The Secrets of a Long-Overlooked Cipher Linked to Catherine of Aragon

Henry VIII’s first wife may have commissioned the design as an act of defiance during the Tudor king’s attempt to divorce her

Illustration of Catherine of Aragon in front of the Holbein pendant design
Literary scholar Vanessa Braganza suggests that Catherine commissioned the pendant design as "a sign of her conviction of her own enduring legitimacy." Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Common under public domain, © Trustees of the British Museum under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In July 1531, Tudor king Henry VIII rode out of Windsor Castle with his mistress, Anne Boleyn, at his side. He left without warning, failing to bid farewell to Catherine of Aragon, his wife and queen of 22 years. When Catherine sent a letter to Henry inquiring after his health a few days later, he declared that he “cared not for her adieux.” The couple never met in person again.

Henry’s harsh response was prompted by the queen’s refusal to agree to a divorce. Despite the fact that Henry had abandoned her (and would, over the next five years, exile her to a series of increasingly decrepit estates), Catherine remained steadfast in her attempts to preserve the pair’s marriage. Even as Henry publicly announced Anne as his new queen, Catherine refused to relent, maintaining that she was the king’s one true wife until her death in January 1536 at age 50.

Now, almost 500 years later, Vanessa Braganza, a literary scholar and self-described “book detective” at Harvard University, has uncovered a long-overlooked example of the Tudor queen’s defiance. As Jennifer Schuessler reports for the New York Times, Braganza used a method she describes as “early modern Wordle” to decode a cipher containing the hidden words “Henricvs Rex” (Henry the king) and “Katherine” (an alternate spelling of the queen’s first name). Created around 1532, the intricate puzzle appears in the Jewellery Book, a volume of jewelry designs by Tudor court painter Hans Holbein.

Drawing by Hans Holbein featuring cipher containing the names of Henry the king and Katherine
According to Braganza, the cipher contains the words "Henricvs Rex" and "Katherine." © Trustees of the British Museum under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Braganza tells Smithsonian magazine that Catherine may have commissioned the design—probably for a pendant—as “a sign of her conviction of her own enduring legitimacy [and] a sign of stubbornness in refusing to concede that legitimacy.” In 1532, when Henry was on the verge of marrying Anne, he had “no incentive … to commission a pendant that legitimize[d] Catherine’s claim to be queen,” the scholar adds.

Holbein, who is best known for his stunningly lifelike portraits of Tudor royals and nobles, also designed some of the jewels worn by his sitters. Though few examples of these pieces survive today, a large number of his drawings appear in the Jewellery Book. Several are adorned with “mysterious initials and ciphers, which still beguile scholars and can only suggest the intrigues and scandals of the court of Henry VIII,” wrote Emily Selter for the Adventurine in 2017.

Braganza started studying Holbein’s drawings while working on her dissertation earlier this year. (Also a law student at Columbia Law School, where she studies constitutional law and voting rights, she’s currently writing a book about Renaissance writers and the birth of code.) To unravel the meaning of this particular design, which contains a small hole at the top suggesting it was meant to be worn as a pendant, Braganza followed the steps she has used in the past to decode hidden messages in intertwined letters.

First, she tells Smithsonian, she scanned the cipher from left to right, writing down “given” letters that didn’t overlap with any others and therefore had to appear in the final version (in this case, the “X” and “S”). Then she identified the “maybes,” in which “every part of [the letter] is also part of other letters, so they have no unique identifying parts.” (Think of an “F” hiding under an “E.”) Finally, she conducted a “controlled game of anagrams, or word scramble,” arranging the givens and maybes into names based on historical context, including who she knew was present at Henry’s court, whether they overlapped with Holbein’s time as court painter and how they signed their names in documents.

“While we spell her name with a ‘C,’ she invariably signed herself ‘Katherine the Quene,’” says Braganza. “The period just before her exile overlaps with the start of Holbein’s career at Henry’s court, so there’s an opportunity. There’s even an early 16th-century portrait, likely of Catherine, wearing a choker made of K-shaped links interspersed with Tudor roses.”

Outside experts have yet to confirm Braganza’s findings. But James Simpson, a literary scholar at Harvard and one of Braganza’s dissertation advisers, tells the Times the evidence she’s presented is “totally persuasive.” Interpreted as an assertion of Catherine’s rights as queen, the cipher aligns with the historical record, which is filled with examples of her headstrong nature.

