Fun Fact: The word helmet derives the OE word helm, which in turn derives from a root word meaning 'hide'. The same root gives us holster (OE heolster 'darkness, concealment') and Hell (OE hel 'place where one is hidden, grave').
Helmets are shiny, and are an important form of head protection. In Wychwood, we always wear helmets whilst fighting with metal weapons.
Wychwood owns a selection of helmets, however some people like to buy their own. This page will help you do this by showing you the main styles of helmets throughout the Dark Ages in a roughly chronological order, and suggesting a few vendors. Cheaper helmets are generally made of thinner steel or of spun cones. You should remove visible spinning marks from any helmets, as they are utterly inauthentic.
You can also make your own helmet. Plain spun domes or cones can be got at most re-enactment markets (or from Viking Crafts for £20), and you can then remove the spinning marks and add details. Or you can do the whole thing yourself, out of sheet metal.
Helmets were military leadership status symbols in the early post-Roman period (the earliest word denoting royal headgear isn't anything to do with crowns but is cynehelm, 'kingly helmet'). Early helmets are inspired by Roman designs, and suggest a link to the Roman martial prowess. Helmets were possibly quite rare in the earlier part of our period, not an item everyone would have worn. Only later did they become standard issue for all soldiers- the first edict commanding soldiers to wear helmets is from 1008.
Individual sources are mentioned in the text where appropriate, but in general two excellent books you should check out are Pollington's The English Warrior (ISBN 1-898281-42-4) and also apparently Tweddle's The Anglian Helm from Coppergate which no-one in Wychwood owns yet but comes highly recommended. Egfroth (who played Earl Leofwine at Hastings 06) has a page where he discusses making many helmet styles.
Early English helmets
We don't have much pictorial evidence for what helmets looked like in the time after the Romans left. But, based on surviving finds, it seems that early helmets were based on late Roman equipment. Cheek flaps are common, and face protection varies from full masks (Sutton Hoo) to nasals (Wollaston, Benty Grange, Coppergate).
Only four early helmets have survived in England. These helmets are all hemispherical not conical.
Sutton Hoo was, as you should all know, an amazing ship burial from the early 7th century that they dug up in Suffolk. It wasn't in very good condition when it was dug up, but it's been pieced back together nicely. You can see it as the British Museum. Their site also has a nice description of the helmet.
It features a lot of protection- the back is skirted, there are cheek flaps, and there is also a full facemask.
It's made of iron with bronze details, and is ornately decorated in a fairly universal post-Roman North Sea German style. It is especially covered in little detailed panels, which are very similar to panels on some of the Vendel finds (see below).
In Beowulf helmets are called things like heregrima (raiding-mask) or grimhelm (masked-helm) and hleorberge (cheek-protectors) are mentioned. This suggests that the helmets of Beowulf are quite possibly similar designs to the Sutton Hoo helmet.
Wollaston & Coppergate
The Wollaston (late 7th century, found in 1997 and also known as the Northampton or Pioneer helmet as it was found in a Pioneer Aggregates quarry) and Coppergate (pictured, probably 8th century, found in the 1980s in York so also called the Jorvic helm) helmets are remarkably similar. Both feature cheekflaps, eyebrows that are cut into the wide iron brow-band, and wide iron hoops running fore-and-aft and side-to-side forming the dome of the helmet.
The Wollaston also had a little boar figurine on the very top of the helmet- calling upon Freyr, god of protection and procreation, to look after the person wearing the helmet. Perhaps Wychwood should imitate this an early way of minimising fighting risks?
The Coppergate is more ornate, with bronze decoration and a mail aventail. It also features a Christian inscription, obviously fulfilling a similar role to the Wollaston boar and showing that even after the conversion to Christianity the helmet had an important role in providing supernatural protection as well as physical protection.
There's info about the Wollaston ("Pioneer") helm from The Thegns of Mercia and York Archaeology have posted an interesting article about excavating and conserving the Coppergate.
There are many reproductions of the Coppergate helmet. Jurgen's Coppergate Style Helmet is a wonderful page with patterns you can follow (although his is adapted for SCA combat, so it's probably best to ignore that face grill).
