Codebreakers Reveal “A Truly Exciting Discovery” In Mary Queen of Scots Letters

If we think today is ‘interesting times’ travel back to 16th century Scotland for some really confusing and treacherous events. In 1568, Mary, Queen of Scots escaped from imprisonment from Loch Leven Castle and fled to her cousin in England for safety.

Mary (who was also next in line to succeed to the English throne) sought refuge with Elizabeth Queen of England. Bad move but with few choices left to her.

She fled from one prison in Scotland to incarceration and eventual death in England. Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded on 8th February 1587 accused of treason against England. Murdering the monarch of a neighbouring country and next in line to your throne is still quite a shocking move by Elizabeth so fearful she was of Catholic Mary gaining England.

Whilst being incarcerated Mary wrote many letters. These were in code and now a group of international codebreakers have deciphered her writing.

George Lasry, a computer scientist and cryptographer, Norbert Biermann, a pianist and music professor, and Satoshi Tomokiyo who is a physicist and patents expert, stumbled upon the letters while searching the national library of France’s – Bibliothèque nationale de France’s (BnF) – online archives for enciphered documents.

These date from 1578 to 1584, a few years before her beheading on this very day 436 years ago – 8th February, 1587.

Most are addressed to Michel de Castelnau de Mauvissière, the French ambassador to England. He was a supporter of Catholic Mary who was under the Earl of Shrewsbury’s custody when she wrote them.  

George Lasry, who is also part of the multi-disciplinary DECRYPT Project – involving several universities in Europe, with the goal of mapping, digitizing, transcribing, and deciphering historical ciphers explained:

“Upon deciphering the letters, I was very, very puzzled and it kind of felt surreal.

“We have broken secret codes from kings and queens previously, and they’re very interesting but with Mary Queen of Scots it was remarkable as we had so many unpublished letters deciphered and because she is so famous.

“This is a truly exciting discovery. Together, the letters constitute a voluminous body of new primary material on Mary Stuart – about 50,000 words in total, shedding new light on some of her years of captivity in England.

“Mary, Queen of Scots, has left an extensive corpus of letters held in various archives. There was prior evidence, however, that other letters from Mary Stuart were missing from those collections, such as those referenced in other sources but not found elsewhere.

“The letters we have deciphered … are most likely part of this lost secret correspondence.”

Using computerized and manual techniques, the study authors decoded the letters which show the challenges Mary faced maintaining links with the outside world, how the letters were carried and by whom.

Key themes referred to in Mary’s correspondence include complaints about her poor health and captivity conditions, and her negotiations with Queen Elizabeth I for her release, which she believes are not conducted in good faith.

Her mistrust of Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham is also apparent, as well as her animosity for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and a favourite of Elizabeth. She also expresses her distress when her son James is abducted in August 1582, and her feeling they have been abandoned by France. James VI, King of Scots succeeded to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth. It is known as The Union of the Crowns, 1603.

More letters and writings by Mary may still be lurking in archives. George Lasry added:

“In our paper, we only provide an initial interpretation and summaries of the letters. A deeper analysis by historians could result in a better understanding of Mary’s years in captivity.

“It would also be great, potentially, to work with historians to produce an edited book of her letters deciphered, annotated, and translated.”

Click on this link to access the report, Deciphering Mary Stuart’s Lost Letters from 1578-1584, published in Cryptologia

Mary Queen of Scots after Nicholas Hilliard oil on panel, inscribed 1578 NPG 429 © National Portrait Gallery, London

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