(About) An Imposing Helmet for Stern Knight
We are honoured to be able to bring you Darksword Armory’s Herald Series: prestige-grade reproduction armor at affordable prices. The Great Helm is a spectacular addition to this series, embodying both the lofty-minded chivalry of the High Middle Ages, and the brutality of the Crusades.
Correcting the Mistakes of the Past
Our Great Helm is made from period-accurate mild steel – this was the sort of low-carbon steel available to the French and German armorers who developed this cylindrical pot helm from the Norman nasal helmet in the 12th-century CE. The designers of our Great Helm have taken great care to minimise the drawbacks and flaws in this form of armor design, resulting in a highly useable helm. They have improved the poor visibility that can result from badly fitted Great Helms by carefully shaping the eye slits to give maximum field of vision, and they have pierced the face-plate with plenty of holes (known in the Middle Ages as ‘breathes’) to permit better airflow. Built into the front of the helmet is a reinforcing strip in the shape of a striking crucifix, as many would have been. The interior of this helmet is anything but medieval. It is lined with leather, and a unique adjustable leather suspension system with an adjustable chinstrap to permit a comfortable, wobble-free fit. It is finished in a matte satin.
Overall, this is a brilliantly wearable and historically flawless historical reproduction of a 13th-century Great Helm that could be used in a Crusader re-enactment – and it would be a fantastic addition to a LARP outfit of a brooding high-fantasy knight too.
The Great Helm is a child of the Crusades. At the tail-end of the 11th-century CE, French nobles, soldiers and pilgrims carved out a network of Crusader States in the Levant with the blessing of the Pope. The typical helmet of these warriors was the nasal helmet – take a gander at the Bayeux Tapestry and you’ll see the general idea. By the 1100s CE, the nasal helm was being made with a wider flat top, and the wide nose-guard was eventually made more protective by being replaced by a huge projecting face plate which was pierced with slits for sight (this intermediate helm, which admittedly looks a bit silly, is called the ‘enclosed helm’). Armor-makers then brought the rest of the helmet down to fully enclose the head in a complete metal cylinder. Voila! The Great Helm (sometimes called the ‘pot helm’ or ‘heaume’ in Old French) was born.
Be Quick or Be Dead
There is often a bit of a myth that these would have been crushingly heavy and almost blinding, like staring out of a tiny narrow slit with no peripheral vision. If that had been true, then knights would have been cut to pieces within moments of getting into their first battle. Navigating battlefields required good awareness of what was going on around you, and so every effort was made to make the Great Helm as wearable as possible. They were never enormously heavy, and would have allowed free movement of the head; most reproduction helms are made from slightly thicker steel than the surviving medieval examples (16-gauge as opposed to 18- or 20-gauge). You could guess that a great helm with all of its padding, mail and cervelliere might have weighed somewhere in the region of 2 kg – not neckbreaking. As well, the eye-slits of a properly fitted Great Helm would have sat close to the eyes, meaning that peripheral vision was still pretty good, with protection uncompromised.
It might be surmised that surviving examples of heavy, cumbersome tournament armor, made from extra-thick steel and riveted into position, might be responsible for some of the idea of enormously onerous armor. But that was only ever for use for a short time in a controlled environment, and never on the battlefield. You might compare it to the idea of an archaeologist of the future discovering a buried bomb-disposal suit and going ‘Aha! All soldiers of the 21st-century must have had to walk very slowly!’.
A Flawed Totem
Where the Great Helm had a problem was heat and hearing. Because the quality and build of helmets was limited by the materials available to European smiths, the Great Helm was worn with multiple layers of protection in order to multiply its effectiveness. Typically, a knight would first don a thick padded linen arming cap or coif to cushion their head. Next would come a cervelliere, a close-fitting metal skull-cap. On top of that was a coif of mail rings. Finally the Great Helm would go over the top of all that – at least four layers in total! It makes you sweaty just to think about. This level of protection was undoubtedly necessary, but especially for the knightly Order such as the Templars or Hospitallers in the Middle East, heat exhaustion was a constant danger. Whilst earlier designs resemble somewhat the perfect design for boiling one’s head, later ones seem to have taken account of the need for airflow, with many holes pierced in the visor (as does our Great Helm) – but this was only ever going to be remedial rather than a solution. As well, such an amount of padding and armor would have significantly hampered any hearing possible. Similar to the airflow issue, some designs have pierced holes or scallops at the ears to improve situational awareness.
However, these problems had to be overcome in better ways. Eventually, as steel and steelworking techniques improved in the 14th-century, the Great Helm was slowly discarded in favour of an extended cervelliere skullcap which eventually became the visored bascinet. But our Great Helm has its share of mod-cons to make wearing this iconic helm easy.
