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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, February 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Codebreakers crack secret contents of letters from Mary Queen of Scots

Over 400 after her death, newly decoded letters between Mary Queen of Scots and the French ambassador to England reveal her thoughts from when her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, held her captive.

(CN) — When they searched through the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s (BnF) online archives for enciphered documents, a trio of international codebreakers did not know they stumbled upon the writings of a royal.

The decoding process on the collection of 57 letters, all written in French, soon began though knowledge of the language was the easiest part for study authors George Lasry, a computer scientist and cryptographer, Norbert Biermann, a pianist and music professional, and Satoshi Tomokiyo, a physicist and patents expert. Greater challenges arose due to the “sheer amount of material to transcribe (150,000 symbols), decipher, and interpret (50,000 words in total, enough for a book),” Lasry, of the University of Kassel, said in an email.

The BnF catalogue dated the letters to the first half of the 16th century and listed them as related to Italian matters, according to the study published Tuesday in Cryptologia. However, the codebreakers say that they realized that the letters “had nothing to do with Italy” and everything to do with the insights of Mary, Queen of Scots about her 19-year imprisonment.

According to the study, Queen Elizabeth I — a Protestant — saw her cousin Mary Stuart as a threat because Catholics believed the latter was the legitimate heir to the English throne. Eventually, Elizabeth I ordered the beheading of her cousin for taking part in an assassination plot against the queen of England. Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587.

The researchers believe that before her death, Mary began secret correspondence with her supporter Michel de Castelnau de Mauvissière, the French ambassador to England and the recipient of most of her letters, as early as 1578 until mid-1584.

Nearly 436 years after Mary's beheading, the codebreakers reveal that she wrote much about her poor health and captivity conditions, her concerns that Elizabeth I did not conduct their negotiations regarding Mary's potential release in good faith, and her dislike of Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and a favorite of Elizabeth. According to the study, Mary also expressed her worries about the August 1582 abduction of her son, the future King James I of England.

Beyond this, the codebreakers consider Mary’s letters remarkable on two counts. First, they cover many topics and mention over 120 names, which Lasry said “will keep historians busy for a long time.” Second, her deciphered and unpublished letters now act as a primary source that Lasry stressed is increasingly rare.

“Even the discovery of one new unknown (and not enciphered) letter from Mary would be a notable event for historians,” Lasry said in the email. “Here we have 50 letters, some of which are known to have existed, and previously thought to be lost, so this is very significant. Moreover, the material is in cipher, which means that the contents are likely to be more sensitive than in nonencrypted letters.”

Furthermore, the team suggests Mary penned other letters that remain missing, and future research stemming from this study needs to involve a physical inspection of documents and online searches to uncover them.

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