Just When You Think There’s Nothing New To Know…There Is!

One of my favorite topics for reading and viewing is English and Scottish royal history – fiction, nonfiction, biographies, and films.

I’m always on the lookout for new information, but when we’re talking about people who lived centuries ago, new information seldom surfaces.

So while I’m always on the lookout for new information, what I usually encounter is old information with an author’s new spin on it.

For example, Natalie Grueninger has a new biography by about Anne Boleyn (born early 1500s, died 1536), the second wife of Henry VIII.  The book is coming out in March, and the description says,

“Through close examination of these intriguing events considered in their social and historical context, readers will gain a fresh perspective into the life and death of the woman behind the tantalizing tale.”

“Fresh perspective”? 


But new information?

Doesn’t sound like it.

And a novel about Henry VIII (1491-1547) is due out in May.  The author is Alison Weir, who’s written many novels and biographies about English and Scottish royal history, but…

Will Weir have anything new to say?


Or will she just give us a new spin on old information?


So I keep hoping…

I keep hoping that somewhere out there is a treasure trove of royal history-related materials.  A treasure trove that for centuries has lain untouched somewhere – in the attic of an old English country house, in a box hidden behind a wall in a Scottish castle, in an archive on a bottom shelf in a museum…

And someone will discover it.

And now, someone has discovered a treasure trove!

“Lost Letters by Mary, Queen of Scots”! 

This is HUGE news!

Mary, Queen of Scots, lived from 1542 to 1587, and the letters referred to in the headline – 57 of them – were written by her between 1578 and 1584, and apparently were mislabeled:

“Deep in the archives of France’s national library, an assortment of coded letters listed as Italian texts lay untouched for more than 400 years. 

“Deep in the archives…untouched for more than 400 years…”


“One leading biographer of Mary described the discovery as the most significant in the study of her life for more than a century.”

THIS is what I’m talking about.

THIS will be new information.

The letters were written during Mary’s imprisonment by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I and, says this article:

“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 [Elizabeth’s spymaster] as well as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – a favorite of her cousin.  Mary also tried to bribe the queen’s officials.”

OK – I’ll admit the content of the letters doesn’t sound all that interesting to me.

I was hoping for love letters to and from Mary’s third husband, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell:

In the newly discovered letters it actually sounds like Mary did a lot of whining, but then – she had a lot to whine about.  Elizabeth I jailed Mary because Elizabeth believed Mary was a threat to Elizabeth’s rule, and: 

“After 19 years as a prisoner, Mary was eventually executed in 1587, at age 44, accused of involvement in a Catholic plot to assassinate the Protestant Elizabeth.”

Mary wrote her letters in cipher, and the whole story about the discovery of the letters, and the team that deciphered them, is fascinating reading.  As detailed in this Smithsonian article:

The trio of code breakers were George Lasry, a computer scientist and cryptographer based in Israel; Norbert Biermann, a German pianist; and Satoshi Tomokiyo, a Japanese physicist and patents expert. 

They started with the ciphered letters – here’s an excerpt from one of them:

The Smithsonian article says,

“First, the men transcribed the documents, rendering the 150,000 symbols readable by a computer.  Then they employed a hill-climbing algorithm, in which a computer tries out different cipher keys, making small changes to high-scoring keys before attempting to decipher the text again.

“Put simply, codes involve simple substitutions, with specific symbols standing in for letters, numbers or words.  Ciphers are more complex, using algorithms to transform messages into seemingly random strings of symbols.  Mary’s letters fall under this second category.”


The New York Times headline referred to these guys as “amateurs,” but they sure don’t sound like amateurs to me.

Eventually the team accomplished this, with the ciphers translated into French:

There was a lot more to the process, including discovering who wrote the letters, since Mary didn’t identify herself. 

So, three guys from three different backgrounds broke Queen Mary’s code, including identifying her as the writer.  In addition to their computer work, much of that labor required an old, reliable process:  trial and error.

“‘Breaking the code was not a eureka moment – it took quite a while, each time peeling another layer of the onion,’” Lasry [pictured below] said.

“‘This is like solving a very large crossword puzzle,’ he continued.  ‘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.’”

Lasry hopes to “work with historians to produce an edited book of Queen Mary’s letters deciphered, annotated, and translated,” so – a new book, and this time with new information.

This discovery does encourage me to keep hoping that somewhere out there are other treasure troves of royal history-related materials. 

Somewhere…I hope people are looking in the attic of that old English country house… and for the box hidden behind a wall in that Scottish castle…and in an archive on that bottom shelf in a museum…

Or in this case, in their back yards:

“An important hoard of Tudor coins – some of which shine light on the marriage history of Henry VIII – has been found by a somewhat startled family weeding their garden.

“…the unnamed New Forest family dug up 63 gold coins and one silver coin dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.  ‘They were out turning up the soil and all of a sudden these coins popped out of the ground…miraculously,’ said Ian Richardson, treasure registrar at the British Museum.  ‘It is quite a shocking find for them and very interesting for us.’

“Probably hidden in about 1540, they include coins from Henry VIII’s reign, which are unusual in that they also, separately, feature the initials of three of his wives – Catherine of Aragon (K), Anne Boleyn (A) and Jane Seymour (I).”

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