De Gouden Koning

Willem II consolidates the Low Countries with a new sword (Solving the Sword, Part 3)

In the mid-13th century, Frederick II had been excommunicated by two different Popes, deposed as Holy Roman Emperor, a crusade against him was preached, and two different anti-kings had been elected to invade his territories, and, if possible, do him in. While certainly troubled by these events, rather than sulking, he had simply withdrawn from northern Germany and continued his consolidation of the Italian peninsula. Despite the second of the anti-kings, Willem II’s coronation in full regalia, series of battlefield victories, and the embattled HRE’s shift of focus to the south, the German princes had still not closed ranks behind a ruler they still regarded with some suspicion as Pope Innocent’s pawn: those presiding over Willem’s election had been almost entirely ecclesiastical, and some of the princes, such as the Duke of Saxony, had even directly opposed it. While still continuing to attempt to politic his way through this imperial/ pontifical mess, the anti-king withdrew his forces from the south in order to directing them instead toward goals closer to home.

This opportunity came about via Jean I d’Avesnes, Willem’s brother in law. He had married Willem’s sister, Aleid, in 1246, and supported him in the siege of Aachen. With that accomplished, Jean had a bone to pick with his mother, Marguerite II, Countess of Flanders, and entreated his new and powerful relative to take his part. Indeed the timing of his marriage suggests that it was specifically intended to gain him an ally in the Wars of Flemish Succession (as marriage often had strategic aims in those days), though it had preceded William’s election, which event must then have seemed fortunate beyond Jean’s wildest dreams. On the other hand, Willem’s ambitions in the region were already clear as well.

The bad blood between Jean and Marguerite came following the first conflict in the War of the Flemish Succession, in which Jean had battled his younger half-brother, Guillaume III de Dampierre. King Louis IX of France and Bishop Odo of Tusculum had finally intervened, settling Flanders on Guillaume and Hainault on Jean.¹

Now however, with Louis away on the Seventh Crusade, it had become clear that Marguerite had no plans to relinquish Hainault, so Jean turned on both her and the king, asking Willem to annex Hainault to his lands and give it to Jean to rule as its count which should already have been his right twice over. Hainault, along with much of central Europe, was already an Imperial fiefdom, so this act, like Willem’s later declaration of his kingship of Zeeland, was merely taking something that was his by right and attempting to make it his in fact. As for the newly crowned Emperor, the appeal of extending his rule in the Low Countries was clear. He seems to have allowed himself to be persuaded, adding Hainault to his titles. And here, finally, is where the Witham sword enters the story.

To the trained eye, the Witham sword differs greatly from the Zeremonienschwert. Although not as elaborate as ceremonial swords were to become, the latter blade is clearly meant for symbolic rather than martial use. The square grip would make it painful to wield, and it looks blade-heavy as well. As I noted earlier, the pommel has been changed. The original could have been a heavier one—based on the style of the parts of the sword that are original, I’d guess it was a large, square cross-sectioned disk—and again fairly unergonomical. The square guard is bulky and its shape ineffective. The blade is unadorned, its cross section is flat—overall it seems intended simply to look impressive sheathed, which in fact it would typically be, as the coronation ceremony has the officiant gird the king with the scabbarded sword. It was apparently used for knightings under the Habsburgs, which would have involved unsheathing it, but by then it would have been fully anachronistic and impressive mainly for its glitter and history.

Everything about the blade from Lincolnshire, by contrast, says it is a weapon of war: It has a heavy pommel to balance the weight of the blade and a sturdy, double-fullered, lenticular cross-section. The guard is thin but functional with flared ends to arrest a foe’s blade. The grip is missing, having likely decomposed in the river, which means it was of organic material, likely wood and leather, to absorb the shocks of cuts, thrusts, and parries. Shark- or rayskin, called shagreen, was a popular grip covering as the scaly surface was naturally nonslip. Even the inscription is in keeping with its warlike purpose; the invocation is meant to gain the favor of God and inspire valor in battle. It is now my conjecture that this sword was created upon the declaration of William’s kingship of Hainault, perhaps Jean’s gift to his brother in-law. It also makes sense as the last title presented in the inscription with the purpose of going to war with the Dampierres, which is exactly what occurred. Willem seems to have declared his kingship over Hainault in 1249, while his title Duke of Swabia was appended in 1254, giving a five-year window for the inscription, as the Witham sword does not bear that title. He also became King of Zeeland in 1256.

The war seems to have been focused in Zeeland, sitting between Flanders and Willem’s base in Holland.² Here Willem and Jean, and their Brabantine allies scored a series of victories in the five-year conflict. These culminated with the decisive battle of Westkapelle, in 1253, which crushed military resistance in the area, forcing Marguerite and Gui de Dampierre (his older brother, Guillaume, having been killed earlier in the conflict) to acknowledge the earlier settlement granting Hainault to Jean.

This treaty was not worth the parchment it was written on, however, as the treacherous Marguerite promised Hainault to Louis IX’s brother Charles d’Anjou. Willem entreated aid from Henry III of England to balance the scales. Charles attacked Jean at Valenciennes, where the Frenchman was soundly defeated and nearly killed. In the end it took King Louis’ return from the crusades to settle the matter and set Jean firmly on the Hainault throne. But even before all this was resolved, apparently dissatisfied with his gains in the Flemish wars, Willem had already turned to his forces against the West Frisians, his neighbors to the northeast, in a new series of battles.

