For 250 years it defied all code-breakers. Darwin had a go, Dickens and Wedgwood too. But the 10-letter inscription — DOUOSVAVVM — carved into a monument on the Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire thumbed its nose at the curious.
Those of a romantic disposition believed it to be a coded message of the kind used by the Knights Templar and their successors to point to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail or some other religious relic. Others believed it to be a private affirmation of love.
Whatever the truth, the mystery was supposed to have been cleared up on Tuesday at a press conference in Bletchley Park. People at Bletchley — now a museum — promised to lift the veil on the Shugborough Code. They wheeled out some veteran code-breakers to announce the results of months of effort by competing teams of professional and amateur cryptanalysts.
When the final explanation came, it was somewhat less climactic than that in the Da Vinci Code. The Shugborough mystery arose between 1748 and 1758 when the monument containing the code was installed. The estate was the home of the Anson family, whose most illustrious member was George Anson, one of Britain’s greatest admirals.
The Anson brothers were thought to have been members of secret societies. One, the Priory of Sion, was regarded as a successor of the medieval Knights Templar, persecuted as heretics for their belief that Christ was not divine. Legend had it that they were the guardians of relics recovered from the Holy Land, including the Holy Grail.
The monument carried a relief based on a painting by Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego. The artist was thought to be a member of the Templars. The monument carries the title of the painting, and below are the 10 letters.
Recently, an American used the painting as a key to unlock the code. Using a series of grids, he came up with the words Jesus H Defy, interpreting the H as chi, the Greek letter used to denote the Messiah. Result: a Templar message defying the description of Jesus as the Son of God. The American believes other messages reside in the matrix. GCHQ endorsed his methodology, but not necessarily his conclusions.
However, Sheila Lawn, 81, a code-breaker at Bletchley during the war, favoured a solution offered by another team. They say the eight central letters, represent a Latin poem to a departed loved one, which goes: ‘‘Optima Uxoris Optima Sororis Viduus Amantissimus Vovit Virtutibus’’.
The lines are translated as: ‘‘Best Wife, Best Sister, Widower Most Loving Vows Virtuously’’.