Medieval manuscripts blog

03 August 2015

Help us decipher this inscription

In 2015 we blogged about the medieval sword then on loan to the British Library’s exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. We have been thrilled by the huge number of suggestions we have received about it, from all corners of the globe. But all correspondence about the sword and its inscription, together with the message board below, is now closed. Thank you.

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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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Looks like medieval Welsh..
"No covering shall be over me"?
Possibly meaning the sword and it's' owner will always be ready for battle?

I'd be looking for
a) word separation
b) abbreviations - Cappelli?

"ND O CHWDRGHD ORVI". The longer word in the middle simply looks like a misspelling of the German for sword. This would make ORVI a name. Urvi means a Earth in Hindi...but I think this looks more Latin, as in Orvis, a variation of Horatius, meaning hour/time.

ND - Noster Dominus (Our Lord)
O - omnis (all, every)
CH - cohors (cohors) of
WDR - ? Waldemarus
GH D - gehenna dies (Hell / Domesday)
orvi - 1) oro, avi, atum, are - pray
2) orno, avi, atum, are

The medal of St. Benedict contained a poem that was reduced to the first letter of each word of the poem (see below). The inscription on the sword looks to me like that kind of thing.


Crux sancta sit mihi lux (May the holy cross be my light),
Non draco sit mihi dux (Let not the dragon be my leader),
Get behind me Satan (Vade retro satana).
Nunquam suade mihi vana (Never tempt me with vain things),
Sunt mala quae libas (What you offer is evil),
Ipse venena bibas (Drink the poison yourself).

This was clearly St George's sword:
Now, Dagger: O ClasH With DRaGon's HeaD! O Reap VIctory!

Orvu is Sicilian for "blind", and the blade is the same as one can find in museums identified as a 'Sicilian hunting sword' (, right down to the style of inscriptions (though scrubbed of the gold thread).

Taking Sicilian origins for the weapon, we have a likely biblical passage involving the blind, or blindness (likely, as noted above, by initial letters).

Orvu is a natural pun for 'oru', or gold, so the inscription may be partly self-referential. It may also refer to a person, such as Homer (author of the inscription)?

,,it's also very compelling to note that DRGHD forms the consonants of DRoGHeDa, an ancient Irish place name.

This wouldn't be the first teleconnection between ancient Irish and Mediterranean places through metalwork, on the precedent of the traditional story of how the claddagh came about.

So, "ND & CHW; Drogheda - The Blind(smith)": this could be a pledge sword, a pact between ND and CHW involving a return to a homeland?

Not knowing anything about medieval languages... Why are both Rs assumed to be Rs? They don't look very much alike. Could the first be a different letter?

Is there an image of the other side of the sword? I understand that the reverse is inlaid as well.

Based upon some previous posts and my own ideas....

ND - Noster Dommus (our lord)

xox - old pledge in name of christ

G - God
h - help
w - wounded
d - downed

n - noble
C - christ
h - help
d - defend

xorvi - spanish/latin name

Probably thrown in river when owner died.

As soon as I saw this post, I realized I had seen not only the sword, but the engraving as well. A quick look and I found it on Page 34 of Oakeshott's Records of the Medieval Sword. I wondered if you had a picture of the obverse side of the blade.

Any symbology that might appear on that side is very important. From an alphabet perspective, I was immediately struck by the inclusion of the letter W as it wasn't in general use in that form until some point during the 14th century when it began shifting from begin written as the the digraph to being written as the ligature more frequently as the 15th and 16th centuries approached. I don't think I would have stopped if it weren't in the form it is in. In the early versions of the W ligature it is most commonly written as two V's whose legs cross over each other. Time and scribal laziness eventually eliminate the crossed sections for ease of writing. This particular W letter form has an apex that is half the height of the arms of the W letter suggesting that the engraving was added nearer the 15 or 16th century. It is important to note that the W letter form is used natively in: German, Dutch, English, Welsh, Polish, Walloon and Maltese. Most romance languages including the Latin of the day did not use the W.

One other observation question before I return to my research on this.. There seems to be some damage to the sword about 11 inches (27 cm) up the blade from the tip. I am curious if this is more than simply corrosion.

More to come.

Is there a catalog number for the sword? Just curious.

