme for how the pieces would fit together or how they would be quilted. It is unsurprising therefore that once I got into working out the quilting design, this presented challenges.

A rectangular rush basket full of embroidered wording
A basket of embroidered chapter titles waiting to be quilted

There were two main issues. Firstly, once I started putting the pieces together, I wondered why I hadn’t simply quilted the chapter titles from the start. I often quilt using chain stitch, so why had I chosen to embroider the words on to just one layer of fabric, thus necessitating a whole separate quilting exercise that ultimately led to a distortion of the lettering? The answer, of course, lay in the fact that I had never really intended to stitch all this text at all – I just intended to sew Mirror and Light but carried on stitching for five months until the chapter titles from the whole trilogy were done, and my left thumb ached from gripping the thread.

The second issue was one of design. Some of the trilogy’s chapter titles are short – Early Mass, Angels, Wreckage, Salvage – and the text, as it was sewn on to the fabric, provided space for prominent quilting designs before or after the words in question. Other chapter titles, however, were almost as long as the fabric strips on which they were stitched – An Occult History of Britain; Alas, What Shall I Do for Love?; The Image of the King – so adding very prominent quilting would have both confused the eye and detracted from the text.

Embroidered fabric with the words Anna Regina and a postcard of Anne Boleyn
A shorter title – Anna Regina – gives space for prominent quilting motifs

The trick with these longer titles was to come up with a quilting design that faded into the background while still conveying meaning. For An Occult History of Britain, for example, I spent hours studying pictures of snakes so I could design a serpent to sit behind the lettering, in homage to the snake that slithers through the trilogy (I picked up a snake in Italy) after biting Cromwell. I enjoy the appearances that snake makes on the page, so I wanted to add him to the quilt.

Embroidered fabric reading Entirely Beloved Cromwell, with a copy of the play script
Entirely Beloved Cromwell – Lettering takes up the entire length of the fabric

And for The Dead Complain of their Burial I was inspired by a description of Cromwell and George Cavendish watching Cardinal Wolsey’s possessions being ransacked at York Place:

“He and George Cavendish stood by as the chests were opened and the cardinal’s vestments taken out. The copes were sewn in gold and silver thread, with patterns of golden stars, with birds, fishes, harts, lions, angels, flowers and Catherine wheels.”

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London Fourth Estate, 2009), p.282.

That gave me my start. I designed fishes, stars, and a Catherine wheel; and for bird designs I consulted a book of sixteenth and seventeenth century sewing patterns: Richard Shorleyker’s A Schole House for the Needle. That book tells its readers to ‘compose its patterns into beautifull formes, as will be able to give content, both to the workers, and wearers of them’. So I quilted these background designs in silver and gold thread – subtle enough not to detract from the chapter title, but occasionally catching the light.

The unplanned nature of this project had ramifications for the overall design and look of the finished piece, and while I was sewing it, I had various thoughts along the lines of “If I were starting again, I wouldn’t start from here”. But I also reflected on the fact that the Cromwell Trilogy stitching project has its own history – it is a long term project started in lockdown. The finished Wolf Hall piece carries that timing with it. Now I am sewing other pieces inspired by Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, I’m working with less constraint. And I haven’t tried to do anything with the restrictive lockdown stitched chapter titles from Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light. Yet.

Stitching Wolf Hall: Methods

Index cards with notes from Wolf Hall
Quilt planning on index cards

In 2020, I started stitching the chapter titles in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy with no coherent thought about what this stitching might become. It was just a way of passing some lockdown time and processing what I had read (I have written more about the origins of the project here). But as the pile of stitched chapter titles grew and grew, I knew I would ultimately want do something more purposeful with them. And given that I love handquilting, and I take great pleasure in sewing tiny stitches to make tightly controlled patterns, or lettering, or pictures, it made sense to make use of this technique.

A hand holding a pile of embroidered fabric
The embroidered chapter titles waiting to be quilted

I took some time deciding on a format for a quilted piece. There was no plan, no overall design in my head. I had embarked upon the stitched chapter titles with a vague idea that I might make a traditionally shaped quilt based on The Mirror and the Light. But I was never quite satisfied with that concept. I kept thinking there was something inappropriate about a bed-shaped item based on these novels: how could one sleep under the story of an execution?

