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The Capel helm

Curator’s view of a very special helmet.

Tudor Power and Glory: The Field of Cloth of Gold was to include several impressive loans from institutions such as the Musée de L’Armée in Paris and the French National Archives.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also agreed to loan us a very special object. Curator Keith Dowen tells us more about it.

The Capel Helm on stand

This highly unusual helmet, known as a ‘great bascinet’, is one of the finest examples of its type to have survived and may have been worn at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Dating to c.1510 it was probably made in Flanders, which was home to numerous armourer’s workshops producing helmets of this type. One such helmet, now in the Imperial Armouries in Vienna, was made in Flanders by an unknown armourer either for the emperor Maximilian (1459-1519) or his son Philip I of Castile (1478-1506). Although the Capel helmet is unmarked and therefore the identity of the maker is not known, the conspicuous sculptural quality of the helmet indicates the armourer was a master craftsman.

For hundreds of years the helmet had been suspended on an iron bar above the tomb of Sir Giles Capel (1485-1556) at All Saints Church in Rayne, Essex. A veteran of the 1513 war against France and a member of Henry’s retinue at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, the helmet is likely to be Capel’s ‘beste helmett’ which he instructed was to be hung over his tomb, along with his sword, as a funerary achievement. This relatively common practice among the knightly class was designed to signify the chivalrous and honourable nature of the deceased.

Following the demolition of the church’s nave in the mid-19th century, the helmet had initially been discarded by the builders. However, in 1880 it came into the possession of an antiquarian and arms and armour historian, Baron Alexander de Cosson (1846 – 1929), before being sold on and eventually purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1904; where it still resides today.

As a close friend of Henry VIII, Sir Giles Capel was chosen to be one of the seven ‘gentlemen of renown and noble blood’ who accompanied the king as one of his fellow ‘challengers’ in the joust at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Unfortunately, it is not known whether he participated in the foot combat, however, given his position in Henry’s retinue and the existence of his great bascinet it is certainly possible he did. Having taken part in numerous prestigious tournaments, Capel was undoubtedly highly skilled in all forms of knightly combat, including fighting on foot. Six years earlier he had numbered among the challengers at the tournament in Paris held to celebrate the marriage of Henry’s sister Mary to Louis XII of France. As at the Field of Cloth of Gold the foot combat was fought over a barrier with spears and swords in tonlets and bascinets.

According to the original rules, competitors at the Field of Cloth of Gold were instructed to wear (battle)field armour with reinforcing pieces known as ‘pieces of advantage’, rather than more specialised tournament armour. In part this was probably to ensure as many as possible could participate. However, at the last minute the French made a significant change to the rules. Instead of fighting in field armours, competitors in the foot combat were to wear tonlets, special foot combat armours fitted with a long steel skirt to protect as much of the lower body as possible. The armour would have looked similar to the one worn by Henry VIII at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Whilst this may have prevented some from taking part, others, including Capel, already owned the correct equipment. Although his great bascinet may have been commissioned for the Field of Cloth of Gold, it is just as likely it was re-used from an earlier event.

Henry VIII's Tonlet Armour

The Capel helmet is designed for the foot-combat; a sporting event which involved armoured competitors fighting inside an enclosure equipped with a variety of weapons such as swords, pollaxes and daggers. Although fought according to a set of rules designed to ensure a certain level of safety, the foot-combat was still a dangerous event and injuries were not uncommon. In a combat fought at Smithfield, London, in 1467 between Anthony Woodville and Anthony of Burgundy, king Edward IV had to personally intervene and stop the contest in order to avert serious injury. Even the introduction of a barrier between the competitors in the late 15th did not always make the foot combat any safer. At Noseroy, just one year before the Field of Cloth of Gold, men were still being severely wounded by cuts to the head and hands.

With these risks in mind, the Capel helmet was skilfully crafted to provide maximum protection without compromising its functionality. Incorporating smooth curved surfaces designed to deflect blows, the numerous small slots in the visor ensured there were no large gaps for bladed weapons to penetrate; whilst still providing adequate ventilation and a relatively good field of vision. The visor was originally secured in place by a sprung stud (now missing) located to the right of the chin. This was an important feature as it ensured the visor was not accidentally knocked open by a blow.

The Capel Helm forward view


In order to prevent serious neck injury caused by a sudden impact to the head, the entire helmet was secured to the back and breastplate of the armour by bolts which passed through the two holes at the base of the neck plate at the front and the single hole at the rear.

The Capel Helm rear view

An additional hole located at the top of the helmet along the pronounced medial keel, the ridge running over the top of the head, was designed to secure a heraldic crest or plume.

Originally the helmet would have been fitted with a padded lining. This not only made the helmet more comfortable to wear but was also designed to absorb some of the concussive force generated by weapon strikes. The lining was secured to the interior of the helmet by ties which passed through pairs of brass-rimmed holes located behind the visor.

Apart from the tonlet armour of Henry VIII, this helmet may be the only other piece of armour to have survived from the Field of Cloth of Gold. To have been chosen to serve as a lasting memorial of his life’s achievements, it clearly retained some special significance for Sir Giles Capel. Far more than simply a piece of armour, the helmet is a tangible link to a colourful period in the shared history of England and France.

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