Yes, it is British Museum 1858,1116.5. You can read more about it here:,1116.5&page=1

I think Tannasgh is on the right track. A couple of things to think about: U and V were interchangeable. In that case the last word might be ORUI (in Latin "wait"). There is a better picture of the words on the research page posted by the moderator above. The Chi-Rho symbols at either end are very clear as are the letters. Morgan might be onto something with the G/C mix of the first supposed C. And, I wonder still about the lower case/"sofit" R. Could that indicate the end of a name/word (is it a number)? I think that character might be key to unravelling the puzzle. The normal things ("Noster Dominus") are more common (although it does strike me as odd that is backward (normally written DN (Dominus Noster) in Latin.

Can I ask, is anything on the reverse? A decoration? Often the two sides were linked even if from different contexts (a biblical verse on one side and a family reference on the other).

5 August
On the other side, according to the British Museum description, there are 'crosses, crescents and quatrefoil motifs'.

It may not mean anything, or be very badly spelt if it does.

IIRC Saxon swords in particular often had inscriptions on them that didn't actually say anything because the people buying them (or making them) were illiterate. PEople wanted swords with their names, or other cool inscriptions on them, and they could recognise the symbols but they couldn't actually read. So the blacksmiths just put any old letters on and called it a day.

Its not unlike chinese tattoos that people think are deep and meaningful but are actually taken off a takeaway menu. (or the english t-shirts sold in china which are gibberish)

Also important to look at artistry.


Mike C points out the difference between the two R's (the later is definitely R; possibly the former is a visual pun?)


Notice the C and G are inverted copies of each other, perhaps another visual pun, or front rhyme, as the 'H' and 'D' repeat after each of these twins, though in the former phrase with 'W' interposed.

Nostru Dama - Our Lady, in Sicilian

O - Sicilian for 'and', or pretty much any preposition in context.

CHWD - acronym for a phrase from a well-known verse? consonant representation of a word?

N/R - Connective? Visual pun?

GHD - 'rhyme' with CHWD? Another acronym or consonant representation?

Taken together, is the coincidence with DRoGHeDa just a coincidence, or is this another visual pun, combining the place name with another cunning meaning in the inscription?

ORUI - The word for gold, in gold lettering, ambiguously the word for blind. In the ultimate position, typically a signature, or a periodic word tying together the riddle (as is common in medieval jewel riddles). Is this a reference to Homer, to a blind smith, or to a blind swordsman? To the goldwork?

More likely, the inscription is meaningful only to the maker and the person who commissioned it; it appears likely to be a later addition to the blade, which looks like it's been re-hilted and re-worked several times.

The NDXOXORVI portion can be easily deciphered from existing sword inlays and the practise of using X's to separate sections-
Nomini Domini Omni Orvi
In the name of the Lord of all the earth
The section encapsulated by X's in the centre is likely reference to the smith- but as the W suggests a Germanic tongue (as others have correctly asserted, W was not common in any Latin usage)- it could also be repetition in the vernacular- the first character after the X appears more G than C- suggesting GHW could be Gott (of) Hefen (and) WelD, Rex CHristi Dei, given the practise of medieval shorthand taking two letters from a word and placing them together to suggest a sound.
The centre portion is conjecture, but a very large number of swords feature INNONINIDOMINI, NINOMINIDOMUS and similar that ND is a known shorthand, as is CH for 'CHristus".


I think:

O = french = Quant/ In latin = ut

so: +NDX(Quant)XCHWDRGHDX(Quant)RVI+

I agree that the first R is most likely not an R. It wouldn't make sense for the maker to not use an actual R if they really did mean it do be an R - esp. considering that there is an R. It has to be something else. Did you consider other letters? Numbers? I'll do more research on this tonight. Wasn't something similar used as a U in Runes? Granted, we might be looking at different languages/letters but it could be a start to get away from the R.

