The “face” of this magnificent helmet is one of the most instantly recognizable faces in medieval history and particularly British history. This is a ceremonial helmet that was found in the remains of a burial ship, most likely the tomb of an Anglo-Saxon king, dating from the late 6th or early 7th centuries CE. The hoard was found in the fields of Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, in Suffolk, UK in 1939. The treasure there–which included weapons, jewelry, dishes and textiles–is not only priceless in monetary value but also in its ability to tell us about life in England of the “Dark Ages.” The helmet pictured above is the crown jewel in the Sutton Hoo hoard.
What’s the story behind this object? It’s made of iron and tinned bronze and was most likely created as a ceremonial dedication to the king with whom it was buried, rather than as a functional tool of warfare. When archaeologists discovered it in 1939 the helmet had been smashed to pieces when the roof of the ship’s burial chamber collapsed on top of it. Thus it took thousands of hours of painstaking work to reconstruct the fragments into what we see today. Just near the helmet were found ten silver bowls and some spoons, all of wonderful craftsmanship, which scholars believe were created in Byzantium. This alone demonstrates the surprising interconnectedness of the European world of the 6th and 7th century, and weaves the Sutton Hoo treasures into the tapestry of Byzantine as well as British history.
One thing that archaeologists did not find in the ship burial was the body of the person buried there. At first, researchers believed that maybe this was some sort of ceremonial burial, but in 1967 traces of chemicals were found at the site that suggested a human body had lain there but totally decomposed in the acidic soil. Naturally there’s been great debate about exactly who was buried there, and thus the identity of this helmet’s owner. The leading candidate is Rædwald, the King of East Anglia, who is believed to have died about 624 CE. He converted to Christianity during his reign and warred with Æthelfrith, the King of Northumbria, defeating him at the Battle of the River Idle.
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Interestingly, some of Rædwald’s contemporaries are mentioned in the epic poem Beowulf, which therefore connects the Sutton Hoo helmet to that ancient story. In fact I used the photo of the modern replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet as the basis of the cover of my 2009 comedy novel Beowulf is Boring. Because Beowulf contains characters that also appear in the traditional stories of King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo helmet can also be linked to that rich body of folklore-slash-history. So, you see, there are a lot of connections here.
The Sutton Hoo helmet is currently on display in the British Museum, and in fact is one of their most treasured and iconic pieces. I’ve seen it in person, and it’s impressive.