7th Oct, 2020 10:00

Printed Books, Maps & Documents, Travel, Science & Engineering

Lot 375

Wallis (John). A Collection of letters intercepted in Cipher during the late warres in England, 1653

Sold for £29,000


Wallis (John, 1616-1703). ‘A Collection of Letters and other Papers, intercepted in Cipher, during the late warres in England. Deciphered by John Wallis D. D. Professor of Geometry in the University of Oxford. Being a Transcript of a like Collection presented by him to the Bodleyan Library, in the University of Oxford', 1 July 1653, holograph manuscript in brown and red ink on laid paper (with stylised ‘Pot II’ watermark containing initials ‘EDC’), pp. [24] 1-221 [i.e. 223] + initial blank and 32 rear blanks, with box-rules, pagination and catch-words throughout, old staining to title-page, a little light browning to margins, contemporary mottled calf, twin rules gilt to spine-compartments and covers, extremities rubbed, headcap worn away, front joint cracked but firm, a few abrasions to rear cover, tips showing through, 4to (18.7 x 14 cm)

(Quantity: 1)


1) William Wallis, great-great-grandson of John Wallis, inscribed by him ‘I Wm Wallis had this book with some others from Mr Hayes executor to the late Taverner Wallis deceased, April 14 1784’ on the first rear blank. William wrote a lengthy biography of John, printed in the 1791 edition of John Wallis’s Sermons. For the will of Taverner (or Tavernor) Wallis, of Hampstead, Middlesex, see National Archives, Prob 11/1059/24.

2) 'No. 3 MSS of Dr Wallis’ (18th-century inscription to front pastedown).

3) John Lawson (1932-2019), bookseller.

4) Thence by descent.

A substantial and highly important document in the history of cryptography, an unpublished holograph manuscript by one of the leading mathematicians of the 17th century, revealing his sui generis contribution to the science of code-breaking and to the parliamentarian cause in the English civil war.

Wallis, a clergyman’s son who claimed to be self-taught in mathematics, was appointed Savilian professor of geometry at Oxford in 1649, and keeper of the university archives in 1658, remaining in both posts until his death half a century later. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Society, and his published works, including Arithmetica infinitorum (1655), Mechanica (1670-71), and A Treatise of Algebra (1685) have established his reputation as the most important English mathematician before Newton, on whom his Arithmetica was a major influence.

Wallis’s feats in cryptography provoked both hostility and admiration from his contemporaries, on the one side Thomas Hobbes, who accused him of having deciphered the King’s cabinet (captured after the battle of Naseby in 1645), and on the other, Leibniz, who made repeated attempts to persuade Wallis to reveal his methods to the wider world. In the third edition of his Clavis mathematicae (1652) William Oughtred made passing mention of Wallis’s skill in 'explicating secret writing hidden behind the most intricate ciphers', but Wallis himself appears never to have referred to such matters in print until his final years, when he included two examples of deciphered letters in the third volume of his Opera mathematica (1699, pp. 660-72), two years before he became the first to hold the position of official decipherer to the secretary of state. Leibniz saw an affinity between code-breaking and algebra, and modern scholars have identified a close relationship between Wallis’s cryptographic and mathematical techniques, in particular in the ‘ingenious series of interpolations’ in the Arithmetica by which he found an infinite series expressing the value of 4/π (Domenico Bertoloni Meli in ODNB). Nevertheless it is an aspect of his career entirely ignored by his modern biographer, who remarks that ‘although Wallis’s deciphering activity would be a fascinating story, in the interests of space, it has been left out of this book’ (Rampelt, Distinctions of Reason and Reasonable Distinctions: The Academic Life of John Wallis (1616-1703) (2009) p. 10).

The manuscript begins with a remarkable introduction in which Wallis argues for the importance of ciphers, in particular during civil wars, ‘where the intermingling of opposite parties makes it difficult if not impossible to distinguish friends & foes’ (p. [i]). He outlines the history of his involvement in code-breaking, which began over supper at the residence of his spiritual charge Lady Mary Vere: a guest produced a letter intercepted from the royalist side after the capture of Chichester in December 1642, which Wallis solved in an evening. The arduous decipherment of a second, much more complex letter from Charles I’s exiled secretary of state, Sir Francis Windebank, set Wallis on the path to becoming unofficial code-breaker for the parliamentarians, a position of a kind he believed to be unique in England: ‘For all those letters, which, during these wars, have been intercepted by either party, I do not know that there hath been any one deciphered save those that came to my hands … As for the reasons that moved me thus to expose them to view; I shall only say this much: I did not think it worth the while to publish them in print (nor, perhaps would it be convenient so to do) & yet thought them so considerable as not to be alltogether suppressed’ (pp. xiii & xvi).

