Medieval manuscripts blog

03 August 2015

Help Us Decipher This Inscription

Last week (3 August) we blogged about the medieval sword on display in the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. We have been thrilled by the number of enthusiastic comments and suggestions we have received about this sword. Due to the phenomenal range of suggestions, it’s unlikely that we will be able to decipher the mysterious inscription before Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy closes on 1 September — indeed, it could be a mystery that may never be solved! — but we would like to offer huge thanks for all your thoughts and ideas, which have come from all corners of the globe.

The message board on this blog post has now closed, but we encourage you to continue sharing ideas about what the code might mean on Twitter. Please follow our Medieval Manuscripts Blog and @BLMedieval Twitter feed for more news and views from the team.

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Visitors to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy may have noticed that we have one or two objects on display, in addition to the many manuscripts and documents telling Magna Carta's 800-year-old story. One of those objects is a double-edged sword, found in the first section of the exhibition, on loan to the British Library from our friends at the British Museum. The item in question was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and was presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln. It weighs 1.2 kg (2 lb 10 oz) and measures 964 mm (38 in.) in length and 165 mm (6½ in.) across the hilt; if struck with sufficient force, it could easily have sliced a man’s head in two. 

A double-edged sword made in the 13th century.

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

An intriguing feature of this sword is an as yet indecipherable inscription, found along one of its edges and inlaid in gold wire. It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown. Here's what the inscription seems to read:



A detail of an inscription on a double-edged sword.

Detail of the inscription of the sword

At our exhibition this sword is displayed alongside a 14th-century manuscript of the Grandes chroniques de France, open at a page showing the French invasion of Normandy in 1203. The men-at-arms in that manuscript are wielding swords very similar to the one with the strange inscription.

A detail from a manuscript of the Grandes chroniques de France, showing an illustration of the French invasion of Normandy.

The French invasion of Normandy in a manuscript of the Grandes chroniques de France (British Library Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 365v, detail)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, is on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015, see our exhibition website for ticketing details. All the items can also be seen on our Learning site, and in the catalogue, edited by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison, that accompanies the exhibition (now on special offer at £15).

Postscript (7 August, updated 10 August)

Thank you to everyone who has read and shared this blogpost, and for those who have left their enthusiastic comments and suggestions. We're very grateful for your assistance in helping us to decipher this mysterious inscription. We have received several pages of comments -- to view them all, please use the forward/backward button at the foot of this post. Please note that comments on this post have now closed. 

The following note has been kindly added by Marc van Hasselt (Utrecht University, Hastatus Heritage Consultancy).


The River Witham Sword in its European Context

Inscribed swords were all the rage in Europe around the year 1200. Dozens of them have been found, from England to Poland, from Sweden to France. While researching a specific sword-blade found in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands, I found around a dozen other swords which had striking similarities. One of those swords was the River Witham sword, making it part of a large international family. Using the excellent research by Thomas Wagner and John Worley, an image of a hugely successful medieval workshop was created, making ‘magical’ swords for the elite. The swords themselves are of a high quality, but what most catches the eye are the inscriptions. Both their mysterious contents and the similarities in the lettering are striking. A sword from Sweden might use the same slightly curved X as the River Witham sword. A sword currently in Berlin has an I-S contraction also used on a sword found in the Netherlands. These similarities go so far as to suggest the same hand in making the inscriptions. However, their contents are still a mystery, regardless of their origins.

There is some debate on the language used in the inscriptions. But looking at the other European finds, it seems most likely that this language is Latin. This makes sense in the context of 13th-century Europe, as Latin was the international language of choice (like English is today). To elaborate, let's compare the River Witham sword to the sword from Alphen: both start with some sort of invocation. On the River Witham sword, it is NDXOX, possibly standing for Nostrum Dominus (our Lord) or Nomine Domini (name of the Lord) followed by XOX. On the sword from Alphen, the starting letters read BENEDOXO. Quite likely, this reads as Benedicat (A blessing), followed by OXO. Perhaps these letter combinations – XOX and OXO – refer to the Holy Trinity. On the sword from Alphen, one letter combination is then repeated three times: MTINIUSCS, which I interpret as Martinius Sanctus – Saint Martin. Perhaps a saint is being invoked on the River Witham sword as well?