Although history is somewhat obsessed with battles and conflicts, in Willem’s case it also records some of his more productive works. In 1250 he began construction of the western part of what is now known as the Schielands High Seawall—a critical piece of infrastructure for the Low Countries. He granted charters to the towns of Haarlem (1245), Delft (1246), ‘s-Gravenzande (1246), and Alkmaar (1254), thus officially recognizing these municipalities and granting them important privileges. Most of these were to become major cities thereafter. He also confirmed and extended the rights of Middelburg (1217) and Zierikzee (1248). The above image is a painting by Caesar van Everdingen from 1655 commemorating Willem’s granting of a charter to the local Dike-wardens of Spaarndam in 1255. This organization later became known as Hoogheemraadschap Rijnland, the Dutch Water Board agency of Holland, based in Leiden to this day.

He also commissioned the building of two palaces, one in Haarlem and an earlier one in des Graven Haghe, around which the city of The Hague was to grow. The latter came to be called the Binnenhof, and is today adorned with a golden statue of its builder. Though he is little known elsewhere, the Dutch venerate him as a founding father, and the continued popularity of the name Willem dates from his rule.

The statue bears the inscription:

Ter nagedachtenis van Willem II Roomsch Koning en Graaf van Holland, Begunstiger der stedelijke vrijheden, beschermer der kunst, stichter der kasteelen in ‘s-Gravenhage en Haarlem, geb. MCCXXVII †MCCLVI†

In memory of William II, King of the Romans and Count of Holland, supporter of urban liberties, protector of art, founder of castles in The Hague and Haarlem, born 1227, died 1256

Widening our focus back to Europe’s ongoing political turmoil, in 1250, Frederick II died, and was succeeded by his son Conrad IV. The pope swiftly excommunicated him, deposed him as HRE, and stripped him of his duchy of Swabia, conferring it on the anti-king instead. Already in the previous year at the papal Council of Lyon, Willem had started negotiations for an imperial coronation in Rome, even performing the Officum Stratoris et Strepae, a strange ceremony that originated with Emperor Constantine. He describes it thus:

[H]olding the rein of [the Pope’s] horse, out of reverence for blessed Peter we performed for him the office of a groom

Essentially, this was an act of humility before the Church and as such, many rulers flatly refused to do it.

The next year Willem married Elizabeth, the daughter of Otto the Child, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, thereby becoming the symbolic head of the Guelphs. The Guelfs and the Ghibellines were two opposing parties that Dante often referenced in his Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia). The Hohenstaufens (to which Frederick II belonged) essentially headed up the latter, refusing to acknowledge the church’s authority over temporal matters, while the church—predictably—backed the former. This alliance added secular backing to Willem’s former, mainly ecclesiastical support, and allowed his re-election as the German King in 1252.

These events snowballed with the death of Frederick’s successor, Conrad, even in spite of Innocent IX perishing in the same year, with disarray created in both successions. In 1254 the Rhenish League decided to pay homage to the anti-king, and his indisputable re-coronation in Rome was planned for 1256. But this was not to be.

Even with his kingship of Germany seemingly about to be settled, Willem still was focused on the consolidation of the Low Countries under his rule. He continued his campaign in West Frisia, where an expedition near the town of Hoogwoud in 28 January 1256 proved his undoing. Cut off from his troops and having lost his bearings, he tried to cross a frozen lake called the Berkmeer. The ice could not support him cap-a-pie in mail atop his destrier, so horse and rider plunged into the frigid morass beneath. In this soggy, cold, dismounted, and bemired state, the Frisians made short work of him, and buried him under a house in the region.

There are several versions of the above image, all of which seem to depict the Frisians as brutish and cruel, but really they were only trying to remain free from feudal subjugation. In this one, at least, there seems to be one dissenter among them.

It is not recorded what was done with Willem’s arms and armor, including, according to my theory, the Witham sword, but as expensive and well-wrought trophies, one can imagine the Frisians did not want to part with such gear easily. Perhaps they split the loot, each carrying off a few items.

Oh and just by the way, Willem is my 25th great-uncle. I only found this out about a week before this article’s publication. My mother-in law’s hobby is genealogy; she’s been working on my wife’s side of the family for several years now but has recently turned to mine. Closely following my penning of Part 1 (which is to say in completely independent research), she excitedly told me that I was related to Edward III of England, tracing back from my mother’s grandfather, Peter Keplinger. I found this interesting but not especially so until she mentioned his wife: Phillipa of Hainault. Yep, that’s right; I am a direct descendant of Jean d’Avesnes and Willem II’s sister Aleid.


Unexpectedly while reading Prague in Black and Gold I ran across an interesting take on the renewal of Willem’s attempt at the German kingship:

At the beginning of his reign, Otakar [II of Bohemia] supported the candidacy of Wilhelm of Holland, who was also backed by a league of Rhenish towns, but by 1254 his own chances were propitious: the German princes were not unwilling to consider him, the rich son of a Hohenstaufen princess, secret negotiations were held, and Wilhelm of Holland suggested his willingness to withdraw his candidacy if it paid off sufficiently.⁴

This fits my view that Willem was much more concerned with consolidating his power in the Low Countries than tilting at the windmill of the HRE.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 4: God of the Peasants

Part 5: The Dutch Defense

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site

Part 2: From Count to Emperor


  1. I use the French forms here as this seems to reflect both the extraction and loyalties of this family (at least initially). Jean is often given as John or Jan as well.
  2. A map representing the proper time period and region was impossible to find, so I had to adapt one; the political regions shown are generally correct.
  3. I have stressed the English translation of the ceremony’s name here.
  4. The book’s author, Peter Demetz incorrectly uses the German form of Willem’s name.