Benty Grange & Newhaven House
The Benty Grange helmet (late 7th century- early 9th century) was the first helmet to be discovered, in 1848. It is made of an iron framework with horn panels. It is the only early helmet discovered that has not included any cheekflaps.
Like the Wollaston helmet, it features a Freya-boar on the top- in this example, it includes a crest of boar-hair running down the boar's spine. It also has a Christian cross on the nasal.
I Dig Sheffield has some details about the helmet, and a reproduction.
It is possible another helmet like Benty Grange was discovered at Newhaven House in 1849, however this has not survived.
In 2009 a metal detectorist found a hoard of 6th/7th century gold in Mercia. This hoard was mainly filled with sword fittings, but it did include some bits of helmets including some beautiful gold cheekflaps presumably from Coppergate-style helms and a horse's head that was possibly a crest.
- Get Dressed For Battle has a nice Coppergate with loads of detailing for £239.99.
- Heron Armoury has a selection of wonderful early English helmets. They're not cheap, they start at £400…
- Viking Crafts offer an early English helmet in a Coppergate/Wollaston style, with some very cute boar designs and the option of bronze banding. Prices vary from £85 for a plain one to £120 with a bronze boar and banding. They also sell individual Sutton Hoo-style helmet plaques, and boars.
- Kovex sells a "Norman Helmet" (HL034) for 196 Euros. It's actually a nice Coppergate.
Early Viking helmets
There are more suriviving early Viking helmets than there are English helmets. The key finds are the Vendel/Valsgarde finds, which contain lots of useful examples and share features with the Sutton Hoo helmet. The Gjermundbu helmet is also key, as it is possibly the only surviving Viking or Saxon helmet from our period. These helmets are all hemispherical not conical.
The Vendel/Valsgarde/Ulltuna helmets are a collection of early Swedish helmets, dating from the 6th century with some finds from graves as late as the 10th century. They share some similarities with early English helmets- indeed, the embossed plates on the Sutton Hoo helmet were quite possibly made by the same people as the embossed plates on these helmets.
They have a wide variety of forms. They all feature iron brow bands and fore-to-aft crest bands, and many of them also have side-to-side bands, just like the basic dome of Coppergate. However a unique feature of these helmets is the net-style interlaced iron bands used to replace side panels. Some also have crazy crests/ridges along the top.
Some helmets feature cheekflaps (Vendel 14, for example), and some feature chainmail protection (Vallentuna, Valsgärde 8). However another unique feature found on several helmets are long thin metal flaps, typically five of them, that between each other provide protection for the side of the face and the neck instead of a mail aventail (Ulltana, Valsgärde 5, Vendel 14).
Face protection is often in the form of a spectacle-style half-face mask, although Vendel 14 and Ulltana feature a nasal instead.
The Gjermundbu helmet is usually regarded seperately from the Vendel/Valsgärde helmets but shares many similarities. It was found in a mid 10th century Swedish grave, but was apparently several centuries old by that time. On the other hand, it's still the only definitively Viking helmet ever found (right time period, right location)! Like many helmets we've discussed, it was made from a brow band, four plates and supporting bands running fore-aft and side-side. It features a spectacle half-face mask, made out of a single piece of iron (unlike many of the Vendel/Valsgärde helmets, which have spectacles made of several pieces rivetted together). The fore-aft and side-side bands are much thinner on the Gjermundbu than on the Vendel/Valsgärde finds.
Nordic Arts has a description of the mound the helmet was found in, and photos of the original helmet and of a reproduction. Halvgrimr's Viking and Pre-Viking Helmets discusses it with his normal attention to detail. Egfroth has a reproduction with a good discussion (apparently it uses a double frame, with panels sandwiched between bits of the frame- very interesting!) Drakt has photos of the original in it's museum.
Whilst you should obviously feel free to buy these helmets if you fancy them, be warned that they can cut down your visibility (especially of low slashing blows).
- Ancient Battle Crafts has a spectacle helm with an aventail for £85.95.
- Dressed To Kill's H12 is a spectacle helm, with big funky eyebrows.
- Get Dressed For Battle has two styles of spectacle helms, both for £88.99, and a nice Valsgarde 5 with loads of detailing for £170.
