Code: Mary Queen of Scots

Code: Mary Queen of Scots letters

Mary, Queen of Scots, was a contender for the English throne held at that time (In the 16th century) by Queen Elizabeth I, and involved in many plots to assassinate her. In retaliation, Elizabeth had her imprisoned. This lasted for nearly two decades before eventually Mary was executed in 1587 for plotting treason. The various plots involved letters between the different conspirators, some of which have already been available in different archives. Subsequent scholarly battles have been fought over whether these are true letters or forgeries made to incriminate Mary falsely. This week a news story has broken, that a group of researchers has discovered over 50 letters in code, sent from Mary to the French ambassador and now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, and they have managed to decipher these. Many are new, others are the originals of some that have been available in English translation in other archives, probably intercepted and translations made by Elizabeth’s officials as part of the case against Mary, and then sent on their way to the ambassador.

Potentially very interesting in their own right in adding more to the stock of substantive knowledge about these historical events, this aspect of these newly discovered letters has not yet been reported on and it has been the code aspect and cryptography that has been highlighted. However the coding and what this does to then-current conventional ways of writing letters between Queens and ambassadors, can in a literal sense be SEEN to be analytically important, because the original code versions do not look anything like a queenly letter of that time, of which many examples exist. It will be interesting to see how this corpus of letters from the 1570s and 80s will be translated from the code French into ordinary language text. Is their letterness aspect one of being emergent, discernible only through translation, either into French or into English? And in which case, how to understand what kind of genre the code versions are? Beneath the surface letters, but on the surface something that looks very different and has to be read very differently.

For the article in question, see

For a news report of the letters, see 

Last updated: 10 February 2023