From Count to Emperor

Willem II’s coronation as German anti-king (Solving the Sword, Part 2)

I was presented with the challenge of attempting to decipher the inscription on a sword found in the River Witham in Lincolnshire dating to around the 13th century and of possible German manufacture.¹ Using my limited knowledge of Latin, comparisons from other sword inscriptions, numismatics, and the styles of royalty from the appropriate region and time period, I was able to render the “indecipherable” inscription thus:


in Nomine Domini (patris et filii et spiritus sancti)
Comes Hollandia Willelmus, Rex Germania et Hainault
XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!

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!

Since this links the sword to Willem II of Holland, I now will attempt to show how it fits into his story, and ultimately, how it might’ve ended up at the bottom of a river in England. And so I will, but first more background is needed.

But first, a minor digression: it has been pointed out that I was perhaps a bit breezy with the quod erat demonstrandum for my solution. As is typical for codebreaking, there were many abortive attempts before I reached my conclusion. In fact, it’s rather important to have tried and discarded several theories—if I had reached my solution without missteps, I’d have been pretty suspicious of it myself. In fact, even after finding a solution that worked well, I continued to tinker seeing if anything fit even better.

There were a number of the theories I pursued only to return to the drawing board; I can’t say positively how many there were, but I recall these two dead ends:

OXO is a sign for the Holy Trinity, so perhaps the XO is another one.

Nope, XOX is well documented, but there is no variant XO, and in fact as a digraph, it doesn’t make sense standing for three of anything.

Hey, the letterform the original article interpreted as an ⟨R⟩ looks more like a variant of ⟨N⟩.

Sorry, there are no styles I can find that follow this pattern, and the initial ⟨N⟩ is a different letterform, so why would the inscriber use two different ones?

In fact, my research for the present section has already proved some of my conclusions incorrect—and I’ll amend them here.

Returning to my candidate for the sword’s owner, Willem II of Holland’s life was brief but eventful. He was born in February of 1227 to Mathilde of Brabant and Floris IV of Holland. The latter died in a tournament when his son was only seven. Though Willem succeeded to the throne, he was placed under the guardianship of his uncles for five years. When he finally assumed the countship, few would have imagined this 12-year-old noble from the Low Countries was soon to become one of the most powerful kings in Christendom. Still, despite the heights he attained, he is poorly documented in history, overshadowed by his better-known contemporaries. Some imply that he was merely the pawn of Pope Innocent IX, without real power or authority. There is even a tale that the citizens of Utrecht once pelted him with stones, but there seems little basis for it. The information here is drawn in bits and pieces from a dozen sources—many of them contradictory—and stitched together in order to attempt to make some sense of it.²

Here is an early seal of the count, the image is of a type commonly used among young nobles, presenting him engaged in a hunt with a falcon and a dog, sitting astride a horse.

It bears the straightforward inscription:

Seal of Willem, Count of Holland

The form is quite similar to the one I based the first part of my solution on, which helps bear it out.

In the times that Willem lived in, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor were constantly vying for power and riches but in the third year of his pontificate, during the Council of Lyon, 17 July 1245, Innocent IV went after then-HRE Frederick II in a big way. The papal bull, Ad apostolicae dignitatis apicem (Raised to the Height of Apostolic Dignity), served as final notice: Having already excommunicated him for all the various (trumped up) crimes he had committed, and now declared him a heretic and deposed and clergy throughout the empire were instructed to preach a crusade against him. It should be noted that Frederick had also been excommunicated by Innocent IV’s predecessor, Gregory IX, so it was nothing new to him. Words failed to have the desired immediate effect, so Innocent turned to force instead, backing Heinrich Raspe, landgrave of Thuringia, as anti-king and sending him to invade Frederick’s home territory of Sicily and kill him, but though there was some initial progress, the gambit did not succeed: At the end of the next year it was Heinrich not Frederick who was dead, and a new catspaw was needed to advance the papal ambitions.

On the other side, under some duress, Frederick II issued the Statutum in favorem principum (Statutes in Favor of the Princes), which essentially declared the independence of the various secular princes under his rule. This, together with his denial of papal authority, allowed the various kingdoms in the empire to essentially do as they wished, and made him popular with them as long as he stayed out of their affairs and kept the clergy out as well.

Henry II of Brabant was first choice for the next anti-king, but he pointed the papal envoys toward his young and talented nephew for the role instead. They conferred with all the parties involved and soon had a decision. On the 3rd of October 1247 the archbishops of the Lower Rhine, headed by Archbishop Conrad of Cologne as well as some other clerics, met in Worringen to elect the 19-year-old Willem as their new German king. Note that Roman KingGerman King, and Holy Roman Emperor were used essentially synonymously. I’ve generally used German King to avoid confusion, and also because the schism was essentially a north/ south one, corresponding roughly to modern Germany/ Italy.

Certainly Innocent seems not to have disappointed. Just as Heinrich had before him, he went immediately to battle, conquering the forces of Frederick’s son and successor, Conrad IV, in Kaiserswerth and Dortmund early in 1248. Frederick responded by shifting his focus back to the Italian peninsula and southern Germany, with one notable exception.

