The Spiral Letter Locking of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

Research unlocks the secrets of royal folding

In the early modern period (1500-1700), as paper became more available in Europe, folding was vital to keeping secrets.  Envelopes were not yet invented and a wide variety of folding techniques developed to secure vital information and to keep communications private. Sophisticated methods were practised by royalty, including Queen Elizabeth I, her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, and other monarchs across Europe.

Many of us will be familiar with wax seals, but until recently, very little was known about locking letters by folding. The historical letters that survive in archives were unfolded long ago and the locks broken, often destroying the evidence of the techniques used. Storage and repair work further hides the crease patterns, and makes it difficult to identify the valley and mountain folds.

Now after years of research, involving 250,000 documents, the secrets of letter locking are being revealed in astonishing detail by the international Unlocking History Research Group.

Their paper, published by the British Library includes detailed descriptions of letter locks used by Catherine de’ Medici (1519–1589), queen consort of France 1547–59, as well as the British Queens Mary and Elizabeth, and other unknown authors.

Have you got diagrams for that, your majesty?

The research includes diagrams drawn by the research team to document the techniques they have uncovered and links to a youtube instructional video.  We don’t know how the methods were shared but given the widespread use by royals across Europe, it is likely the monarchs shared letter locking folds with each other.

The particularly elaborate spiral lock used by Mary, Queen of Scots in her last letter, on the eve of her execution creates a very secure lock using a spiral, which could be sealed with water or even saliva, making it possible for her to send her letter securely even from her jail cell in the Tower of London, without the need for a seal. In the moving letter Mary tells her brother-in-law of her fate and, as she was not given access to her papers to set her affairs in order, it effectively becomes her will. Several letters from Mary are examined in the research, showing how her techniques developed.

Simple letter locks continued into later periods. Another example on the youtube channel, shows a simple method used by Jane Austen to lock a letter in 1799.

 

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