- Heron Armoury has an amazing specially commissioned Vendel XIV finished in silver. Bet it's REALLY expensive.
- Jelling Dragon's JK11 is a nice hand-beaten Gjermundbu, but a bit pricey at £240.
- Viking Crafts offer a range of spun helmets that need more work to finish them that has an early Viking helmet (TH 3, £85). Sadly they no longer sell their hand beaten helmets (pictured).
- Kovex sells a whole bunch of Viking spectacle helms (HL002) for 150 Euros to 200 Euros. Slightly inauthentic curves on the eyepieces, but very pretty. We'd recommend HL002, HL030, HL060 and HL061.
- Kasto do a bunch of suitable helmets. HE034 (135 Euros) and HE009 (145 Euros) are nice Gjermundbus, but HE032 (220 Euros) is an amazingly nice Valsgarde.
There are a bunch of continental or Eastern European helmets that have survived. The key similarity between them is that they tend to be conical as opposed to the more rounded early English & Vendel helmets.
6th-7th Century Spangenhelm
This style of spangenhelm appears to be of Sassanian (Persian) origin, via the Romans and via Eastern Nomads. It was very popular in Europe in the 6th-7th century: over 20 survive. It was popular among the Franks as well as more Eastern groups. The most famous is the Morken helmet. It is very different to the helmets discussed before, because whilst those helmets are based on a frame made from complete fore-aft and left-right bands plus a browband, this continental spangenhelm used four or six inverted T-shaped pieces (sometimes plus a browband) to make the framework, with panels between. The Metropolitan Museum has information on their website, as does Halvgrimr's Viking and Pre-Viking Helmets and the DHM (the DHM is in German? though, so less useful). There's also a jaw-droppingly stunning reconstruction by Gotscha Lagidse.
Great Polish helmets arise by the 10th century. They're appropiate in our period for Rus Vikings, Slavs & possibly nomads. Also, Byzantine forces feature similar (but less decorated) helmets called Caucasian helmets from the 10th century onwards.
Great Polish helmets have a number of pieces (at least four), rivetted directly to each other. They're like a spangenhelm without a frame, basically. Normally the front and rear pieces are on top, with the two side pieces recessed. The most elaborate Great Polish helmets have wavy edges on the panels, decorated browbands and tall top-spikes (for plumes?). They also sometimes have decorative rhomboid plaques applied.
Egfroth has made two beautiful Great Polish helmets: this is spot-on for our period and this is a bit later.
'Old Russian Arms and Armour: Helmets' by Anatolij N. Kirpichnikov is a great typology and catalogue of the surviving Russian helmets, including the so-called 'Great Polish' helmets.
We haven't found any places that sell early-style spangenhelms. You could probably email people that make armour and commission one? Or do it yourself!
Viking Crafts used to sell a lovely Great Polish helm (pictured). Sadly they don't any more.
The Vikings didn't wear horned helmets. Or did they?
No Viking horned helmets have been dug up. But there are illustrations of helmets with horns, that seem to have had some sort of ritual use. But no, you can't wear one to battle practice or else we will laugh at you.
One place that famously shows people wearing horned helmets are pre-Viking age helmet panel illustrations. These small embossed images, found both on the Sutton Hoo helmet and on some Vendel helmets, show figures in distinctive long wrap-over coats with wide lapels, holding spears and wearing helmets with large curved bird's heads. It is suspected these figures are involved in the worship of Odin, and that the birds represent Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory, the two ravens of Odin.
Whether these illustrations are showing actual helmets that people wore or are more generally symbolising an ecstatic shamanic trance is debated.
The Oseberg Tapestry has another famous illustration of someone with a horned helmet. In this case the figure is even more like the traditional horned Viking we expect. It is believed to represent a god or a chieftan in some sort of ceremonial head-dress.
So Why Do We Think They Did?
