Secret writing: letters from Mary Stuart decrypted

The life of Maria Stuart, Queen of Scotland, was ill-fated. It was shaped by the ongoing competition with her great-aunt Queen Elizabeth I.. The staunch Catholic Maria I also had a legitimate claim to the English throne through her descent. She also wanted her Catholic followers to go there.

In 1569 Elizabeth placed her rival under house arrest. The Scottish monarch therefore spent her last 18 years – almost half of her life (1542–1587) – in captivity in various castles, mostly under the supervision of George Talbotthe Earl of Shrewsbury before being executed for treason in February 1587.

During her captivity, Maria had continued to scheme and conspire. Elizabeth didn’t want to tolerate that anymore. Friedrich Schiller has his drama in the last three days of his life alone „Maria Stuart“ dedicated and thus contributed a lot to the public image of the romantic queen, loved by the people.

politics in letters

The other side learned from intercepted letters that Maria was eagerly sending that Maria was planning to murder Elizabeth and crown herself Queen of England. She not only had large parts of the correspondence secretly smuggled out, but also wrote it in secret to make it unreadable for uninitiated third parties. Such methods were quite popular with nobles. For this purpose, letters, syllables or words were usually replaced by individual graphic symbols.

A chance find by three researchers now shows how extensive the illegal letters were, which were ultimately fatal to the Scottish queen: George Lasrycomputer scientist and cryptographer, Norbert Biermannpianist and music professor, and the physicist Satoshi Tomokiyo have the National Library of France searched for documents written in secret. Only after the decryption, which the team now publishes in the specialist magazine Cryptologica reportsit gradually became clear that these must be 57 letters from Mary Stuart.

Correspondence with France’s Ambassador

50 of them were unknown to historical research until today. Most were aimed at Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador to England, who was a follower of Mary. The confidential communication channel between the two was already known. However, the new letters show that it existed as early as May 1578 and at least until mid-1584. “I was very, very taken aback and it felt kind of surreal,” Lasry said in a broadcast. He is part of the European „DECRYPT“-Projektswhich collects and translates encrypted historical documents.

The documents were incorrectly sorted. When the researchers stumbled across words like “captivity” and the name Walsingham during the decryption, for which computer-based methods were also used, they pricked up their ears. Sir Francis Walsingham was a confidante of Elizabeth and head of a spy network. A comparison with letters that have already been archived confirmed that the ones that have now been discovered can actually only come from Maria Stuart.

politics in isolation

In their study, the researchers provide initial summaries of the content of the letters, but they want to leave more detailed analyzes to historians. In her correspondence, Maria addresses on the one hand harmless topics such as health problems and complaints about her imprisonment and her negotiations with Elizabeth about a possible release.

On the other hand, the letters illustrate how Maria, out of isolation, tried to continue doing politics. Among other things, her distrust of Walsingham becomes clear. She describes him as an insidious person who uses dishonest methods to obtain friendships. Also her hostility towards other confidants, for example Robert Dudley1st Earl of Leicester, becomes the subject.

conspiracies and jealousy

Maria keeps asking de Castelnau to brief Elizabeth on planned conspiracies. She also asks the ambassador for help in recruiting spies and messengers, but at the same time makes it clear that some of the people who work for her could also be Walsingham’s agents.

Apparently, Maria was also very busy with the planned marriage between the French Francois-Hercule de Valois, Duke of Alencon and Elizabeth. She repeatedly warns her French pen pal that the English side is not being honest in the negotiations. Maria writes that she only wants to weaken France and Spain. The marriage ultimately did not materialize.

Many letters are also devoted to the negotiations for Mary’s release and the plans to reinstate her as Queen of Scotland if she renounces the English throne. At the beginning she describes the meetings with the representatives hopefully, but then comes to the conclusion that this will lead to nothing and that it is probably just an attempt by the other side to buy time.

According to the authors of the study, the known correspondence with de Castelnau has grown significantly as a result of the letters that have now been deciphered. It cannot be ruled out that further documents from Mary Stuart’s imprisonment will turn up in other archives.

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