Spotlight: The Great Helm
An article by Chad Arnow
In one of the most iconographic pieces of head gear of the High Middle Ages, the great helm, we see a marriage of protective capabilities and elegance. It reigned in battlefield popularity for at least a century and a half before being supplanted by helms that offered greater vision, mobility, and ease of breathing. Also known as the heaume, it was the first helmet of the Middle Ages that completely enclosed the head.
The helms in use at the start of the High Middle Ages are what we see in the Bayeux Tapestry: short, conical helms secured to the head with a chin strap. The majority of these have a bar, appropriately called a "nasal," that projected down in front, offering a level of protection to the nose. The idea of protecting the face, however, was not a new one. Bars outlining the eyes and masks that protected the face had been in use during the Viking Age and before.
At the end of the first quarter of the thirteenth century, it became common for these masked helms to also include protection for the back of the neck in the form of an extension to the helm's back or a separate plate affixed for that purpose, like the rudimentary great helms seen on the Aachen Cathedral's Silver Shrine of Charlemagne (circa 1207). Within a decade or so, the neck plate had extended to, and joined with, the facemask; the true great helm was born. Also common by this time was the piercing of the facemask with holes (known as breaths) to make breathing easier. Helms in this configuration are shown widely in period art, including the collection of illustrated Bible scenes known as the Maciejowski Bible, illustrated in France, circa 1250.
The evolution of the helm continued throughout the thirteenth century as the helm grew longer, protecting more of the head and neck. The great helm also began to regain the more rounded, and often more conical shape of its progenitors. This change in shape no doubt helped deflect blows. Indeed, if period art like the Maciejowksi Bible is an indicator, the more flat-topped shape of earlier helms left the helm and its wearer more subject to harm; many helms are shown being cloven by powerful blows. It should be noted that artistic license should also factor into how these works of art are interpreted.
In the early parts of the 14th century, we see a curious development in period art: great helms with moveable, removable, and/or pivoting visors. One of the clearest depictions of the visored great helm comes from a carving once located at the Bargello Palace in Florence. While clearly foreshadowing later helms, these helms do not appear to have been widely popular. Indeed, no known examples of this form survive to the present day.
By 1350, the great helm had begun falling out of favor. By most accounts, the great helm was in its sunset as battlefield protection. The evolution of the bascinet into its own helmet and the ability of armourers to make that lighter, more moveable and more closely-fitting helm began the great helm's relegation to a form of armour used solely for the joust. Despite the beginning of this decline, we still see magnificent examples like the helm of the Black Prince and that of Sir Richard Pembridge that were still likely used on the battlefield.
Around 1350, historical examples begin to appear that are reinforced on the left side to meet the oncoming lance of an opposing jouster. Despite the prevalence of the bascinet and examples made solely for the joust, the great helm still appears on the battlefield in period art into the fifteenth century.
Ironically enough, the qualities of the great helm that forced it from the battlefield (chiefly its weight and relative immobility) made it an ideal helm for the joust, which by the turn of the fifteenth century was well on its way to being purely sport, largely disconnected from its original true martial applications.
Beginning around 1400, we see great helms of the so-called "frog-mouth" form, where the lower front plate curved up to form the protruding lower edge of the ocularium. Due the helm's configuration, the ocularium only allowed the wearer to see when he was seated in his saddle, leaning slightly forward. At the time of impact the body was more straight, helping ensure no pieces of the lance could enter the eye slit. Great helms like that of Nicholas Hauberk (d. 1407) and England's Henry V are of a shape that could have seen use on the battlefield but were likely relegated to strictly tournament use since they incorporate reinforced left sides and ocularia similar to what is seen on frog-mouth tilting helms.
The frog-mouthed great helm is the last gasp of the great helm. These helms continued in tournament use through roughly the first quarter of the sixteenth century with little structural variation. They tended to be either of the curved true frog-mouth shape or of a more "squat, ‘pillbox' shape," in the words of author Claude Blair. This latter form was popular mostly in Italy. Tilting helms, which were often bolted or secured to the cuirass, were often furnished with vents on the right side that made breathing a little easier for the wearer.
The great helm was surely one of the least comfortable pieces of armour mankind has developed, yet its effectiveness is shown by its length of service to the warrior class. Questions about how it was worn are answered by study of period art and the few originals still in existence.
Great helms, throughout their epoch, seem to have been held on the head with a chin-strap, not too different in its basic design from what we see on bicycle and motorcycle helmets today. Their use on great helms would seem to be a natural thing, as they evolved from conical Norman-style helms that were secured to the head the same way.
To keep the helm firmly in place on the head and adjusted so the wearer could see through the eye slit(s), a band of leather was often riveted to the inside, such as we see in fragments from the Black Prince's great helm in Canterbury Cathedral. Triangular gussets from the band would be drawn and laced together at the center allowing some adjustability and a customized fit. Some brasses and effigies also show a padded ring being worn over the mail coif to further stabilize the helm. Some helms, especially later tilting helms, had full padded liners, much like a sock for the head with a cutout hole for the face. This sleeve would then be laced to the inside of the helm.