Why exactly do people have this big idea that Vikings wore horned helmets? This is a very good question, to which The Straight Dope has dedicated a whole report. A quick summary:
- There is no evidence the Vikings wore them in battle, but their priests might have for ceremonial purposes (e.g. Oseberg Tapestry)
- The Celts definitely had them (pictured)
- The Romans said the ancestors of the Vikings wore odd helmets ("made to resemble the heads of wild beasts")
- In the Romantic period, artists started adding horns or wings to German helmets in paintings
- Gustav Malmström illustrated Frithiof's Saga (1820-25) with horned helmets, the first horny Vikings
- Wagner preferred wings to horns
The Phrygian cap, otherwise known as the Liberty cap or Smurf hat, is a hat with a bent bit hanging forwards. They were popular among the Persians during Roman times, and the Romans worshipped a warrior-god called Mithras who wore one. Later, these same hats re-appear in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. After our period, they become a revolutionary icon.
In manuscripts, they are typically shown worn by warriors. There are three main theories regarding them:
It is possibly they represent a style of helmet. After all, they normally feature being worn by people going into battle. There were helmets that looked like this in 4th century BC Greece. However no helmet like this has been found in England, or in our period. So they might be helmets, but we do not have definitive evidence, and sothey are not recommended for wearing in Wychwood. If you're buying a helmet, we'd recommend you buy one that we know is authentic.
Stylish Phrygian Hats
If they're not helmets, they could just be fashionable hats. The Saxons did quite like making clothes too big to show off they had money to waste. Maybe a Phrygian hat is a normal hat with a bit of extra cloth just to show off? Alternatively, eastern Vikings seem to have worn long pointed hats with silver terminals. Maybe this is the English equivalent, a bit shorter and without a terminal? Alternatively, maybe Saxon hats mirrored Roman hat styles just like early Saxon helmets mirrored Roman helmet styles?
Sadly these hats aren't safe for fighting in under Wychwood rules. But they look good in living history.
Pretty Phrygian pictures
Maybe Phrygian hats/helmets were never worn in Anglo-Saxon days. We know that many of their illustrations in manuscripts were based on earlier sources- maybe these hat pictures were based on Roman hat pictures?
Later period helmets were more standardised. They tended not to have cheekflaps or facemasks. Instead they are fairly simple cones, with nasals. They can have integral mail aventails, or they can be worn with mail coifs or with mail shirts that have integral hoods. Viking and more Eastern versions often have nasals with attached eyebrows.
These are the helmets illustrated on the Bayeux Tapestry.
Beaten helms are harder to make than spangenhelms, and consist of a single piece of metal beaten into helmet shape, often with a central crest. This is more complex than creating a spangenhelm, hence these are rarer. Modern reproductions are generally made in two halves and welded together.
The so-called Wenceslas Helm (pictured) is a 10th century helmet from a museum in Prague made from a one-piece dome plus a browband. That's all I can find out about it. I'd love to know more.
Other beaten helms include the Olmutz, Poznan and Hainburg helms. These all featured integral nasals and did not have seperate browbands.
These are the classic Norman helmets, and Wychwood mainly has helmets in this style. It evolved from the early helmets discussed above, with the cheekflaps removed and the dome refined into a cone shape.
It features four panels (either beaten metal like most Wychwood helmets or leather like the one pictured), held together by a browband and two sets of bands going front-back and side-side, with an added nasal. In the Bayeaux Tapestry you can often see that helmets have several panels, clearly illustrating late period spangenhelms.
Egfroth has made several spangenhelms, including one with a shaped & engraved bronze nasal for Hastings 00 and one with a bronze browband for Hastings 06.
- Ancient Battle Crafts has a conical nasal helm with an aventail for £79.95.
- Get Dressed For Battle has a selection of nasal helms- the Crusade Nasal (£76) and Olmutz (£65) are both in the beaten style, and there are also two spangenhelms at £76.
- Jelling Dragon has a wide range of hand-beaten conical nasal helms. JK4 & JK12 are both beaten helms (but a bit pricey at £225 each), as is JK3 at £200. JK10 & JK13 are both spangenhelms, although are again just a bit too expensive at £240 each.
- Viking Crafts offer a range of spun helmets that need more work to finish them that has two beaten style helmets (TH 4A £40 and TH 4B £45) and two spangelhelms (TH 5 or TH 6, both £50). Sadly they no longer sell their hand beaten helmets.
- Kasto's HE011 (85 Euros) is a wonderful copy of the Wenceslas beaten helm.
Make Thy Own Helmet!