By putting together pieces of the puzzle from all over Europe, we might come a little bit closer to solving the mystery. And even if we cannot decipher the inscriptions completely, they might bring us a little closer to understanding our ancestors.

Further reading:

Inscription on the Sword from Alphen:




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+ND - I





I love the sword for victory.

For more explanation please contact me.

The text as given reads +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+

Given some uncertainties of script (the W, N/R, C/G, V/U) and (contrary to some comments) some unusual details of abbreviation, I read this as a bi-lingual (Greek and Latin) blessing, combining masculine and feminine denominators/ separators (as previously suggested) as follows:


1. There is a semi-palindromic element: i) + as 'inclusio'; ii) O four letters in each way, iii) and H seven letters in; iv) with the central most challenging letters as (in my reading) (inverted) MDRC.

2. Depending on the final reading, the text is basically Latin ("acronyms"/ mnemonics and nomina sacra) with ? masculine and feminine Greek articles to differentiate 'gender', and the surrounding signs of the Cross.

3. The quite beautifully written Greek (not Maltese, and not Latin; all arms of equal length) cross at beginning and end (with pleasing serifs), acting as an inclusio, indicates that there is a blessing on this sword. This detail supports a bi-lingual reading: a Greek opening and closing signum. - The blessing indicates the divine ownership of the sword, requiring that no one 'messes' with it improperly. No one has noted that both crosses, at beginning and end, have little 'wing' marks between the two arms of the cross (to R, in the first, and to L, in the final one). I do not know what these signify; but they are certainly deliberately balanced.

4. ND could in theory be nostri domini or noster dominus, but the usual order (contrary to previous suggestions) is DN. I therefore read NDX: noster dux (our Captain/ leader - i.e. my owner) [is] O ( = Greek def. masc. article) XC, where (as in all icons) these two letters are the first and final letters of the name of Christ in capital letters: XPICTOC - Christos. Thus: 'Our Captain is Christ'... DX is written with first and last letters because this was not a regular usage; though others could attempt some form of translation with 'Our Lord ...' All suggestions of OXO or XOX referring to the Trinity are without foundation.

5. The central section is the trickiest, as everyone recognises. I take H, next, to be the corresponding *feminine* denominator (Greek again, as the first O) to indicate the second and parallel 'owner' of the sword: Mater Dei Regina Coeli/ orum. That this is so is suggested by the further bracketing of the four central initials within a second capital Greek H (f. def. art.)- perhaps as a further protective, sanctifying device. Her protection is ? central. Thus: '[and] the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven'. The fluidity of the capitalistion , the variable script, and the real uncertainty about the place and existence of a W, both at this time, and in either Latin or Greek, therefore suggests an inverted M. Before and after each H, there are six letters.

6. DX is then repeated. So far: 'Our ( = 'my') Captain is Christ [and the] Mother of God, Queen of Heaven'. Now the inscription returns to define the nature of Christ's 'leadership/ captaincy': he is DX ORVI - Leader, Captain, Commander, Guide, General. Grammatically, the Latin *should* read ORBIS, but the sense of an imperfect command of Latin on the part of the engraver goes hand-in-hand with the fluidity of script - [Christ] is 'Commander of the [whole] world.'

Problem: if we read ORVI/ ORBI (V & R being routinely variable in pronunciation - cf. Spanish) in this way, we destroy the symmetry of the two 'O's 4 letters in as separate modifiers. However, I do not see any other way of giving coherent sense to the RVI at the end. (We would ??have to guess or fantasise about a King (R), with a name not given, King [unknown] the VIth?) But that wd in turn destroy the blessing and dedication of the sword to and by Christ and the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven. The language is all entirely possible and consonant with the religious thought of the 13th century.

