Iconic helmet goes under the spotlight - Monday, 26 July 2010

Author and historian Graeme Rimer has unveiled fascinating new theories relating to Henry VIII’s Horned Helmet – billed the most contentious piece of armour in Britain.

Graeme – The Royal Armouries’ Academic Director – placed the extraordinary helmet under the spotlight at the first of his lunchtime lectures, organised to welcome the return of Henry Tudor’s armour to Leeds from the Tower of London.

He examined the origins of the helmet’s distinctive horns – traditionally the mark of the “cuckold” – challenging the traditional academic view that the horns were in place at the time of the gift and that Henry wore them.

The Horned Helmet was originally part of a lavishly decorated armour gifted to Henry VIII by Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, around 1514. Following Henry’s death in 1547, it was probably placed on display among other arms and armour belonging to the king – while the rest of the armour was apparently discarded as scrap metal after the Civil War. Graeme said, “The extraordinary appearance of the helmet probably saved it from destruction and it has remained one of the most enigmatic pieces in the collections ever since. Indeed its uniqueness led to it being adopted as the motif to represent the new Royal Armouries Museum when it opened in Leeds in 1996.”

Graeme’s lecture at the Royal Armouries Museum on Friday (July 23) sought to provide new interpretation of the helmet’s principal features – the extraordinary mask, with a hooked and dripping nose, wide-set eyes, a grinning mouth, stubbly chin and most obviously a pair of brass spectacles. The presence of the wonderfully made pair of ram’s horns and their presence on a helmet to be worn by a king was also explored.

He added, “This lecture looks at the iconography of the mask and tries to establish a possible reason for so strange a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor to a king of England. The audience is invited to make up its own mind whether or not it feels the arguments put forward do indeed help explain the inspiration for this beautifully made but still grotesque helmet.

“An inventory of Henry’s effects was made after his death in 1547 and recorded a helmet with ram’s horns. The horns were, therefore, it seems, in place by the end of Henry’s life. My contention is that they are well made but poorly fitted to the helmet, and that as the sign of a cuckold it seems unlikely that the Holy Roman Emperor would suggest in such an obvious way that the King of England was betrayed in love, especially since the gift of armour was made so early in Henry’s reign.

“My contention is that the horns were not originally fitted to the helmet but did exist within Henry’s armoury and were attached to the helmet later in Henry’s life, when any thoughts of actually wearing the helmet must have faded.”

Graeme’s lecture will be repeated at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds on Friday, August 13.

...ENDS...

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