How European Royals Once Shared Their Most Important Secrets

Writers used complicated means of security to protect the most important royal correspondence in the 16th century. They sewed stitches that locked the letter and turned the flat writing paper into its own envelope after folding it. A spy would have to open the lock to get inside.

The method was used by Catherine de' Medici in 1570, when she ruled France while her ill son sat on its throne. Queen Elizabeth was the ruler of England and Ireland in 15 73. It was used by Mary Queen of Scots just hours before she was beheaded.

The Renaissance-era politicians used the technique more than one time, according to the lead author of the study. You had to be very confident to make a spiral lock. If you made a mistake, you would have to start all over again. It is fascinating. They took a lot of effort to build their security.

A group of scholars, centered at M.I.T., are resurrecting an early form of communications security called letterlocking, which was used by European royalty. They reported their development of a virtual-reality technique that allowed them to peer into locked letters without tearing them apart.

In an article that was published last month in the Electronic British Library Journal, scholars lay out their expanding universe of discoveries and questions. They show instances of spiral letterlocking among the queens and suggest that the method spread across European courts through royal correspondence.

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A letter from a French author to city officials.

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Catherine de Medici wrote a letter to Raimond de Beccarie.

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The British Library has a model of a locked letter packet.

Although the use of locked letters faded in the 1830s with the emergence of mass-produced envelopes and improved systems of mail delivery, it is now seen as a fascinating precursor to the widespread encryption used globally in electronic communications.

In their recent paper, the authors use case studies of locked letters as well as graphic illustrations and detailed descriptions of the process to reveal what they have learned in two decades of study. The main goal of the paper is to help other scholars identify when the technique was used in historic letters that have already been opened, flattened and frequently repaired in ways that leave few traces of their original state.

The examples of letterlocking that are hidden in plain sight can be found in libraries and archives. They say that knowledge of the technique can be used to recover personal communication that has been lost to history.

The authors hope that their finds prompt new kinds of archival research, and allow even very well-known artefacts to be examined anew.

The students at M.I.T. and scholars from King's College London are among the authors of the new paper. Some of the unlocked letters are highlighted in an ongoing exhibition at the British Library.

Catherine de' Medici, queen consort, queen mother and regent of France, wrote a letter in 1570, which is the main case study of the new article. M.I.T. bought it after the scholars found it for sale online. Catherine wrote a letter to Raimond. A video shows a re-enactment of how Catherine or one of her assistants locked the letter.

The authors of the paper went through the procedure in great detail because the surviving letter retained most of the locking mechanism. The paper seal over the lock shows clear impressions of Catherine's coat of arms.

The scholars looked at a letter Queen Elizabeth wrote to the man who would become King Henry III. The spiral lock was used at the highest level of European diplomatic negotiations.

Mary Queen of Scots wrote a locked letter just before she was beheaded. Mary used spiral locks on her letters to give them a kind of cachet, according to a scholar at the University of Glasgow. Mary was able to build bonds of affinity and kinship and assurances of authenticity because of the lock, her own handwriting and her signature.

The technique was used by both men and women in the new article.

Ms. Dambrogio said that they were still in the fact gathering stage. She said it would take years of further study to develop a comprehensive social picture of the method.