It might be a ROT1( Or ROT2,3,4 etc) code. I'm not an expert at all, but the ROT findings are as follows:

ROT-1: oeypydixeshieypswj
ROT-2: pfzqzejyftijfzqtxk
ROT-3: qgarafkzgujkgaruyl
ROT-4: rhbsbglahvklhbsvzm
ROT-5: sictchmbiwlmictwan
ROT-6: tjdudincjxmnjduxbo
ROT-7: ukevejodkynokevycp
ROT-8: vlfwfkpelzoplfwzdq
ROT-9: wmgxglqfmapqmgxaer
ROT-10: xnhyhmrgnbqrnhybfs
ROT-11: yoizinshocrsoizcgt
ROT-12: zpjajotipdstpjadhu
ROT-13: aqkbkpujqetuqkbeiv
ROT-14: brlclqvkrfuvrlcfjw
ROT-15: csmdmrwlsgvwsmdgkx
ROT-16: dtnensxmthwxtnehly
ROT-17: euofotynuixyuofimz
ROT-18: fvpgpuzovjyzvpgjna
ROT-19: gwqhqvapwkzawqhkob
ROT-20: hxrirwbqxlabxrilpc
ROT-21: iysjsxcrymbcysjmqd
ROT-22: jztktydszncdztknre
ROT-23: kauluzetaodeaulosf
ROT-24: lbvmvafubpefbvmptg
ROT-25: mcwnwbgvcqfgcwnquh

I'd say that
ND - stands for possibly a variation of 'nostrum dominus', 'our lord'
X - is for 'Christ'
O - could be a cipher, a separator (the two o's stand symmetrical in the inscription, and have an additional stroke, unlike the rest of the letters [with the possible exception of the first C/G)
X again for Christ
C or G - uncertain, but could be 'clemens', 'gratus', etc.
H - could by anything, but perhaps 'hosanna'?
W - this could well be an inverted M, an in that case could stand for 'Maria'
D and N - if referring to Mary, perhaps 'domina nostra'
once more, You got 'n' wrong, and mistook it for 'r'.
C/G and H - this sort of monotonous iteration is extremely common with charms
D and X - dominus Christus
O - separator
R - perhaps 'rex' or 'regina'
V/U/Y - the initial letter of the sword-bearer's name
I - could again be an initial, but could also be a numeral.

My two cents. Also, the abbreviations all have precedents and are quite widespread, so...

Having studied similar swordblades from across Europe and specifically a recent find from Holland, it is almost certainly Latin. The inscription on the Dutch sword is rather similar, if longer and on both sides of the blade:


Since the Dutch sword refers to Saint Martin (MTINIUSCS), the same might be true of the River Witham sword - imploring a specific saint for protection or aid. In my opinion, the River Witham inscription can be read like this:


The first two letters implore Our Lord (Nostrum Dominus, or Nomini Domini - in the name of the lord). The next three also appear in the same position on the Dutch sword and most likely refer to the trinity in some way, or to Christ. The CH combination is interesting as it appears twice (and not one C and one G - same style of inscription appears on the Dutch sword). In between these two letter combinations are the letters WDN - perhaps the saint being implored? The DXO might again refer to God, Christ and the Holy Ghost. RVI might then refer to the owner or maker of the blade.

As an aside, the lettering is incredibly similar to the Dutch sword in style. The decorations and flourishes are almost exactly the same. Details like the slightly rounded Xs make me suspect the two sword might even have been made in the same workshop. There is a sword in Berlin with similar inscriptions again.
Article on my research, in Dutch.

Several people have mentioned that the C's might be G's, or that one might be a G.
If read as such, and considering the interchangeability of v and u, as well as the germanic nature of the W according to previous posters, I, as a scandinavian, would be inclined to read it as "Ghuudr Guhd", Good God. So, Saxon?
Thus the w, as a sudden vowel, might have been added to signify vowel length.
The R, however, in Ghuudr, makes it look very scandinavian, which is unlikely. In my opinion there are two possibilities, either, as in many medieval manuscripts, an r at the end of a word looks different than an r in the middle of a word (cf. Fabr. 25 2°, medieval manuscript of Sallust), which would indicate that GHWDRGHD is two words, or, as has been pointed out, it isn't an R at all, making the inscription GHWD-GHD.
In this case GHWD could instead be God.
Just a suggestion, might give someone some ideas.

The crosses at the beginning and end of the inscription appear to be the Maltese Cross. In the proposed time period Malta was under Spanish control which was lead by Islamic rule.

If it is a religious inscription it would make more sense to be of the Islamic branch of the Abrahamic faiths, rather than the Christian or Judaic branches.

"Orvi" is a Gaulic word for "inherit".

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