Falcons

I’m continuing my stitched explorations of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy, and doing some work based on symbols relating to the various Queens of England as they are presented in these novels. Falcons might be the name of the first chapter of the second book, Bring Up the Bodies, but the Falcon was also the symbol of Anne Boleyn and her family.

Grey fabric quilted with a falcon atop a tree stump and a Tudor rose.. The falcon holds a sceptre in one leg and is crowned.
A stitched interpretation of Anne Boleyn’s Falcon

I am currently working a layered section of my Mirror and the Light piece (or series of pieces) that represents these symbols: Mantel writes a lot about the changing of symbols with the changing of Queens – from pomegranate (Katherine of Aragon) to falcon (Anne Boleyn) to phoenix (Jane Seymour), and my intention with the stitched piece is that, as you peel back the layers, you see the changing political and marital allegiances. The pomegranate and the phoenix are embroidered so they lie flat, but I made a stylised representation of Anne’s falcon first, and I quilted that in order to give it some additional weight and texture. The falcon was the most difficult to remove, and Anne’s presence haunts the novels, so a denser piece for her queenship seems most appropriate.

I was able to visit both Hampton Court and the Tower of London in recent weeks, and on both visits I was very conscious of being able to see symbols and emblems which I have been reading about in the Cromwell Trilogy. I included pomegranates and a falcon in my first Wolf Hall piece last year; and the emblems recur throughout the trilogy. When I gave my 2021 conference paper about the role of stitching in these novels, I talked about the stitching and unpicking of emblems and badges, and how Mantel represents these activities in her writing.

Re-reading The Mirror and the Light, I see these themes even more strongly. This novel starts with the execution of Anne Boleyn, but her presence is still felt in dreams, and also in the falcon symbol that she has left behind. After her fall, Henry VIII wanted no reminders of her; but her falcon emblem, her initials, and their initials entwined (HAHA) were everywhere – on fabric, on wood, on stone. Occasionally one of her emblems survived attempts at removal; this stone falcon is on display at Hampton Court, there’s one in the gatehouse roof, and I believe their is a HAHA in the wood in the Great Hall. In the words of the Duke of Suffolk, in the novel, “You’ve got a HAHA.” Fabric is easy to unpick, paint can be overpainted, but wood and stone are a bit more difficult to deal with.

A square shaped carving, on point, showing a falcon with Tudor rose devices in the background, carved in stone.
Anne Boleyn’s falcon, on display at Hampton Court Palace

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, 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 carving on a stone wall of a rough bird shape, perched on top of a rounded shape with a short stalk. Both are carved within a shield shaped border.
The falcon carving in the Beauchamp Tower

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.

Quilted representation of a roughly drawn falcon, sitting on top of a round shape, both inside a shield shaped border
Quilted and stylised representation of the Tower Falcon

To stop myself becoming too distracted by the origins of the Tower Falcon, I have to remind myself that I am working on pieces inspired by Hilary Mantel’s version of events, and those novels are my one source text.

While many scenes in the trilogy take place at the Tower of London, there is just one mention of the Beauchamp Tower in the text, 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. 

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.

So, I ask myself, have I overdone things by stitching an impression of this carving? It doesn’t appear in the trilogy. Have I been distracted by a material artefact, which should not form part of my textile interpretation of a specific text? Yes, and no.

This falcon carving does not appear in the novels, but there is a reference to “The Boleyns’ 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. There is more than one way of reading these symbols.

A cushion showing Thomas Cromwell with stitched wording in strips

Locking Down with Thomas Cromwell

A cushion showing Thomas Cromwell with stitched wording in strips
A pile of Cromwellian stitchery

I have spent much of the last twelve months reading and re-reading Hilary Mantel’s incredible Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light. Along with the text on the page, magnificent new readings of all three books by Ben Miles, who played Thomas Cromwell on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company, have kept me enthralled, entertained, and energised.

Of course, over the past year, like many other people, I have been mostly staying at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so immersing myself in these books has been an important coping mechanism. This isn’t to say that they have necessarily been an comfortable read. Running throughout the trilogy is the sweating sickness, and there are many instances of loss, pain and death. And in the 1520s, in the trilogy, Cromwell and his family have themselves to undergo a period of isolation, just as so many people have done in 2020 and into 2021;

Mercy comes in and says, a fever, it could be any fever, we don’t have to admit to the sweat … If we all stayed at home, London would come to a standstill. ‘No’, he says. ‘We must do it. My lord cardinal made these rules and it would not be proper for me to scant them.’

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall: Part Two, Chapter Two, An Occult History of Britain, 1521-1529
Plants in pots, a path, and a close up of a large hardback novel.
Reading The Mirror and the Light on the doorstep during the first UK lockdown

There is overwhelming grief contained in all three books, but there is humour too, and warmth, loyalty, and love. There are amazing foods and furnishings, politics and governance, gardens and London streets, the River Thames and the Narrow Sea. And there is fabric. So much fabric. Linen and velvet, satin and brocade, embroidered, quilted, draped, rolled – these books make you want to touch and feel cloth.

A copy of The Mirror and the Light on a quilted piece with a quote from Thomas Cromwell "I was a ruffian in my younger days"
The Mirror and the Light with an earlier Cromwell Quilt

One of the things that has helped me through this current extended period of isolation and disruption has been stitching. I recognise how privileged I am to have been able to spend the time this way, and how fortunate I am to know how to sew. As well as keeping me occupied, it has added to my deep pleasure in the Cromwell trilogy. As someone who plies a needle almost every day, I find the act of stitching in the trilogy to be endlessly fascinating – who sews, what they sew, what that sewing represents, what tools are used. I have been obsessed with these references since first reading Wolf Hall in 2009. I remember the first time I read a description of Anne Boleyn looking ‘small and tense as if someone has knitted her and drawn the stitches too tight’, and the pleasure I took from these words. Mantel’s writing about cloth and what can be done with it is, perhaps, particularly pleasurable for those who work with textiles. Back in 2014, I wrote about some of the textile references here and I made a small Cromwell-related quilted piece.

The embroidered words Mirror and Light soaking in water
Mirror and Light: soaking the stitched fabric

In June 2020 I finished reading The Mirror and the Light for the first time. The visceral shock of the ending stunned me, then haunted my dreams. I re-read Mantel’s Beyond Black, and then restarted Wolf Hall. In August, there was a heatwave and I couldn’t bear to sit under the heavy quilt I was then working on. I wanted something small, unlayered, and cooler to stitch. I started – in a rather unfocused way – to chain stitch the words ‘Mirror’ and ‘Light’, on to strips of white fabric, just to see how it felt.

In a brief period, when lockdown was eased, I made my one and only trip into the City of London of 2020 and took the sewing to the Austin Friars, where Cromwell once owned a house. And then, as a way of processing what I had read I just kept sewing, and it soon became apparent that I had embarked upon an enormous, immersive sewing project. I spent the rest of 2020 stitching the chapter titles from The Mirror and the Light. Then Bring Up the Bodies. Then Wolf Hall. I finished chainstitching all the titles on 29 December 2020.

Author holding stitched fabric under a sign that reads Austin Friars Passage
Mirror and Light stitchery at Austin Friars, London

I’m now engaged in quilting all these words, but that’s another story. Or, as Mantel puts it so beautifully in Wolf Hall: ‘Beneath every history, another history.’