Few objects that are nearly 500 years old become the topic of heated debates as well as the inspiration for a corporate identity. This helmet is not only a talking point but also a mystery. It is a wonderful example of how a museum exhibit can be the subject of much research and interpretation, yet still remain an enigma.
When the Royal Armouries opened a new museum in Leeds to complement its other museums at the Tower of London and Fort Nelson, this helmet was the inspiration for "Max", its new logo. Max has since become a familiar face around the new building and on its publicity materials and merchandise, but its origins are obscure and puzzling.
Many experts agree that this particular helmet was made in Innsbruck, Austria, by craftsman armourer Konrad Seusenhofer. It is the sole surviving piece of a full armour that was probably given to Henry VIII by Emperor Maximilian in 1514. It was perhaps the most splendid armour ever seen in England - a state-of-the-art gift from one head of state to another.
However, the quality of the workmanship is masked by the strangeness of the end result. The helmet has a large, runny nose, stubbly chin and prominent lower lip, as well as the striking spectacles and curious ram's horns. If it was a gift to the most famous Tudor king - a great enthusiast for fine armour and weapons - why is it so peculiar and unflattering? Are the horns a symbol of virility? Or perhaps cuckoldry? Or neither? Is the face intended to resemble someone in particular, or simply to be grotesque? If the emperor presented this helmet to Henry, was there an in-joke which they understood but we cannot share? Perhaps we shall never know.
Researchers have combed the documentary evidence, linked the helmet to entries in Henry VIII's 1547 inventory and others of the Tudor period, and shown that by 1660 the helmet was displayed as having belonged not to the king but to his jester, Will Sommers. Perhaps, after more than a century, it was impossible to associate such a bizarre item with Henry VIII. Certainly, the clown-like appearance suggests a fool, and it made a good story for the guide at the Tower.
Today the helmet amazes and amuses both adults and children. As one pupil put it: "Henry V111 wore that? What was he like!" Adrian Budge Adrian Budge is head of education at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds. Tel: 0113 220 1888; e-mail: email@example.com