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 (or deluded) 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 yesterday at a press conference at Bletchley Park, where British code-breakers conquered the German Enigma system during the Second World War.
The 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.
About halfway through the process, eyes began to glaze. Then, as talk of decryption matrices progressed, an expression of helpless incomprehension bloomed on the faces of the assembled media.
And when the final explanation came, it was somewhat less climactic than that in the best-selling Da Vinci Code.
The Shugborough mystery arose in the years 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.
In 1740, Anson led a fleet of seven ships on an epic circumnavigation, the highlight of which was the seizure of the Spanish bullion ship Nuestra Senora de Cavadonga.
Anson’s share of the booty ensured him a happy retirement and the expansion of Shugborough, the home of his brother Thomas. The estate is now owned by the National Trust but still partially occupied by his descendant, the Earl of Lichfield.
The Anson brothers were thought to have been members of secret societies, which abounded at the time.
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 cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.
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 with the D at the beginning and the M at the end, slightly lowered.
Recently, an American formerly involved with the military 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, who refuses to be identified, believes other messages reside in the matrix. GCHQ endorsed his methodology, but not necessarily his conclusions.
So, what is to be made of it all?
Richard Kemp, the general manager of the Shugborough Estate, said: “This confirms a link with the Templars. It’s a very exciting discovery that confirms what was always rumoured to be the case.” And with that he took off in search of the Grail.
Some might think the “discovery” is less than convincing. But Murlyn Hakon, of Bletchley Park, said: “There is something there.”
However, there was another explanation.
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”.
She said: “I believe in the simple approach, and this appears to be an elegant solution.”