Spotlight: The Burgonet
An article by Sean A. Flynt
The new helmet, introduced in the early 16th century, had many features of its ancient ancestors: a simple hemispherical bowl; a short bill or peak to defend the face without restricting vision or breathing; a collar to defend the neck; and hinged plates to protect the sides of the head and face. Although the new helmet was sometimes known as a Burgundian sallet, it bears little resemblance to the streamlined, coal-scuttle shape we most often associate with the 15th century sallet. Rather than evolving from the sallet, then, the new helmet may simply have been revived in its complete classical form.
To be sure, the burgonet did not survive merely because it suited Renaissance fashion. The design's inherent benefitsoffering better peripheral vision and air supply without sacrificing protection in critical areas of the head and necksimply seem to have appealed to Renaissance warriors as much as to their ancient forebears. And so, the burgonet served at every level of Renaissance military society, from the lowest infantrymen to kings, and proved especially popular for cavalry use. But, by the mid-17th century the morion and cabasset had supplanted the burgonet for infantry use. The more protective closed burgonet continued to serve heavy cavalry, and the zischäggethe eastern European cavalry helmet remarkably similar to the traditional burgonetwas common at least through mid-century.
The burgonet is often referred to as a "light" helmet, which means little and ignores the great variety of burgonet designs. Judging from the scarce published data, the typical 16th century burgonet, with defensive plates called cheek-pieces, weighs between three-and-a-half and five pounds. Those without cheek-pieces weigh less, of course, and closed burgonets, which cover the entire face, weigh several pounds more. Some early 17th century closed burgonets weigh more than ten pounds!
When present, cheek-pieces are attached by hinges to the sides of the burgonet's bowl. Some of these defenses extend to cover all but the central portion of the face (in the manner of ancient Roman legionary helmets). More commonly, they cover only the side of the face and head and upper neck, and are held in place by a strap-and-buckle system riveted either outside or inside the cheek-pieces near the wearer's chin.
Most original burgonets feature some form of decoration. Rolled and roped edges and pierced cheek-pieces are common, and the finest burgonets were engraved, inlaid and/or selectively colored and polished. Some were covered in fine cloth in the tradition of sallets. Extensive embossing (which thins steel) actually made some early burgonets unsuitable for any purpose other than ceremonial wear.
Some higher-quality burgonets feature accessory plates that allow the wearer to have more or less protection for his face as the situation demands. The most common of these extra defenses is the buffe, a plate or series of plates to protect the throat and lower face up to the eyes. This piece typically is secured by special pins or rivets on the bowl and/or by a strap wound around the back of the burgonet. If they still exist at all, separate defenses may no longer be associated with surviving helmets, so it would be difficult to judge which burgonets were originally used in this fashion. It seems most likely that finer burgonets would be associated with buffes while munitions-quality infantry burgonets would not.
When full-face defense is permanently attached to the bowl, the helmet is known as a closed burgonet, and resembles the contemporary close helmet. One late form of closed burgonet was common among 17th century heavy cavalry, and merits special mention because its form is so striking. This grim-looking, stylistically spare form, with cutouts for eyes, nose and mouth, so resembled a human skull that Germans and Austrians referred to it as a todenkopf (death's head) helmet. It is also known by the less dramatic names of Savoyard or Savoy helmet.
A Sampling of Reproductions
Reproduction burgonets are not hard to find, but they vary greatly in both quality and price. Off-the-shelf versions present the usual one-size-fits-none problem, while custom or semi-custom versions present significant time and cost obstacles.
Museum Replicas Limited has offered at least three different burgonetsits Scottish Burgonet, Italian Burgonet, and a much-copied bright steel and brass version complete with falling buffe based on one in the Tower of London (pictured in Chad Arnow's collection)all of which seem to be discontinued. The Scottish Burgonet can still be found new and the various knockoff versions of the last of these are ubiquitous on-line.
Several other, smaller-scale manufacturers are in this game as well, including Thaden Armory, Medieval Reproductions, Illusion Armoring, and the Czech company Best Armour, which seems to offer especially good value in terms of accurate materials and construction, custom fit, and price.
Canadian armourer Valentine Armouries offers several styles of burgonet, including a todenkopf-style burgonet.
The burgonet, like all infantry helmets, armour and edged weapons faded from use in the mid-to-late 17th century, as firearms came to dominate the battlefield. By that time the burgonet was so specialized (for sappers and heavy cavalry) and so heavy (as proof against shot) that it had lost its original advantages. As Ewart Oakeshott has pointed out, the "brutish" late burgonets such as the todenkopf type are far-removed from the elegant, extensively decorated forms of the early, "heroic" burgonets. If anything, they are anti-heroic, and the logical conclusion of an era remembered for its achievements in the fine arts and natural sciences, but which also achieved much in the grim art and science of warfare.
About the Author
Sean Flynt is a writer and editor living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in Western arms and armour of all periods, but especially those of 16th through 18th century Britain and Colonial North America.
European Helmets, 1450-1650: Treasures from the Reserve Collection (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series), by Stuart Pyhrr
European Weapons and Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance Filippo Negroli and His Contemporaries, by Stuart Pyhrr, Jose-A. Godoy, Stuart W. Pyhrr
Photographic copyright notices are included on each photo, when available, and include the following sources: Czerny's International Auction House, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Hermann Historica, Imperial Austria, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, The Wallace Collection