Young Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII
Michael Sittow portrait of Catherine, circa 1502 (left), and portrait of Henry VIII around the time of his wedding to Catherine Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 1513, for instance, Catherine helped defend her country against a Scottish invasion, expertly organizing troops while her husband was away waging war in France. “Many a queen would have quite simply hotfooted it to the Tower of London, pulled up the drawbridge and sat there fairly safely,” Julia Fox, author of Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, told Smithsonian in 2020. “… But she doesn’t do that. She’s no milk sop. She’s not taking refuge. She really is out on the road.”

Catherine’s battlefield leadership built on the example set by her mother, Isabella, who retook Spain from the Moors alongside her husband, Ferdinand, in the late 15th century. The idea of “a woman involved in battles” stayed with Catherine throughout her life, said Fox, “and when she actually comes to the divorce question, she sees it as a battle. She sees fighting for her own marriage as just as important as fighting for the Catholic faith.”

In the late 1520s, Henry—infatuated with Anne and in need of a male heir—sought a divorce from his first wife. Determined to protect the rights of their daughter Mary and preserve England’s ties to the Catholic Church, the queen refused to concede. During one famous incident in 1529, she appeared in front of a papal court, denying all wrongdoing in an impassioned, unprecedented appeal to her husband.

Pendant designs by Hans Holbein
Pendant designs by Hans Holbein Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Braganza doesn’t know whether the pendant design was made into an actual piece of jewelry that Catherine could have worn as a subtle-yet-public nod to her rightful status as queen. “Ciphers make this possible because they are meant to be visible but illegible to those not in the know,” the scholar says. “You can literally wear your secret around your neck in public, and that very act defies viewers to figure it out.”

Catherine was far from the only Tudor figure to use coded messages. Last year, Kate McCaffrey, an assistant curator at Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle, discovered hidden inscriptions in Anne’s prayer book. As Craig Simpson reported for the Telegraph, the book contained the names of Tudor women who seemingly saved it—at great personal risk, given Henry’s attempts to erase all traces of Anne following her execution in 1536—for Anne’s daughter, the future Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s great adversary, Mary, Queen of Scots, famously used ciphers in her correspondence, too.

In 2019, Braganza, who specializes in unraveling literary mysteries, deciphered a separate Renaissance-era cipher created by Lady Mary Wroth, one of England’s first woman fiction writers. Relatively obscure today, Wroth was notorious during her lifetime, sparking a scandal with the publication of a 1621 romance based closely on the lives of her friends and family at the court of James I. Centuries after her death, a fire destroyed her home, including her extensive library.

None of Wroth’s books are believed to have survived the inferno. But Braganza, who’d previously seen Wroth’s monogram on the cover of a volume that wasn’t in the library at the time of the fire, spotted the same telltale design on a 17th-century biography at a rare book fair in London.

Title page of Lady Mary Wroth's The Countess of Montgomery's Urania​​​​​​​ (1621)
Title page of Lady Mary Wroth's The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (1621) Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

“I felt as though I had seen a ghost—and, in a sense, I had,” wrote Braganza for Smithsonian last September.

As a previous scholar had concluded, the intertwined letters emblazoned on the biography’s cover spelled out “Pamphilia” and “Amphilanthus,” the names of the lovers in Wroth’s scandalous work of fiction. Like other characters in the romance, the pair was inspired by real people: Wroth and her lover, William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke. Per Fine Books & Collections’ Rebecca Rego Barry, Braganza theorizes that Wroth gifted the volume to her son, “with the coded monogram acting as a kind of family tree to clarify (and legitimize) the identity of the boy’s father,” who never publicly claimed him.

“[B]y and large, women’s voices, like ciphers, are hidden in plain sight because we choose not to look for them,” says Braganza. Contrary to popular views of early modern and medieval society, “women [were] writing and publishing alongside men, ruling countries, playing the political chess game, creating ciphers, and participating in trades—they lived in a culture that told them they were less than men, but nevertheless, they persisted.”

Editor's Note, July 12, 2022: This article previously stated that Braganza deciphered Lady Mary Wroth's monogram. Scholar Josephine A. Roberts made the discovery in the 1990s.

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