7. In sum, this is indeed a knight's sword, as previously assumed. It is inscribed to let it be known that this person is fighting for the armies of Christ and [the Virgin] Mary; its owner, Leader and Lord/ Commander [Jesus] Christ, with Mary, Queen of Heaven, have given it their blessing. Anyone who finds this sword, or defeats the knight in battle, should know to whom - ultimately - the sword belongs, even if it is thrown away either because the knight has fled, or because he has been captured and his sword thrown away to demonstrate that he (and the Christian soldiers) have been defeated.

The sword, originally dedicated to and given the blessing of - ultimately - God (as inscribed: Jesus and Mary), may now be the evidence that in one battle, this Christian army was defeated, and their power broken. Contrary again to a previous idea, this is very specifically a Christian knight's sword.

Someone like Prof Helen Castor of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, would be well able to assess and advance the work so far done on this sword. While at first a bi-lingual script might seem unlikely, it is in fact not at all so, given the linguistic, religious and military arts of the 13th century, and the mixed relations between North and South, East and West Christendom.

Dear all,

before we can have an interpretation oft he inscription it is necessary to check if +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+ is correct. As some of you already mentioned: Not all letters seem tob e transcripted correct. In the article
Wagner, T., Worley, J., Holst Blennow, A., Beckholmen, G. (2009) Medieval Christian invocation inscriptions on sword blades. Waffen- und Kostümkunde, 51(1): 11-52
we find a palaeographical alphabet which is very useful. If we look at that compilation and compare it with the inscription oft he sword we come tot he following result:
+NDXOXCHWD N (look at the 2nd variant) C/G (it could be both) HDXOR A (look at the variant of St. Omer) I+
As you can see there are some variations.

It seems tob e doubtless that NDX stands for [in] nomine Domini Christi and o is another attribute for Christ – it stands for omnipotens or rather in that case for omnipotentis
The following X seems to be a repetition for Xristi. Such repetitions are not untypical of inscriptions and so the first part oft he inscription seems to be:
+NDXOX => [In] nomine Domini Christi omnipotentis Christi

Conspicious is that in the rest oft he inscription we find a very similar part (NCHDXO). DXO again seems to be Domini Christi omnipotentis and the N is again [in] nomine. CH could be again Christi, so that it is a reduplication of the NDXOX.
This said there remains CHWD what could be (as suggested) swerd. If we consider that in Latein there was no „sw“ it is not impossible that the writer oft he inscription made a mistake.

So the last part is NCHDXORAI+:
NCHDXO stands for [in] nomine Christi Domini Christi omnipotentis.
This seems to be plausible if we compare it with the beginning oft he inscription because we can observe a chiasmus:
N-D-X-O-X vs. N-CH-D-X-O
It is also plausible if we compare it with the Sword from Alphen (+DIOXMTINIUSESDIOMTINIUSCSDICCCMTDICIIZISI+) where we can find repetitions of words.
What about RAI? These are other attributes for Christus: Regis Altithroni Iesu.
The combination of Regis Altithroni is not untypical, as you can see here: (although it covers only charters up to 900).

I come tot he following result:
Stand for: + [In] nomine Domini Christi omnipotentis Christi chwd [=swerd] [in] nomine Christi Domini Christi omnipotentis regis altithroni Iesu+

Nota bene: We might add benedica in mind. We can not find such a word on the inscription, but the invocation of Christ makes sense when there is a demand for benedication of the sword. I think it is not necessary to write BENEDICA or an abbreviation on it on the sword. It might be as typical as we say PAX VOBISCUM and add "SIT" in mind.

My stepfather who is an expert in Latin came up with the following: Noster Dominus Xristus Ostendit Xarisma Cum Honore. vvlneribus Domini Reparatur Gloria Hominum. Dominus Xristus Omnium Rex Viventium Imperator
Translation: Christ our Lord shows his charisma with honor. By the wounds of the Lord is the honor of the people recovered. Christ our Lord , king and ruler of all people.

