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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

This German sword belonged to a Deutschordensritter(Teutonic Knight). They fought in the Holyland alongside the Knights Templar.
I think the basis of the inscrition is mainly Latin ,but there is no W in the Latin alphabet and naturally this fits in with German and so I have given our Knight the name Wilhelm (naturally there are many more but we have to start somewhere).
So here is my interpretation of the letters on the sword:
N:NOBILIS D:DOMINUS X:CHRISTO , O:OMNIPOTENT, X;CHRISTO.
C:CONFIDENS, H:HONESTA W:WILHELM D: DUX R:ROMANUS,
G:GLORIA H:HONORIS DOMINI X:CHRISTO O:OMNIA R:REX
V:VIA I:INTAMINATIS

Roughly translated:
NOBLE LORD CHRIST, OMNIPOTENT CHRIST
BOLD HONEST WILHELM ,DUKE ROMAN (Germany was the Holy Roman Empire)
GLORY HONOR OF THE LORD CHRIST,ANNOINTED KING OF ALL,
THE WAY UNTARNISHABLE.

I hope that I have not wasted my time, as I should have been doing some important work but this intrigued me. I know many swords had a name(Caliburn is a good example) but I think that a Crusader would have used the code they all knew as the sword was dedicated to the work of Christendom. This a little like the earlier names on swords(e.g. Viking), it was to imbue them with magic,to protect them also from the stain on the soul as they were killing (Forbidden in the 10 Commandments). The Normans had to run off after the Battle of Hastings and build churches to save thier souls as they had killed Christians.
No doubt there will be critisism of my Latin,but there has been no other offering so far.

Hope this was worthwhile
Mike Robinson

Awesome work Mike M!! I'm amazed and fully intrigued!! I'll follow this story hopefully to its conclusion!! :-) Sincerely, Crystal

( Whew!) I was sure I'd done a social faux pas--again! Thanks tho'! Being that the Templars were a priestly org & ordained by the Pope and he being centered in Rome, I'm very sure anything they'd put down in this formal a manner would be in "God's Language'; Latin, as the Church would have it. ( Never mind how the Jews may have felt about that, I'm sure! ). You've got me sorting some stuff on this, in my nimble noodleous! I have some recently published, & updated books on symbols & it's intriguing that the shape of the X's at each end of the sword, are right on the mark for the 'Hooked X' figures seen on various stone carvings & memorials from ancient times, into the Middle Ages, albeit without 'the hook'. Interesting, but likely not conclusive; they're prob'ly just 'nice looking X's' as is the rest of the letters. Hooked X books; ' The Hooked X-- Key To The Secret History of North America' by Scott F. Wolter. This one uses research done in the History channel's 'Holy Grail In America'. ( The Hist Chnl is 'okay' but they stretch Templar legend fantastically ( grain of salt ). The other is 'The Graves of The Golden Bear' by Rick Osmon & goes on about the hook being a key to Europeans colonizing North America before Columbus. Two other books; one that's a throwback even further is about the symbols the ancient Picts used. Among them are symbols that, to me, look very similar to Masonic Plumbs & Levels(!). 'Decoding The Pictish Symbols' by W.A. Cummins, very good & excellent illustrations. The other; 'The Art of The Picts' - Sculpture and Metalwork in Medieval Scotland, by Thames and Hudson. You may know the Picts were 'experienced' by the Romans & are the chief reason for Hadrian's Wall; they're ornery! Hope you may find these to provide some insight into the medieval mind, as I have. They used such a long process of Lore & History & I am sure they considered themselves apart of developing history and what they drew upon went far back as part of their lives & in its structure & how they experienced evens. Take care, have fun! Mike

@Mike McCloud, no, no need to apologize, didn't mean it to be a howler...was just saying, what you said, it's fun to imagine. I hope they decide what language the cypher was created in, then we'd at least have a start clue to work with :-) Have a good one! :-) ~ Crystal

Sorry Crystal, really. I sometimes get anxious to 'cover all the bases' as there are those who read what we say here, & will try to bend a meaning-to suit them, but I certainly didn't mean to imply you were taking that direction at all. It is fun to try to figure symbols & phrases and try to put ourselves in the person's shoes! I like your approach that you laid out, interesting to say the least! You've prompted me to go back & review the figuring again. I kinda look at this stuff as 'brain food' ! Anyway, Thanks for the Reply & keep at it! Mike

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