A Queen's Cipher: Speaking Truth to Power
Updated: Jan 20
A recently decoded cipher in a sketch for a pendant may represent Tudor Queen Catherine of Aragon’s defiance against her husband Henry VIII.
By Ellen McDaniel-Weissler
The codes that women have used to speak to history have been found in needlework, painted miniatures, interior design—even in the colors of the floss used for embroidery. Why? In the centuries before women’s own struggles brought them the freedom to speak, women risked scandal, humiliation, legal repercussions, divorce, loss of their children, and even imprisonment, torture, and execution, if they spoke their mind.
So it should be no surprise that a literary scholar Vanessa Braganza recently uncovered a cipher in a Hans Holbein sketch for a pendant. Published in Hans Holbein’s 16th-century Jewellery Book, the cipher indicates that Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon may have attempted to legitimize her claim to the throne when Henry was petitioning the Pope for an annulment of their decades-long marriage.
Holbein, Henry VIII’s court painter and portraitist, was known for hiding messages in his portraits as well as his architectural renderings and jewelry designs.
Braganza estimates that the pendant in question was sketched c. 1532, at which time Catherine of Aragon was living in exile in Bedfordshire. Since at the time it is unlikely that Henry, who was bent on divorce, would have commissioned the piece, it seems more likely that it was Catherine who did so.
Using an “early modern Wordle” method to decipher the code, Braganza claims that the hidden words read “Henricvs Rex (Henry the King) and “Katherine”.
(NOTA BENE: While modern scholars spell the name “Catherine” from the Spanish version “Catalina”, Catherine herself always signed her name “Katherine the Quene”; possibly Anglicized in deference to her new homeland.)
According to Braganza, the commission might have been “a sign of [Catherine’s] conviction of her own enduring legitimacy [and] a sign of stubbornness in refusing to concede that legitimacy.”
Catherine famously pleaded her cause to Henry at the papal court in London in 1529. She confronted him with her claims of the legitimacy of their marriage. She spent the last seven years of her life exiled from court, but refused to acknowledge Henry’s divorce, the illegitimacy of their daughter Mary, or the coronation of her successor, Anne Boleyn.
Catherine died of natural causes in 1536, just months before her rival was executed.
Messages in Plain Sight
While Braganza’s discovery may not change history, it is a testament to Catherine’s will and determination. She was bent on getting her message out, even when she had no public platform from which to speak, so providing a message hidden in plain sight may have been her best opportunity to cement her claim to the throne.
“It’s not a surprise that women exercised their agency in unusual and creative ways in this period,” Heather Wolfe, associate librarian and curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library, said. “They [had] to work outside the normal channels to get their messages out.”
Did Catherine of Aragon risk Henry VIII’s wrath by paying Hans Holbein to preserve her claims of legitimacy for posterity? We may never know for certain. But a woman who had the courage to defy Henry to his face at the papal court would surely have had the nerve to find a way ensure history heard her case.