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 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.