Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Just when I'm sure I can ball-park date and identify most Western historic dress, an item pops up that makes me realize I know NOTHING. This helmet looks like some modern steam-punk extravaganza, or a wizard's costume from a Harry Potter movie.
It's hard to believe that this helmet is almost 500 years old, and was created as part of a lavish suit of court armor of Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I. The armor was then presented by Maximllian to English King Henry VIII, the sort of lavish gift that Renaissance rulers exchanged to cement alliances.
Only this helmet now survives. Originally it would have had a silver-gilt panels of pierced work that would have fit over the skull and over a flowing purple velvet headpiece. Such a fantastic suit of armor would have been worn for pageants and parades rather than combat. Even so, the helmet with his gilt eye-pieces is so unusual that for many years, it was misidentified as having belonged to Henry's jester, Will Somers, rather than to the king himself.
But ever-competitive Henry was impressed by the high craftsmanship of the armor, superior to anything English armorers were making at the time. Determined not to be outdone in monarchical display, he gathered the best armorers available from Germany, Flanders, and Italy to a new workshop at his palace at Greenwich, where royal armor was created until the mid-17th century.
The helmet is now a prized possession of the Royal Armouries, Leeds. Click here for a short video featuring Karen Watts, Curator of Historic Arms, explaining the helmet in detail. For those who'd like to investigate Henry VIII's armor in more depth, check out Henry VIII: Arms and the Man, a lavish volume that's almost as magnificent as the king himself (also available here.)
Update: I still had a few questions about this helmet, which I asked the Royal Armouries this morning. The reply from their curators regarding the "horned helmet (or parade armet)":
"It is not a flattering image, and is believed to depict the fool, a popular figure in court pageants, hence the wrinkles, stubble, dripping nose, etc. There has been much debate as to whether the horns and glasses are original or later additions. Henry VIII may have occasionally worn glasses like these, but probably not horns, as this was the sign for a cuckold. Basically it is a bit of an enigma with scholarly debate still raging! Hope that helps a little – though it's still a mystery."
Many thanks to Beckie Senior, Communications Officer, for her prompt reply.
Above: Horned Helmet, by Konrad Seusenhofer, 1511-1514, Royal Armouries.