The knight with his Great Helmet is one of the most iconic images when it comes to the depiction of the Middle Ages. But most don`t know that knights actually wore a second helmet underneath the Great Helmet. In this article, I would like to explore why knights wore another helmet under the Great Helmet and what knights wore under their helmets before the Great Helmet was developed.
Nasal helmets, under which a padded cap and a mail coif were worn, remained the dominant type of helmet until the 13th century. Then the Great helmet, under which a second helmet was worn, was developed. First, the second helmet was a metal skull cap that was worn under or over a mail coif and a padded cap. The skull cap developed into the bascinet, which had a thick roll of cloth around it on top of which the Great helmet rested. The bascinet with its integrated padding, the padded aventail, and the movable visor, replaced the Great helmet in the late 14th century.
Let`s take a closer look!
What did knights wear under their helmets?
The design of the helmets changed quite drastically throughout the Middle Ages.
One of the most common helmets in the Early and High Middle Ages was the nasal helmet. The nasal helmet had a conical design and a strip of metal that was usually riveted to the helmet and extended down from the skull so that it protected the nose and the center of the face. The lower parts of the face were not covered by the nasal helmet but were instead protected by a mail coif (a hood made from chainmail), which was worn under the nasal helmet.
The design of the nasal helmets didn`t change much between the 9th and the 12th century. During that time nasal helmets were made by putting several segments (hence the name segmented helmet or Spangenhelm) together since producing one big sheet of metal, from which the helmet was then made, was difficult.
That changed later and nasal helmets were made from one sheet of iron, which was more complicated but produced a more robust helmet.
Beneath both the nasal helmet and the mail coif the knight would wear a separate padded cap to soften blows against the helmet. Just like the mail coif, that padded cap was also not connected to the helmet.
That was a pretty simple setup.
But the combination of a nasal helmet that didn`t restrict the field of vision together with a mail coif as protection for the throat and the lower parts of the face still offered sufficient protection while the padded cap reduced the impacts of blows on the helmet. Generally, the conical shape of the nasal helmet also helped to derive most of the force of an attack away from the helmet.
So until the 13th century, knights usually wore a padded cap and a mail coif that protected the throat and the lower parts of the face under a nasal helmet. But neither the padded cap nor the mail coif was attached to the nasal helmet.
But over time new techniques of warfare (like the underarm-couched lance attack) were developed and made more face protection necessary. That resulted in the development of one of the most iconic medieval helmets: The Great helmet.
What did knights wear under a Great Helmet?
The Great helmet is probably the most iconic knightly helmet that everybody immediately thinks of when imagining a medieval knight. And while the Great helmet certainly offered good protection, it also had its disadvantages. These disadvantages, which will be explained in the following, made it necessary to wear an additional second helmet beneath the Great helmet.
The shape of the additional second helmet that knights wore under their Great helmets changed over time from a simple metal skull cap that was either worn over or under a mail coif to the bascinet, a padded helmet that would eventually completely replace the Great helmet in the late 14th century.
So let`s look at that development. But before we can get started with the skull caps, the predecessors of the bascinets, we first have to look at the Great helmet itself.
The Great helmet – purpose, advantages, and disadvantages
Early versions of the Great helmet had already been developed since the beginning of the 13th century. And somewhere around the year 1300 that development was mostly finished and the Great helmet in its iconic shape became common among knights.
However, the Great helmet was designed in a way that it could be taken off and hung over the shoulder on a chain. That was necessary because while the Great helmet offered excellent protection, it also reduced the field of vision quite drastically. That wasn`t a problem during a cavalry charge, but when the knight got into close combat, the limited vision of the Great helmet could cause problems.
So knight only wore their Great helmet during a cavalry charge but took them off and wore them thrown over their shoulder as soon as they went into close combat! Great helmets actually have two holes punched into the face plate into which chains, that are attached to the knight’s armor, can be inserted. Thanks to these chains, the knight could take his Great helmet off and throw it over his shoulder without losing it.
However, if a knight took off his Great helmet when he went into close combat, then that would mean that his head wasn`t protected anymore, right? Well, no. Knights wore a second helmet under their Great helmet!
These secondary helmets that were worn under a Great helmet also developed over time and would eventually turn into their own type of helmet, the bascinet, which eventually replaced the Great helmet. Let`s take a look at that development.
Skull cap & mail coif – an early version of a second helmet under the Great helmet
The development of the secondary helmets that were worn under the Great helmet started as soon as the first designs of the Great helmet were developed at the beginning of the 13th century.
The earliest type of helmet that was worn under a Great helmet was a simple metal skull cap (basically a nasal helmet without the nasal). The skull cap could either be worn under or over the mail coif, but in both cases, the knight would still wear a padded cap on his head.
These skull caps can already be found on images in the crusader bible which was written around 1245. But the pretty simple design of a skull cap and a mail coif that was worn over a padded cap as a second helmet under the Great helmet was soon further developed into an entirely new type of helmet.
The bascinet: A second helmet worn under the Great helmet
The simple skull caps that were worn under the Great helmet together with a padded cap and a mail coif would eventually be developed into the bascinet around the year 1300. For that, the edge of the skull cap was drawn down so that they also covered the sides and the back of the head.
In the 14th century, a mail aventail was attached to the bascinet and replaced the mail coif. The aventail was well padded to protect the neck and the throat. The bascinet itself was also padded so that padded caps did no longer have to be worn under the helmets.
These open-faced bascinets were worn in combination with a Great helmet. The Great helmet was worn during a cavalry charge when it was beneficial to trade a good field of vision for better face protection. But as soon as the knight went into close combat, he took the Great helmet off and relied on the open-faced bascinet which offered less protection for the face but didn`t restrict the knight’s field of vision.
Ok, so the Great helmet was worn over the bascinet. But how did the Great helmet stay in place? Well, a thick ring of rolled cloth was fitted around the bascinet onto which the Great helmet rested. That cloth roll around the helmet is often depicted in pictures and was kept even after Great helmets were no longer worn over the bascinet.
As soon as the added face protection of the Great helmet was no longer needed, the knight could just take off his Great helmet and continue fighting with only the bascinet. To prevent the loss of the helmet, the Great helmet was attached to the knight’s armor with a short chain. So when the knight took off the Great helmet, he could just let it hang down or even throw it over his shoulder so that it was out of his way but still ready to hand.
However, while all that sounds pretty great, the open-face bascinet still had a problem. It didn`t protect the face.
So eventually nose guards that offered additional protection for the face were added to the bascinets. And in the late 14th century, removable visors that could also be opened were added to the bascinet. These bascinets with their movable visors and their padded mail aventails were worn under the Great helmets until the 1370s or 1380s. Then they replaced the Great helmet and became the primary helmet.
I always find it fascinating to see just how fast medieval armorers adapted to new challenges on the battlefield. But not only the armorers had to adopt. The new types of helmets also impacted the hairstyle a knight would have.
Here you can find out more about the hairstyle of medieval knights and whether or not they really had long hair and beards.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Donald J. La Rocca: How to read European armor (New York 2017).*
Alan Williams: The knight and the blast furnace (2003).*
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).*
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