The Benty Grange helmet is a boar-crested Anglo-Saxon helmet from the seventh century AD. It was excavated by Thomas Bateman in 1848 from a tumulus at the Benty Grange farm in the civil parish of Monyash, at the western edge of the English county of Derbyshire.. Though likely already looted by the time of Bateman's excavation, the grave contained other objects such as the fragmentary remains of a hanging bowl, like the helmet a high-status object suggestive of a richly furnished burial. As of 2018 is displayed at Sheffield's Weston Park Museum, which purchased the helmet from Bateman's estate in 1893.
The helmet was constructed by covering the outside of an iron framework with plates of horn, and the inside with cloth or leather; the organic material has since decayed. Although it would have provided some protection against weapons, the helmet was ornate, and may have been intended for ceremonial use. It is one of only six known Anglo-Saxon helmets, discovered before those from Sutton Hoo, York, Wollaston, Shorwell, and Staffordshire. The combination of structural and technical attributes used in the helmet's manufacture are unique, but contemporary parallels exist for its individual characteristics. Within this context the helmet is classified as one of the "crested helmets" used in Northern Europe from the sixth through eleventh centuries AD.
The most striking feature of the helmet is the boar at its apex, but in a display of syncretism this pagan symbol faces towards a Christian cross on the nasal. This dualism is representative of the seventh-century England, a time when Christian missionaries were slowly converting Anglo-Saxons away from traditional Germanic beliefs. With a large boar and a small cross the helmet seems to exhibit a stronger preference towards paganism; the cross may be added for talismanic effect, the help of any god being welcome on the battlefield. The boar atop the crest was likewise associated with protection, and, together with the helmet from Wollaston and the Guilden Morden boar, suggests a time when boar-crested helmets may have been common. The contemporary epic Beowulf, which mentions such helmets five times, speaks of the strength of men "when the hefted sword, its hammered edge and gleaming blade slathered in blood, razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet."
The Benty Grange helmet was made by covering an iron frame with horn. The framework, which now exists in sixteen corroded fragments, originally consisted of seven iron strips, each between 1 and 2 millimetres thick. A brow band, 65 cm (26 in) long and 2.5 cm (1.0 in) wide, encircled the head. Two strips of the same width ran from front to back, and from side to side. The 40 cm (16 in) long nose-to-nape band extended 4.75 cm (1.87 in) in the front and 3.8 cm (1.5 in) in the back; the extension over the nose was straight, whereas the extension at the back was curved inwards, so as to fit the nape of the wearer. The lateral band ran from ear to ear, and though both ends are broken off slightly below the brow band, would have extended further as part of some form of cheek or ear protection. It was affixed to the outside of the dexter side of the brow band, the inside of the sinister side, and the outside of the nose-to-nape band. The four quadrants created by this configuration were each subdivided by a narrower subsidiary strip of iron, only one of which now survives. Each subsidiary strip was attached to the outside of the brow band 7 cm (2.8 in) from the centre of the lateral band. Here they were 22 mm (0.87 in) wide, and, while tapering towards a width of 15 mm (0.59 in), rose at a 70° angle towards the lateral band, which they overlapped at a 50° angle just beneath the crest. The inside of the helmet was most likely originally lined with leather or cloth.
Eight plates of horn, probably softened and bent and suggested to be from Bos longifrons, were cut to fit the eight spaces created by the iron frame. No horn now survives, but mineralized traces on the iron strips preserve the grain pattern. The plates were fitted over the iron, thereby hiding it, and abutted at the centre of each strip. The joins were hidden by further pieces of horn that were cut to the width of the iron strips and placed overtop. The three layers—iron at the bottom, followed by two layers of horn—were held together by a succession of rivets: iron rivets placed from inside the helmet, and rivets made of, or coated in, silver, with ornamental heads in the shape of a double-headed axe, placed from the outside, 4 cm (1.6 in) apart. Traces of horn on the rear extension of the nose-to-nape band, and on the rear brow band, suggest that the material was also used for a neck guard. These suggest that pieces of horn, extending 5 cm (2.0 in) from the centre of the brow band to the bottom of the rear nose-to-nape band, would have met each extension of the lateral band at a 5° angle, reaching them 6.4 cm (2.5 in) from the centre of the brow band.
