It has long been an alluring and mysterious treasure of the British Museum: a collection of sketches for jewels and other lavish adornments, commissioned during the reign of Henry VIII from the artist Hans Holbein, for a time court painter.
Some of the designs are coded numbers or symbols, entangling the initials of Henry and his many lovers. Some of the most elaborate have never been decoded.
This spring, while finishing a chapter of her thesis, Vanessa Braganza, Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard and self-proclaimed “detective book” fascinated by a particularly dense tangle of letters.
By the end of the afternoon, Braganza thought she had figured it out in her notebook, through a process of trial and error that she likened to the “modern Wordle.” The cipher, she concluded, spelled HENRICVS REX – Henry the King – and KATHARINA – his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Nothing remarkable there, perhaps. But Braganza argues that the pendant was not commissioned by Henry but by Catherine during the time he was trying to divorce and marry Anne Boleyn, as a cheeky affirmation of his lifelong claim to be his only true wife and queen.
“It’s a doorway into his thinking,” Braganza said of the pendant. “He’s just sitting there, daring you to see him.”
The Tudor court and its ruthless intrigues have fascinated audiences long before Hilary Mantel’s hit “Wolf Hall” trilogy or the pop-feminist Broadway musical “Six” (which reimagines the unhappy wives of ‘Henry as the Spice Girls-esque team taking over the narrative).
Even outside the pages of the “Da Vinci Code”, generations of scholars have studied how codes and ciphers shaped nearly every aspect of Renaissance culture (in 2014 exposure at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, he said), from diplomacy and warfare to the rise of postal systems and the art of literary interpretation itself.
And the subject is not only academic. In our day, Renaissance scholarship helped inspire WWII codebreaking, while military cryptology techniques were in turn adapted as tools for literary analysis.
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Braganza’s work is part of what can be seen as a more feminist turn, as scholars have increasingly considered how numbers and other forms of hidden communication preserve women’s lost voices.
“What’s particularly compelling, and often moving, is Vanessa’s focus on voices that would otherwise have been silenced or caricatured,” said James Simpson, a Harvard literature scholar and one of the advisers. of Braganza thesis.
Some feminine codes are well known. “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens”, a recent exposure in the British Library, includes a review of cipher letters written by Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as coded messages used to trap her in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I, which led to Mary’s beheading.
But there have also been new discoveries. Last year, a researcher from Hever Castle in England used X-ray imaging to discover erased inscriptions in a prayer book that had belonged to Anne Boleyn, which revealed a network of secret female ownership across generations, in defiance of Henry’s efforts to destroy anything associated with her.
“It is not surprising that women exercised agency in unusual and creative ways during this time,” said Heather Wolfe, associate librarian and curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. “They had to work outside normal channels to get their messages across.”
The wider scientific world has yet to evaluate Braganza’s claims about the pendant, or weigh its significance. But Harvard researcher Stephen Greenblatt, another adviser, called his research “fascinating”.
He said he had seen elaborate decorative designs embossed on old books “many times”, but never really wondered what, if anything, they meant.
“Vanessa is extremely resourceful and cunning,” he said. “This work requires crazy patience and a real sense of detail.”
Unraveling a gnarled 16th-century monogram is barely cracking the Engima code. Braganza describes it as a matter of noticing “what hides in plain sight”.
As an undergraduate student, Braganza wrote her thesis on the word “cipher” in Shakespeare’s plays. As a graduate student, she became interested in things themselves.
His first discovery related to encryption took place in 2019, during an antiquarian book fair in London. She was walking down the aisles “feeling hungry,” she said, when she spotted an intricate decoration stamped on the cover of an old volume.
Immediately, she recognized it as the encrypted monogram of Lady Mary Wroth, a contemporary of Shakespeare considered England’s first female fiction writer. Wroth had also been involved in a scandalous affair with her cousin, the third Earl of Pembroke, which she romanticized in her two-volume romance, “Urania”.
Five years earlier, Braganza had seen a photograph of the cipher – which interlaces the initials of the fictitious names Wroth had given to herself and the Earl – on the cover of a bound manuscript of one of Wroth’s plays, which Wroth had given to her lover as a present.
Wroth’s personal library had been destroyed in a fire, with no volumes surviving. But here, unbeknownst to the merchant, appeared to be a survivor, bearing the same coded symbol of her love for the man who died without recognizing their children together.
“It was a book that wasn’t supposed to exist,” Braganza said. (The volume, a biography of Cyrus the Great of Persia, is now in Harvard’s Houghton Library.)
The Catherine/Henry figure caught his eye this spring, through a similar moment of serendipity. When she was finishing a chapter on the proliferation of ciphers at Henry’s court, she consulted the digitized images of the “Jewelry Book” as the collection of Holbein drawings in the British Museum is known.
As she wondered lazily about them, one particular oval-shaped tangle tugged at her. She started with the letters that should be there, based on the pen strokes, then worked on other possibilities. After one afternoon, she got it: HENRICVS REX and KATHARINA.
Henry had three wives named Catherine, but only Catherine of Aragon was around when Holbein was at court. Regarding spelling, Braganza said manuscripts signed by Catherine sometimes show her writing her name with a K. Additionally, she notes, a portrait of young Catherine shows her wearing a choker with the letter “K” embedded in the chain.
After assembling a dossier of evidence, she showed it to Simpson, who said he found it “totally compelling”.
So why does Braganza think Catherine, rather than Henry, commissioned the pendant?
Based on the dates of Holbein’s presence at court, she dates the sketch to around 1532, when Henry’s long push to end his marriage to Catherine, who had failed to produce a male heir, was about to end. He secretly married Anne in January 1533 and had his marriage to Catherine annulled by the Archbishop of Canterbury five months later.
Henry, Braganza said, “would have no incentive” to order the pendant. But Catherine, who died of natural causes in 1536, never ceased to insist that she was Henry’s only wife and queen. (As her Beyoncé-inspired character in “Six” sings about her push for cancellation, “There’s no no no no no no no.”)
Braganza sees the pendant – which she says, based on a small loop at the top, was intended to be worn in public – as an act of “secrecy courting revelation”.
“It really helps us understand Catherine as a really provocative figure,” she added.
It is not known whether the pendant (or simpler pendants designed by Holbein joining Henry’s initials to those of other wives) survives or was ever made. Many jewels of the time were melted down, the metal and the precious stones reused.
But Henry is well known for trying to erase all traces of his ex-wives. After Anne was found guilty of treason and beheaded in 1536, Henry destroyed the records of court proceedings, her letters, and most of the portraits. He also set about erasing the many symbols associated with him from public buildings, with partial success.
In the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, their linked initials can be seen on the ornately carved chancel screen. But to Hampton Courtin London, visitors can still see empty places where they were chiselled, as well as a few examples that were overlooked, still tied in a love knot.
While the pendant in the “Jewelry Book” doesn’t drastically change the story, Braganza said, it does suggest just how much the silent voices of Henry’s wives — and other women of the time — are yet to be found.
“That’s the problem with ciphers – you release them, and you can’t remove them all,” she said. “They are waiting to be discovered, centuries later.”