In the spring of the same year, Willem sent his men ahead to the city of Aachen (it sits on the French-German border, so it’s also known as Aix-le-Chapelle.), where Holy Roman Emperors had been crowned since the time of Charlemagne, but they found the gates barred, as the town remained loyal to Frederick. As a coronation was needed for Willem to seem anything but a Church-backed pretender, a siege was his only option and his troops descended in force, supported by more from Flanders, Picardy, Brabant, and later Frisia. Within five months, the besiegers had flooded much of the city by damming the nearby Wurm river, and the inhabitants were damp, hungry, and prey to the various missiles being incessantly lobbed over the walls; reports indicate that trebuchets, mangonels, and pedrerosa kind of early swivel gunwere employed in the battle. Still, they might have continued to hold out if a rumor of Frederick’s death had not begun to circulate. Thinking their leader was gone, the nobles pledged fealty to the Church and Willem, the siege was lifted, and he was finally crowned on November first.

In Part 1 I said this is where the Witham sword would enter the tale, but further research has altered my view. Indeed, another sword has presented itself for this role, the Zeremonienschwert (“Ceremonial Sword”). This sword, part of the Imperial Regalia, was made on Frederick II’s home turf, Palermo, as part of a set of vestments for his coronation as Holy Roman emperor in 1220. However, rather than remaining his personal possession, it passed into the hands of the German princes for safekeeping in Nuremberg, whence they would fetch it to Aachen as needed.

Apart from a few elements, the sword is original: in 1346, Charles IV of Luxembourg added a new pommel, bearing an imperial eagle on one side, and the Bohemian lion on the other. And although it is not widely acknowledged, the uppermost lozenge-shaped plates on each side of the scabbard I would posit were added by Willem II.

This detail sharply contrasts with the Byzantine style of the rest of the sword, and this particular type of eagle, with dramatically bent wings, sparse feathers, and a triangular tail, originated in the North around midcentury—indeed, the form is so synonymous with Germany, it remains essentially unchanged in today’s Bundesadler (“Federal Eagle”):

In heraldic terms it is described as or (on a gold field) eagle displayed sable (wings outstretched, in black) beaked and membered gules (red beak and feet). A coin minted under Frederick’s rule in 1231 shows a bird barely of the same species:

As another point of information, this coin’s obverse reads, “C[a]ESAR AUG[ustus] IMP[erator] ROM[anorum]” (Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome), and the reverse, “FRIDE RICUS”. It is known as an Augustale, and was minted in Messina.

Neither the previous anti-king Heinrich nor Conrad IV were ever crowned, and so would never have even seen the regalia, and a long interregnum followed Willem’s reign, so the eagle’s addition can only have been done by him, especially as the next emperors, the Habsburgs, added a distinctive second head to the imperial eagle. As the empire came to its ultimate end in this city of the Habsburgs, the sword is currently housed in Vienna’s Kaiserliche Schatzkammer.

Here is Willem’s seal, dating from his coronation:

He is shown seated on a throne with the regalia of crown, scepter, and orb. It reads:

Willem, by the grace of God, king of the Romans. Always august.

Semper Augustus is an imperial motto derived from the original title of the role, Romanorum Imperator Augustus, which in turn is meant to recall the Roman emperor Augustus. The most coveted bloom during Holland’s tulip mania 400 years later was named Semper Augustus, with many others named for Dutch admirals and generals, so perhaps the name’s a tribute to Holland’s Roman emperor?

In any case, the inscription is quite a different formulation from that of the sword, but much more in keeping with the purposes of Willem’s election and coronation: using the phrase dei gratia, Innocent, who likely had a more or less direct hand in the seal’s creation, seeks to establish Willem’s God-given right to the temporal leadership of Christendom, and passes over his hereditary title as unimportant.

The seal of Frederick II is nearly identical in form and inscription:

Also appending:

And King of Sicily

So we can already see the different styles used for Willem, each reflecting different time periods and purposes. He goes on to attain still more titles, and which ones he uses also reflects the ends he hopes to achieve. My opinion of the swords ownership has not changed—only where and how it enters the story has. And I’ll get back to that in Part 3.


While doing research for Part 3, I ran across some lovely images of Willem II’s coronation as King of Germany. Of the two, the second is more contemporary, drawn from the 14th century Brabantine Deeds (Brabantsche Yeesten). In it the imperial coat of arms is nearly identical to the Bundesadler though it anachronistically shows the two-headed eagle of the Habsburgs.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3: De Gouden Koning

Part 4: God of the Peasants

Part 5: The Dutch Defense

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site


  1. Julian Harrison, “Help Us Decipher This Inscription”, British Library Medieval manuscripts blog, 2015.
  2. At this point I had not intended to get quite as into history as this site has since done, so I failed to cite my sources and it would be tough to reconstruct them now. Apologies to readers with such concerns.

The Sword in the Site

How I deciphered an indecipherable inscription (Solving the Sword, Part 1)

My Facebook Memories tell me that an article appeared in the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog roughly a year ago, with the language-nerd-clickbait title, “Help Us Decipher This Inscription”.¹ I bit and was far from disappointed.

What was presented was a sword bearing a mysterious inscription:

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.

