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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?

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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

I think that I have found out who this sword belong to. I have had the feeling from the beginning that it was a high status person. A Grand Master of the Tempel and at first I looked in Germany. But why did it end up in the River Witham so far from Germany.Such a valuable sword ,with gold inlay and an legend which states the DUX NOBILIS, a leader who had the status of a prince. I did not have to look far,which came as a surprise.
In 1307 in France an amazing secret mission was organised to arrest the Templars .This action covered the whole of the country from north to south. A vast area and so well organised and so secret that hardly a Templar escaped. I do not think the police could organise such a complicated raid today. They were accused of disgusting crimes by King Philippe IV who persuaded Pope Clement V(who was resident in Avignon) to authorise the arrest. A document was found in the Vatican ,a couple of years ago which made clear that the Pope did not believe any of the accusations. Hundreds of castles,commanderies,farms were raided like clockwork on Friday 13 ,October 1307. Very nasty and cruel proceedings followed involving the most incredibe tortures. Naturally this arrest was also intended for England but the accusations were not believed and I think it was clear that the French King was only interested in the vast wealth of the Templars.
We can now find the owner of this sword. No other than the Master of the Tempel, in England, William de la More. William became Master in 1304 and in that year has ordered by King Edward I to travel to Cyprus to meet with Jacques de Molay to discuss a new Crusade. All the crusadernations were on the island and this is where I think William was presented with his sword by the German Grand Master.
In 1308 William was at Tempel Bruer in Lincolnshire when under some duress from the Pope ,King Edward II ordered the arrest of William in 1308 by sending John de Cormel, the Sheriff of Lincolnshire with 12 knights to arrest the Templars at Temple Bruer. These included William de More, the Preceptor and Grand Master of the order in England. For a tme they were held in the Clasketgate in Lincoln and later sent to the Tower of London. And now this is how I think THE SWORD ends up in the river.When they arrived in Lincoln, to get to the Castle they have to cross the River Witham and as none considered William guilty his sword was thrown by the Sheriff into the river as a mark of respect. Alternatively as William was probably allowed to keep his sword because of his high status,he hurled it himself into the river so as not to reliquish it to no man. So it ends a little Arthurial.
At least no Templars were tortured in England and most were allowed to join other monastic orders.

Mike Robinson
Acknowledgements Wikipedia and Helen Nicholson´s The Knights Templar, A new History

Thanks to all of you for your comments. They made the effort worthwhile. Thanks again.
There are a couple of things that I would like to add. The first so called R is actually N. It also makes more sense,it would then read`` DUX NOBILIS´´.
The other thing is how did this sword end up in England(and in a river? Was there a ford neaby?) ? Some Templars went to fight with the Teutonic Order in the Baltic area and some actually came back,others died there. Maybe this sword had belonged to a brother Teutonic Knight who died and was given to the Templar in recognition of his efforts. We will never know. Speculation does not hurt but there is a story there.
Best wishes
Mike Robinson

Wow Mike! That's great work.That goes way beyond my dabbling, I Thank You for your efforts here. Glad to see one more possibility. I'm going to let this sink in for a time! Thanks again! Mike

Isn't it neat when dots connect?! I can 'get lost' easy when I've read a book. It's my habit to check the back of the book for Author's Notes & have started whole new 'trails' off in new directions, many times. Great fun! Take care, have fun! Mike

Wonderful work Mike R.!! Thank you for taking so much time to look into this!! I love your streak of curiosity and generous nature to take time to share your knowledge with the world! This makes much more sense than what I'd proposed. I hope the scientific community takes that into account and is able to decipher it now! So close!
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Thanks to Mike M. as well! He intrigued me and blasted the cobwebs from my mind to get into this mystery further as well!!
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Kudos to both of you and your amazing minds!
Sincerely
Crystal

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