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.

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 First Wolf Hall Quilt: What have I made?

I have a very complex relationship with the first Wolf Hall quilt. Ten months after putting the last stitch in place, I am still not sure what I think of it. I think I am reaching the conclusion that it isn’t a discrete piece of work in its own right but it is a jumping off point for other work – and I am happy with that conclusion.

Quilted fabric strips, in cream, purple, black, and grey. A quilted falcon is visible, and a curved quilt block is being quilted with circles, a needle and thread are waiting to be stitched in.
The first Wolf Hall Quilt: at this point I didn’t know how it would turn out.

Because of lockdown restrictions in 2020 and 2021, no-one apart from me was in the same space as this piece until it was almost complete. I didn’t show the work in progress to anyone face to face; and I didn’t have the space to see the whole thing. In fact I didn’t actually see the piece as a whole myself until May 2022 when I was finally in a space that could accommodate the whole unrolled length of 46 feet.

Before that, the only way I could see the quilt in its entirety was to have it photographed.

Michael Wicks, the marvellous photographer who produced a great set of pictures of the work, did a great job in taking detail shots. Before we met, we talked about the shape of the project and its length; I drew him out a map of each section on index cards so he could match them up with the photographs I had commissioned. At his studio we tried to lay the piece out flat but it was actually too long, being longer than the width of the building, and so it ended up being folded back on itself. But within 24 hours of dropping it off, I had an image of how the first Wolf Hall quilt looked thanks to Michael’s photographic magic.

The piece didn’t look as I had expected, and I had some difficulty working out what I had made until a friend said it reminded her of a piece of code. The significance was in the detail.

And after a couple of weeks, when I looked at the full image again, I realised she was right. I started to view the quilt in that light – as a piece of code that represented my personal response to Wolf Hall; I have detailed notes, sketchbook diagrams, a colour coding system, and a key that unlocks each reference on the quilt, but without these, can the whole code be read? As Cromwell himself wonders, when reading some of Cardinal Wolsey’s letters to the rulers of Europe, could the encryption be more tricky?

In the same way that one can’t see the contents of a book all at once, I realised that one shouldn’t be able to see the whole quilt all at once. It’s meant to be rolled – in a nod to Cromwell being Master of the Rolls – only revealing part of its code at any one time. The encryption should indeed be tricky.

The first Wolf Hall Quilt – completed and rolled,
19 August 2021

When I finally unrolled the Wolf Hall quilt a couple of weeks ago, as the guest of a very welcoming quilting group, I was in a space large enough to accommodate it, and eight quilters held it up along its length. It was a very intense experience: even though I made it, I hadn’t appreciated the scale of it before that. I am still not sure what I think of it, but I have now been able to see what the entire piece looks like all at once.

And now, once again, it is rolled up, hiding its codes and its tricky encryption.

Forty Six Feet of Wolf Hall

Quilted strips, showing words and images, including circles, a falcon, a needle and thread. Fabric in cream, grey, black and cream is visible.
Wrestling the Wolf Hall Quilt together

When I started working on the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt project, I had the intention of making one single piece to convey my interpretation of the whole of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. But – best laid plans and all that – I didn’t realise how long the Wolf Hall section alone would turn out. Forty six feet of quilting later, and having faced the difficulties inherent in managing such a long textile piece, I have revised my plans.

Pieces of quilted and decorated textile in pieces, with a join ready to be made with some grey fabric.
Parts One and Two, still in separate sections, 14 August 2021

I stitched the Wolf Hall quilt in sections – one section for each of the six parts of the book. As each section was stitched, I drew myself a key to show the elements I had included. Once that was ready – at the very end of the making – I had the slightly nightmarish job of joining the sections together to make a single piece.

An open notebook containing a diagram showing chapter titles from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and notes written in orange text, with scribbled sketches and words.
The Wolf Hall Quilt key – parts Five and Six

I joined each section with a placefinder bar, quilting the book title and part number at each join. As the piece got longer and longer and heavier and heavier, I found I was grappling with something that twisted and writhed like the snake that bit Cromwell in Italy. And as it grew, I became increasingly afraid to move in case I twisted it further.

The day that I finished the Wolf Hall quilt was odd. I was very tired, and my hands and wrists hurt from manipulating 46 feet of quilt. It had taken five days to join the sections together, and hours were spent just trimming off excess wadding. On the last day, I sat for hours ploughing on, which was very bad for the hands and the back. But finally, it was done.

Pieces of quilted fabric in cream with decoration; a dark grey strip joining two pieces with blue text stitching and a needle and thread ready to set a stitch.
The very last stitch going in, 19 August 2021

I finished all the joins at 3 minutes past 1 on 19 August 2021. I was exhausted but also exhilarated as I rolled it up as one piece. This all-consuming project had reached a significant milestone – the first large piece was complete.

A woman in a blue dress and grey trousers holds up a long pieces of quilted work against a backdrop of a brown fence.
A woman in a blue dress and grey trousers holds up a long pieces of quilted work against a backdrop of a brown fence. The quilted lettering reads “To Wolf Hall”

Last week, for the first time in months, I unrolled all 46 feet of the Wolf Hall quilt. I was giving a talk about the project, and the audience of quilters was keen to see the stitching close up – and to experience the scale of this unwieldy textile piece. Given that I rarely get a chance to see the quilt in one go – its length makes it difficult to view – it was very exciting.

I had completely forgotten that I’d left an unfinished grey placefinder bar at the end – after “To Wolf Hall” – thus leaving my options open. In August 2021, I clearly intended to join similar quilted pieces interpreting Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light to the Wolf Hall piece. But the challenges of 46 feet of quilting made me rethink this idea. Now I am pleased that the ending of the first Wolf Hall quilt is still open to further possibilities. As Hilary Mantel writes at the very end of Bring Up the Bodies:

There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.