10 January 2022

"Letterlocking" explained and illustrated

This is the most interesting item I've seen all week.  From the The New York Times:
To safeguard the most important royal correspondence against snoops and spies in the 16th century, writers employed a complicated means of security. They’d fold the letter, then cut a dangling strip, using that as an improvised thread to sew stitches that locked the letter and turned the flat writing paper into its own envelope. To get inside, a spy would have to snip the lock open, an act impossible to go undetected.

Catherine de’ Medici used the method in 1570 — a time she governed France while her ill son, King Charles IX, sat on its throne. Queen Elizabeth did so in 1573 as the sovereign ruler of England and Ireland. And Mary Queen of Scots used it in 1587 just hours before her long effort to unite Britain ended in her beheading.
The image embedded at the top is a modern reproduction; the linked NYT article includes photos of several historic locked letters.  And here is a video showing how the letterlocking was performed:


  1. The sealing wax is the real deterrent, the "snake" through the packet could be unwoven and rewoven given enough time. I guess when the figured that out they just went with envelopes and wax.
    I wonder if Catherine, Elizabeth, and Mary had personal letter sealers or there was a court sealer for all.

  2. In heian Japan when sending, particularly a love letter, one would fold it into a knot around a symbolic object, usually a branch of something that made reference to the season of the contents of the letter.

    Apart from demonstrating your whit and skill it probably also served to discourage people from trying to have a look inside.

  3. These kinds of security measures remain in use today. In a modern parallel, the PRC-China CEO of ARM (the technology company) has taken control of ARM-China because he possesses the "chop". The chop is the physical instrument that represents corporate approval. An equivalent to the chop in the US would be the signature of the CEO on, say, a contract or a check. A document without the CEO's signature is not binding, and a document without the chop is not binding. The chop bears a strong physical analogy to the sealing ring for a wax-sealed letter. Physical possession of the chop in today's China is similar to possessing the ring of the King in western history. Although the chop does not provide the security of the sealing wax protocol, it does provide a "legal sealing" or imprimatur much as the kings of old might apply their seal to an order or command. For example, King John applied his royal seal to the Magna Carta in 1215.

    As reported by The Register: Crucially, Wu retains Arm China's company chop — an item akin to a company's official seal. Under Chinese law, possessing the chop gives Wu authority over the company regardless of its board's intentions. Transferring possession of a chop is not straightforward so even though he's not wanted by Arm, Wu remains in charge. Lawsuits battling over the future of the outfit are percolating through the courts.

    Ref. https://www.theregister.com/2021/09/02/arm_china_response/


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