The following transcriptions of fifty-three coded letters exchanged by royalists between 1640 and 1658 are all accompanied by the deciphered text and a detailed key, except for the last four, which are left unsolved as exercises for aspirant cryptographers. Included as the first and second examples are ‘A letter intercepted by Sir William Waller, after ye taking of Chichester at the beginning of the warres’, and ‘An intercepted letter, from secretary Francis Windebanck to his sonne’. Nearly half are from royalist agents in Breda to Dutch and English merchants and other contacts in London: dating from 1650, these relate to the negotiations by which the exiled Charles II was offered passage to Scotland and a means of recovering the throne in England, in return for accepting the authority of the Scottish kirk and parliament. Among the others are: ‘An intercepted letter from the King, while he was at Newcastle, to the Prince’; a letter from the exiled Prince Charles requesting money from one Lawrence Loe for an imminent journey to Calais (Saint Germain, 1 July 1648); several from the Earl of Lauderdale to the Countess of Carlisle and unnamed recipients; a number to the Marquess of Ormond (1649-50), one of which Wallis speculates might be ‘from his lady’; ‘A letter to Prince Rupert, concerning divers of the Royalists in France’; and two despatches in French from Graymond, French agent in Edinburgh, to each of Cardinal Mazarin and Jean de Montereul.

Wallis revealed in an autobiography written towards the end of his life that ‘of such deciphered Letters, there be copies of divers remaining in the Archives of the Bodleyan Library in Oxford; and many more in my own Custody, and with the Secretaries of State’ (Scriba, ‘The Autobiography of John Wallis, F.R.S’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Volume 25 Number 1, June 1970, p. 38). His master copy of intercepted civil war letters is now Bodleian MS e Musaeo 203, and is titled ‘A Collection of Letters and Other Papers, which were at severall times intercepted, written in Cipher. Deciphered by John Wallis, Professor of Geometry in the University of Oxford. Given to the Library there, Anno Domini, 1653’. In addition to our copy Wallis made another transcript which is now Bodleian Library MS Eng. misc. e. 475, and which contains a note by Wallis recording its donation to the ‘Savilian mathematical study at Oxford’. Both the Bodleian manuscripts contain fifty-two letters; ours appears to be one he kept back for his own personal use, in light of its provenance to a descendant and the presence of a fifty-third letter evidently added later (‘A Letter from Flanders intercepted in May 1658’, by one Pe[ter] Townesend).

The Bodleian holds a further volume by Wallis containing deciphered letters dating from 1669 to 1703 (MS Eng. misc. e. 382) and the annotation 'No. 4. Dr. Wallis's MSS' similar to that in our copy. There is also manuscript in the British Library titled ‘Letter Book of Dr. John Wallis, 1651-1701’ (Add. MS 32499), selections from which have been printed in Smith, ‘John Wallis as a Cryptographer’ (Bull. Amer. Math. Soc., Volume 24, Number 2, 1917, pp. 82-96), some being letters from Wallis containing summaries of deciphered communications, but the coded originals (if any are present in the manuscript) are not included.

In the ODNB it is implied that the present work was published by John Davys in An Essay on the Art of Decyphering (1737); in fact Davys included only Wallis’s introduction and the letter from Duke of Buckingham (the fifty-second in our manuscript) originally left unsolved.

Further reading: Beeley, ‘Breaking the Code: John Wallis and the Politics of Concealment’, in Li and Noreik, eds, G. W. Leibniz und der Gelehrtenhabitus (2016), pp. 49-81.

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Auction: Printed Books, Maps & Documents, Travel, Science & Engineering, 7th Oct, 2020

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The amount is calculated as follows:

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Buyer's Premium :

The buyer's premium is 20%, except those lots asterisked (*) in the title for which Value Added Tax (VAT) will be added to the premium, resulting in a buyer's premium of 24% inclusive of VAT. Eligible items include manuscripts, prints, photographs, drawings, framed maps, paintings, pens and other objects which are subject to VAT at a rate of 20% on the buyer's premium as part of the Auctioneers Margin Scheme. VAT zero-rated items such as books, unframed maps and albums are not subject to VAT on the buyer's premium.

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An additional commission of 3% plus VAT (3.6% inclusive of VAT) on the hammer price is payable if you use the live auction bidding facility on the Dominic Winter Auctioneers website (dominicwinter.co.uk). This charge will be added to your invoice automatically.

An additional commission of 4.95% plus VAT (5.94% inclusive of VAT) on the hammer price is payable if you use the live auction bidding facility on the ATG Media website (the-saleroom.com). This charge will be added to your invoice automatically.

An additional commission of 3% plus VAT (3.6% inclusive of VAT) on the hammer is payable if you use the live auction bidding facility on the Invaluable website (invaluable.com). This charge will be added to your invoice automatically.

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Payment is preferred by direct Bank Transfer to our bank account. Our bank details will be supplied to you with your invoice.

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We are not specialist shippers. Some items, such as framed & glazed or fragile goods, will require specialist handling and buyers will be asked to use Mailboxes or RF Shipping Ltd. (details below).

For non-fragile items and items of reasonably small size, we offer an in-house packing and shipping facility for UK buyers. When possible, purchases will be sent by either Royal Mail Special Delivery or DPD overnight service. The charge for this service is variable (£15 minimum per parcel) and will be added to your invoice. Please note shipments to the Highlands and Islands may require shipment by courier and may be more expensive. Please contact us for a quote before bidding.

For larger packages and fragile goods, we recommend Mailboxes, Pack & Send or RF Shipping Ltd who will collect fully paid-for purchases from us twice a week and liaise with the buyer direct. For more information please contact Sarah Ball by telephone on +44 (0)1285 860006 or email sarah@dominicwinter.co.uk. These companies will require payment direct for their services.

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