The rest of the known information was as follows:

A double-edged sword, 13th century, possibly of German manufacture but discovered in England in the 19th century.

And finally, this:

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:


As an amateur historian, I’d call my knowledge spotty: I know a lot about a few specific times and places but I have definite blind spots as well. And codebreaking, which is essentially what this comes down to? I’ve dabbled in it, and certainly have done my fair share of crosswords. As for the languages of Medieval Europe that one would need to decipher this, I know a bit and enough about the etymological drift of words from Latin and the Germanic languages. I do acknowledge a much greater than passing knowledge of the weapons and warfare of the Middle Ages due to a number of factors.

In any case, something about this particular challenge seemed to be right up my alley. I had also recently returned from a family trip to Europe full of such relics, and perhaps flushed from that experience, I decided that I’d give this riddle of steel a shot.

So to work. First it is more than safe to assume that this sword belonged to an aristocrat. An inscribed sword in the hands of a man at arms would make little sense. He would be unlikely to be able to read it, let alone have any use for such fripperies. He’d have been most likely to pick out the gold wire and sell it instead of seeing such wealth squandered in this way. Meanwhile, among the elite, inscribed swords were very much in vogue.

Next, the inscription is extremely likely to be in Latin. Much as English is today, Latin was at that time a lingua franca, or common language. Typically, Latin inscriptions, even going back to Roman times are initialisms. SPQR is a well-known example, meaning:

senatus populusque romanus

The Senate and People of Rome

One can also see here, that this is not a strict initialism—the ⟨q⟩ appears mid-word. And in fact, initialism and abbreviations appear mixed together in many inscriptions from the period in question, which obviously increases the challenge—these letters might stand for nearly anything.

The time and location of the sword is some help, placing it in Medieval Christendom when religious and martial zeal went hand in hand, and so sword inscriptions tended to be invocations. These are generally marked by a cross appearing at least at the beginning and often also at the end, just as this one is. Such crosses, often with T-shaped crossbars have religious and heraldic significance as a cross potent or Jerusalem cross. There are also a few better known inscription/ initialisms; DIC, NED, and SDX:

  • Dominus Iesus Christus: Lord Jesus Christ
  • Nomen Eternum Dei: In the name of eternal God
  • Sanctus Dominus Xristus: Holy Lord Christ

As can be seen above ⟨Χ⟩, the Greek letter chi, can be used, as can Latin ⟨C⟩ for Christ. ⟨X⟩ also forms a cross, and so doubles down on the symbolism.²

For the purpose of deciphering, elements of the inscription have to be relatively common dicta latina, not just any possible formulae with the pattern of the initialisms: If people couldn’t understand your sword inscription relatively easily, it would defeat the purpose. Also if the codebreaker is just making things up, the chances of being correct rapidly decline.

Like any good codebreaker, I looked for an irregularity as a chink in the armor to exploit—a way in. It was the ⟨W⟩.

Latin contained the sound [w], but spelled it with the letter ⟨v⟩. This ⟨v⟩ did double duty in fact, for both consonantal [w] and vocalic [u]. In writings conservative of Latin orthography, one sees the occasional MVSEVM. On the other hand some have used ⟨u⟩ in order to give Classical Latin its proper phonetic values, as in ueni, uidi, uici.

The letter ⟨w⟩ is a relatively recent innovation. The consonantal form of the Latin ⟨v⟩ had shifted in its pronunciation by the Medieval period, leaving the Germanic [w] sound unrepresented in the alphabet. For a while, the runic form ⟨ƿ⟩, known as wynn was borrowed, but it’s too similar both to ⟨p⟩ and to ⟨þ⟩ (called thorn with the phonetic value [θ] or [ð], which was also soon dropped in favor of ⟨th⟩), so eventually, ⟨uu⟩ or ⟨vv⟩ came to be used, which soon were ligatured together, and ultimately became our modern ⟨w⟩.³ In fact its very name reflects this origin—a doubling of ⟨u⟩.

Because of all this, it is very clear that the inscription’s ⟨W⟩ cannot stand for a Latin word. So what word is this? Generally, what people want to write on swords is their name. One such is W 897 of the Deutsches Historisches Museum:


Duke Ericus (C) of Närke

The ⟨C⟩ here is interpreted as a chrismon—a symbol for Christ. Inscriptions using both ⟨C⟩ and ⟨X⟩ for this purpose are known.

Looking across the names common to the European aristocracy of the time, there is one that jumps out as both non-Latin and quite popular: it’s clear to me that this name is some form of William. The name is of Germanic origin, and particularly favored since the Norman conquest of England. But which William? As I have selected it because of its popularity, among the rolls of the nobility, there is many a William, Wilhelm, Wellëm, Wilhelmus, Willelmus, and Willem to choose from, so I needed a way to narrow the field.

Looking back at the example of the Ericus sword, what appears together with the aristocrat’s name is his title. I needed to find a style, in the sense of the proper address of a noble, matching this pattern. After poring at some length over the various Williams of the period, one seemed to finally fit the bill (yes, I did): Willem II of Holland.

