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A 13th century, double-edged sword, possibly of German manufacture but discovered in England in the 19th century (British Museum 1858,1116.5)

The Encoded Crusader Sword: Can You Solve the Cryptic Code?

Can you solve the cryptic code engraved into the blade of this 13th century sword? The curious inscription continues to baffle historians, cryptographers ad linguists and last year the British Library appealed to the public for help in cracking this 800 year old mystery.

As you read this article, you will notice that my personal research has turned a tiny, but significant key in this mystery, but maybe you can solve it once and for all?

The sword dates to between 1250 and 1330 and was discovered in the 19th century in the River Witham near Lincoln in northern England. Currently on display at the British Library in the Magna Carta exhibition its steel blade has a sharply honed edge which is unusual, having two fullers or grooves, running parallel down each side. Last year, a spokesperson for the British Museum in London stated: 

“A Viking origin has been suggested for the sword on the basis of the fullers, the pommel and the letter forms of the inscription. However, it is apparent that the pommel, inscription and the blade shape are more characteristic of Medieval European swords than those of Viking origin.”

The museum spokesperson went on to say that the blade is most probably German and the sword is English, and would have been fitted with a hilt. The cross-shaped hilt is characteristic of swords of this period and although a sword is a weapon of death, its shape and form were associated with the core symbol of Christianity.

From the magnificent 2007 Swedish movie ‘Arn, the Knight Templar’.

From the magnificent 2007 Swedish movie ‘Arn, the Knight Templar’.

A knight’s sword was a multi-tool. On one hand it was an effective butchering and stabbing tool and  on the other, when held with the blade pointing downwards, the cross-guards formed a cross. Therefore, a sword is both a device of murder and a mobile altar. Crusaders often etched small crosses into their sword handles and blades after they were knighted, and this occurred very often just before and after battle. As soon as a battle had ended, knights fell to their knees seeking redemption for the brutality they had just unleashed, and their swords, held like a crosses, were raised to the heavens.

The cryptic inscription running down the weapons blade is inlaid with fine gold wire, and it reads:

N D X O X C H W D R G H D X O R V I

The language in which the message was written is unknown, adding another degree of difficulty in cracking this code. Most scholars agree it's abbreviated Latin and Greek, possibly a feudal religious shorthand, and the original British Library blog was recently updated with additional information from Marc van Hasselt of Utrecht University who suggested this is one of several swords found across Europe that appear to originate from the same workshop.

A Crack in the Code

Last year, when this discovery first came across my desk, I made two quick observations and refused to spend any further time, whatsoever, on decoding this transcription.

1. The first R looks nothing like the second R and it is possible the first R, might actually be an N.

2. And the fourth letter is officially interpreted as a C, but it might be a G.

The 13th century, double-edged sword with a cryptic code.

The 13th century, double-edged sword with a cryptic code. Image: The British Museum.

So what is it with these two observations that turned me off?

Unless we travel back in time and ask the smith who engraved the letters what they meant, we can never be 100% sure as to the intended message. It will always be a point of conjecture. Why would I get involved in decoding a transcription if it was clear from the outset that the result will only ever be 50% accurate? However, I didn’t wholly disregard the sword. Symbols are my thing, and I spotted something of interest on the blade that apparently all the other tens of thousands of researchers had overlooked. Setting the transcription aside I focused my attention on the two crosses at each end of the series of letters. 

This line of enquiry yielded some fascinating facts about the origins and meaning of this particular type of cross, taking us closer to the mind of the person who once wielded this mysterious weapon.

The two crosses at each end of the series of letters. Image: The British Museum.

The two crosses at each end of the series of letters. Image: The British Museum.

1.This type of cross is known in heraldry as a ‘cross potent’ or a ‘crutch cross’. This name is derived from the crossbars, or crutches, at the ends of its four arms and the word ‘potent’, is used in heraldic terminology to describe T shapes.

The cross potent

The cross potent

2.The cross potent was believed to hold mystical Christian powers, and as such it was adopted by several crusading Orders in the 13th century. It is still used today in Roman Catholic logos and insignias for their Scouting and Guiding organizations.

Stylized cross-potents

Stylized cross-potents

3.This was a commonly used cross in Germany heraldry between the 12th and 14th century, where it was known as a Krückenkreuz (crutches cross). In the same landscape, over 900 years later, this type of cross became the prime symbol of Austrofascism.

The use of the cross potent in Germany. Fatherland Front rally.

The use of the cross potent in Germany. Fatherland Front rally.

  1. In Old Persian, this particular type of cross represented the word Wu or; magus, magi, magician. The direct interpretation of Wu is ' an able one; specialist in ritual'.  Recent linguistic evidence suggests that in Chinese, W u also meant shaman; witch, wizard or magician, both having come from a common Iranian word.

Old Persian/Chinese Wu or; magus, magi, magician.

Old Persian/Chinese Wu or; magus, magi, magician.

