Mary, Queen of Scots, used a complicated ‘letter locking’ process to cover up the secrets of the last letter she wrote before she was beheaded, researchers have found.
Written in French on February 8, 1587 to Henry III, King of France from his prison cell, the letter saw Marie write that she had “been warned of my conviction: I must be executed like a criminal at eight o’clock in the morning.
“I asked for my papers, which they took away from me, so that I could make my will, but I could not recover anything useful for me, nor even obtain the authorization either to do my will freely, either to have my body transported after my death, as I would like, to your kingdom where I had the honor of being queen, your sister and former ally, “wrote Mary, in a translation provided by the National Library of Scotland, where the letter is located.
Now, an international team of researchers have found that Mary used a delicate folding process to seal the letter, ensuring that any tampering would be immediately obvious to its recipient. The researchers, from universities such as King’s College London, MIT and Glasgow, are part of the Unlocking History group and have explored the historic process of “letterlocking”, in which letters were folded into their own envelopes, before that envelopes are not invented.
Earlier this year, they were able to read an unopened letter written in 1697 without breaking its seal, using x-rays to see inside the document slice by slice, and create a 3D image. Today, as part of a research that allowed them to examine 250,000 letters, they discovered the technique of the “spiral lock”, which was used by Elizabeth I as well as by her cousin Mary executed, as well. than by politicians, ambassadors and a correspondent of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spy master.
“One of the most spectacular examples of a spiral lock … is Mary’s last letter,” they write in an article published in the Electronic British Library Journal on Friday. “The content of the letter is powerful and moving: written the day before its execution, it acts not only as a letter – a document intended to be sent and read by someone from a distance – but also as a will and an offer to martyrdom. It is sometimes said that the writing of the letter was the last act of Mary; in fact, after writing it, the letter had to be folded and closed. After writing her last message, Mary used the letter lock to prepare it for delivery.
Academics including Jana Dambrogio of MIT Libraries and Daniel Starza Smith of KCL write how difficult it is to explore the process of letter locking, because packets of letters are “designed to be broken” by their recipients. The spiral lock requires over 30 steps, a mixture of bending and slitting and sometimes adhesive, to prevent unwanted reads. It is, they say, “a very complex technique that took time, patience and great skill: one wrong move and your locking mechanism might break and you will have to start the letter over again.”
“The mechanics of this lock force the person opening the letter to tear off the lock to access the content,” the academics write. “Because the lock breaks in several places, it is impossible to piece it together in a way that would allow it to go through the slots again; if anyone thought their correspondence had been tampered with, it would be relatively easy to detect.
The article identifies creases and slits that show Mary’s last letter was locked, adding that “because it is handwritten by Mary from her prison cell, we have reasonable grounds to believe that” she locked it herself ”.
Dambrogio said: “Mary’s last letter is a document of enormous national importance in Scotland and its contents are well known. But working with him in person and discovering his unique Spiral Lock was thrilling as a researcher – and a real a-ha! moment in the study of locksmithing “,
“The letter is a powerful and moving document written on the eve of Mary’s execution, not only a letter but also a last will and a kind of testament. But our big finding is that after she wrote the letter, she used one of the most elaborate and secure letter locking methods to seal it. Not only that, she uses a variation of the technique – a single large slit rather than a series of small ones – which may be a testament to the limited tools she had available in her final hours.
A letter from Catherine de Medici from 1570 and one written by Elizabeth I in 1573 to Henry III, in which she expresses her surprise at Henry’s suggestion of her possible marriage to King Francis’ younger brother, are also identified by the item as having been sealed with a spiral lock. The research is part of the British Library’s exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens.
“Letterlock is one of the most important communication techniques the world has known, but its history has only just begun,” Smith said. “For about 600 years virtually all letters were sent using the letter lock, before the modern gummed envelope was invented in the 19th century – it was as important to letter writing communication as computer coding was. is for emails today. The study of lettering provides us with rich information on the concern that historical figures had for the security of communications, and it also testifies to the inventiveness and even the aesthetic creativity with which they responded to these concerns. The incredibly intricate spiral lock brings all of these aspects together.