More than 50 encoded letters sent by Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th Century have been found and deciphered by an international team of cryptographers.

The letters, written during her English captivity, were found in a trawl of online archives at the National Library of France and they are being described as the most important breakthrough on the subject in a century. Decoded with the help of computers, the letters are seen to be a series sent by Mary between 1578 and 1584 to the French ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth I in London, Michel de Castelnau Mauvissière.

“It’s a stunning piece of research, and these discoveries will be a literary and historical sensation,” said Dr John Guy of Clare College Cambridge, the leading historian on Mary Queen of Scots.

The team of computer scientist George Lasry, pianist Norbert Biermann and astrophysicist Satoshi Tomokiyo Рall keen cryptographers initially thought the batch of encoded documents related to Italy, because that was how they were filed at the Biblioth̬que Nationale de France. However, they quickly realised the letters were in French.

The code was a simple replacement system in which symbols stand either for letters, or for common words and names. But it would still have taken centuries to crunch all the possibilities, so the team used an algorithm that homed in on likely solutions.

“The letters show definitively that Mary, during the years of her captivity closely observed and actively involved herself in political affairs in Scotland, England and France, and was in regular contact, with many of the leading political figures at Elizabeth I’s court,” Dr Guy said.

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