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.

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.