The basic pattern for most of the helmets in our period, whether early English or early Viking or the standard later spangenhelm, is to have a round browband, two hoops (one front-back, one side-side) and four panels. The browband and hoops are rivetted together to make a frame, and the panels are rivetted to the frame. Then extra details are added as you please- just nasals for later period, spectacles for vikings, and big cheekflaps plus nasals for Coppergate Saxons.
The browband and hoops are generally about an inch or two wide. Wider for the Coppergate style, as you can see above.
The panels can be made of metal or leather or of interlaced bands.
Luckily, this style of helmet can be made without a forge.
In the old Whychwood kit file there are some useful pages of diagrams on helmet construction which we hope to reproduce here.
In the interim, tools & materials:
Ball Pein Hammer
or two of different sizes. The Ball pein is needed for dishing, and the heavier it is the better
Anvil (something to hammer on)
Any large flat peice of steel will do. For extra marks, a rivet set & vice can be used instead (for the rivetting)
Pointy steel device used to prepare for drilling
Electric drill/ metal punch to match rivets
and HSS drill bits… though if you really want to use a hand drill…
Tin Snips / nibbler (metal cutting tool)
Tin snips are metal shears. Using them takes quite some strength and is hard on the hands. How difficult it is depends on the shears and the thickness of the metal. 2mm steel is almost unmanagable.
felt pen for marking out
dishing sandbag / dishing block
The sandbag is an ordinary sandbag with one side protected by leather. It is used in the dishing process. The alternative is a wooden block with a depression gouged into it - a dishing block
not essential, but useful for regularising the surface of dished peices after dishing. The stake is simply a large metal mushroom with a smooth curved face
The usual material for re-enactment armour - it can be cheaply acquired from sheet metal workers as off-cuts, as manufacturing uses tend to leave peices too small to re-use, but large enough for our purposes. The usual method of measuring metal thickness is Imperial Standard Wire Gauge. Higher gauges indicate thinner metal. A helmet ought to be 16 or 14 gauge (14 is about 2mm thick).
Sometimes used for decoration - harder to find, but easier to dish.
Rivets come in a variety of types - soft iron, brass and copper are the most common - avoid aluminium, and modern two-part pop rivets (for metal working). Rivets are distinguished by the diameter of their stalks. Sometime it will be possible to buy a "snap" and "set" for rivets of a certain size. These are tools that make riveting easier and neater. The snap and set may be incorporated into one tool.
This is a modern technique used to create domes from sheet metal. To dish you need an appropriately shaped (and weighted) hammer, and either a sandbag or a dishing stump.
In brief a rounded hammer or mallet is used to beat the flat metal into the former. The result of dishing will never be a perfectly consistent curve so it is necessary to planish the dome in order to regularise the curve (although it is possible to make a functional helmet without doing so.
Despite the simplicity of this technique it does not appear to have been used in the later medieval period (when metal shaping techniques are relatively well evidenced). Whether it was used earlier on would seem to be a matter of supposition, due to lack of evidence either way.
This is a more difficult technique, for which there is pictorial evidence in the later middle ages. This technique will require a hammer and a rounded metal stake. The method is essentially opposite to Dish - instead of sinking the metal into a form, the metal is hammer down around a form. This was most likely done hot.
This is a method of regularising dishing or raising done on a peice of metal. Planishing also compresses the metal between the hammer and stake resulting in a degree of work hardening. Planishing requires a fairly large metal stake and a heavy hammer with a clean face. The metal is hammered against the stake so that each blow makes the stake ring, and the hammer bounces back from each blow.
This is a common way of fixing metal plates together without the complexity of attempting to forge-weld such thin material (extremely difficult for anyone but a skilled smith, even then taking some time and care). The metal plates to be fixed are drilled or punched with holes the right size for the rivet's stalk. The rivet itself is shaped like a metal mushroom. THe head will remain outside the completed item. The stalk has to be cut down so that a length of its own diameter protrudes inside the item. The head is then rested on an anvil (or in a rivet "set") and the stalk is peined (with the ball pein of a hammer) into a rough dome shape (striking the rivet off center rather than flat on is the way to do this).
- The Arador Armour Library has a step-by-step guide to making a spangenhelm with lots of photos.