bird’s the word: a cipher
in a 17th-century sampler
A girl named Anne sits plying her thread in and out of a long, narrow piece of linen. She is in the midst of making a sampler: a means by which to learn and display one’s embroidery skills. She has already stitched an alphabet; her name, Anne Lawle; and the year, 1655 or 1665 (contemporary viewers will probably never know which, due to fading).1 She is learning to embroider to prepare for a life of stitching, from marking her family’s linens with initials to creating decorative seat covers.
Anne has completed a few decorative bands of needlework, including one depicting a courting couple, the man doffing his hat and the woman holding a flower. With his long hair, the man is likely a Royalist or “Cavalier,” loyal to King Charles I and the English monarchy. With his long ringlets, he looks like a member of the English court rather than those who sided with Parliament and who earned the nickname “Roundheads” for their closely cropped haircuts. Anne stitched her sampler just after the English Civil War: a years-long war between those who supported the monarchy and those who stood by Parliament. The male figure’s long hair makes clear Anne’s political stance as a supporter of the monarchy. These luscious locks are not the only indication of Anne or her family’s Royalist leanings, but they are the most obvious. The other symbols would have been known only to those entrenched in the visual zeitgeist of the War.
In the middle of the sampler is a band of seemingly nondescript woodpeckers. Two of them frame a flowering plant or tree that is flanked by two worms. The band is buttressed by beakless, eyeless, upside-down woodpeckers. While woodpeckers are rare in 17th-century embroidery, they seem merely decorative. Contemporaneous samplers are dotted with flowers; geometric shapes; and courting male figures holding flowers, acorns, or sprigs of herbs. Flowers on samplers oftentimes represented virtues such as purity and luck, but most of the symbols on 17th-century needlework, including birds, stags, and diaper patterns, were simply bastardised forms of images seen in pattern books that were imported from Germany, France, and Italy—nothing more than fancy ornament.
But if we assumed the woodpeckers were simply adornment, we would be wrong. The woodpecker scene is probably a cipher—an encoded message about regicide. It perhaps comes from Andrew Marvell’s poem “Upon Appleton House, to my Lord Fairfax.” Andrew Marvell, one of England’s most notable 17th-century poets, served as tutor to Lord General Thomas Fairfax’s daughter, Mary, circa 1650 to 1652. Fairfax was a Civil War military leader who, like Marvell, was notoriously politically wishy-washy. Marvell wrote “Upon Appleton House” in honour of his student’s father. In his poem, Marvell wanders through woods and finds an oak tree that has been felled by a woodpecker, which he calls a “hewel.” The oak stands as a symbol of monarchy, specifically of the royal Stuart family. The woodpecker’s task of felling the oak has been made easier by a “traitor-worm” who has already hollowed out the tree by eating the inner core:
[The Hewel] walks still upright from the Root,
Meas'ring the Timber with his Foot;
And all the way, to keep it clean,
Doth from the Bark the Wood-moths glean.
He, with his Beak, examines well
Which fit to stand and which to fell.
The good he numbers up, and hacks;
As if he mark'd them with the Ax.
But where he, tinkling with his Beak,
Does find the hollow Oak to speak,
That for his building he designs,
And through the tainted Side he mines.
Who could have thought the tallest Oak
Should fall by such a feeble Stroke!
Nor would it, had the Tree not fed
A Traitor-worm, within it bred.
(As first our Flesh corrupt within
Tempts impotent and bashful Sin.)
And yet that Worm triumphs not long,
But serves to feed the Hewels young.
While the Oake seems to fall content,
Viewing the Treason's Punishment.2
Anne’s sampler mirrors this action: two green and brown woodpeckers sit atop a flowering tree; below the tree sit two light and dark brown worms. Are the upside-down, beakless, and eyeless woodpeckers in the bottom corners of the band dead? If this is the case, Anne, her family, or her needlework teacher felt that those who committed regicide should die as well. While the juxtaposition of a Royalist figure and a narrative of regicide stand at odds at first glance, the lifeless woodpeckers imply that killing the monarch results in a cycle of death.
But Marvell’s poem, although most likely written in 1651, was not published until 1681, so how would Anne have known it when she stitched her sampler? No other surviving literature or visual print source from the 17th century or earlier matches the band as well as Marvell’s poem does, which implies that Anne somehow had access to the poem before it was published posthumously. Maybe she was taught how to stitch alongside Mary Fairfax or was given the poem by Mary herself. Or perhaps Anne’s father, mother, or needlework teacher knew the Fairfaxes. Possibly, the poem was circulated amongst a group of friends and like-minded individuals before it was published. Maybe the Lawle family was more staunchly Royalist than Lord Thomas Fairfax and Andrew Marvell, so Anne used the royalty-centric imagery for her family’s own political ends. We will perhaps never know the true message of Anne’s code.
More than 350 years on, the tradition of politically coded needlework continues. While diverse objects, from The Suffragette Handkerchief3 to Hannah Hill’s famous embroidered iteration of the Arthur fist meme,4 are significantly less cryptic in their meaning than woodpeckers, they, too, use needlework to assert political views. They speak their minds through stitch. While Anne Lawle’s sampler and contemporary embroidery are bound together by a universal medium, the differences in the utilisation of stitch speak volumes about the passage of time between Anne’s work and contemporaneous counterparts.
Anne stitched this sampler because she didn’t have a choice. She may have enjoyed embroidery or may not have, but it did not matter. For embroidery is either way what she was meant to do for the rest of her life. And while she couldn’t defy her place in the world by not stitching, she could at least define it by secretly stitching what she stood for. Today’s embroiderers, while speaking their minds in stitch, speak in a louder voice because they carry centuries of coded voices like Anne’s with them. The present works to break the code of the past.
1 Anne Lawle, Sampler, possibly 1655 or 1665. Linen and silk thread, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England.
4 Hannah Hill, “When you remember that historically,` embroidery hasn’t been taken seriously as a medium because it’s ‘women’s work’” (2016). Embroidery thread and fabric.