Worn & Wielded: The Sutton Hoo Helmet

The Sutton Hoo helmet is perhaps the most iconic image of the Anglo-Saxon age. It is a fascinating object with a fascinating history, so let’s take a look at an item ‘worn and wielded’ by the Anglo-Saxons.

Glossary

  • Bretwalda – a term used to denote Anglo-Saxon kings whose influence was recognized across large swathes of Britain during their reign, often exacting tribute from other kingdoms.
  • Extant – something that has survived and still exists in its original form, not being a copy or reproduction
  • Haft – the handle of a weapon or tool, usually wooden
  • Helm – an older and poetic word for helmet
  • Skald – a storyteller in ancient Scandinavian culture, who memorized and recited stores of legendary heroes
  • Wargear – a kenning (descriptive phrase) meaning a warrior’s weapons, equipment and armour
  • Wyrm – an Anglo-Saxon word for dragon or serpent

A Warrior’s Gear

            Let us suppose you are a soldier on a battlefield, clad in your clothes, with perhaps a leather jerkin to protect your body. You hold a great round shield and spear, and a straight-bladed fighting knife at your side. If you’re wealthier than your companions, you have a simple helmet of steel enclosing your head above the level of your eyes. Your companions stand to your left and right; there is safety in your press of numbers. Surely none could penetrate your shield-wall? You and your enemies shout your taunts and battle-cries, crashing your spear-hafts against your shields. The rhythm of the war-beating rolls up and down the ranks. Adrenaline rushes through you, ready for battle, to face the enemy shield-to-shield.

            And then you see the enemy leader. Perhaps the sea-mist parts or the sun suddenly glints on metal. It is their king, standing in the midst of their ranks, or on high ground behind his army mounted on a horse, and your blood runs cold. For this is surely no man, but a terrible god of war from the stories of old. Clad all in shining mail, resplendent in furs and gleaming with gold, silver and jewels, wrought in cunning devices by master-craftsmen. In his hand is a huge embossed shield, covered with intricate carving and runes. At his side is a magnificent sword, whose hilt glitters with carved gold and red garnets, worn on a belt clasped with a huge golden buckle, depicting serpents writhing over each other. His cloak is fixed in place with enormous jeweled clasps, each of which costs a king’s ransom.

            But what of the face of this king? There is no face, only a mighty helmet covering the whole head in paneled metal. The face is covered by a metal mask, and from two eye-holes this warrior looks out. The panels are of silver, showing scenes of mythology and heritage, and golden designs of dragons and boars run along the crest and round the face of this man. He turns his head slowly, surveying your army, but from the depths of those black eye-sockets, no eyes are visible.

            When I first saw the Sutton Hoo helmet as a child, it struck me as the most bizarre piece of armour I had ever seen. Most British schoolchildren are used to seeing Roman or medieval helmets, but the Sutton Hoo Helmet is utterly strange. At first I thought it rather a ridiculous item, with its moustache, but the more I looked at it, the more unsettling it became.

Gifts From the Earth

            The history of the Sutton Hoo excavation is an exciting story in and of itself, and I don’t have space to do it justice here. The (very) short version is that the Sutton Hoo ship was unearthed in 1939, and turned ideas about Anglo-Saxon history on their head. The broad consensus before this discovery was that they were a fairly primitive people whose only wealth came from borrowing and copying the metalwork and artistry of others, but suddenly it was shown that the Anglo-Saxons were sophisticated, powerful and capable of producing fabulous goods, and that their kingdoms traded far and wide throughout the world. The grave-goods were unlike anything that had been excavated on British soil, and it has rightly been hailed as the most important archaeological discovery on these islands.

            Until the discovery of Sutton Hoo, it was presumed that the descriptions of elaborate ship burials in Beowulf and other extant literature were creations of storytellers, embellishing simple internments with the trappings of mythology. Suddenly, these were not fanciful skald’s tales, but very real descriptions of very impressive ceremonies.

            The ship burial took the form of a huge ship (something over 27 metres in length) buried beneath an earth mound. In the middle of the ship was the wooden burial chamber itself, containing the body, surrounded by a wealth of fabulous goods, including weapons, cutlery, clothes, games, tools, drinking horns, armour, serving bowls, coins, jewelry, crosses and furniture. In short, it was everything a king would need in the halls of the afterlife. Fortunately the grave had not been robbed, and had lain undisturbed for twelve centuries, but the acidity of the soil had rotted the timbers, and caused the burial chamber to collapse. This meant that the helmet, and several other important relics, were in literally hundreds of tiny metal fragments.

