Code breaking and Sir Walter Raleigh

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Last winter I came across a copy of the first edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the world. This book was published after Raleigh’s first expedition for El Dorado, and after he was arrested for suspected involvement in the plot to remove King James I from the throne: this work was composed during his stay in the Tower of London. Raleigh’s works, like many travel-authors, was popular amongst many audiences.

St Andrews’ copy is bound in contemporary calf on boards and has an interesting bit of writing pasted to the front fly-leaf. This writing (see below) was incomprehensible at first, but it did look like English writing. I gave up after about an hour of trying to decipher what was written and gathered Norman Reid, Head of Special Collections, and Rachel Hart, Muniments Archivist, together to have a look at it.

Here is a transcription of the writing:

“3n 1ll th2 2rth 3 d4 53ll k2n

th2r 3s b4t thr2 51n h1p2 m2

th2 f3rst 3s h2 th1t n4 g44d

1nd 53ll n4t l2rn it n4 4ther”

After about 10 minutes of palaeographical wizardry, Norman and Rachel were able to decipher the numerical code the author of this little poem was using and cracked the code thusly:

1 (or “i”) = A

2 = E

3 = I

4 = O

5 = U or W

so, the poem reads:

“In all the erth I do will ken

ther is bot thre wan hape me

the first is he that no good

and will not lern it no other”

Although this poem seems fragmentary, and does not make much sense out of context, it was an exciting hour spent cracking this code. It is fantastic to have resources such as Norman and Rachel’s palaeographical abilities at hand, and to have the material to stretch their abilities!


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1 thoughts on "Code breaking and Sir Walter Raleigh"

  • truesue
    Monday 24 October 2011, 4.29pm

    I'm left wondering what your translation to present day English is and what context you can provide for me, whose interest you have piqued.


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