The Sutton Hoo Helmet

Figure 1: Photo of the Sutton Hoo helmet from the front, British Museum, public domain
Figure 1: Photo of the Sutton Hoo helmet from the front, British Museum, public domain

The Sutton Hoo Helmet is an icon of Anglo-Saxon England. It was buried in the 7th century in a ship under a mound of earth above the River Deben in East Anglia, and when it was discovered in 1939 for the first time it provided evidence that the poetry of Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons was more than flights of fancy, but represented very real power, wealth and artistry in the early medieval period.

It weighs around 2.5kg, and was made of iron decorated with tinned bronze. The decorative panels depict dancing warriors, a horseman spearing a fallen warrior (akin to the gravestone at Hexham of Flavinus, a Roman soldier), and an interlace design. There are winged birds or dragons on the face and over the head. The eyebrows of the face are asymmetrical, with the left hand eyebrow deliberately darker than the right. This may be intended to represent the one-eyed god Woden.

Martin Carver, Professor Emeritus, Department of Archaeology, University of York explains further:

“The helmet is the armoured head of a warrior, attended by gods. Made of hammered iron, proof against spear, sword and axe, it is also covered with protective metaphors.

Across the face is a bird with splayed wings, its body forming the warrior’s nose, the tail his moustache and the wings his eyebrows. The bird soaring up meets the jaws of a dragon plunging down, its thick iron body inlaid with zigzag silver wire curving over the crest.

Figure 2: Replica of helmet, British Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0
Figure 2: Replica of helmet, British Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0

The man’s head is equipped with defence at every angle, like a battle ship: the wingtips finish in wild-boar jaws, guarding the lateral blind spots; the dragon has a snarling mouth at its tail, bringing up the rear. All the heads, even the bird’s, have sets of sharp fangs: the bared teeth of the animal bodyguard.

On the top of the crest is a little hole to carry a plume, and the sides of the helmet carried small panels commemorating victories – an enemy ridden down by a horseman, triumphant warriors dancing. Dragon and bird each have two gleaming eyes of red polished garnet, extra vision for the warrior’s own eyes, watching within their hollows, menacing as dark glasses.

Dragon, wild boar, bird of prey – these are the symbolic animals of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia where the helmet was found – part of an immense treasure buried with a political leader in a chamber, in a ship, in the early seventh century AD. Helmet and ship-burial were elements of a language of belief then shared widely among the peoples of the Northern Seas. In partnership with their animal gods, men win battles, hoard wealth, claim land. Ruthless, brave, enduring, these people built the kingdoms that northern Europe still has.

The Sutton Hoo helmet is more than a face-guard – it is a poem, a political manifesto in silver and iron.”

The similarity with Swedish helmets has been much discussed but current thinking is that the helmet was made in England. Generally it is considered that the burial was that of King Rædwald, one of the Bretwaldas listed by Bede, and the man who sheltered Edwin of Deira when he was in exile and helped him to regain Northumbria. However, it is by no means proven that it was in fact his grave.