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According to this article on the BBC news website only Anglo-Saxon kings wore helmets. Here is the full quote:

"Only Anglo-Saxon kings wore helmets and this is one of a very small number ever to be found."

The BBC attribute the quote to a Dr Ellen McAdam from the Birmingham trust.

Do we have any understanding of the cultural reasons that led to a universal abandonment of head protection?

  • 6
    Is it possible they misquoted her, and she meant "wore helmets [of this quality]"? – Charlie Tizzard Ó Kevlahan Nov 23 '18 at 20:28
  • 3
    @CharlieTizzardÓKevlahan I suspect that is more likely (or perhaps she just mis-spoke). – sempaiscuba Nov 23 '18 at 21:18
  • Has anybody tried contacting Ellen McAdam, possibly via Birmingham Museums? – Stuart F Nov 27 '18 at 11:53
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With all due respect to Dr McAdam, I don't think that is correct.

To give just one example, we have depictions of Anglo Saxon cavalry wearing helmets on Pictish stones like the one in the churchyard at Aberlemno Parish Church:

Pictish stone

This particular stone is often referred to as Aberlemno II, and the battle scene depicted is generally accepted to be that of the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685. It seems unlikely that all Anglo Saxon cavalry were kings!


The helmets in that depiction bear a striking similarity to the helmet found at Coppergate in York in 1982:

Coppergate Helmet

This helmet is of a type known as "crested helmets", which as Wikipedia notes:

... flourished in England and Scandinavia from the sixth through to the eleventh centuries.

The Coppergate helmet is now on display in the collection of the Yorkshire Museum.


The Staffordshire Helmet is of the same type as the Coppergate Helmet, but is much more richly decorated. I suspect that Dr McAdam may have mis-spoken (or, perhaps more likely, been misquoted in the article), and that she perhaps meant that only Anglo-Saxon kings would have worn such richly decorated helmets as the ones found in the Staffordshire hoard, and at Sutton Hoo.


EDIT

People may also find the Twitter broadcast discussing the Staffordshire Helmet by Dr Janina Ramirez on 23 November 2018 from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery of interest. (She does not repeat the claim).

  • 1
    One other possible reading (which is how I first read it) was that amongst kings only anglo saxon ones wore helmets. I have no idea if this is any more true but I was briefly confused when you started talking about cavalry as I thought "Why is that relevant? They aren't kings..." – Chris Nov 24 '18 at 1:39
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    That is an alternate reading, but that doesn't work either. We have representations of Frankish and Norse kings wearing helmets. – sempaiscuba Nov 24 '18 at 3:06
  • I thought that might be the case but figured it was worth raising. Thanks for the response. :) – Chris Nov 24 '18 at 12:55
  • Academics should know better than using absolute terms for poorly attested time periods. I wonder if she meant that royal helmets in Britain had only been found in an Anglo-Saxon context? That is no royal helmets were known from British or Irish cultures of the time. – Daniel Nov 25 '18 at 9:26
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This is not true, certainly for the later period and probably for the earlier period too.

Covering the early period (and bearing in mind that it is heroic fiction), we have references in Beowulf to the 'grimhelmas' worn by the warriors of Beowulf's company on arrival at Heorot (line 334) and before the fight with Grendel (line 1245); none of whom were kings. While this isn't really strong evidence that helmets were worn regularly by warriors, it is a strong indication that there was no cultural reason stopping them from doing so.

Later, in the 11th century, we have good written evidence of helmet wearing in an edict from 1008 that requires every eight hides of land to provide a helmet and mail coat, written account of a gift from Earl Godwine to Harthacanute of a ship manned by eighty warriors 'of whom each one had on each arm a golden arm-ring weighing sixteen ounces, a triple corselet, on the head a helmet in part overlaid with gold;', and of course the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the majority of the Anglo-Saxon warriors wearing helmets.

Reasons for thinking only kings wore helmets

While there doesn't seem to be any real evidence that only kings wore helmets in this period, what we do have is a paucity of evidence of helmet wearing, and of the six relatively complete Anglo-Saxon helmets we do have, two are almost certainly of kingly origin (the Staffordshire hoard helm and the Sutton Hoo helm), and the others are from high-status graves (of note is the fact that the Coppergate helm is inscribed with the name 'Oshere', which is almost certainly not the name of a king).

It's probably true that in the earlier Anglo-Saxon period few people apart from kings could afford helmets, this doesn't imply that helmet wearing was ever restricted solely to kings.

  • I've been struggling to find a translation of that edict (I think it's Aethelred's 1008 Enham edict), so I'd be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of one. – walrus Nov 24 '18 at 1:05
  • 1
    Not a translation, but I think this is the original manuscript – sempaiscuba Nov 24 '18 at 1:55
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    Re "...few people apart from kings could afford helmets...", perhaps it would be better to say that few apart from kings could afford gold-ornamented helmets, which would make them valuable enough to bury as treasure or grave goods, for later finding. The plain helmets of low-ranking soldiers perhaps were used until they wore out, then were tossed into the scrap pile. – jamesqf Nov 24 '18 at 3:55
  • @jamesqf that's an interpretation I agree with, but it isn't really evidence one way or another, just a different way of looking at the evidence and in this answer I was looking to disprove Dr McAdam's hypothesis rather than put forward an alternative. – walrus Nov 24 '18 at 12:00

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