The Weepers – Jenneke

A quilted figure of a woman holding a book. She has long skirts and cloak on, and she is kneeling on a cushion pad.

Warning:

This post contains spoilers relating to Jenneke’s identity, as revealed in The Mirror and the Light.

A quilted figure of a woman holding a book. She has long skirts and cloak on, and she is kneeling on a cushion pad.
The Weepers – Jenneke: ‘I have come from over the sea.’

In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell welcomes home his protégé Thomas Avery, who has travelled from Antwerp carrying a woollen jerkin. The jerkin conceals a letter from Bible translator and religious scholar William Tyndale who is in hiding in Europe. Tyndale’s letter is hidden in the lining – stitched in behind a seam. Cromwell slits the seam with scissors, and asks ‘Neat stitching… Who did this?’ Avery answers ‘Jenneke’. The unknown Jenneke is clearly a proficient stitcher (Wolf Hall – Arrange Your Face).

When I first read Wolf Hall back in 2009, I noted Cromwell’s interest in this neat stitching, and also noted his implied knowledge of the skill involved in creating a neat seam, strong enough to hide smuggled paperwork. The exchange with Thomas Avery still fascinates me – Cromwell looking at the sewing, admiring it, and still destroying the work to get to the information he wants. And, at the same time, appreciating that the unknown stitcher had taken the trouble to produce good work, in the full knowledge that it would soon be ripped out.

From my first reading, I fell in love with the idea that Cromwell knows that neat stitching isn’t just something that happens. He recognises that there is a person (usually a woman) behind it, and that neat stitching has to be a deliberate act on the part of the person who plies the needle. He knows this because he recognises the vital importance of the cloth trade to England’s economy and he values the people who work within it.

The first Wolf Hall quilt: ‘Tell me who is Jenneke?’ Photography: © Michael Wicks

Jenneke remains an unknown and unseen stitcher until some years later, in The Mirror and the Light , a young woman appears at Cromwell’s door. She looks familiar, so he invites her inside, offers her wine and an apple, and conversation. She has come ‘from over the sea’, from Antwerp. And when he asks her who her father is, her reply is direct:

‘You are.’

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light – The Bleach Fields

Jenneke has come to England to see her father. She knows he is an important figure, a rich man, but that he is now in some danger politically. But until her revelation, Cromwell has no idea of her existence – although when he looks back on certain conversations, with certain individuals, he realises that some of his friends and acquaintances knew of her, and kept her a secret. ‘How could I have a daughter and not know it?’ he asks her.

She unsettles him. She asks him questions – about women, about his dead daughters, about his work, about his religion. She is blunt, and employs no artifice. He tries to take control of the situation; asks her to stay in England; says he will arrange a marriage for her; he will arrange a house for her. But Jenneke is independent. She has not come to stay. She has come to meet her father briefly, to tell him of her life, of how she has lived and what she has seen. And in an echo of the letter she once stitched into a seam, to tell him of the death of Tyndale. She then returns over the sea to Antwerp. And although Cromwell writes to her, he receives no reply.

Her visit marks her place in the book of his life – a book which falls back into loose leaves. Printers can read as if through a mirror. It is their trade. Their fingers are nimble and their eyes keen. But examine any book and you will see that some characters are upside down, some transposed.

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light – Corpus Christi

Jenneke is a fictional character, but as Hilary Mantel notes in the afterword to The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell might indeed have had an illegitimate daughter, who was possibly called Jane. Who Jane Cromwell’s mother was is unknown. According to Tracy Borman, Jane ‘appears in the archives of the county of Chester…. [but] here is little other than the girl’s surname to suggest that she might have been his daughter.’ (Tracy Borman: Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant: ‘Not without sorrow’, 2014). And a cautious Diarmaid MacCulloch notes that ‘her chronological place in his story is a matter of back-projecting much later facts with the aid of a fairly generous dose of supposition’ (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell: A Life – ‘Managing Failure 1528-1529’, 2018).

From such tiny fragments and her magnificent imagination, Hilary Mantel created a memorable fictional character to be Cromwell’s unknown daughter. And in his admiration of her neat stitches, Mantel’s Cromwell demonstrated his interest in and knowledge of textiles, an interest that sparked neat stitches of my own.

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 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.