3 amateur code breakers set out to decode old letters. They uncovered the royal history (2023)

We can now learn more about one of the most controversial monarchs in European history, thanks to a trio of amateur cryptologists who unknowingly stumbled upon a treasure trove of long-lost letters from Mary, Queen of Scots and worked meticulously to crack their code.

George Lasry from Israel, Norbert Biermann from Germany and Satoshi Tomokiyo from Japan are part of an international community of codebreakers and scholars working on historical ciphers (aka secret codes). Though they all have other jobs: Lasry is a computer scientist, Biermann is a pianist and music coach, and Tomokiyo is an astrophysicist working for a patent company.

They banded together on this particular project, which began as part of a larger effort to decipher archival documents and eventually unearthed more than 55 letters written by Mary Stuart during her years in English captivity. The codebreakers have published an article detailing their methods and resultsin the diaryCryptology on Wednesday, the 436th anniversary of the Queen of Scotland's execution in 1587.

“Because of the sheer volume of material deciphered, some 50,000 words in all and enough to fill a book, we have provided only preliminary summaries of the letters, as well as full renditions of a few, hoping to provide enough incentive for historians with the appropriate one expertise to undertake an in-depth analysis of its content in order to uncover insights that would enrich our perspective on Mary's captivity in the years 1578-1584," they wrote.

3 amateur code breakers set out to decode old letters. They uncovered the royal history (1)

/Georg Lasry


Georg Lasry

A quick history lesson: Mary was first in line to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I of England (a Protestant) and was considered a legitimate sovereign by Catholics. But when Mary fled from Scotland to England in 1568 after aturbulent series of events(including the murder of her husband and her forced abdication in favor of their one-year-old son), her cousin Elizabeth I took her presence as a threat and imprisoned her.

Mary spent 19 years in captivity - during which time she corresponded in encrypted form with her associates and supporters - before being convicted of treason and beheaded at the age of 44 for her alleged role in a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth I.

Covering a wide range of personal and political subjects, the newly deciphered letters were written between 1578 and 1584 and were mostly addressed to Michel de Castelnau Mauvissière, the French Ambassador to England. They suggest that a secure line of communication between the two was opened earlier than historians previously knew.

John Guy, a British historian and author – whose2004 biography of Mariawon the prestigious Whitbread Award and formed the basis for thePopular movie 2018– said the discoveries were “the most important new find about Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, in 100 years”.

"The letters definitely show that during the years of her captivity in England Mary ... kept a close eye on herself and took an active part 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 in Elizabeth I's court," he said in a statement provided to NPR, adding that they prove Mary was a "shrewd and perceptive international affairs analyst."

(Video) 3-year-old blows away audience with poem for Black History Month!

"They will employ historians of Britain and Europe, as well as students of the French language and early modern encryption techniques, for many years."

How they did it

3 amateur code breakers set out to decode old letters. They uncovered the royal history (2)

/Georg Lasry


Georg Lasry

The codebreakers found the letters in the online archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, but had no idea what they would become — partly because the collections were described as connected to Italian affairs and dated back to the 1520s.

This particular collection at France's national library is the "last place one would expect" to find Mary's letters, Lasry told NPR via email. He says his team doesn't know how they ended up there, but is glad they did.

"Historical decoding is like archaeology," he wrote. "You never know what you'll find, you have to keep digging, and if you do, with a bit of luck you'll find (historical) treasures."

The three decided to work together to decipher the letters - an effort sponsored by theDECRYPT-Projektat European universities - because of the complexity of the code and the amount of material: around 200 different graphic symbols and 150,000 in total, explains Lasry.

3 amateur code breakers set out to decode old letters. They uncovered the royal history (3)

/Georg Lasry


(Video) The Story of Super Mario World | Gaming Historian

Georg Lasry

They used a mix of methods includingComputer aided code crackingand linguistic and contextual analysis. Actually deciphering the code took a month or two, but according to Lasry, the biggest challenge was transcribing the massive amount of material in a way that computer algorithms could process it. In all, the project took up a year of her free time.

"Once the code was cracked, we had to decipher each letter individually and edit the transcriptions, which was also a time-consuming process with a total of 50,000 decoded words," he adds.

The team realized relatively quickly that the letters had nothing to do with Italy and were written in French. Other clues alerted her to the identity of her author: feminine participles and adjectives, mentions of captivity and a son, and the name "Walsingham" (Elizabeth's secretary and spymaster).

3 amateur code breakers set out to decode old letters. They uncovered the royal history (4)

/Georg Lasry


Georg Lasry

After deciphering more letters and finding a copy of the text of several letters in Walsingham's papers in the British Library, the researchers said they could definitively prove the letters were written by Mary to Castelnau.