(History): A Second Life – The Great Helm After the Crusades
Crusader imagery and iconography became associated with the highest of status in the Christian West as the Crusader period drew to a close towards the end of the 13th-century. The surcote, adapted from the flowing sun-averting robes of the indigenous population by the Franci invaders of the Holy Land, became emblazoned with brightly-colored heraldry. Symbols such as the cross bezanty incorporated the round gold coins that the Crusaders had acquired in Turkish Anatolia. And, of course, the Great Helm, forged from necessity in the battles of the East, became a potent symbol of chivalric rule. Far from vanishing from the historical record, the Great Helm evolved and changed in its role, becoming part of an imagined, constructed noble past that was already rapidly vanishing into the rear-view mirror.
Pembridge Helm: The Next Generation
By the dawn of the 14th-century CE, the Great Helm reached the form that it would take with little modification until it gradually fell out of use: a tall, conical shape that fully enclosed the whole head of the wearer, extending down far below the chin. The Pembridge Helm at the National Museum of Scotland is a staggeringly well-preserved example of this type. It likely dates from the 1340s or 1350s, and we know that its owner, Sir Richard Pembridge, fought in the Hundred Years’ War at Sluys and Poitiers. The Great Helm has come a long way from the flat-topped cylindrical helmets with projecting face plates! Now, every surface of the Great Helm is curved and angled, with no sharp corners for an enemy’s weapon to achieve purchase on and crack. The Pembridge Helm reaches a tall conical top to accommodate the egg-shaped bascinet that was still worn under the Great Helm. Its bottom edge is also shaped to accommodate the shoulders – it seems likely that such a helmet would have afforded significantly less freedom-of-movement than its earlier iterations, but this makes sense given the greater requirements for personal protection due to the invention of more powerful 14th-century weaponry like the poleaxe, the heavy lance and the longbow.
If you were unlucky enough to face a noble in a Great Helm on a battlefield, the thing that would strike you most of all (before their longsword) would be that they appeared superhumanly giant. Partly, the nobility were simply physically larger than the average serf: the nobility were likely the only people who had received a healthy amount of calories in childhood, and so were probably inches taller than their social inferiors. Add to that the high-domed, barrel-shaped Great Helm, and a wealthy 14th-century noble in glittering chainmail and garish surcote might appear as much as a foot taller than a poorly equipped levy. This was, of course, absolutely intentional. And knights and nobles sought to further emphasise by the attachment of extravagant crests onto their Great Helms. These crests were likely made from fragile materials, in the archaeological sense: papier-mache, leather and cloth do not survive the ravages of time unless preserved incredibly carefully. Hence, there are only a handful of surviving examples which have survived down to the present day.
The von Pranckh Helmet
Perhaps the most famous surviving crest remains attached to the funereal helmet of the von Pranckh family. This helmet likely belonged to Albert von Pranckh, and was placed over the family tomb in the Abbey of Seckau, Bavaria. The practise of placing helmets over the grave of a knight is common, but what makes the von Pranckh helmet unique is the enormous crested horns, made from stuffed leather, which are attached to the crown of the Great Helm. The crests upon chivalric helms often referenced the heraldry or symbols associated with the owner: the horns on the von Pranckh helmet mirror the buffalo horns on the family’s coat-of-arms. It is extremely unlikely that a knight would have worn such an impractical item into battle; it would weigh down the head and make for an easy target. However, the von Pranckh helmet has certainly been heavily reinforced at the front, and it has none of the vital ventilation breathes you might expect from a battle helmet. Thus, it seems possible that the von Pranckh helmet could have been a tournament Great Helm, where a knight might well have worn his crest into a clash with another knight at the Tilt Yard.
Edward the Black Prince’s Helm
The only other surviving helmet crest from the medieval period (that we at Medieval Ware know of!) is the crest of the Black Prince at Canterbury Cathedral. When Edward the Black Prince, heir to the British throne, died from dysentery in 1376, as was common in the period his tomb at Canterbury Cathedral was decorated with ‘funereal achievements’, including his shield, his gauntlets – and his crested Great Helm. The crest is an astonishing piece of design: it is a leather cap affixed onto the helmet by leather laces, upon which sits stands a lion made from plaster, complete with textured fur. Again, we see the its maker playing with the heraldry of the wearer: the original would also have sported a miniature golden crown, as well as a collar imitating the Black Prince’s white ‘label’, a strap with three points added to the heraldry to indicate a first-born son.
Perhaps you might create your own heraldic crest for your own Great Helm!
- Material: Mild steel
- Lining: Leather