Throughout our period, warfare was the preserve of semi-professional warrior-nobles who spent their lives training, campaigning, fighting, and ordering people about on their estates. While it is possible that in the ninth century able-bodied but under-equipped freemen followed their lords to battle, this was probably the exception rather than the rule. By the wars of Æthelred’s reign in the turn of the eleventh century the English, Danish and Norman fighters were all professional soldiers with good equipment. As a rule of thumb, anyone with a sword as their primary weapon should have a ‘proper’ metal helmet rather than a concealed dome.
Helmets were expensive pieces of military equipment, and in the eighth and ninth centuries there probably were warriors who couldn’t afford them – not so for the eleventh century. However, helmets are mandatory safety equipment and so concealed helmets (i.e. spun steel domes or other head protection under a cap, hat, hood or wimple) would be suitable for:
- lower status local freemen defending their homes from raids (especially ninth century);
- lower status Viking bondi accompanying ninth-century raids (someone has to look after the ships and cook for the high-ups!);
- archers and slingers;
- scouts, water carriers, hostages, slaves, clergy and any other non-combatant civilians who need to be on the field.
There are no real rules around concealed helmets except that they should be reasonably unobtrusive (i.e. not obviously a helmet), appropriate to the wearer (i.e. a wimple would make a better covering for a woman than a furry hat or Phrygian cap), and they should be appropriate to the wearer’s status (i.e. only the lower classes or women).
Some depictions show warriors wearing helmets which look suspiciously like Phrygian caps. These may actually be Phrygian caps and not oddly-shaped metal helmets. If these were worn on the battlefield, they could have been extremely solid hand-felted caps – it is possible to get felt thick enough to offer considerable head protection. For the record, felted caps are not considered to be adequate on their own (though they may be worn over a steel dome). If in doubt, contact the Society Armourer.