A Complicated Jigsaw Puzzle

            We can easily picture the challenge for the restorers. It was a jigsaw puzzle of more than 500 small iron fragments, except it was a jigsaw picture with no image. They did not know what it looked like, and the first effort, completed in 1947, had to be dismantled in 1968, after it was found to be inaccurate. It took a long year of slow, painstaking work, but slowly the helmet came into being, and its true wonder and power were revealed. Work since that time has revealed many interesting and curious items, and the reconstructions, one of which is the featured image for this article, give an idea of this strange piece of armour, and how it would have appeared when worn.

Signs & Symbols

            The helmet is based on continental, late-Roman styles, but with many differences and adaptations. It is similar to other Anglo-Saxon helmets, but shares much with Scandinavian design, showing the network of artistic and cultural influence that stretched across the Northern World. It is much older than the grave, indicating that it was probably a prestige item, perhaps a family heirloom or type of proto-crown handed down to the man in the grave. It became apparent that the helmet had been covered with decorated with carved metal panels, depicting a figure possibly meant to be Odin, as well as a mounted warrior trampling his enemies beneath his feet; terrible portents indeed if one were to meet this helmeted warrior in battle. ‘You are next’ the helmet declares, ‘if you stand in my way’. There are also other figures whose identification is still a mystery, and much beautiful tracery on the cheek-guards.

            The main features are the animals. A serpentine dragon stretches its golden body over the crest of the helm, and a second wyrm flies over the face, soaring upwards, its wings cunningly crafted to resemble boars that form the eyebrows of the face mask. These are set with beautiful garnets that were mounted so as to catch the light. Interestingly, the garnets are missing from one eye, and for a long time it was thought to be due to loss or damage, but another idea has emerged recently; perhaps it was a deliberate design choice to make eye appear an empty socket, matching the one-eyed god Woden or Odin, who traded his eye for knowledge.

            This helmet is strangely reminiscent of the poetry of Beowulf, where, ‘the bound blade, beaten out by hammers, cuts […] through the boars that bristle above the foes’ helmets’. and, ‘His head was encircled by a silver helmet, […] the weapon-smith had wonderfully made it, so that no sword should afterward be able to cut through the defending wild boars that faced about it’. These are tantalizing links between the helmet and poem.

Purely Ceremonial?

            Even before the helmet had been reconstructed, the debates were already raging amongst historians, academics and archeologists about who this man was, and whether such a fabulous helmet would ever actually have been worn in battle. The broad consensus is that the grave is probably that of King Raedwald of East King, a powerful warlord in the 7th century. The evidence from coins and other evidence line up closely with his reign, as well as the location, for Sutton Hoo lies close to the heart of his kingdom. He is one of the few Anglo-Saxon kings to be awarded the historical title of Bretwalda, a non-contemporary term roughly meaning ‘Wide-Ruler’, or ‘High-King’ in modern parlance.

            At first, it was assumed that such ornate and beautiful gear could not possibly have worn in battle. After all, it was too valuable to risk being damage and represented considerable wealth if lost, damaged or stolen. However, opinion began to change as we discovered more about the Anglo-Saxon mindset and how they thought, as well as interesting material evidence from Sutton Hoo and other finds, such as the Staffordshire Hoard. The wargear, including the helmet, showed signs of having been repaired by craftsmen, showing that it was used and damaged in battle. The sword hilt was sworn down on one side, showing that the user made a habit of resting his hand on it for long periods of time. These were not precious family heirlooms kept in the silver cupboard, but highly-effective armour meant for the din and slaughter of battle.

            Tests with the replicas have shown that the helmet offers exceptional protection and flexibility for the wearer, featuring a wide and full neck guard and complete covering of the face, cheeks and temples, often the most vulnerable part of any helmet of that period. When worn with the armour, it gave the wearer an impressive stature.

            It soon became apparent that the early Anglo-Saxons did not think of wealth in the same way that we do. Our mindset is that wealth is very much ‘static’. The most valuable things many of us own are not easily transportable on our person. They are houses, vehicles, business premises, land or investments. We may have valuable clothes and jewels, but even our technology tends to be fixed to a location. However, the Anglo-Saxons thought much differently.  They believed that your wealth was primarily to be displayed on the body, worn and used and wielded as a psychological weapon against your enemies. ‘Here I am’ the helmet declares, ‘I am descended from Woden himself, and I am a mighty warrior’. The best and most successful warriors and kings could afford the very best in sword-smithing and armour, and they were not afraid to show it.

Further Reading

I hope this was enjoyable and informative, and below are some recommended books if you want to find out more.

  • Beowulf, by anonymous. This is available in a number of excellent translations. My favorites are the prose translation of JRR Tolkien and the verse translations of Seamus Heaney and Michael Alexander.
  • The Anglo-Saxon World, by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J Ryan.
  • Mercia: The Rise & Fall of a Kingdom, by Annie Whitehead

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