They continued to search for similar letters, eventually finding more than 55 with the same cipher. About 50 of these have never been published or known to historians, they say.

"Mary Queen of Scots is a tragic, very famous figure from the 16th century," says Lasry. "Any information found about her would generate a considerable story. [Fifty] letters at a time is a huge thing.”

what they found

3 amateur code breakers set out to decode old letters. They uncovered the royal history (5)

Hulton-Archiv / Getty Images


Getty Images

(Video) Club Book with Kate Quinn

Historians already knew that the exiled queen and the French ambassador were in contact, but their channels of communication were so secure that they didn't know exactly what that meant until they were compromised in mid-1583.

"With our new decryptions, we provide evidence that such a secret channel existed as early as May 1578," the codebreakers wrote. "Although some details were already known, our new decryptions offer further insights into how this channel works and the people involved."

The article briefly summarizes the content of the dozens of letters and reproduces some of them in full.

Some of the recurring themes are: Mary's efforts to keep her communications secure, her thoughts on the Queen, her allies and alleged conspiracies against her, negotiations about her possible release and return to the Scottish throne, complaints about her conditions in captivity and her efforts to do so to ensure their servants and allies were financially rewarded.

3 amateur code breakers set out to decode old letters. They uncovered the royal history (6)

/Georg Lasry


Georg Lasry

"From time to time, she suggests luring various people with financial rewards to switch sides or soften their attitude toward her," the article reads. "She also asks for Castelnau's help in recruiting new spies and couriers, while sometimes - rightly - warning him that some people working for her could be Walsingham's agents."

The article also details the efforts that Mary and her associates made to maintain their secret correspondence, from writing in cipher and using aliases to delivering letters through indirect channels and trusted messengers to avoid interception. They haven't always been successful.

Encrypting letters was common for monarchs, nobles, and diplomats at the time, including Mary, according to Lasry.

(Video) History of The Witcher (1986 - 2021) | Documentary

"At the age of 9 she was taught how to write in ciphers," he wrote. "She made extensive use of ciphers throughout her life, especially while in captivity."

Mary famously used an intricate folding technique known as spiral closure to protect the letter she wrote on the eve of her execution - a method so laborious that researchers could notcrack until 2021.

3 amateur code breakers set out to decode old letters. They uncovered the royal history (7)

/Georg Lasry


Georg Lasry

What happens next

The codebreakers say deciphering the letters is only the first step in learning more about Mary's life, imprisonment and connections. For one, they say there is "evidence that some scrambled letters known to have existed are still missing".

They've only had access to online archives, and say inspecting the physical documents could yield even more information -- like filling in gaps caused by low-quality scans and allowing things like paper and handwriting to be examined . Also, they would like to know more about how all these documents ended up in such independent collections.

And there's still a lot to learn from the newly discovered letters themselves.

The codebreakers have primarily focused on what they could learn through Mary's communication channels, but say experts could use them to dig deeper into specific events and people. They were also able to compare the writing style and subjects of the encrypted letters with the regular letters Mary sent through official channels.

The study's authors hope scientists will contact them to gain access to the materials and ideally work together on an "annotated edition" of any new letters.

According to Lasry, the next step in the process will be to help historians work with the existing documents -- and also to search for new ones.

"There is so much material that it will keep you busy for a while," he writes. "And we will continue to break new ciphers, which is our passion -- there will always be ciphers to break."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(Video) Nostradamus Effect: The Third Antichrist (S1, E1) | Full Episode


1. The Royal Scandals Of King Charles III | A Man Alone | Absolute History
(Absolute History)
2. Declaring American Independence | The Revolution (E3) | Full Episode
3. The WWII Code Breakers That Saved America | Secrets of War | Timeline
(Timeline - World History Documentaries)
4. The Secret Code Hidden In Shakespeare's Plays | Cracking The Shakespeare Code (1/3) | Timeline
(Timeline - World History Documentaries)
5. If you ever find this Treasure Island, Do NOT tell anyone!! (They will come after you!)
(Poker Bounty)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Greg O'Connell

Last Updated: 02/18/2023

Views: 6117

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (42 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Greg O'Connell

Birthday: 1992-01-10

Address: Suite 517 2436 Jefferey Pass, Shanitaside, UT 27519

Phone: +2614651609714

Job: Education Developer

Hobby: Cooking, Gambling, Pottery, Shooting, Baseball, Singing, Snowboarding

Introduction: My name is Greg O'Connell, I am a delightful, colorful, talented, kind, lively, modern, tender person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.