Mary, Queen of Scots, sealed her final missive with an intricate spiral letterlock

Mary, Queen of Scots, sealed her final missive with an intricate spiral letterlock


Four vector drawings show the five-slit spiral lock mechanism used by Mary, Queen of Scots; the front and back of a locked letter packet using this method; and an unfolded lock. Sections are numbered 1-20 to show the different areas created by folding.
Enlarge / Four vector drawings present the five-slit spiral lock mechanism utilized by Mary, Queen of Scots; the back and front of a locked letter packet utilizing this methodology; and an unfolded lock. Sections are numbered 1-20 to point out the totally different areas created by folding.

Unlocking History Research Group

On the eve of her execution for treason in February 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots, penned a letter to King Henri III of France and secured it with a paper lock that featured an intricate spiral mechanism. So-called “letterlocking” was a standard follow to guard non-public letters from prying eyes, however this spiral lock is especially ingenious and delicate, in keeping with a brand new paper printed within the Electronic British Library Journal.

The authors are an interdisciplinary crew of researchers working beneath the umbrella of the Unlocking History Research Group. In this paper, they describe a dozen examples of a spiral lock in letters dated between 1568 and 1638, together with one from Mary’s former mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, in addition to her arch-rival, Elizabeth I, who signed Mary’s dying warrant.

As we reported beforehand, co-author Jana Dambrogio, a conservator at MIT Libraries, coined the time period “letterlocking” after discovering such letters whereas a fellow on the Vatican Secret Archives in 2000. The Vatican letters dated again to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they usually featured unusual slits and corners that had been sliced off. Dambrogio realized that the letters had initially been folded in an ingenious method, basically “locked” by inserting a slice of the paper right into a slit, then sealing it with wax. It wouldn’t have been doable to open the letter with out ripping that slice of paper—proof that the letter had been tampered with.

Dambrogio has been finding out the follow of letterlocking ever since, typically creating her personal fashions to showcase totally different methods, finally forming the Unlocking History Research Group. The follow dates again to the thirteenth century—at the very least in Western historical past—and there are numerous totally different folding and locking methods that emerged over the centuries. “It’s not like people could just go to a shop and buy an envelope,” Dambrogio’s co-author from King’s College London, Daniel Starza Smith, advised Ars.

Queen Elizabeth I, Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei, and Marie Antoinette are among the many well-known personages identified to have employed letterlocking for his or her correspondence. There are tons of of letterlocking methods: for instance, “butterfly locks,” a easy triangular fold-and-tuck, and an ingenious methodology referred to as the “dagger-trap,” which includes a booby-trap disguised as one other, easier kind of letter lock. And of course, there’s the intricate spiral lock that Mary, Queen of Scots, used for her final missive, which contains an uncommon self-destruct function.

The last letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, on the eve of her execution. It was addressed to her former brother-in-law, Henri III, King of France.
Enlarge / The final letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, on the eve of her execution. It was addressed to her former brother-in-law, Henri III, King of France.

Unlocking History Research Group

Earlier this 12 months, Dambrogio’s crew was in a position to make use of X-ray tomography to just about “unlock” a letter written in 1697 by a person named Jacques Sennacque. Their evaluation revealed its contents for the primary time, proper all the way down to the watermark within the form of a chicken, as described in a paper printed within the journal Nature Communications. That letter was half of the Brienne Collection, a group of 2,600 “locked” letters—600 of which had by no means been opened—present in a Seventeenth-century trunk of undelivered letters preserved within the postal museum at The Hague, the Netherlands.

The unopened letters within the Brienne Collection meant that rather more materials proof (crease marks and wax seals, as an example) a couple of given letter’s inside safety was preserved, particularly proof of tucks and layer order, which usually go away no materials hint. By distinction, the letters examined on this newest paper have all been opened, presenting a distinct type of problem for the researchers of their ongoing quest to reverse-engineer the creation of letterlocks.

A excessive proportion of the fabric proof for the letterlocks is often destroyed by opening the letter, and the spiral lock is designed to destroy not simply the lock, but in addition generally parts of the precise letter as an added safety measure, in keeping with the authors. Subsequent dealing with by students and conservationists can even obscure proof of the use of a letterlock. Such objects are generally sure into letter books or saved after flattening and humidification, and the remnants of wax seals could be saved individually, discarded, or reattached incorrectly.

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