Cardinal Wolsey's Cipher (1524)

A "cipher used by cardinal Wolsey, at the court of Vienna, in 1524" has been printed in publications for centuries but its nature has remained unknown to the general public. The present author rediscovered the cipher. The traditional explanation appears to be correct in that it is a cipher used by Cardinal Wolsey in 1524.


As expected, it is a very simple monoalphabetic substitution cipher, possibly with some symbols representing frequently used words or names.

The text reads: "... nowe it is high time on his Majesty's and my behalfe with his Grace's most cordial condign thankes and my most humble recommendacions ye playnly shew and [declare unto the Emperour what hindrance hath ensued and dayly doth unto the common affayres by reason things ...]" The word "condign", hitherto repeatedly printed, turned out to be a misreading of part of a common expression "most cordial."

(A copy of the cipher is in Harley MS 6345 , f.37v (see below).)


England was allied with the Emperor Charles V against France but the complete failure of the campaign of 1523 made England seek peace with France, while taking a high-handed attitude to the Emperor, as is reflected in this cipher fragment. A similar tenor is expressed in Wolsey's letter to ambassador Sampson (DNB00) sent to the Imperial court in Spain (then not in Vienna, by the way).

Yee shall ... after the kings most cordiall and my due and humble recomendac'ons made unto the sayd emperor; and after declarac'on made of the p'misses, shew and notifie at full length unto his majestie and counsaille, the very effect, order forme, and manner, of the same;... wherein there is one matter of great and weightie importance, that, of very necessity, in avoyding sundry inconvenients which that ells might ensue to the hindrance of the rooted love and perfect intelligence being betwene the king and th'empror, I am ....
Galt (1812), pp. clvii - clviii

England's move towards France was ill-timed for, in February 1525, the Emperor won a signal victory in Pavia, Italy, and even captured the person of his rival King of France, Francis I.

Rediscovery of Cipher

The present rediscovery involved no complicated codebreaking. Even the plaintext was known. Notwithstanding, it took more time than expected to identify the cipher. It is partly because the beginning and the end of the known plaintext did not match those of the cipher fragment. Moreover, absence in the plaintext of counterparts for the many double letters in this short fragment was perplexing. (As it turned out, "w" was spelled with two "u"s in the ciphertext.) A clue had to be sought among long words that would certainly be spelled in cipher rather than coded by a symbol and that would appear before the end of the cipher fragment. With such an approach, the word "recommendations" seemed to be richest in structure. That is, the sequence "e..mme" would result in a cipher sequence of the pattern AxyBBA. This assumption led to locating of the word in the cipher fragment. This provided correspondence of some letters, which was the breakthrough for the rediscovery.


Rees' Cyclopaedia, (Search Internet Archive, Vol. VIII (1819), Plates Vol. IV (1820))

Astle (1784), The Origin and Progress of Writing (Google), Plate facing p.176 seems to be the source of the article in Rees' Cyclopaedia.

John Galt (1812), The Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey (Google)

Mandell Creighton (1888), Cardinal Wolsey, around p.108 (Google)

Ciphers in Copybook of Wolsey's Letters

(Section added in 2022)

A copybook of Wolsey's letters is preserved in Harley MS 6345 (British Library).

f.37v: [Wolsey?] to Sampson [1524]

There is a paragraph in cipher and a copy of the cipher is attached. It is the same cipher as the one described above. Actually, they seem to belong to the same letter, which is printed in State Papers Published Under the Authority of His Majesty's Commission, vi, King Henry VIII, Part V (1849) (Google). The fragment presented above corresponds to the beginning of decipherment on p.368, and the ciphertext in the copybook corresponds to p.371. (Wolsey's letter to Sampson quoted above is at p.388.)

f.186v: Fitzwilliam to Wolsey, 13 September 1521

Fitzwilliam was ambassador in France (Wikipedia).

f.192v: Wingfield to Jerningham, Maastricht, 25 June [1521]

Wingfield (Wikipedia) and Jerningham (Wikipedia) were also sent to the Continent.

©2012 S.Tomokiyo
First posted on 14 April 2012. Last modified on 10 January 2022.
Articles on Historical Cryptography
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