The cipher system we are looking at now was developed in the 16th Century by Mary Stuart in captivity. The then Scottish Queen was trying to contact her supporters. The young royal was found to have used 100 iterations of her cipher, which used a series of symbols in a direct substitution for the alphabet, with a mix of shapes, numbers and misattributed letters. Some elements even stood in for short or commonly used words. (please note: the message above isn’t actually from Mary) We’ve included one of her cipher charts, or ‘nomenclator’, here, and further down list some of the symbols she used for short words, as well as unique icons to designate a double (‘dowbleth’) letter, and a variety of figures indicating a space (‘nulles’) just to trip up codebreakers a bit extra. Beware ye olde English (we’ve extended it to include our current alphabet).
Mary, Mary, quite contrary With a bespoke code like this, it helps [as usual] to have a key. What led to the demise of dear Mary was that she trusted the wrong people – her faithful messenger was not so faithful, instead carrying her secret messages via her captors, who gradually deciphered enough to convict and execute her. Frequency analysis – counting how often symbols were used and in what groupings, was how Sir Francis Walsingham (spymaster to Queen Elizabeth I) and his staff cracked this code. How do you do this? We’ll definitely look closer at it in a future edition, but the basic version: think about the letter tiles in Scrabble and their values. The more commonly used the letter (E, S, T, N, A, etc) the lower the tile value. The more rarely used (Q and Z), the higher the value. When you can figure out which symbols are being used the most, you can usually narrow down what letter it is going to be. Unless of course your code maker is extra cheeky…
There’s something about Mary’s code And what makes Mary’s cipher extra cheeky was its use of shorthand. As history moved along, this would become more prolific; when your space and resources are limited, being able to contract your message is going to be helpful. Mary could just send out “∆Ꝝmkɏ” and her support would read it as “Send my brother to the Lord of Cobham”. Some of her other condensed terms included words like these:
Royal application This is a fun one to use in an Escape Room, or even to make a personal code with friends. Just don’t try and use it for overthrowing a government(!). If you find a list of short messages and a selection of irregular letters (or symbols) to go with them in your Escape Room, it is likely to be a similar style of cipher: one tailor made for people stuck in that exact room trying to get out! Go find the key!