A team of researchers, George Lasry, Norbert Biermann, and Satoshi Tomokiyo, has successfully deciphered 57 encrypted letters written by Mary, Queen of Scots, dating from 1578 to 1584.
This discovery is being hailed as the most significant find regarding Mary in over a century. The letters were found in the French National Library, catalogued as Italian texts from the first half of the 16th century.
Dr. John Guy, a fellow in history at the University of Cambridge and author of a 2004 biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, called the findings a “literary and historical sensation.”
The decryption project involved a combination of manual research and computerized cryptanalysis, which identified the plaintext language as French, not Italian as previously assumed.
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Mary, Queen of Scots, used more than 100 different ciphers in her correspondence.
Mary’s cipher system often masked individual letters with a single symbol; however, to bolster security, she employed homophones, allowing several symbols to signify frequently used letters.
Additionally, she concealed common words by utilizing symbols designated for months, locations, and names of individuals.
Lastly, to further obscure the content, she incorporated red herrings or “nulls” that knowledgeable recipients would disregard.
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The decrypted letters reveal a mix of political discussions and personal complaints, reflecting Mary’s shifting strategies during her imprisonment.
She often wrote about her efforts to negotiate her release and her willingness to relinquish her claims to the English throne.
The letters also reveal her distrust of Sir Francis Walsingham and the Puritan faction at the English court.
Mary’s deteriorating personal circumstances, including financial difficulties and recurrent bouts of physical and mental illness, are also evident in her correspondence.
The letters provide valuable insight into how she maintained connections with her supporters despite the intense surveillance during her captivity.
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The newly deciphered letters have confirmed the long-held suspicion of a mole within the French embassy who successfully passed letters to the English.
The survival of both ciphered letters and contemporary plaintext copies in English archives indicates the mole’s success throughout 1584.
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According to Dr. Guy, these new documents show Mary as a shrewd and attentive analyst of international affairs and will occupy historians of Britain and Europe and students of the French language and early modern ciphering techniques for years to come.
Link to the rest at Culture.org