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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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