Why did he stand out? First of all, his title is count, so in Latin his name and title would be rendered as:

Comes Hollandia Willelmus

And so matching the beginning of the middle section of the inscription:


So why not choose his grandfather, Willem I of Holland? Well, it turns out that Willem II also became King of Germany when Frederick II was excommunicated, and for whatever reason, the southern Belgian region of Hainault was also thrown into the bargain. So that gives us:


Comes Hollandia Willelmus, Rex Germania et Hainault

Promising, but what about the ⟨D⟩s? Well, in the religion-obsessed Middle Ages, it’s an odds on bet that ⟨D⟩ = some form of deus. And in fact noble styles commonly use it. I interpret this as:

Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei gratia, Rex Germania et Hainault Dei nutu

Count of Holland Willem by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God

This not only neatly fills out this middle section, this is a very common style form, and also reflects the way in which he received his titles: “by the grace of God” meaning that he was born into this role, and “by the will of God” reflecting that he came into this role later in his life. The dei nutu phrasing is used in a roughly contemporary legal argument as to whether a Parisian college was entitled to collect rent on the marketplaces and mill-houses of Rouen under Henry V of England. They make it clear that Normandy was his by right of conquest, not by inheritance, with the phrase:

[…] Divino Nutu, Ducatum nostrum praedictum, & alias Partes in Regno Franciae Nobis subjectas, Conquisivimus.⁵

[…] by divine Providence, our aforesaid Duchy and other parts of the Realm of France are subject, by Conquest.

I consider this section solved.

Turning to the initial section, now that we have confirmed that the inscription is in Latin and of a Christian character, it’s very easy to understand this as the very common invocation inscription initialism:

in Nomine Domini

In the name of God

The XOX following this, similar to the chrismon used on W 897, is a symbol, also sometimes appearing as OXO, for the Holy Trinity.

The final section is more difficult, but the clue to it comes from Willem’s German kingship. In the words of Professor Henry Jones (Senior), “I shuddenly remembered my Charlemagne.” Ever since his rule and adoption of Roman traditions, one hymn in particular became nearly synonymous with the emperor: Laudes Regiæ—“Praises of the King”.⁶ The first six words in particular, Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (“Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!”) became Charlemagne’s battle cry, and were repeated often among the kings of Europe.

The use of this hymn is fantastically self-serving for the kings of Christendom. It closely associates their own temporal kingships with the spiritual kingship of Christ—the divine right of kings delivered in six words. So it’s not just a common motto, it is essentially THE dictum latinum among these kings. Here, for example is an Écu á la Couronne:

The coin was issued by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in 1384, the obverse bears the legend:


Charles by the grace of God king of France

And on the reverse:

XPiσtoC VinCIT XPiσtoC RegnAT XPiσtoC InPERAT

In fact, numismatics in the Christian Middle Ages has much in common with the sword inscriptions of the day, and both are quite similar to noble seals: names, titles, and invocations make up much of the matter. We can already see the similarity of the style given here and the one that I have interpreted for the sword. Finally, Willem is technically the anti-king. He was raised to this position by political powers in opposition to HRE Frederick II, so it is important to establish his legitimacy, which is exactly the purpose of this phrase. For all these reasons, I am on very firm ground in interpreting the last part of the inscription as:

XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!

Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!

The XO form for Christ is somewhat uncommon—Christus is the Latin form, but an initial ⟨X⟩ is frequently used, and as it is the Greek form, ⟨O⟩ goes along with it, and in fact the Écu á la Couronne also uses the Greek form, though a different one.⁷ I also feel the inscriber might have liked the symmetry with the OXO earlier in the inscription. This makes the full inscription:

in Nomine Domini (patris et filii et spiritus sancti)
Comes Hollandia Willelmus, Rex Germania et Hainault
XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!

So all together in English we have:

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!

In summary, I think this sword was made for Willem II’s coronation as the King of Germany and Hainault, proclaiming his new title and the divine legitimacy of his office. Obviously, my explanation fits well with its German manufacture as well. I also have some ideas as to how the sword of a ruler from the Low Countries of the Continent ended up in a river in England, which I will discuss in upcoming articles. But the pieces I have presented here fit together solidly. I’d have liked to submit my solution to the British Library, but they had received such overwhelming response that comments were closed.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2: From Count to Emperor

Part 3: De Gouden Koning

Part 4: God of the Peasants

Part 5: The Dutch Defense


  1. Julian Harrison,“Help Us Decipher This Inscription”, British Library Medieval manuscripts blog, 2015.
  2. Greek was also the language of the earliest Bibles in the West, with the Latin Vulgate appearing much later. Latin ⟨I⟩ of course corresponds to English ⟨J⟩. Also note that as is common in linguistic circles I’ll be using ⟨⟩ to set off graphemes and [] for phonemes.
  3. German ⟨ß⟩ (known as Eszett or scharfes S) is analogous as letters ⟨s⟩ and ⟨z⟩ ligatured together and eventually becoming a separate grapheme.
  4. Närke is a province in Sweden.
  5. Emphasis mine.
  6. Also known as Laudes Imperiale, “Praises of the Emperor”, in Charlemagne’s case.
  7. XPC is XPiσtoΣ, where Greek sigma is rendered as Latin ⟨C⟩.


How runes were and weren’t used in magic (Viking Esoterica, Part 2)

In the late ’90s I started hearing about cool, new, cordlessly connected devices and all the neat things they could do. They bore a strange name that gave me pause as to how it related to their functionality. Then I saw their logo and put it all together.