The symbols that bound the inscription are cross potents. This same symbol was used by the Knights (Order) of the Holy Sepulchre - 1099 - Present.

If that's the case, particularly given that sword is contemporaneous with the Crusades, then the inscription is likely to be religious as suggested by BlackthornIX.

If this sword has been previously in the Lincoln museum, it has been described by Ewart Oakshot in his "Records of the Medieval Sword". (Page 229) According to him this sword dates from 1100-50 and he refers to the long inscription as "closely matching an equally long inscription on one of Dr Jorma Leppaaho's Viking grave finds.” As there is no translation in his book, it could mean the inscription may be old Danish or Norse. Eventually an expert in old Scandinavian languages can help in the deciphering.

N [omine] In the name
D [ei] of God
sign of cross
O [mnipotentis] the all-powerful

then perhaps an invocation
C [ustodi] guard
H [unc] this
W [name]
D [e]
R [name]
G [ladio] [sword]
H [hoc] with this sword
D [vocative of the noun Deus, because followed by a cross] o God
sign of cross
O [mnipotens] all-powerful
R [ex] king
V [isibilis] visible
I [invisibilis] invisible

= In the name of God, the all-powerful, guard this [name - e.g. Walter de Rochester] with this sword, o God all-powerful, king visible and invisible.

Here my humble opinion.
Accepting van Hasselt's idea that XOX and DXO refer to the Holy Ghost, the inscription might read:
XOX (=Spiritus Sancti)
DXO (=Spiritui Sancto)
I read the mysterious central "R" as an "N", different from the first one because it is not an initial. Another possibility: it is just a visual pun; in that case, both D's could be God, Dei & Deo. Letter "W" could have been used by mistake to represent the latin semivowel "u" or "v": the inscriber is a germanic-speaking person who uses "W" for the same sound in his every day life (might even have the word "win" in mind, common to english, dutch, german...).
Enrique Morales Lara, PhD in Classical Philology.

Or XOX & DXO refer to the Trinity, =trinitatis & trinitati.

I believe this is Welsh with vowels removed from the words. But still, there are many combinations.

Maybe this is from 12th century!? Check "Søborg Sword" on the Net.

i think i got some info about that sword it looks like very old french type of swords "Chevalier".But confusing thing is that "X" way of wrting it with that curves,it remind me on some very rare ancient gipsy language used in Britain,centuries ago.In that gypsy language letter "X' writes as "Ouks and Oiks" that are only 2 variations...I hope i have helped a little bit...good luck with new info's...Im sorry,because my English is this bad,but i gave my best to help you all.

One more thing is interesting,if you payed attention on that picture with those 3 knights,then you have seen first knight with yellov "Ljiljan" or "daffodi" flower (used by many Muslim nations during history),on second is mark of dragon or maybe wolf ( if its a wolf,then is probably Viking) and on third is cross (Christian).All 3 knighst fights togethere,but who is their enemy ?

I know.this will sound insane,but what if those letters are actually some kind of music notes that will reveal song of the sword? "Excalibur singing sword".

If X=Xristus and O=Omnipotens (and first "R"=visual pun), we could also read [In] Nomine Domini Xristi, Omnipotentis Xristi, CHristi, Wictoriam Deo, CHristo Domino, Xristo Omnipotenti RogaVI.
In the Name of Christ Our Lord, Christ Almighty, Christ, for victory to God, to Christ Our Lord, to Christ Almighty I prayed.
But I have my doubts about the same word being represented with two different initials (and not once), especially if we consider van Hasselt's evidence about XOX and DXO. In the Name of God, the Trinity and Christ, for victory to God, Christ and the Trinity I prayed: this sounds more symmetric and lapidary to me.

