Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Horned Helmet of Henry VIII, 1514

Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Susan reporting:

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. 


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

It's terrifying!

Arabella Stokes said...

Very odd, considering the phrase "wearing the horns" meant one's wife had been unfaithful. Wonder if he wore it while Anne Boleyn was imprisoned?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the Royal Armouries in Leeds uses a simple drawing of it on their traffic direction signs as you are driving in to the city... and it looks like one of those old school biology text book drawings of a womb with fallopian tubes attached. Poor Henry, if only he'd known...

Undine said...

Good heavens, I've never seen armor quite like that.

Actually, those look more like snakes to me than horns.

Time Traveling in Costume said...

At first this didn't interest me so much but it was so *creepy* that I had to know more. Amazing that Henry VIII would have worn something like this, and then to see the video clip explaining it was so cool! Thanks for finding this. I'm digging around some more on that site now.

Isobel Carr said...

There are some crazy and beautiful helms from this period (which is my main era for re-enactment: Landsknecht). There’s a griffon head that I just covet the hell out of.

Lauren Hairston said...

I would never have believed it! I was the TA for a Tudor England class when I was in graduate school. I wish I had known about this helmet then!

The Past on a Plate

History and von Fersen said...

Wouldn't have guessed that it was from that time and place just by looking at it. Very interesting to learn more about this helmet!

Anonymous said...

How is this "nerdy" ?

Anonymous said...

I've seen the real one, up close.
It was actually a tournament helmet.
Royal Armouries used to stock a very good miniature as a fridge magnet. I had one, then somehow mislaid in a house move; regret ever since.

Gar said...

English Heritage do a keyring based on this amazing item. I bought the keyring because I liked it not for the historical significance. Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

Ned Ward's "The London Spy" of the 1690s reports a visit to The Tower of London, a tourist attraction even back then. A yeoman warder showed him the helmet and said it was a gift to Henry VIII's jester from a courtier who had cuckolded him with his young wife. The high-quality helmet had been crudely modified by the addition of the cuckold's horns, and the spectacles because he had been too blind to notice. Let's face it. Noone would have the temerity to give such a thing to Henry himself.

Sergei said...

It is hard to believe that the helmet is more than 5oo years old.

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