Let’s start with the blue, somewhat oblong round that the glyph sits on. This is the shape that rune tiles have been given in modern systems of cleromancy—there’s no evidence I know of for the shape being used during the Viking Age (793–1066). Little is known historically of this system of divination, except that “slips” or “chips” of wood were used. Tacitus describes it thus:¹

Augury and divination by lot no people practice more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment. In public questions the priest of the particular state, in private the father of the family, invokes the gods, and, with his eyes towards heaven, takes up each piece three times, and finds in them a meaning according to the mark previously impressed on them.

The “cutting into small pieces” of “little boughs” seems to have been loosely interpreted at some point as slices, perhaps cut at a slight angle and so yielding the type of shape you see in the Bluetooth logo.  Indeed, runosophy—the use of Norse runes in esotericism—was the main vehicle for their appropriation beginning around the turn of the last century into Germanic romantic nationalism, Nazi occultism, and eventually modern neopaganism. Without any particular historical evidence for the practice, a set of interpretations of the runes was created by Austrian occultist Guido von List in his 1906 work Das Geheimnis der Runen (The Secret of the Runes), and experts would “cast the runes”, reading them in a way similar to tarot cards.In order to better do so, small, slightly oblong tiles typically with rounded corners and made of wood or fired clay were made each bearing one of the runes. You can still buy a set of these from many new age vendors. This ahistorical mumbo-jumbo is where the shape used in the Bluetooth logo originates—a major points reduction.

Next, this angular glyph without horizontal strokes clearly fits the description that I gave of runes in Part 1. Again, as per the Italic origin of the runes I recounted there, the symbol bears a strong resemblance to the Latin majuscule ⟨B⟩. However, if you look through the various runic alphabets, you will not find this among their letters. So what is it? Maybe it is a Younger Futhark bjarkan (⟨b⟩), with the angled lines that form the “loops” and meet in the middle of that letter simply continuing beyond the staff. ⟨B⟩ for Bluetooth—makes sense, right?

This is actually a figure known as a bindrune. Simply put, a bindrune is a ligature of two or more runes, in this case the runes corresponding to ⟨h⟩ and ⟨b⟩. So ⟨b⟩ is for “bluetooth”—but why ⟨h⟩? Well, the bindrune actually represents the initials of Haraldr Blátǫnn Gormsson (c. 958–c. 986). Ericsson seems to have named it after him, trying to hearken back to their Viking roots as well as referring to the king’s accomplishment of uniting the tribes, just as they aimed to unite communication protocols. Bluetooth is an Anglicization of Blátǫnn, though I’ll note that Old Norse (ON) blár actually refers to a range of dark colors, including blue, blue-black, and black. Bluetooth sounds cool, however, while Blacktooth would have suggested tooth decay which is actually the likely source of Haraldr’s heiti or byname.

Many say that monograms like this one for Haraldr Blátǫnn, magical formulae, and even secret messages are encoded in bindrunes, but as with most matters Norse, it’s important to understand what is fantasy and what is fact, even if fantasy is your interest.

In fact, among Younger Futhark inscriptions, there are not many examples of bindrunes. Of those that have been discovered and analyzed, most seem to bear no particular significance. But as I mentioned in earlier there is clear evidence that runes were thought of as magical, to such an extent that Icelandic preserves “magical symbol” as a meaning of the word, and in Faroese, it simply means “magic”. Even in ON the word also means “secret”. There are other tantalizing clues in the lexicon:²

  • Aldrrún: “life-rune”: a charm for preserving life
  • Bjargrún: “birth-rune”
  • Bokrún: rune carved on beechwood
  • Brimrún: “sea-quelling-rune”
  • Gamanrún: “gladness rune”; gaman is also “fun, amusement”; the first part cognate with English game
  • Hugrún: “thought-rune” makes you smart
  • Limrún: “branch-rune” charm of healing
  • Málrún: “speaking-rune” spell to improve one’s tact
  • Manrún: “love-rune”
  • Meginrún: “mighty rune”
  • Ǫlrún: “ale-rune”
  • Sakrún: “strife-rune”
  • Sigrún: “victory-rune”
  • Valrún: “Welsh-rune”, riddle, obscure language

The Sigrdrífumál section of the Poetic Edda contains one of the lengthiest descriptions of the various kinds of magical runes, and in fact many of the above words are hapax legomena therein. Unfortunately the text remains fairly general, simply describing what each type of runic magic is for, with few exceptions. Even among these exceptions, it typically says where the runes are to be drawn, rather than specifically what or how. We learn that bjargrúnar go on the palms and “spanning the joints”; brimrúnar go on a ship’s stem, its steering blade, and its oars; limrúnar are cut into bark and the branches of trees whose limbs bend to the east.

Indeed, the verse features a crescendo of places to write runes that includes: a shield, Arvakr’s ear, Alsvinn’s hoof, a chariot wheel, Sleipnir’s teeth, the straps of a sleigh, a bear’s paws, Bragi’s tongue, a wolf’s claws, an eagle’s beak, bloodied wings, the bridge’s end, freeing hands, merciful footprints, glass, gold, amulets in wine and wort, the welcome seat, Gúngnir’s point, Grani’s breast, the Norns’ nail, and the owl’s nose-bone. It’s hard to understand the relative scarcity of runic inscriptions given this extensive catalogue.

