Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Clue #15: The Babington Postscript and Cipher

The 15th Twitter clue, sent at 7:42 a.m. PDT on Tuesday, June 30:

Everything is not as it seems in an early cipher: http://bit.ly/UFX9G

The URL given in the clue is a "short" URL, which connects the viewer with a web page at the National Archives of the United Kingdom -- specifically, one of the pages that describe their "Secrets and Spies" exhibition. That webpage displays a curious, ciphered document (shown above), titled "The Babington postscript and cipher, 1586." If one plays around a little bit with the URL in the browser, one can find a set of documents that tells a fascinating story about a real-life 500-year-old plot that had disastrous consequences for the conspirators involved. Ultimately, you wish to be at this page. Then the mystery is revealed--at least, this stage of the mystery.

Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

We enter the world of political intrigue surrounding the reign of England's Queen Elizabeth I in the late 16th century. Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, was on the throne of England; Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, was in Elizabeth's prison. Mary had supporters who were determined to dethrone Elizabeth and make Mary the queen of England. Mary communicated with these supporters through the use of coded letters, smuggled out of prison.

What Mary did not know was that Elizabeth's agents intercepted all the letters going in each direction, decrypted them all, and then sent the letters on their way. All of Mary's letters were falling into Elizabeth's hands.

One of Mary's supporters, Anthony Babington, wrote a long letter to Mary on July 6, 1568 (the anniversary of which was just a week after this clue was posted); the letter described a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary's response on July 17 was intercepted by Elizabeth's agents -- who added a coded postscript to Mary's letter, asking Babington to send the names of the six men who were to accomplish the assassination. Babington, thinking the coded postscript as just another part of Mary's letter, did not realize -- as the clue states -- that all was not as it seemed.

Seven conspirators were executed in an horrific manner on September 20, 1586 (the anniversary of which falls just a few days after the publication date of The Lost Symbol). Mary herself was tried the following month, with her letters produced as evidence of her guilt. Mary was beheaded on February 8, 1587.

Relevance to The Lost Symbol

There are several ways in which this material might work into The Lost Symbol.
First and foremost, it is interesting to note that here we have the first really explicit mention of a code that was broken, leading to the collapse of a conspiracy. In fact, one could read this into Clue #5, concerning the Illuminati, which was suppressed after one of their messengers was intercepted by government agents; the encrypted Illuminati documents were then deciphered, leading to the uncovering of the Illuminati plots to dethrone the monarchies of Europe.

However, there are other Twitter clues that touch on incidents where failed codes led to the downfall of individual spies, conspiracies, or regimes at war. These include clues about Benedict Arnold (Clue #30), Nathan Hale (Clue #32), and the Enigma machine (Clue #46). Thus, we should expect the theme of broken codes to show up in The Lost Symbol.

The late 16th century was the age of Francis Bacon of Clue #7; it is conceivable that Bacon could even have been involved in intelligence work for Elizabeth, decrypting the letters between Mary, Queen of Scots, and the conspirators. (Bacon is known to have held political posts in Elizabeth's government.)

It is also conceivable that the cypher from the Babington plot (show above) itself appears in the novel.

We see in the Babington plot another place where there is a Catholic conspiracy involving a woman named Mary -- a prominent theme with Dan Brown, as readers of The Da Vinci Code can attest. Was Mary, Queen of Scots, more than she is known to be in history?

Finally, one must wonder if it is just coincidence that, in real life, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded, as was the corpse of William Wirt of Clue #6. Then again, in a Dan Brown novel, is anything really coincidental?

[The image of Babington postscript and cipher was obtained on the website of the National Archives of the United Kingdom. The Babington materials, and the image, are in the public domain, at least in the United States of America.]

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)


  1. Could there also be a hint at involving the Jesuits and/or the Monita Secreta (possibly also a forged text as was the Babington Postscript)? Babington was connected to Jesuits including the priests Robert Southwell John Ballad, and . And if the book's plot does include the Jesuits, that may mean Georgetown University will play a role.

  2. you really know a lot..i love reading your blogs about the lost symbol.. =D

  3. UDbmas: This is certainly possible. Certainly, having shown no hesitancy about bringing a real Catholic organization such as Opus Dei into the picture, Dan Brown would have no qualms about bringing in the Jesuits. We'll have to see if future tweets point in that direction.

    nel: Tahnk you for your very kind words. I'll try to live up to your confidence and expectations.

  4. Been and gone?

  5. Dear Bad News,

    Nope! As you will read in the following post, I had to spend Wednesday revising my 100-page proposal for Discovering The Lost Symbol. I'll be back later today with more posts, covering the tweets I haven't commented on yet. Thank you for being concerned! --MEKR

  6. It was actually Thomas Phelippes who decrypted and possibly altered Mary of Scotland's correspondence, under Francis Walsingham (the original M).
    Another layer of conspiracy is proposed in the second of the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies (the Golden Age), where King Philip of Spain sets up Mary of Scotland to be caught by Walsingham and executed by Elizabeth so that his daughter (the Infanta) could rule England after Philip conquered it with his Armada (which was being planned when the Babington plot unraveled).

  7. I guess I know it,its a Greek words or language.


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