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Funerary helmet from the Strange tomb at All Saints Church, Somerford Keynes.

Funeral Helms

This guest blog is written by Mary Oliver. Mary visited the Corinium Museum Collection as a researcher and has kindly written this post about Funeral Helms from the Cotswold area.

For several years I have been looking in churches for funeral helms. Mostly I have been disappointed. The helms, sword and gauntlets which once hung in Miserden church, above a beautifully carved monument to Sir William Sandys and his wife Margaret Culpepper, had disappeared, and so had the ones in Ampney Crucis and Down Ampney. The Vicar of the Ampney churches provided the information that one had been stolen and the other was in the Corinium Museum for safe keeping. I did see my first helm in a South Gloucestershire church, it had a crest on top, a clenched fist, and also hanging on the bracket was part of a leather surcoat. Then I saw two more in Fairford, very high on the wall and difficult to see, each with a crest. One belonging to John Tame, who rebuilt the church to house his stained glass windows, and the other I presume to be linked to his wife’s family, the Twynyhos, as it had a bird as a crest and her family had three lapwing on their coat of arms.

Funerary helmet from the Strange tomb at All Saints Church, Somerford Keynes.

Funerary helmet from the Strange tomb at All Saints Church, Somerford Keynes.

Funeral helms have a long history. Part of the funeral instructions for the burial of Knights Templar state that … on the coffin of the deceased shall be placed his chapeau and sword … It was not unusual for knights to leave instructions for their helms to be carried in front of or behind the coffin at their funeral. The Black Prince instructed that two knights should carry his helms and arms. Replicas of some of his arms and armour still hang above his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, the originals are kept safely behind glass. In his will the Garter Knight, Sir Brian Stapleton, asked that at his funeral … there should be a man armed with his arms, with his helm on his head and that he be well mounted, a man of good looks…. The helm was often adorned with the knight’s tournament crest, identifying the helm with the deceased.

I contacted the Corinium Museum and was told they had the Down Ampney funeral helm on public display. When I went to see it I was first shown a helm from Somerford Keynes church, it had been over a monument to Robert Strange, Esquire. Robert Strange Senior had bought the manor of Somerford Keynes from Queen Mary in 1554. The tomb was for his great-grandson who had died from smallpox in London in 1654, aged 23. He was a prominent local loyalist and is portrayed reclining, dressed in Cavalier fashion with long hair and beribboned shoes. It is a fine late Elizabethan field helm, converted to funerary use. We were able to examine the helm closely, noticing the fine metal work on parts like the hook which held the visor when it was lowered, and the crudely bent nail holding the spike which supported the crest. The crest had two clasped hands, carved from wood. The cut off wrists were painted blood red.

After we had examined the helm we turned to see the Down Ampney helm in a nearby case. It was a finer piece with no crest but delicate decoration along many of the edges. It belonged to Sir Anthony Hungerford of Down Ampney Manor. On his monument he and his father, Sir James Hungerford, are portrayed kneeling, facing each other across a prayer desk. The Hungerford family was well known in the local area and at Court.

Today the Sculptor to the Most Noble Order of the Garter and the Most Honourable Order of the Bath still produces crowns, coronets and crests to be placed on the helms hanging above the Knights’ stalls in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Mary Oliver

Mary is retired and has the time to investigate her local area, researching things which arouse her curiosity.

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