One that finally gets a bit more specific is about the ǫlrúnar which guard against another man’s wife betraying one’s confidences, which, honestly seems like an overly specific set of conditions to have a whole type of rune-magic devoted to. It also sounds like pretty shady business, and I can’t help but feel like a guy who needs this charm deserves what’s coming to him. But the passage is interesting because of how specific it gets:

[…] á horni skal þær rísta
ok á handar baki
ok merkja á nagli

It says that the ale-runes must be

[…] cut on the (drinking) horn
the backs of the hands
and nauð marked on the nails.

The charm sounds fairly absurd: while a rune-carved drinking horn might be common enough, the guy whose hands are bleeding from where he’s freshly gouged runes into them, and nauð—the ⟨n⟩ runescrawled on every nail just might have something to hide. Unless, I suppose, that was the height of fashion and all the cool Viking kids were doing it—actually it does sound pretty Goth. But we do learn that a normal runic letter ⟨n⟩ was used for part of this charm.

The verse continues:

Full skal signa
ok við fári sjá
ok verpa lauki í lǫg;[…]

Meaning that into the cupful both “… laukr and lǫgr should be thrown…” to complete the charm against such “poisoned mead”. Taken literally, these words mean “leeks” and “water”, respectively, so some have taken “water” to mean the drink, and “leeks” to be an herbal remedy to accompany the runic charm. I completely disagree with this interpretation—none of the other passages mention components other than runes, and this pair of words are also both names for the ⟨l⟩ rune. This, together with the command to write runes “on amulets in wine and wort [i.e., beer]” among the places to write runes seems to make it pretty clear that this was a runic charm added to a drink. Some similar elements appear in Egil’s Saga, where it is related that he cuts his hand, carves runes into a drinking horn, and then “colors the runes” with his blood. The horn, since it contains poison, explodes.

There is yet another passage that seems to point in this same direction:³

Learn victory-runes,
If you want to triumph,
And cut them on the sword’s hilt;
Some on the fuller,
Some on the valbǫst,
And twice name Týr.

Now Týr is both one of the Æsir as well as the name of the rune corresponding to ⟨t⟩. Some have interpreted the verb nefna (which I gave its literal meaning, “name”, above) in the last line as “call upon” or “say”, but again, the verse seems to very specifically deal with runic charms and writing, rather than prayer. Further, skaldic writing tends to want to vary words and not repeat them too often, so verbs that clearly refer to the writing of runes used in the Sigrdrífumál are “cut”, “mark”, and “burn”. In fact, the most commonly used one, rista (cut) is never used more than once in any given verse, and it appears near the beginning of the above passage, so I think I’m on safe ground saying that nefna also refers here to writing ⟨t⟩ runes.

So, having gotten past the confirmation bias, we come to the fact that repeated týrs are in fact found in historical inscriptions. In fact, multiples of runes appear to be a commonly used magical formula. For example, the Lindholm Amulet bears a runic text reading:

ek erilaz sa [w]ïlagaz haiteka:

The first part is a declaration by the rune master: “I am Erilaz, I am called the crafty”. It is interesting in that it strongly associates the carver with Óðinn, the discoverer of the runes: This form of emphatic self designation is similar to those the god often uses in the Grímnismál, and the heiti, “crafty”, is also one associated with Óðinn. Thus it is clear that the runemaster is calling upon, or more likely, embodying this patron god of runes for the creation of this amulet.

The second part is a magical formula. It ends with alu, which I’ve already noted is a marker for such formulae (alu also means “ale”, and mead and ale are often associated with magic). The repeated letters are also common in inscriptions as well as written descriptions. The string of óss (⟨a⟩) runes used in this one is fairly common and may stand for the naming of a certain group of gods, as “god” is the literal meaning of the rune.⁴ In fact there appear to be a set of sacred numbers used in the repetition of runes: three, eight, nine, and 13. The runes that are known to be so used are þurs (⟨þ⟩), óssnauð, and týr. In fact, just prior to the alu, we see the týr rune repeated three times.

We also find these ⟨t⟩ runes, which instead of being repeated as in the above example, are stacked, thus creating a bindrune. These are found with either three (Sjælland bracteate 2) or eight (Kylver Stone) stacked runes and resembling an evergreen tree (and one imagines that there might also have been bindrunes of nine and 13):⁵

These inscriptions seem to closely match the verse in terms of use, so apparently we have found real correspondences between these written descriptions and historical inscriptions.

Returning now to the laukrlǫgr-runes in the ǫlrúnar, I have already hypothesized that this is a glyph, which is to be written on something and then added to a full cup of drink. Extrapolating from the sigrúnar, we can interpret the use of two names of the ⟨l⟩ rune as describing a stacked bindrune in a figure such as:

And so this type of repeated and/ or stacked rune seems most likely to have been used in charms, while the other examples that are attested likely represent either scribal flourishes or even attempts to correct the error of omitting a letter—certainly an option preferable to throwing the whole works away and starting again. So while the bindrune used in the Bluetooth logo is cool, it’s unlikely that monograms such as this were used historically.

So until next time (ahistorically),

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3: Magical Staves

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Runes


  1. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Germania, c. 98 AD, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, Lisa Cerrato trans., 1942.
  2. The last entry cannot help but recall Rotwelsch, which I mentioned here.
  3. I’ve seen valbǫst translated variously, but is most reliably described as a decorative metal plate on the hilt of a sword.
  4. The Lindholm Amulet inscription is in Proto-Norse/ Elder Futhark, but I’ve used the Old Norse/ Younger Futhark rune names here for the sake of clarity.
  5. My image here is based on Sjælland bracteate 2.