5.A large cross potent, surrounded by four smaller Greek crosses upon a silver field, was the Crusaders' cross, being the heraldic design in the coat of arms worn by Godfrey of Bouillon, the first king of Jerusalem, during the First Crusade. Now known as the Jerusalem cross, it remained in use as the coat of arms and flag of the Kingdom of Jerusalem through the 12th and 15th century.

Author with his prized wooden Jerusalem Bible box displaying the Jerusalem Cross.

Author with his prized wooden Jerusalem Bible box displaying the Jerusalem Cross.

The Multiplex of the Jerusalem Cross

Like with all symbols, the message received is dependant on the viewer’s life experience and knowledge. Thus, the symbolism of the five-fold Jerusalem cross was different to every Knight. To some it represented the Five Wounds of Christ and to others it was Christ and the four evangelists, or Christ at the center of the four corners of Earth. 

Any heraldry book will tell you what cross-potents represented, but to better understand what these two tiny etched crosses might have meant, to the swords owner, we must consciously resist making fleeting objective interpretations and attempt to understand the symbol’s emotional content. To us, the symbols are 'just crosses ’ but stepping outside of your box for a second, if the owner of this sword was a crusader, it might have meant something entirely deeper, something so personal and intense than we can’t really grasp this type emotion today. 

Try imagining yourself standing in a scorching hot desert, thousands of miles from home, facing 10'000 highly trained Saracen soldiers with their grotesque weapons glistening in the sun. You're dehydrated, exhausted and terrified. They charge. Your breath quickens and its sound rings around your sweaty steel helmet. Then a shadow, before a Saracen war-horse thumps you square on, its powerful breast bone smashing your nose across your face.

Then silence.

You are face down in the blistering hot desert. You spit out a violent mixture of sandy blood and parts of broken teeth. You are broken, and start to let go; “stay down ” your inner voice roars at you.

But then, through your black and blue swollen eyes you notice a tiny cross glinting on your sword's blade. You feel a spark of hope deep within your gut. You focus of life again, and your senses sharpen. You hear the metallic war tones of your brothers’ swords swooshing and clashing overhead, and the wrath of God rises inside you. Pushing yourself up you grind the last of your shattered teeth together and immerse yourself back into the chaotic, brutal, bloodbath. You survived. Again.

These tiny crosses may have once served as highly-sacred focal points, eminent centers, to the Knight who owned the sword. Beyond the crosses and the letters, we must treat this object with the utmost respect because although it is a historic treasure, it was most probably wetted with the blood of many Saracens who fell defending their home.

Conclusions

We will probably never know who the knight was that owned this sword because the transcription is so difficult to interpret without any points of reference or heritage. But I think we can be certain he was a crusader who served the Church and wielded this weapon as a Sword of God. If you have any ideas, observations or suggestions as to what the inscription might mean, no matter how left-field, please send me an email to [email protected].

Top image: A 13th century, double-edged sword, possibly of German manufacture but discovered in England in the 19th century (British Museum 1858,1116.5): Image: The British Museum.

Ashley Cowie is an author, researcher, explorer, film-maker and blogger about lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and arts, the origins of legends and myths, architecture, iconography, artefacts and treasures. Visit   https://ashleycowie.com

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

...Actually, I don't think it's a language, code, or a series of words. I think it's a memorial type sword, with the initials of individuals, probably warriors, who died in battle, with the letters arranged in the order that they died. The repetition of some of the letters is simply that some names begin with the same letters...So, it seems to me, that those who have been trying to figure it out, were looking for a forest...when the only thing there were trees....Seems to make sense to me....

It seems that the X's might be like dashes between words? So that it would be a code of letters sans the crosses and the X's?

To me, & only as a start; I don't agree the letters would be the initials of fallen comrades, but it's not without some credit. I couldn't say either, what the letters may represent. I do know that the crosses indicate a beginning, & an end to the letters sequence. Ck the inward-pointing, angled 'rays' projecting from the cross' centers.As; / , & \ . Beyond that, it'd take a time & effort to delve further. However, I would not ascribe anything 'evil' or especially magical either. We, do not know, & are only observers of the remnants of their time & world.

I've tried to eliminate this(&amp) effect when entering the 'and' symbol, to no avail. Guess from now on I'll have to type in 'and' & forget a useful shortcut. My apology, Mike

@Mike McCloud,

I didn't say evil or magic. I meant that the X's could signify stops between words. In calligraphic writing there are often little marks that denote the end of a word or sentence, sort of an artistic choice instead of a period.

For example

N D X O X C H W D R G H D X O R V I

could be (if it was coded from English - this is just a rough example as one would have to possess the cypher for the code and the knowledge of the language the cypher / code was created) -
To • A • Christly • Life

- again, this is just a rough example of what I meant. Christly (i.e. Christ-like, but I was just matching the numbers of letters shown in the article)

So not magical or evil (not sure why you went that direction with my statement), but it could be a reminder of the code they live by or maybe it's a statement of faith, or maybe even a ode to a love, I just went with an obvious Crusader axiom, but it might be Viking or Celtic.

It's just fun to ponder the mysteries and imagine what another person so long ago may have felt was so important they had it engraved in one of their most precious items. :-)

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