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Back in the 16th century ciphers were used by kings to communicate with their governors and ambassadors in distant countries. You may have seen in the news that it took the Loria Research Lab in France six months to crack a five-century-old secret code employed by Charles V. The letter written in 1547 by the emperor to his French ambassador revealed a French plot to kill the emperor. Charles V was the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. He presided over a vast empire that took in much of Western Europe and the Americas during a reign of more than 40 years. The letter had languished forgotten for centuries in a library in Nancy.


The Spanish ciphers used symbols to replace the letters of the alphabet and each letter was assigned two or three symbols. Some of the symbols looked like Latin alphabetic characters while others were more like arbitrary signs. The codes were very hard to decipher and sometimes took months to break. The anti-Habsburg Pope Paul IV created an office of Cipher Secretary in 1555 and the curia sometimes used forcible means to deliver the key to a cipher. In 1556, the Duke of Alva at the head of the Spanish-Habsburg army was sent to Italy by King Philip II to capture Milan and Naples, thereby threatening the power of the pope who was supported by King Henry II of France. The curia arrested the Spanish ambassador’s secretary and forced him through torture to reveal the key to the cipher which he used in writing to his king.


In our research on the Martin Frobisher documentary film, we came across another coded letter to King Philip II written by the Spanish Ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza in London in 1578. Dr Bernard Allaire of Laval University succeeded in breaking the code of the letter which had been lost in the Spanish archives for some 130 years. Mendoza was reporting to the king on Frobisher’s plans for a third voyage to Baffin Island to mine for ore on Kodlunarn Island. The ore was believed to contain a high level of gold but turned out to be totally worthless. The Spanish archives had been seized by Napoleon’s army in 1808 and were only returned to Spain in 1942 at a meeting between Franco and Petain in Marseilles.


See the excerpt from my documentary, Martin Frobisher and the Baffin Fraud (3 min.):

If you want to download or screen the entire documentary, go to:

*Originally posted in July 2023