Simanaitis Says

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TUDOR TIMES WERE RICH in skullduggery: Henry VIII’s serial nuptuals, his daughter Elizabeth I’s spymaster Francis Walsingham, and her tough-love/hate relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots. 

Being a lapsed Catholic, I’m on MQS’s side contrasted with Elizabeth’s barely one-generational neo-Protestantism. And being something of a lapsed mathematician, I’m on MQS’s side as well because of her cryptographic leanings.

Rachel Treisman gives details of the latter in “3 Amateur Codebreakers Set Out to Decrypt Old Letters. They Uncovered Royal History, NPR, February 10, 2023.

Here are tidbits gleaned from Treisman’s article. 

Part Time Gigs. Treisman says, “George Lasry of Israel, Norbert Biermann of Germany and Satoshi Tomokiyo of Japan are part of an international community of codebreakers and scholars working on historical ciphers (aka secret codes). Though they all have other day jobs: Lasry is a computer scientist, Biermann is a pianist and musical coach and Tomokiyo is an astrophysicist who works for a patent firm.”

She continues, “They joined forces on this particular project, which began as part of a larger effort to decipher archival documents and ended up uncovering more than 55 letters that Mary Stuart wrote during her years in captivity in England. The codebreakers published an article detailing their methods and results in the journal Cryptologia on Wednesday, the 436th anniversary of the Scottish queen’s execution in 1587.”

A Letter Search.The codebreakers found the letters in the online archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, but had no idea what they would turn out to be—in part because the collections were described as related to Italian affairs and dating back to the 1520s.”

Lasry told NPR, the particular collection was the ‘last place you would expect’ to find Mary’s letters. He says his team doesn’t know how they ended up there, but is glad they did.

Methodology. Treisman recounts, “They employed a mix of methods including computerized codebreaking and linguistic as well as contextual analysis. The actual code breaking took one to two months, but Lasry says the main challenge was transcribing the vast amount of material so that it could be processed by computer algorithms. All told, the project took a year of their free time.”

French, Not Italian. Treisman continues, “The team realized relatively quickly that the letters had nothing to do with Italy and were in fact written in French. Other clues alerted them to their author’s identity: participles and adjectives in the feminine form, mentions of captivity and a son, and the name ‘Walsingham’ (Elizabeth’s secretary and spymaster).”

This and a following image from NPR, February 10, 2023.

A Youthful Royal Cryptographer. Treisman quotes codebreaker Lasry: “Enciphering letters was common for monarchs, nobles and diplomats at the time, Mary included. At the age of 9, she was taught how to write in cipher. Throughout her life, she made extensive use of ciphers, especially while she was captive.”

Mary, Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart, 1542–1587. Portrait c. 1559 by François Clouet. Image from Wikipedia.

Mary, a Shrewd Analyst. “The newly deciphered letters,” Treisman says, “which cover a wide range of personal and political topics, were written between 1578 and 1584 and mostly addressed to Michel de Castelnau Mauvissière, the French ambassador to England. They suggest that a secure line of communication between the two opened earlier than historians had previously known.”

Treisman quotes John Guy, British historian, that Mary “closely observed and actively involved herself in political affairs in Scotland, England and France, and was in regular contact, either directly, or indirectly through de Castelnau, with many of the leading political figures at Elizabeth I’s court. They prove Mary was a shrewd and attentive analyst of international affairs.” 

Studies to Come. The letters, Guy says, “will occupy historians of Britain and Europe and students of the French language and early modern ciphering techniques for many years to come.”

Treisman writes, “The codebreakers say deciphering the letters is just the first step in learning more about Mary’s life, captivity and connections. For one, they say there is ‘evidence that some enciphered letters known to have existed are still missing.’ And there’s still much to learn from the newly discovered letters themselves.”

Any dishy stuff about QE1? ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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