Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Birth of Cipher in England

by Lizzy Drake
Finally, forasmuch as the ciphers which sir Thomas Spynell (whose soule God pardon!) had, have come to the hands of sundry persons since his decease, soe that damage might ensue, by the disclosing of seacrets, unles a new ciphr were provided; thereofre the kings highness, by the advice of his counsaile, hath not only conceyved and made such a cipher, but also sent the same, by his serveaunt, this bearer; who is purposely sent only for the sure deliverance of them to his said ambassadours; by which ciphers they may have knowledge in the contents of such articles as shall be written in ciphers to them at any time hereafter.
Henry VIII's Instructions to Sir Thomas Bolayn and Doctor Sampson (Galt, Appendix, p.lxxxv-xcvii)

The use of ciphered letters was well in use in other countries before it reached the court of Henry VII in Tudor times. Ferdinand of Spain, among others, was reputed to have been using cipher in correspondence for some time; a coded letter that only the recipient (in theory) could decipher via a cipher key (held within the cipher itself or sent separately). When Catherine of Aragon was sent to Henry VII's court as a bride-to-be to his firstborn son, Arthur, Catherine's father continued to send ciphered and coded letters to avoid spies getting wind of what he was planning. Catherine, clever and highly educated, would have been aware of the use of cipher, but didn't hone her own unique ciphering skills until she was deep within Henry's court. She was, as believed by some, to be Ferdinand's pawn in securing England's support of his war campaigns and suffered greatly while the two men played their political games.

England at this point was new to the cipher, but with Catherine's constant use of the code, it became more and more common for political players to adopt a code of their own. Spanish ciphers were reputed to use two ciphers for one text, a style that the first (this is arguable by some) ciphered letter to be used in England was written (in 1505 written by Henry VII in regards to approaching Maximilian of Rome about both a marriage and the fate of Edmund de la Pole. It was deemed to be of such sensitive nature that it was advised to be made in cipher, though historians have different theories on the nature of the letter and its encoding). This document has the key to the cipher embedded within the document itself. The cipher was supposedly hidden within one paragraph whilst a second cipher key was within a postscript to aid the location of the first cipher in the text.

The use of cipher is well known by many an amateur historian, but not so much the actual ciphers themselves. Not many of them survive today, but the 19th century historian Bergenroth, describes one cipher beautifully, remarking on how three lines contained twenty-one signs each, corresponding to the number of the letters of the alphabet while other lines contained between twenty-two to twenty-three letters. He had come to suspect that the lines look very much like the rest of the writing, and had concealed within them the key to the cipher. The man placed the alphabetical letters, starting with A (in the same order that we learn them today) over the signs, which he claimed to provide him with the key. If this is true, it was a cleverly hidden cipher and key in one document, that only few would be able to decode and only when they knew what they were looking at in the first place.

The Spanish ambassador De Puebla had once written to Ferdinand that he had deciphered, on his own, the letters that were to be delivered to Henry VII. Later, Catherine of Aragon had confessed to her father that De Puebla was not to be trusted as he was more of an ambassador to the king of England than that of the Spanish Ambassador (once again showing her strong alliance with Spain when she was in the English court). This is when she began to write many of her correspondences to Spain in her own cipher that she was confident could not be intercepted or transcribed by De Puebla and thus pass on to Henry VII who made her life at court difficult both before her marriage to Arthur and after his death. Yet while De Puebla even admitted that Catherine's was 'one of three ciphers' he was unable to decipher, Ferdinand still sent his ciphers to Catherine via De Puebla; ciphers that he knew De Puebla could translate (according to De Puebla) and share with the king of England. One can only assume that Ferdinand's attempts were to make Henry feel he was not being made a fool of.

In one of Catherine's first letters to her father Ferdinand in July 1509 (just a month after her marriage to Henry VIII), she gushes her deep affection for her new husband. However, in what is deemed by some as an 'important part of the letter' (Earliest English Diplomatic Ciphers) was written in a cipher. What is strange about this is that she did not use the usual Spanish cipher she was known for, but instead used a cipher made up of strange symbols. This part of the letter is left undeciphered by historians who have viewed it and Bergenroth leaves it out of his history (though it may have been because he himself could not decode it, something that he seemed to pride himself on).