In addition to the aesthetic elements incorporated into the basic construction of the helmet, two features provide added decoration: a cross on the nasal and a boar on the crest. The silver cross is 3.9 cm (1.5 in) long by 2 cm (0.79 in) wide, and consists of two parts. A silver strip was added underneath, elongating what was originally a equal-armed cross. It was placed atop a layer of horn and attached to the helmet with two rivets, one at the intersection of the two arms and one at the bottom. Around the cross in a zigzag pattern are twenty-nine silver studs, out of a suggested original forty, that were probably tapped into small holes drilled or bored into the horn.
The most distinctive feature of the Benty Grange helmet is its boar, affixed to the apex of the helmet. The core of body is made of two pieces of hollow D-sectioned bronze tubes, their flat ends approximately 2 mm (0.08 in) apart. The space between the two halves was filled in with a substance, likely horn or metal, which has now disintegrated; it perhaps projected upwards, forming the mane or spine of the boar, or, as has been interpreted on the Museums Sheffield replica, created a recess into which a mane of actual boar bristles could fit. On either side of the bronze core was affixed a plate of iron, forming the visible exterior of the boar. Four pear-shaped plates of gilded silver—cut down and filed from Roman silver, as evidenced by a classical leaf design on the reverse of the front left plate, and file marks on the obverse—acted as hips, through which passed two silver rivets, one atop the other, per end. These rivets held together the five layers of the boar, and were welded to the plates. Into the body of the boar were placed holes, probably punched, that held circular silver studs approximately 1.5 mm (0.06 in) in diameter. The studs, likely flush with the surface of the body, were filed down and gilded, and may have been intended to represent golden bristles. Eyes were formed with 5 mm (0.20 in) long pointed oval garnets set into gold sockets with filigree wire edging. The sockets were 8 mm (0.31 in) long by 3.5 mm (0.14 in) wide, and had 8 mm (0.31 in) long shanks, filled with beeswax, sunk into the head. Individual pieces of gilded bronze seem to have formed the tail, tusks, muzzle, jawline, and ears of the boar, although few traces of them now remain. Two sets of iron legs—probably original solid, but rendered hollow by corrosion—attached the body to an elliptical bronze plate; both sets depict front legs, with forward-facing knees, whereas the rear legs of actual boars have backward-facing knees. The elliptical plate is 9 cm (3.5 in) long with a maximum width of 1.9 cm (0.75 in), and matches the curvature of the helmet. Four holes indicate attachment points for the legs and another three connected the plate to the frame of the helmet, in addition to a large rivet hole slightly behind the centre. The plate was probably affixed directly to the frame, the legs passing through holes in the horn.
The helmet was discovered on 3 May 1848 during an excavation on the Benty Grange farm in Derbyshire, in what is now the Peak District National Park. It was found by Thomas Bateman, an archaeologist and antiquarian who was nicknamed "The Barrow Knight" for his excavation of more than 500 barrows. Bateman described Benty Grange as "a high and bleak situation"; its barrow, which still survives, is prominently located by a major Roman road, now the A515, possibly in order to display the burial to passing travelers. It may have also been designed to share the skyline with two other nearby monuments, Arbor Low stone circle and Gib Hill barrow. The Benty Grange barrow comprises a circular central mound approximately 15 m (49 ft) in diameter and .6 m (2 ft) high, an encircling fosse about 1 m (3.3 ft) wide and .3 m (1 ft) deep, and outer penannular banks around 3 m (10 ft) wide and .2 m (0.66 ft) high. The entire structure measures approximately 23 by 22 m (75 by 72 ft).
Unnoted in Bateman's account is that he was likely not the first person to dig up the grave. The fact that the objects were found in two clusters separated by six feet, and that other objects that normally accompany a helmet were absent, such as a sword and shield, suggests that the grave had previously been looted. Being so large it may alternatively or additionally have contained two inhumations, only one of which was discovered by Bateman.
At its centre of the barrow was suggested a body, flat against the original surface of the soil, of which nothing remained; what Bateman described as the one remnant, strands of hair, is now thought to be from a cloak of fur, cowhide or something similar. The recovered objects were found in two clusters. One cluster was found in the area of the "hair," the other about six feet to the west. In the area of the "hair" was found "a curious assemblage of ornaments," which were difficult to successfully remove from the hardened earth. This included a cup identified as leather but probably of wood, approximately 3 inches (7.6 cm) in diameter at the mouth. Its rim was edged with silver, while its surface was "decorated by four wheel-shaped ornaments and two crosses of thin silver, affixed by pins of the same metal, clenched inside." Also found were the remnants of three hanging bowl escutcheons, as well as "a knot of very fine wire," and some "thin bone variously ornamented with lozenges &c." attached to silk, but which soon decayed when exposed to air.
