Mary, Queen of Scots’ hidden letters decoded after almost 500 years

Why Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1567

We use your sign-up to provide content in ways you’ve consented to and to improve our understanding of you. This may include adverts from us and 3rd parties based on our understanding. You can unsubscribe at any time. More info

Dozens of documents, sent between 1579 and 1584, were discovered in the national library of France. For centuries, the 55 documents were believed to have been lost, but all this time they had been hiding in plain sight, wrongly labelled. Now, they have been hailed as the most significant discovery about Mary, Queen of Scots’, tumultuous life in at least a century. 

Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland in 1542 at the age of nine months, and at 16, she was crowned Queen of France. However, she spent the final 19 years of her life imprisoned, kept captive by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. 

The newly-discovered letters were sent while Mary was in captivity, dating up to just a few years before her beheading 436 years ago today — February 8, 1587. 

Written using a sophisticated system of symbols to evade Elizabeth’s spies, the letters were primarily addressed to Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador to England and a supporter of Catholic Mary.

George Lasry, a computer scientist and cryptographer, Norbert Biermann, a pianist and music professor, and Satoshi Tomokiyo, who is a physicist and patents expert, made up the team that decoded the letters. 

Mr Lasry, lead author of the study, said: “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and queens previously, and they’re very interesting, but with Mary Queen of Scots, it was remarkable as we had so many unpublished letters deciphered and because she is so famous.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.”

While imprisoned, Mary communicated with her associates and allies in an attempt to recruit messengers and maintain secrecy.

John Guy, a professor of history at the University of Cambridge and biographer of Mary, Queen of Scots, said the letters reveal how intently she followed political affairs in Scotland, England and France, despite her imprisonment. 

A recurring topic in the letters is the potential marriage between Elizabeth and François, Duke of Anjou, brother and heir of Henri III of France. 

Mr Guy told The Times: “What the marriage proposal did in spades was expose the factions in the privy council. Mary had a remarkably shrewd analysis of the pros and cons, and of who was who and on what side.

“She is an astute and capable political analyst when she wants to be. All this is far away from the image of the ‘cursed queen’ and femme fatale who spent 19 years in captivity in England complaining and doing embroidery as per the legends.”

Although Mary pledged her support for the union, she warned Castelnau that the English had not been sincere in their negotiations, contending their aim was to weaken France and counter Spain by encouraging the Duke to launch attacks on Spain in the Low Countries.

Elsewhere, Mary expressed her distress when her son James, later King James I of England, was abducted in August 1582. She also revealed her animosity towards Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, and her dislike of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. 

Mr Guy explained: “The letters show she had surprisingly varied and largely accurate sources of intelligence about current political events. She’s clearly a shrewd judge of character.”

Mr Lasry, Mr Biermann and Mr Tomokiyo worked on decoding the cypher in their spare time. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by one or more symbols, preventing the most frequently used letters from being easily recognised.

There are also symbols that disclose instructions, for instance, one tells the reader to delete the previous symbol. Other symbols are used for the names of key people and frequently used words. 

According to Mr Lasry, the system is too complex to allow for a “brute force” approach which would see a computer try every possible solution. He explained: “All the computers in the world combined working for thousands of years would not have sufficed.” 

Instead, the team used both computer and manual techniques, putting into practice what is known as a hill-climbing algorithm. 

In layman’s terms, it starts by applying a random key. It then examines the results, makes small adjustments to the key, and if the decryption with the altered key gives improved results, it keeps that new key. If not, it discards it and tries again with other variations. 

It continues to “climb” in this way until some sense emerges, giving a basic structure to the letters and allowing the three researchers to fill in the details. 

The results were published in the journal Cryptologia.

Source: Read Full Article