As an additional layer of protection a cervelliere, or bascinet, was often worn under the great helm and mail coif beginning in the 13th century. The abnormally sized heads of knights depicted in effigies and brasses seems to indicate this, and indeed, brasses of the early 14th century show this cap, no longer under the coif, evolving into the true bascinet which would replace both the cervelliere and the great helm.
Many great helms, especially those of the late 13th and 14th centuries are pierced near the lower edge in front with cross-shaped holes. While providing decoration and an obvious symbol of piety, they often served a more utilitarian purpose. A chain from the belt, or later the cuirass, would end in a toggle that could be threaded through that hole in the helm. This enabled the wearer to retain possession of the helm should it become dislodged from his head. It also allowed the warrior to remove the helm when it was not needed and sling it over his shoulder as is clearly seen on the carved stone monument of Colaccio Beccadelli (d. 1341).
The obscuring of the face of the wearer for protective purposes led to the need for other means of identification. One needs to look no further than the Battle of Hastings to see the need for quick identification of leaders and nobles. William the Conqueror's troops feared his death until they were able to recognize him and see that he still lived. In addition to being visible to soldiers on your own side, it could also be important to show your status to opposing soldiers, in the hope that you might be captured and ransomed rather than killed outright.
It is tempting to think of great helms as always being of shining steel. Period artwork shows us that this may not have always been the case. As early as the early 13th century, we see helms painted to match shields in an early form of heraldry. The Maciejowski Bible shows great helms in a variety of colors including blue, yellow, orange, and gold.
Another outgrowth of the need for identification is the crest. While allowing "the knight to indulge in an ostentatious display of martial magnificence" (in the words of David Edge and John Miles Paddock), the crest also served as a means of identification. These crests were first seen late in the 12th century; the fan-shaped crest on a seal of Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) being among the earliest.
These crests could be made of leather, wood, and plaster/gesso (or a combination) and other materials including cloth and feathers and are an interesting study in their own right. Some of the more exotic examples include crowns, human heads (male and female), large pairs of horns, bird wings, a dog's head (with studded collar), and other animals. One of the most famous examples is the crowned leopard on the mantled crest of Edward of Woodstock, known as the Black Prince.
A Sampling of Reproductions
At the time of this writing, Museum Replicas Limited has three great helms in their catalogue. One dates from the early 14th century and is based loosely on the helms of Sir William de Staunton and Sir Roger de Trumpington. The other is a great helm similar to the helm of Sir Richard Pembridge and is designed to be worn over a bascinet. Their latest addition is emblematic of the late 13th century. Museum Replicas also has what they call a "Transitional Helm," an earlier form of helm with a facemask. One should not expect any of those to exactly replicate the proportions on historical helms.
Arms & Armor of Minnesota lists a reproduction of the Pembridge helm in their catalogue. They also accept custom commissions as well, and have produced a replica of the Black Prince's helm and crest.
Eastern European firms like Best Armour and Outfit4Events offer many examples of the great helm as well. Outfit4Events alone lists around thirty great helms and masked pot helms in their catalogue.
In the world of custom armour, there are at least as many options, as most custom armourers will accept commissions to make great helms. Peter Fuller of Medieval Reproductions has made several great helms, including a painted one crested with horns and a helm based on Henry V's, crested with a crest based on the Black Prince's.
Many consider the great helm to be the emblematic helm of the High and Late Middle Ages, despite the fact that its popularity on the battlefield lasted only from the mid 13th century though the end of the 14th century. Other helms were use in use at the same time but the great helm seems to have been the headpiece par excellence of the knightly class. Its form is still intriguing to us today, as covering of the entire head gives a sense menace and mystery of the unknown warrior. The pomp and pageantry of many painted or crested examples, though, give us a taste of bright colors and exotic shapes that seem to be at odds with the grim surroundings of the battlefield.
Though ultimately rendered obsolete by better forms of head protection, the great helm is an important step in the development of armour and holds the distinction of being the first collection of plates to completely enclose a body part during the Middle Ages. From this simple beginning, plate armour would evolve into the intricate and complete defensive systems of later years.
About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.
2,500 years of European helmets, 800 B.C.-1700 A.D., by Howard M Curtis
Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge, John Miles Paddock
Arms and Armor Annual Volume 1, by Robert Held
Arms and armour (Pleasures and treasures), by A. Vesey B Norman
Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350: Western Europe and the Crusader States, by David Nicolle
Europäische Helme, by Müller, Heinrich; Kuner, Fritz
European Armour, circa 1066 to circa 1700, by Claude Blair
Illustrated History of Arms and Armour, by Charles Ashdown
Medieval Arms and Armor : A Pictorial Archive (Dover Pictorial Archive Series), by J. H. Hefner-Alteneck
Old Testament Miniatures: A Medieval Picture Book With 283 Paintings from the Creation to the Story of David, by Sydney Carlyle Cockerell and John Plummer
Photographic copyright notices are included on each photo, when available.
The list of available reproductions contained in this article is not meant to be all-encompassing. It is, however, a good representation of what was available at the time of this article being published.