Approximately six feet to the west of the other objects was found a jumbled mass of ironwork. Separated, this mass included a collection of chainwork, a six-pronged piece of iron resembling a hayfork, and the helmet. As Bateman described it,
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.
Bateman closed his 1849 account of the excavation by noting the "particularly corrosive nature of the soil", which by 1861 he said "has generally been the case in tumuli in Derbyshire". He suggested that this was the result of "a mixing or tempering with some corrosive liquid; the result of which is the presence of thin ochrey veins in the earth, and the decomposition of nearly the whole of the human remains."
The helmet entered the extensive collection of Bateman, where in 1855 it was catalogued along with other objects from the Benty Grange barrow. In 1861 Bateman died in his fortieth year, and in 1876 his son, Thomas W. Bateman, loaned the objects to Sheffield. They were displayed at the Weston Park Museum through 1893, at which time the museum purchased the helmet and other objects from the family; other pieces were dispersed elsewhere. As of 2018, the helmet remains in the collection of the museum. It has also been featured in exhibitions, such as when from 8 November 1991 to 8 March 1992 it joined the Coppergate helmet at the British Museum for The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD 600–900.
The Benty Grange barrow was designated a scheduled monument on 23 October 1970. The list entry notes that "[a]lthough the centre of Benty Grange [barrow] has been partially disturbed by excavation, the monument is otherwise undisturbed and retains significant archaeological remains." It goes on to note that further excavation would yield new information. The nearby farm was renovated between 2012 and 2014; as of 2018 it is rented out as a holiday cottage.
In 1948 the helmet was brought to the British Museum to undergo cleaning and study. Discussions about the proposed work had begun the previous year, when Rupert Bruce-Mitford, recently returned from World War II service in the Royal Signals to an assistant keepership at the museum, spent time in Sheffield examining the Benty Grange grave goods. A 1940 letter from T. D. Kendrick to Bruce-Mitford's army camp had assigned him his position, and responsibility for the Sutton Hoo discoveries—"Brace yourself for the task", the letter concluded. Upon his return he therefore took to studying the comparison material; his work in 1947 included the excavation of the Valsgärde 11 boat-grave in Sweden alongside Sune Lindqvist, and the trip to Sheffield, intended to shed light on the Sutton Hoo helmet through comparison with the only other Anglo-Saxon helmet then known. Permission was obtained from the curator and trustees of the Weston Park Museum for the proposed work, and in April 1948, a century and a month after its discovery, the Benty Grange helmet was brought to London.
Work at the British Museum was overseen by keeper of the research laboratory Harold Plenderleith, who in some cases, particularly with the boar, did the work himself; additional input was provided by Bruce-Mitford, Herbert Maryon, and Françoise Henry. In the hundred years following its exposure to the air the helmet had continued to corrode, and certain parts had become indiscernible. The boar was unrecognizable, and the silver rivets and cross were almost completely obscured. A strong needle was used to pick off the encrustation, revealing the underlying features. During this process the boar, hitherto thought solid, snapped in two. Bruce-Mitford termed this occurrence "fortunate", for it revealed the boar's inner structure. The remnants of horn were also examined at the Natural History Museum by keeper of zoology Frederic Charles Fraser, and experiments softening and shaping modern horn conducted.
The Benty Grange helmet is dated to the first half of the seventh century AD, on the basis of its technical construction and decorative style. It is one of six Anglo-Saxon helmets, joined by the subsequent discoveries from Sutton Hoo, York, Wollaston, Shorwell, and Staffordshire. These are all, other than the Frankish Shorwell helmet, examples of the "crested helmets" known in Northern Europe in the sixth through eleventh centuries AD. Such helmets are characterized by prominent crests and rounded caps, traits shared by the Benty Grange example, and other than a Viking Age fragment found in Kiev, uniformly originate from England or Scandinavia; contemporary continental helmets were primarily spangenhelm or lamellenhelm.
The ultimate form of the helmet is unparalleled among surviving Anglo-Saxon and crested helmets, although individual characteristics are shared. While other Anglo-Saxon helmets were typically formed with wide perpendicular bands and four infill plates,[note 1] their Swedish counterparts from Vendel and Valsgärde display similar use of thin iron frameworks. The complicated construction of the Benty Grange boar, which combines garnet, filigree, gold, silver, iron, and bronze, is unique across ornamental Anglo-Saxon objects, but the general boar-crest is paralleled by the Wollaston and Guilden Morden boars. One other helmet exhibits the use of horn, but it is the spangenhelm-type helmet of a high-status child, discovered in Cologne.
