Ciphers used by Mary Queen of Scots

Page of ciphers used by Mary Queen of Scots, c.1586 (SP 53/22 f.1)

After the discovery of the Babington Plot in 1586, Mary’s apartments were searched and all of her papers seized. They included more than 100 ciphers used in her correspondence. Tudor espionage was quite sophisticated and several different codes were used in secret correspondence. One of the most common was to shuffle letters of the alphabet in a certain sequence so that once the key had been worked out the message could be read quickly and easily. Alternatively, individual letters were sometimes substituted with numbers, characters, symbols or signs of the zodiac. Elizabeth’s great spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, employed intelligence workers to break these codes. Two of the best known are Thomas Phelippes and John Sommers.

In the cipher shown here, symbols are substituted for letters in particular words, and the names are frequently mentioned. Some of these names make interesting reading. They include the pope, various European rulers, Bess of Hardwick (for many years the wife of Mary’s custodian and a close companion), and the earl of Hertford and his two sons (Mary’s rivals for the English succession).

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