3 people set out to decode old letters
Lasry, Biermann, and Tomokiyo: Three codebreakers in the Bibliothque Nationale de France (1578-1584)
The letters were written between 1578 and 1584 to the French ambassador to England, and covered a lot of personal and political topics. They think that a secured line of communication between the two opened earlier than they’ve been aware of.
The letters in the archives of the Bibliothque Nationale de France were described as related to Italian affairs dating back to the 1520s, but the codebreakers did not know what they would find.
George Lasry of Israel, Norbert Biermann of Germany, and Satoshi Tomokiyo of Japan are all members of an international community of codebreakers. 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.
“This is like solving a very large crossword puzzle,” Lasry said. “Most of the effort was spent on transcribing the ciphered letters (150,000 symbols in total), and interpreting them — 50,000 words, enough to fill a book.”
The correspondence was written in French and there was no Italian in it.
The team realized relatively quickly that the letters had nothing to do with Italy and were in fact written in French. The name “Walsingham”, mentions of captivity and a son, and other clues led them to their author’s identity.
The Queen Elizabeth I-Daughter Mystery: 50 Years of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, in 1568, when Elizabeth I was imprisoned
A brief history lesson: Mary was first in line to succeed Queen Elizabeth I of England (a Protestant) and considered by Catholics to be the legitimate sovereign. But when Mary fled to England in 1568 after a tumultuous series of events (including the murder of her husband and her forced abdication in favor of her 1-year-old son) her cousin Elizabeth I took her presence as a threat and imprisoned her.
In the letters, Mary complained about the conditions of her captivity and her poor health. She lamented that her negotiations with Elizabeth I to be released weren’t carried out in good faith. Mary detailed her dislike of Walsingham as well as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester — a favorite of her cousin. Mary tried to bribe the officials.
The letters also showcase the distress Mary felt when in August 1582 her son, James — the man who would eventually become King James I of England two decades later — was abducted.
Guy said that these discoveries will be a literary and historical sensation. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, had the most important new find for 100 years.
Mary Queen of Scots is a notorious figure from the 16th century. A significant history would be created from every piece of information found about her. [Fifty] letters at once is a huge thing.”
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The researchers were only able to read 30% of the text. Then, they manually analyzed the symbols and tested their meanings through trial and error using contextual analysis.
The ciphers were homophonic, meaning each letter of the alphabet could be encoded using several cipher symbols, according to the researchers. This practice meant that certain symbols were not used a lot. The text also included dedicated symbols to signify common places, words and names.
Mary was sentenced to beheaded at age 44 after being convicted of being involved in a plot to have Elizabeth I murdered, even though she had been in captivity for 19 years.
In an email toNPR, Lasry stated that the French National Library 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.
He wrote thatHistorical decipherment is like archeology. “You never know what you may find, you need to keep digging, and if you do, with a little bit of luck, you will find (historical) treasure.”
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. Their free time was spent on the project.
“After the code was cracked, we needed to decipher all the letters one by one, and edit the transcriptions, another time-consuming process, with 50,000 decryption words in total,” he says.
The researchers had found a copy of the text of several letters in Walsingham’s papers in the British Library, which they said proved that the letters were written by Mary.
They kept searching for similar letters and ultimately found more than 55 with the same cipher. Roughly 50 of those had never been published or known to historians, they say.
Historians knew that the exiled queen and French ambassador were talking but they didn’t know what was happening before they were compromised in 1583.
Experts say that codebreakers can be used to dive deeper into certain events and people, even though they have focused on Mary’s communications channels. The writing style and subjects of the enciphered letters could be compared to the regular ones Mary sent through official channels.
The article states that she suggests getting various people with financial rewards so that they would switch sides, or softened their attitude toward her. “She also asks for Castelnau’s assistance in recruiting new spies and couriers, while sometimes she warns him – rightly – that some people working for her might be Walsingham’s agents.”
The article also details the pains Mary and her associates took to keep up their secret correspondence, from writing in cipher and using aliases to delivering letters through indirect channels and trusted messengers in attempts to avoid interception. They weren’t always successful.
“At the age of 9, she was taught how to write in cipher,” he wrote. She used to use a lot of ciphers, especially while she was captive.
Mary famously used an intricate folding technique known as a spiral lock to safeguard the letter she wrote on the eve of her execution — a method so elaborate that researchers weren’t able to crack it until 2021.
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They said they could inspect the physical documents and fill in the gaps caused by low quality scans, even if they only had access to online archives. They need to know more about how all of these documents ended up in unrelated collections.
The study authors want scholars to get in touch and to work together on an annotated edition of the new letters.
“There is so much material, that will keep them busy for quite a while,” he writes. “And we will continue to break new ciphers, which is our passion — there will always be ciphers to break.”