The Lost Letters of Mary, Queen of Scots

Photo Credit: David

By Irelan Fletcher
Staff Writer

Few historical figures have a story quite like Mary Queen of Scots. Mary was under a week old when she became the Queen of Scotland in 1542, and held that title until 1568 when she was forced to abdicate her throne in favor of her son, who was an infant at the time. However, upon her abdication, Mary was detained by her cousin Elizabeth Tudor, the Queen of England at that time. Mary spent the last 19 years of her life detained, until her execution in 1587. The time that Mary spent as a prisoner has fascinated historians for centuries, and on February 8th, the 436th anniversary of Mary’s death, possibly the most important breakthrough on the history of Mary Queen of Scots in a century was released to the public. An international team of cryptographers recently deciphered letters from the 16th century, shocking historians around the world.

For 400 years in the National Library of France, 57 letters were lost in a series of files marked as being related to Italy. It wasn’t until German pianist Norbert Biermann, Israeli computer scientist George Lasry, and Japanese physicist Satoshi Tomokiyoa got together in an effort to push the decryption of historical files sponsored by the DECRYPT Project at European universities. The project was a combined effort of the cryptographers to decipher what they thought was coded Italian text. When looking at the letters, they found that the code was a replacement system (ex: symbols stand for letters of common words/names), but their breakthrough on the cipher didn’t come until they realized that the letters were French and not Italian. This revelation led them to the names being referenced like Sir Francis Walsingham – Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster – allowing for the connection to Mary Queen of Scots to be made. 

The project was in an article detailing their methods and results in the journal Cryptologia; the cryptographers were ready to share their findings with the rest of the world. Mary Queen of Scots was taught how to cipher letters at a 9 years old, and these letters serve as proof that she continued to use ciphers until her death. In the article they reference how they used an algorithm to decipher the code that Mary used in her letters. The algorithm allowed for 30% of the code to be solved by hand, which left the remaining 70% of the code to be solved by Lasry, Biermann, and Tomokiyoa. Only a preliminary summary of the letters has been released, as they amount to a total of around 50,000 words. In a statement made to multiple news platforms, George Lasry, the Israeli computer scientist who led the yearlong project, claimed, “we found treasure lying in plain sight.”

The importance of these letters can be found in their ability to recontextualize history, as the letters proved to be a series of communication between Mary and Michel de Castelnau. Castelnau served as France’s ambassador to England, and is known to have supported Mary’s claim to the throne as Mary’s grandmother was Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VII. They serve as proof that Mary and the ambassador were in communication earlier than historians previously thought. The leading historian on Mary Queen of Scots, Dr. John Guy of Clare College Cambridge, illustrates the importance of historical discoveries like the letters with the statement, “it’s a stunning piece of research, and these discoveries will be a literary and historical sensation.” 

What were thought to be lost letters during Mary’s time of imprisonment, now decoded, can provide current and future historians with new and more in depth knowledge on Mary Queen of Scots. The content of these letters showcases the depth of Mary’s knowledge of international affairs and how she remained an important political figure throughout her captivity. There is now a call to action as historians with knowledge on both Mary Queen of Scots and the political sphere of the 16th century can work together to move forward in the second phase of this project as the search for more lost letters in need of decoding continues. 

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