The plan unfolded itself at an event for the Women’s Prize for Fiction that I watched online in September 2020. Mantel was interviewed, and said:

All of the stories are borne along on the River Thames and the river has its deeps and its mysteries, and although the book is pegged very firmly to the historical record, there are still subterranean depths within the hearts of the people whom the record concerns and we swim around below the surface.

Women’s Prize Live: Hilary Mantel and Angie Cruz on their writing inspirations, plus readings from Coral Pena and Ben Miles, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2020

I liked the idea of creating something long, snaking out like the river, in a single strip. I had visions of a deconstructed set of the novels, pages rearranged chronologically in a lengthy horizontal timeline. And so I started to think about working a quilt in the shape of a long strip. At that point, I didn’t know how big it would be. I had a vision of joining together multiple strips so that all three books would be represented in one long piece, starting and ending with So Now Get Up. Given that the Wolf Hall quilt alone ended up being 46 feet long, I have since revised this idea.

An ipad with the audio book of Wolf Hall and a section of quilting
Quilting and listening to Wolf Hall Part One, Chapter One: Across the Narrow Sea

When I decided to put all the embroidered chapter titles together into one handquilted piece, I knew that the quilting had to be approached in a considered way – partly because I knew it would be the most pleasurable part of the stitching, but mainly because I wanted the experience of quilting this piece to be as immersive as possible. That meant establishing a tight practice for working on each section of the quilt. I decided from the start of the quilting process that I would work incrementally, and sew each section in a strict order – I would not dot back and forwards throughout the Trilogy, and I wouldn’t piece the whole thing together in one go. I wanted to be very intentional about what I was doing, which meant reading and listening to the chapter I was stitching as I quilted it.

I worked out a process to support this way of working: although I know the three books very well, I wanted to reacquaint myself with the text before starting quilting each chapter title. So when a section was pressed and basted ready for quilting, the first step was to re-read the relevant chapter. I then made notes on index cards as prompts for the stitching. I drew up three sets of index cards: anything that might inspire me to draw a quilting motif, or phrases that might spark an image went onto white cards; I made a note of the colours that are prominent in the chapters on pink cards; and finally, references to anyone who actually engages in an act of stitching went onto green cards.

Index Cards with notes relating to An Occult History of Britain
Index Cards: An Occult History of Britain

I then started the quilting process. I listened to the audiobook of the relevant chapter as I worked, and the act of listening brought out other ideas, almost without me realising it. Hearing Mantel’s words sometimes highlighted an element to be sewn into to the quilt, so I usually listened to the chapter on repeat. Sometimes I listened to it in the German translation – I know the original English so well that I can follow it even though my German isn’t really up to it. I didn’t move forward with reading and listening to the book until each individual section was quilted.

The decision to work in this way had an impact on the way the quilt developed. I didn’t have an overall plan worked out for the entire piece, with each section evolving as I read and listened. And sometimes it was a difficult process; some chapters contained almost unbearable levels of loss and pain and I had particular problems when I came to An Occult History of Britain and Make or Mar when Cromwell’s grief overwhelms him. I actually had to leave part of that section unsewn as it was too distressing to continue, thereby breaking my own rules. And I foresee problems with this process once I approach the end of the Trilogy in The Mirror and the Light, but that’s a worry for another day.

This contrasts strongly with my stitching of the chapter titles in 2020. That was very unfocused, with no sense of a larger project to come. That presented some significant design challenges which I can see in the finished piece.

Green thread, a notebook, containing a sketch for a quilting design
Planning out a shattered emerald for Wolf Hall – Part One, Chapter Three: At Austin Friars

It’s interesting to reflect on how the first Wolf Hall quilt was made. A year on, looking back on the tight practice and the self imposed rules I put in place, I wonder how much these were a subconscious reflection of the restrictions of the pandemic. When I look at the finished piece, I can see how its rigid shape was influenced by the time in which it was made. As the project evolves into 2022, its form is rather more fluid – although the immersive reading and listening remains.