A few years ago, a very curious news story broke about an 8-year-old girl pulling a thousand-year-old sword out of a lake in Sweden.
Saga Vanecek — which sounds like the heroine of a YA novel series begging for a Netflix adaptation — discovered the sword while playing in the lake. The Jönköpings Läns Museum estimated that the sword is at least a thousand years old, and could be as old as 5th or 6th century.
No one is sure how it got there, but everyone agrees it’s an amazing find. (And many agree that Saga should now be queen. Hey, there are worse ways to choose a ruler.)
But there’s another story about a sword found in a body of water with an even stranger mystery attached: the River Witham sword.
There are actually two River Witham swords — it’s just the right river to go sword-hunting in, I suppose — but we’re talking about what’s known as the River Witham “knightly sword.”
It was discovered in the river in 1825 and turned over to the Royal Archaeological Institute. It is now in the hands of the British Library.
And for more than two centuries, the meaning of the inscription has remained a mystery.
Inlaid along one of the sword’s edges, spelled out in gold wire, curious eyes find the following chain of letters:
Is it an abbreviation? An encryption? Or simply patterning in the shape of letters? No solid answers emerged during decades of study.
Eventually, the British Library decided to crowdsource the puzzle in the hopes of finding a solution. In 2015, officials from the library officially reached out to the public to finally crack the code detailed along the blade.
All sorts of amateurs and professionals weighed in, exploring possibilities in Latin, Welsh, German, Irish, Sicilian, and others. They compared it to the medal of St. Benedict and other medieval engravings in search of patterns.
And the British Library shared one contributor’s thoughts as an addendum to their original post about the River Witham sword.
[The Alphen aan den Rijn sword-blade.]
Historian Marc van Hasselt compared the sword to others from the same time period, roughly around the year 1200, and believed it was safe to assume the language was Latin.
He compared the inscription from the River Witham sword — +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+ — with an inscription on a Dutch sword-blade found in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands. That blade was inscribed on both sides:
He explains his thought process:
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?
Unfortunately, the British Library’s investigation seems to have stopped there after the intriguing contributions of van Hasselt.
But, thankfully, there is always SOMEONE on the Internet trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable mystery. I did a bit of sleuthing and found a post on medium.com, originally posted in February of 2017, with a very through breakdown of a potential solution to the River Witham sword!
[A closer look at the River Witham sword inscription.]
The author of the piece, Stieg Hedlund, started by focusing on the W in the inscription, since the classical Latin alphabet didn’t have a W. Surmising that the inscription was an initialism — which is common for Latin inscriptions — he started looking for an aristocratic name starting with W.
Why aristocratic? Well, not just anyone in the 1200s or 1300s could afford a sword with gold wire inscriptions.
He quickly settled on some variation of William for the W, and then narrowed his search to Willem II of Holland, a count, and the initialism CHW on the sword could mean Comes Hollandia Willelmus, his name and title in Latin.
Following that line of thought and digging into the history of Willem II revealed that he ruled not only Germany, but the southern Belgian region of Hainault as well.
This gives him “Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei gratia, Rex Germania et Hainault Dei nutu” to cover CHWDRGHD in the inscription.
When he turned his attention to the first five letters, he agreed with the supposition of Marc van Hasselt and others that it referenced “in Nomine Domini” and the XOX represented the Holy Trinity.
So that covers NDXOXCHWDRGHD, approximately two-thirds of the inscription. What about XORVI?
Well, Hedlund believes the solution lies in Laudes Regiæ, a Catholic hymn most famous for its opening words: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (In English: Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands.)
Abbreviated versions of these words were often used by kings and royalty to solidify their position by tying themselves to the church. On a coin issued by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in 1384, you can read one rendition of the phrase: XPiσtoC VinCIT XPiσtoC RegnAT XPiσtoC InPERAT.
He believes XORVI is an abbreviated version, reading “XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!” where the capital letters form the inscribed message.
So, the completed message would read:
(in) Nomine Domini
Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei (gratia), Rex Germania et Hainault Dei (nutu)
XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!
Or, in English:
In the Name of the Lord; of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
Count of Holland Willem by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God
Christ reigns! Christ conquers! Christ commands!
It’s a compelling case, and certainly the most complete interpretation and explanation I’ve been able to find.
Imagine. All of that in that brief, beautiful, confusing inscription. It’s fascinating, and makes the mind positively whirl with possibilities.
Oh, and if you find any centuries-old swords while you’re perusing the nearby waterways, let me know! We might have a new mystery to solve.
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