Decoding the defiance of Henry VIII’s first wife
By Jennifer Schuessler
It has long been a beguiling and mysterious treasure of the British Museum: a collection of sketches for jewellery and other lavish ornaments, commissioned during the reign of Henry VIII from artist Hans Holbein, for a time the court painter.
Some of the designs are ciphers, or coded symbols, entangling the initials of Henry and his many paramours. Some of the most elaborate have never been decoded.
This spring, while finishing a chapter of her dissertation, Vanessa Braganza, a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard and a self-described “book detective”, became fascinated by one particularly dense tangle of letters.
By the end of the afternoon, Braganza thought she had figured it out in her notebook, via a trial-and-error process she compared to “early modern Wordle”.
The cipher, she concluded, spelled out HENRICVS REX — Henry the King — and KATHERINE — his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Nothing remarkable there, perhaps. But Braganza argues that the pendant was commissioned not by Henry but by Catherine during the period when he was trying to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn, as a brazen assertion of her lifelong claim to be his one true wife and queen.
“It’s a gateway into her thinking,” Braganza said of the pendant. “It’s just sitting there, daring you to see it.”
The Tudor court and its ruthless intrigues have been a source of public fascination long before Hilary Mantel’s bestselling ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy or the pop-feminist Broadway musical ‘Six’ (which re-imagines Henry’s ill-fated wives as a Spice Girls-esque squad taking back the narrative).
Even outside the pages of ‘The Da Vinci Code’, generations of scholars have studied the way codes and ciphers shaped nearly every aspect of Renaissance culture (as a 2014 exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington put it), from diplomacy and warfare to the rise of postal systems and the art of literary interpretation itself.
And the subject isn’t just academic. In our own time, Renaissance scholarship helped inspire World War II code breaking, while military cryptology techniques were in turn adapted as tools of literary analysis.
Braganza’s work is part of what can be seen as a more feminist turn, as scholars have increasingly considered how ciphers and other forms of hidden communication preserve the lost voices of women.
“What’s especially compelling, and often moving, is the fact that Vanessa is focusing on voices that would’ve been otherwise silenced or caricatured,” said James Simpson, a Harvard literary scholar and one of Braganza’s dissertation advisers.
Some women’s ciphers are well known. ‘Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens’, a recent exhibition at the British Library, includes an examination of the ciphered letters written by Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the coded messages used to ensnare 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 at Hever Castle in England used X-ray imaging to uncover 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 everything associated with her.
Scholars have also examined the messages encoded in women’s needlework, miniatures, interior design, even the colour of silk floss used to ‘lock’ letters to protect them from prying eyes.
“It’s not a surprise that women exercised their agency in unusual and creative ways in this period,” said Heather Wolfe, associate librarian and curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. “They did have to work outside the normal channels to get their messages out.”
The wider scholarly world has yet to evaluate Braganza’s claims about the pendant, or weigh its significance. But Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt, another adviser, called her research “fascinating”.
He said he had seen elaborate decorative designs embossed on old books “many, many times,” but never really wondered what, if anything, they meant.
“Vanessa is extremely resourceful and cunning,” he said. “This work takes crazy amounts of patience, and a real eye for detail.”
Untangling a knotty 16th-century monogram is hardly cracking the Engima code. Braganza describes it as a matter of noticing “what’s hiding in plain sight”.
As an undergraduate, Braganza wrote her senior thesis on the word “cipher” in Shakespeare’s plays. As a graduate student, she became interested in the things themselves.
Her first cipher-related discovery came in 2019, at an antiquarian book fair in London. She was walking the aisles “feeling hangry”, she said, when she spotted an intricate decoration stamped on the cover of an old volume.
Immediately, she recognized it as the monogram cipher of Lady Mary Wroth, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s considered England’s first female fiction writer. Wroth had also been party to a scandalous affair with her cousin, the third Earl of Pembroke, which she fictionalized in her two-volume romance, ‘Urania’.
Five years earlier, Braganza had seen a photograph of the cipher — which intertwines the initials of the fictional names Wroth gave 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 gift.
Wroth’s personal library had been destroyed in a fire, with no volumes known to survive. But here, unbeknown to the dealer, appeared to be a survivor, bearing the same coded symbol of her love for the man who had died without acknowledging their children together.
“This was a book that wasn’t supposed to exist,” Braganza said. (The volume, a biography of Cyrus the Great of Persia, is now owned by Harvard’s Houghton Library.)
The Catherine/Henry cipher came to her attention this spring, through a similar moment of serendipity. When completing a chapter on the proliferation of ciphers at Henry’s court, she looked up the digitized images from the ‘Jewellery Book’, as the collection of drawings by Holbein at the British Museum is known.
As she idly puzzled over them, one oval-shaped tangle in particular tugged at her. She started with the letters that had to be there, based on the pen strokes, then worked through other possibilities. After an afternoon, she had it: HENRICVS REX and KATHERINE.
Henry had three wives named Catherine, but only Catherine of Aragon was around when Holbein was at court. As for the spelling, while Catherine’s name was spelled various ways during the period, Braganza said that manuscripts signed by Catherine show her writing it with a K. Additionally, she notes, a portrait of the 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 persuasive”.
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 deliver a male heir, was near its completion. 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 commission the pendant. But Catherine, who died of natural causes in 1536, never stopped insisting she was Henry’s sole wife and queen. (As her Beyoncé-inspired character in ‘Six’ sings of his push for annulment, “There’s no no no no no no no way.”)
Braganza sees the pendant — which she argues, based on a small loop at the top, was meant to be worn in public — as an act of “secrecy courting revelation.”
“It really helps us understand Catherine as a really defiant figure,” she added.
It’s unclear if the pendant (or simpler ones sketched by Holbein joining Henry’s initials with those of other wives) survives, or was ever made. Much jewellery from the period was melted down, the metal and gems repurposed.
But Henry is well known for having tried to obliterate all traces of his ex-wives. After Anne was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1536, Henry destroyed the records of the court proceedings, her letters and most portraits. He also set out to erase the many symbols connected with her from public buildings, with only partial success.
In the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge, their linked initials are visible on the elaborately carved choir screen. But at Hampton Court, in London, visitors can still see empty spots where they were chiselled away, along with a few examples that were overlooked, still connected with a lover’s knot.
While the pendant in the “Jewellery Book” may not radically change the story, Braganza said, it does suggest how much more of the silenced voices of Henry’s wives — and other women of the period — remains to be found.
“That’s the thing about ciphers — you set them loose, and then you can’t eradicate them all,” she said. “They wait to be discovered, centuries later.”
-New York Times