This is interesting. first thoughts: is there a very tangential link to the Witham Shield, which the BL also holds? This is a Bronze Age artefact found in the same river and one of the theories is that this was deliberately thrown in there as a votive offering to the gods.
We know that in the 18th-19th centuries there was a big romantic resurgence of interest in the Celtic /Druidic world and the folklore and mythos surrounding it. also, old memories persist in the english countryside - so manty customs and practices appear to be half-remembered survivals of the pre-christian area (maypoles, well-dressings, et c; the repeated scouring of the Uffington white horse and the Cerne Abbas giant).

Did people in this area have a custom of making sacrifices to the river, that persisted long after the religion that inspired them died?

I say this because for a sword, then 600 years old, to be retrieved from a river in Lincolnshire in 1825 - it's in very good nick. Similar swords found in British rivers are basically all rust after so long. (And the BM has plenty of those). This implies it cannot have been in there for very long when it was found.

1825 is ten years after the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Some of those ambiguous-looking letters inlaid in the blade of the sword almost spell "CORDUVA" - (if you squint at them sideways) the Latin name of the city of Corduba in Spain.

Corduba was a battlefield several times over, first when the French captured it in 1808, and again when Wellington's army passed that way into France in 1812-13.

Going back further than that, it was reconquered in 1236 from the Corduba Caliphate - 1236 ties with the year of manufacture.

The almost completely circumstantial thought is that a British soldier picked it up in the Peninsular as loot and brought it home with him. The 10th (Lincolnshire) Regiment fought all the way through this campaign. Could a local man, who knew about the legends associated with the river, have thrown it in on his return from Spain, in thanksgiving at coming home alive?

no way of proving it, of course, but it feels right!

Oh... and provide a bigger window and a larger typeface to make replies in? This is giving me a headache....

I know it's not Greek writing, but Xiphos is Greek for sword...

As has been argued by John Worley and Thomas Wagner, in their 2013 paper, the interpretation of sword inscriptions like this requires one to reconstruct the context within which it has been produced and used. So what is this context? Much of this is constructed by Worley and Wagner’s inter-disciplinary team in another paper. Both of these papers are linked to on this webpage.

In brief, similar sword inscriptions can be found on medieval swords from 11th Century to the 13th Century. In particular, steel swords with the same sort of gold inscription exist from the period of the late 12th Century to the mid-13th Century. The Fyris sword recovered in Sweden in 1896, and held by the Uppsala University Museum, is an example. The source of manufacture of these swords is Germany. They have been found throughout Europe. Almost invariably these inscriptions take the form of a religious invocation in Latin. The inscription of religious invocations on fighting weapons follows a Germanic tradition which goes back to magical runic inscriptions on fighting axes of the Germanic tribes. This is most evident for a number of the swords studied by Worley’s and Wagner’s team. So it’s likely to be the case for this Witham sword. A number of the letter patterns in the inscription occur on other sword inscriptions. Some of these have been set out in other posts and are included in the above mentioned papers. The W appears to be a problem for Latin, as it doesn’t occur in the Classical Latin alphabet as suggested in a previous post. However, it does occur in Medieval Latin in Britain and Germany to deal with Germanic names in particular.

Additional context for the Witham sword is provided by its find-location. It raises a question about the dating of the sword though. The sword is similar to the Fyris sword. So why 1300? Why not late 12th Century to early 13th Century like the Fyris sword? Lincoln was the find-location and the Battle of Lincoln of 1217 was one of the major battles of the Medieval period. The sword is that of a knight. Over 400 knights took part together with an army of crossbowmen led by William Marshall the 70 years old regent to the 10 year old Henry III. William Marshall’s success in this battle secured Henry’s rule over England at a time of insurgent barons acting with the French Prince Louis’s army that was seeking to claim the English throne for Louis. The war in which this battle took place is called the ‘First Baron’s War’ after the death of King John. William Marshall was a great Medieval warrior who participated in the Crusades. He became one of the richest knights in England with lands and castles in Ireland, Wales, Normandy and large parts of England. He was eventually buried as a member of the Knights Templar and entombed in the Templar Church in London, his sarcophagus displaying a representation of his sword that uncannily looks like the Witham sword. Could the curious W on the inscription refer to William? Could the Witham sword be one of William Marshall’s swords? The likely religious inscription on the sword indeed suggests it to be a crusader’s sword.

