Friday, 3 October 2014

Catherine of Aragon's missing letters

(photo from Shakespeare's Secrets: A Hidden Cipher -

Having spent some time looking through various letters to and from the English court in 1513, I’d found (or not found) some surprising things.  Firstly, Wolsey and Thomas Howard appear to be very tight in their alliance, Henry VIII is a poor correspondent to his queen, Margaret of Savoy seems to have the biggest political hand in the events of the time, and Catherine of Aragon is rather absent.  Or, at least her letters for many months do not at all represent the correspondence of a Queen Regent.

These missing letters are what I’d been searching for. While many documents were lost in fire, misplaced through time, or just so difficult to transcribe that they are skipped over, I had been expecting many lengthy personal letters between Catherine and Henry in regards to her becoming regent in his absence (fighting in France). There were a few short messages from Catherine to Wolsey, Howard to Catherine, or vice versa – Catherine asking for more updates on her husband, or Wolsey giving a very basic update on Henry’s whereabouts. A much lengthier letter from Catherine appears in the records after the battle of Flodden.

In September, 1513, Queen Catherine writes to Henry VIII about the victory at the Battle of Flodden. She writes: “Sir, My lord Havard hath sent me a letter to open to your grace within one of mine by the which ye shall see at length the great victory that our Lord hath sent your subjects in your absence: and for this cause it is no need herein to trouble your grace with long writing…”

Looking closely at the wording of Catherine’s letter, she suggests that there is an additional letter from her to be read in conjunction with Lord Havard’s letter. Yet, she has already told Henry she would not bother with long writing (which suggests to me, although this is the longest letter in record during for these few months from her, that her other letters might have been longer). So where are these longer letters (if any)?

It has been noted by some historians that Catherine started writing in cipher when she was betrothed to prince Arthur.

S. Tomokio writes in his article ‘Earliest English Diplomatic Ciphers’: “It appears that Catherine used a cipher different from that of the Spanish ambassador, considering Bergenroth noted during the middle of his research that Catherine's cipher was one of the three ciphers that he did not yet understand. On the other hand, it appears, as noted above, Catherine let De Puebla decipher Ferdinand's letter to Henry VII sent to her. Examination of the manuscript is desired (”

This wonderful extract in Tomokio’s article shows us some excellent reference to the cipher used by Catherine and Henry: “‘Has learnt by her letter in cipher, and by the letter in plain writing of the King of England, that it is his intention to prevent the utter destruction of Venice,....
‘The King of England must therefore henceforth write in his letters nothing but such things as the French may read without danger. All other communications must be made by her, and be written in her cipher, or in the cipher of the ambassador, until the new ambassador arrives. Has always observed, and will in future observe the same rule, namely, to write in common writing only what the French may see, and to write all that is important in cipher.
‘In answer to the contents of the letter of the King, and of her letter in cipher, there is little to be said, except ....
’ Ferdinand to Catherine, 18 November 1509, (Calendared in Bergenroth pp.25-26)”

The newly published online (previously only in print) 'Henry VIII: April 1513, 1-10', Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1: 1509-1514 (1920)’ lists and transcribes all the letters in record for this time, but if a letter is in French, German, Latin or any other dialect, including cipher, it is noted as such and not transcribed. Many ‘in cipher’ letters appear (and sadly letters ‘too damaged to decipher), which leads me to think how wonderful it would be to find the key to unlock Catherine’s ciphered letters.

Whatever the reason, the archives have a scarcity of letters from Catherine which is a thrilling little mystery in its own.  Six months as Regent of the country, a decisive victory and the death of the Scottish King would surely amass more than a handful of stinted letters from this very powerful and passionate woman.