Skip to main content

The ‘horned helmet’

One of the most mysterious objects in the Royal Armouries’ collection is the ‘horned helmet’. This bizarre headpiece was commissioned in 1511 by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I as a gift for the young King Henry VIII. The helmet would have been part of a full armour, worn by King Henry for court pageants.

An extraordinary decoration

The decoration on the grotesque mask is etched with life-like facial details. If you look closely, you can even see stubble on the chin and crow’s feet around the eyes. There is also a pronounced drip beneath the nose. The mask also sports a pair of spectacles, which heighten its strangeness even more. A pair of ram’s horns, beautifully modeled in sheet iron, complete this extraordinary piece.

close up of the mouth of the mask, with silver etched stubble and lips shown

Life-like facial details down to lips and stubble can be seen closer up.

What inspired the horned helmet?

Research to identify the source that inspired the horned helmet is continuing, but the copper alloy (possibly originally gilded) spectacles were never fitted with lenses, which reveals some clues as to its signification. It is believed that the spectacles form part of the identity of a ‘fool’, a figure commonly found in late 15th- and early 16th-century imagery, suggesting that everyone, however noble or lowly, has elements of foolishness in their character.

A number of images of fools wearing or carrying spectacles of this kind exist. The spectacles themselves are of so-called ‘rivet’ type, an almost universal design which hinged in order that they might grip the bridge of the wearer’s nose. Spectacles of this type are known in Europe from at least the middle of the 14th century.

close up of the face of the mask, showing the brass spectacle frames and intricate silver etching around the eyes.

Details of the mask show a pair of brass spectacle frames and intricate etching.

Work on the iconography of the mask of the ‘horned helmet’ continues, but there is increasing support for the view that it is that of a fool and that the spectacles are entirely a part of the representation of such a figure. We must also establish an explanation for the presence of the horns, which at the time the helmet was made were usually the sign of a cuckold or of the Devil. We now think that it may not have been thought appropriate to fit horns to a helmet intended for the King of England.

Following Henry’s death in 1547, it was probably placed on display among other arms and armour belonging to him. The rest of the armour was apparently discarded as scrap metal after the Civil War. The extraordinary appearance of the helmet probably saved it from destruction and it remains one of the most enigmatic pieces in the collection to this day.

To find out more about the horned helmet and other objects in our collection, visit our collections online page. 

Related stories

Load more