So what of the inscription? An interpretation might be based on the following partition of the inscription:


Worley and Wagner suggest that an implicit ‘I’ in front of ND standing for ‘In’ is found on other swords.

So here’s a suggestion, based on all of the above considerations:

In Nomine Domine Xristus Omnipotens Xristus Sanctus,
Hic Willelmus,
Deo Regant Confidit Hic,
Deo Xristus Omnipotens,
Regant Vim Invictus.

This roughly translates to:

In the Name of the Almighty Christ, O Lord, the Holy One ,
This William,
He trusts God's rules,
Christ God Almighty,
They govern undefeated.

Dear Julian

I hope my contribution might be of use.

Ignoring the benediction at the start of the inscription, (NDXOX'G') which may be the usual acclaim to the Trinity (with O being ‘And’, etc.), I wonder if the following might be applicable?
1. The sword was found in the River Witham.
2. This is close to Revesby Abbey (in the Doomsday Book: 'Reuesbi')
3. The Earl of Lincoln, William de Roumare born @1096 and died @1161 is buried at Revesby Abbey. William founded and nurtured Revesby, with monks from Rievaulx.
4. He and his wife, Hawise, produced a single heir named William 'Helie’ de Roumare who pre-deceased his father with his death in 1151. He is also buried at Revesby.
5. Therefore (apart from the Trinity inscriptions) might the inscription indicate a memorial sword created for the funeral of William ‘Hélie’ de Romare? HWDR = Hélie William de Roumare, and the RVI may indicate Revesby (Reuesbi)? Hélie is a Norman name. There are other characters in the inscription for which I cannot offer suggestions, but considering the locality and the people, I get a gut feeling we might be on the right track here
6. The sword appears never to have been used, which is why I suggest this is a commemorative sword. I know the date of events is earlier than your dating of the blade, but then you mention the double fuller being of Viking influence? Perhaps the blade is earlier than your suggested date?
7. The presence of Templar crosses at either end of the description may indicate the strong local influence of the Templars in Temple Bruer and also in Witham Abbey and other parts of the county. Lincolnshire was a Templar hotbed and I would not be surprised if the Roumares were deeply involved.
8. A sword and inscription of this type would have been a costly affair, likely to be affordable for high ranking folk. So I offer this as another clue to the inscription. Perhaps the placement in the River Witham indicates a throwback to the Viking influence on the east coasts in burial ceremonies? The River Witham was, at the time, a major shipping artery for the wool trade, in which the Templars had a strong investment.

I hope this may be of interest.

Clive Ruffle

Sources (I accept these are weak, but my reading was wider):,_earl_of_lincoln 8/8/15,_Earl_of_Lincoln 8/8/15 7/8/15 6/8/15







med XOX geworced CORVI(N)

The first char is not +, It may be "K". Also last one is "H", because + is too close to "I".

every char next "X" is Ornamental writing (O, C or G, O). and two R (the first one may be "turn A" or "U" : but up side down, why... ) are HINT. I gave up!!

Nostre Domini Christi
O Christi Crucifixi Honorum
Warranti Dominum Regnum Gloria
Honorium Domini Christi
Regnum Virginum et Iesu

The meaning + Why it is so :

" Made by God, by Yahweh, the sword reveals herself by God's rebirth. "

ND = Made
X = By
O = not an O it is a closed eye = The eye is God, the flag of the Kingdom Of God. Because it is closed it is hidden
X = By
GHW = Yahweh
(On the sword it is a G and not a C and the C a few letters on is not a G. You got those mixed up)
DN CHD = two words, There is no literally translation for it but it means will be revealed, the secrets revealed, As it is written on the sword it about the sword. The best translation is the sword reveals herself.
X = By
O a closed eye = God's
RVI = Re life, Rebirth ( Vi is life )

Naturally the Cross at the beginning and the end means it is Christian.

I hope this helps you,

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