The Benty Grange Helmet

Figure 1: Watercolour by Llewellynn Jewitt depicting the Benty Grange helmet and associated finds, 1849, public domain
Figure 1: Watercolour by Llewellynn Jewitt depicting the Benty Grange helmet and associated finds, 1849, public domain

3rd May 1848 saw Thomas Bateman’s discovery of the iconic Benty Grange Helmet. The helmet is a rare and precious surviving example of a boar crested helmet. Other similar finds, and references to them in poetry such as Beowulf, as well as imagery, indicate that they were an important symbol to the Anglo-Saxons representing strength and endurance.

Although the burial that Bateman was excavating had long been looted he found an iron framed helmet with horn plates. Uniquely in such finds there was also a boar studded with gold, fierce garnet and copper-alloy eyes and gilded silver hips, on the crest. Meanwhile on the nasal strip there is a silver Christian cross.

Bateman described it as follows:

“The helmet has been formed of ribs of iron radiating from the crown of the head, and covered with narrow plates of horn, running in a diagonal direction from the ribs, so as to form a herring-bone pattern; the ends were secured by strips of horn, radiating in like manner as the iron ribs, to which they were riveted at intervals of about an inch and a-half: all the rivets had ornamented heads of silver on the outside, and on the front rib is a small cross of the same metal. Upon the top, or crown of the helmet, is an elongated oval brass plate, upon which stands the figure of an animal, carved in iron, now very much rusted, but still a very good representation of a pig: it has bronze eyes. There are also many smaller decorations, abounding in rivets, which have pertained to the helmet, but which it is impossible to assign to their proper places, as is also the case with some small iron buckles.”

The Benty Grange helmet was constructed with eight horn plates on the iron frame and padded inside with leather or cloth which has decayed.  Although it offered some protection its ornate design implies it may also have been intended for ceremonial use. It probably weighed about 1.4kg when complete, or possibly more. Given the scarcity of such objects it was clearly high status.

Bateman also noted the presence of silver fragments attached to the helmet but did not understand their relevance and he didn’t collect them. On the basis of Sutton Hoo, Vendel culture, and now the Staffordshire Hoard, it is likely that the fragments were the remains of decorative silver foils like the tinned copper ones on the Sutton Hoo helmet.

In addition, previously missed rivets, and a line of expanded corrosion on the browband suggest the horn-work of the helmet actually continued down around the face, beyond the iron skeleton, similar to the deeper cap designs seen on Sutton Hoo, Coppergate and Wollaston helmets. It may therefore have had horn cheekpieces and some kind of neckguard which have since been lost.

Figure 2: Reconstruction of helmet (c) Museums Sheffield [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Figure 2: Reconstruction of helmet (c) Museums Sheffield [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The helmet is dated at early or more likely mid- 7th century, similar to or soon after the time of the Sutton Hoo burial, which was not discovered until almost a century later. At this period the Anglo-Saxons were beginning to convert to Christianity but often adopted a mixture of Christian and pagan symbols as protection. The boar in Norse mythology is the animal associated with Freyr, his mascot being called Gyllinbursti, meaning “golden bristles” which matches the decoration on the helmet’s boar. It did not translate across to Christian symbolism after this early period, but there are a number of other instances of boar imagery in artefacts, all associated with high status graves. Usually only the head is depicted, and examples appear on Kentish brooches as well as the Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps and a sword (also 7th century) from the River Lark in Cambridgeshire. However, bones from a boar have been found in graves such as that of a woman buried at Roundway Down. The Anglo-Saxon name for York was Eoferwic or Boar Town.

The date and location of the helmet place it within the tribal area of the Pecsæte. It is likely that the previous looters removed other artefacts, perhaps including a sword or shield, which may have accompanied the owner of the helmet into the afterlife.