Catherine's first use of the Cipher was probably in 1507 when her sister Juana was being thought of as a match for Henry VII. Ferdinand decided in the spring that his daughter Catherine should be the ambassador for this match and all letters and correspondences went through her. 'When she turned to the subject of the prospected marriage between Henry VII and Juana, Queen of Castile, she said she would like to be able to write in cipher. Although she had succeeded in deciphering his letters, she did not dare to make use of cipher in her writing, and much less to confide the ciphering of her letter to any other person. Thus, she wrote in plain Castilian.'(Earliest English Diplomatic Ciphers, citing Bergenroth p.412, Supplement p.99-104)

Catherine had indeed shown her cleverness as she was able to decipher many of the ciphers Ferdinand had sent without any aid or cipher key, but was at that time, still not confident on writing her own. Her first cipher she'd sent to Ferdinand was so confusing that she wrote it again in plain text so that it could be understood. Of course, as time went on, she became much more confident with her ciphers and the use of a cipher key.

Much later, in 1514 there is evidence that ciphers are very much still in use. Bergenroth references a ciphered letter from John Stile to Henry VIII, dated 21 March 1514. He comments on the cipher used therein: 'The cipher in which this despatch is written is of the rudest and simplest kind imaginable. Every letter has one and not more than one sign, and the words are even separated from each other. Any person, not entirely unaccustomed to reading and writing in cipher, could find out at the first glance such words as "that", "the", "and," &c., and by means of them form in a very short time the whole key of the cipher.'

Stile's grumbling letter is a godsend for researchers, he makes such a detailed complaint about the 'rudest and simplest kind' but in so describing it in his letter to Henry, he has given us a glimpse into the wonderful and complicated world of ciphered diplomatic letters of the time.


Bergenroth, G.A. (ed.) (1862), Calendar of State Papers, Spain; Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Supplement; British History Online

J.S. Brewer (ed.) (1920), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Vol. 1 (2nd ed.); Internet Archive, British History Online, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Diplomatic, Henry VIII, Volume I

Fox, Julia (2011), The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile; Ballantine Books, New York

Galt, John (1812), The Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey

Wood, Mary Anne Everett (ed.) (1846), Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain; Internet Archive: Vol. I

Pollard, A.F. (ed.) (1913), The Reign of Henry VII from Contemporary Sources; Internet Archive Vol. I, II, III

Tremlett, Giles (2010), Catherine of Aragon – Henry's Spanish Queen; Faber and Faber, London

Author unknown, Earliest English Diplomatic Ciphers; http://cryptiana.web.fc2.com/code/henryvii.htm

Archaeologia, Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity (1838); Society of Antiquaries of London


Lizzy Drake has been studying Medieval and Tudor England for over 15 years and has an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York, England. She has been writing for much longer but the Elspet Stafford Mysteries began her writing career in the genre. The first Elspet Stafford mystery, A Corpse in Cipher - A Tudor Murder Mystery, is available now.

When not writing or researching, Lizzy can be found reading or gardening. She balances time between her two homes in Essex, UK and California.

You can follow her on Twitter (Lizzy Drake @wyvernwings)



  1. Wonderful post, thanks :) I have always thought that living in the Tudor court was dangerous, but it must have been doubly so with the birth of espionage ...

  2. Utterly fascinating! Wow. What a lot of research you did for this. I think I would love your book (s). Thanks for sharing this post.

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  4. Thank you Annie and Beth! It was Catherine's clever ciphers that drew me to learn more about her (and then start the new mystery series!)

  5. Great post, really interesting. Just been investigating Stuart ciphers and spiery for my new novel. Love all this stuff!

  6. Thanks Deborah! I can't wait to read your new novel! I've fallen in love with anything cipher :-)


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