From Count to Emperor

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

I took up the challenge of deciphering 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 even before that, 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 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 makes little 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 this article has already proved some of my earlier 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—some of them contradictory—and stitched together in order 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 sitting astride a horse, hunting with a falcon and a dog.

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 (HRE) 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, Innocent now declared Frederick 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. When words failed to have the desired immediate effect, the pope 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 rather than 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 the 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 and some other clerics, met in Worringen to elect the 19-year-old Willem as their new German king. Note that Roman King, German King, and HRE 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-la-Chapelle.), where HREs 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 HRE 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 (Imperial Treasury).

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 recalls 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 reflect the ends he hopes to achieve. My opinion of the sword’s 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.

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