The helmet was made during the nascent days of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England, and exhibits both Christian and pagan motifs. The boar invokes a pagan tradition at the time a thousand years old, the cross a Christian belief around for half that time. Roman rule of Britain had brought with it the Catholic Church, and the Roman departure in 410 AD had brought about its decline; thereafter Christianity in Britain diverged into distinct and unrecognisable forms, or met the influx of Anglo-Saxons from continental Europe and was replaced with Germanic traditions that had been repressed for the last 400 years. The lowland areas of Britain, including the Peak District where the Benty Grange helmet was found, were particularly susceptible to the Anglo-Sazon invasion and attendant loss of local culture and religion. To the extent that Christianity survived in sub-Roman Britain, it was in the more isolated highland areas: Scotland, Wales, Devon, and Cornwall.
Christianity rearrived in England in 597 on the backs of the Gregorian missionaries, and took hold once King Æthelberht of Kent gave them purchase to stay and preach. Æthelberht himself converted before his death in 616, and within the course of a century so did most nobles and their retainers; several more, and the lower classes had followed suit. Yet the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England was not a linear progression of Christian successes. King Rædwald of East Anglia, for whom the Sutton Hoo ship-burial may have been built, was converted while visiting Æthelberht, and then reconverted upon returning home; henceforth he kept both pagan and Christian altars, in a show of religious dualism. By the time the hundred years of aristocratic conversion was over, almost every court had required at least two conversions.
The Benty Grange helmet was made during this time of change, as evidenced by its syncretic display. It emphasises the pagan element, a large boar dominating a small cross. The cross may not necessarily be an indication of Christian belief; it may have instead been chosen for its amuletic effect. Whatever the politics behind religious conversion, the battlefield was not a place to discriminate against gods.
The boar was an important symbol in prehistoric Europe, where it was "venerated, eulogised, hunted and eaten ... for millennia, until its virtual extinction in recent historical time." Anglo-Saxon boar symbols follow a thousand years of similar iconography, coming after La Tène examples in the fourth century BC, Gaulish examples three centuries later, and Roman boars in the fourth century AD. They likely represent a fused tradition of European and Mediterranean cultures. The boar is said to have been sacred to a mother goddess figure among linguistically Celtic communities in Iron Age Europe, while the Roman historian Tacitus, writing around the first century AD, suggested that the Baltic Aesti wore boar symbols in battle to invoke her protection. Boar-crested helmets are depicted on the turn of the millennium Gundestrup cauldron, discovered in Denmark, and on a Torslunda plate from Sweden, made some five hundred years later. Though the Romans also included the boar in their stable of symbols—four legions, including the twentieth, adopted it as their emblem—it was only one among many. The boar nonetheless persisted in continental Germanic tradition during the nearly 400 years of Roman rule in Britain, such as in association with the Scandinavian gods Freyja and Freyr. Its return to prominence in the Anglo-Saxon period, as represented by the boars from Benty Grange, Wollaston, Guilden Morden, and Horncastle, may therefore suggest the post-Roman reintroduction of a Germanic tradition from Europe, rather than the continuation of a tradition in Britain through 400 years of Roman rule. Whatever its precise symbolism, the Anglo-Saxon boar appears to have been associated with protection; the Beowulf poet makes this clear, writing that boar symbols on helmets kept watch over the warriors wearing them.
The Benty Grange helmet recalls the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, in which boar-adorned helmets are mentioned five times. Three passages appear to describe examples that, like the Benty Grange helmet, are topped with a freestanding boar.[note 2] After Æschere is killed by Grendel's mother, King Hrothgar's lamentation speaks of such helmets.
"Ne frin þu æfter sælum! Sorh is geniwod
"Rest? What is rest? Sorrow has returned.
|—Old English text||—English translation|
The devastation wrought by Grendel's mother itself invokes a boar-crested helmet, for "[h]er onslaught was less only by as much as an amazon warrior's strength is less than an armed man's when the hefted sword, its hammered edge and gleaming blade slathered in blood, razed the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet" (Wæs se gryre læssa efne swa micle, swa bið mægþa cræft, wiggryre wifes be wæpnedmen, þonne heoru bunden, hamere geþruen, sweord swate fah swin ofer helme ecgum dyhtig andweard scireð.). These two passages likely refer to boar-crests like those found on the Benty Grange and Wollaston helmets, and the detached Guilden Morden boar.