Royal Armouries welcomes ruling to block sale of rare Wootton St Lawrence helmet

By Richard Moss | 15 April 2014

A rare helmet dating to 1500 that hung for centuries above a tomb in a Hampshire church has been blocked from sale by the Church of England

a side view of a decorated helmet with visor
The helmet is from the From the tomb of Sir Thomas Hook, St Lawrence's Church, Wootton St Lawrence, Hampshire.© Courtesy Royal Armouries
The sale of a decorated helmet that rested for centuries above a tomb in Wootton St Lawrence church in Hampshire has been blocked by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Appeal Court.

The Court of Arches has ruled that the armet - a kind of helmet developed in the 15th century and used extensively across Northern Europe for over two centuries - cannot be sold legally after a church near Basingstoke attempted to sell it at auction.

The helmet - believed to be of Flemish manufacture - previously hung over a bracket in the church and is associated with the monument of Sir Thomas Hooke, who died in 1677. The helmet dates from about 1500 and was converted to funeral monument use on Hooke’s death.

Loaned to the Royal Armouries in Leeds for more than 30 years, the museum bid for it unsuccessfully at public auction in 2011. The sale was followed by an internal legal review within the Church of England.

Dr Thom Richardson, the Deputy Master of the Armouries, explained how the armet and the many other helmets and pieces of armour preserved in English churches form a “highly important part of our nation’s heritage."

“In particular they provide almost the only surviving examples of armour worn in England before the 16th century,” he said.

“The judgment in the Wootton St Lawrence case will hopefully help to close the floodgates for other parishes seeking to turn the armour in their care into cash. When such helmets appear on the art market they are almost universally sold abroad.”

The high bidder for the Wootton St Lawrence armet was an overseas collector in the USA who bid around £55,000.

Ann Sloman, the Chair of the Church of England’s Church Buildings Council, said the church was delighted that the Court had “reaffirmed the principle that Treasures from Churches, including those on loan to museums, should only be sold in exceptional circumstances".

“As a church we are the guardians of a very significant part of the nation's heritage and we are pleased that the judgement has recognized that this is a responsibility we take very seriously," she added.

The Royal Armouries currently has 50 items from English churches on loan, of which 32 are associated with funeral monuments. The museum also holds the most important single research archive of arms and armour in English churches, which has been instrumental in reuniting churches with many stolen objects.

Dr Richardson explained how the “current state of museum funding” meant that the Armouries’ attempts to acquire objects like the armet for the nation had been severely hampered.

“We would have purchased only a few examples in future and many would have left the country,” he said. “This judgement should now prevent this from happening.”

As well as retaining much of its elaborate 17th century polychrome funerary painting, the church helmet is a very rare complete example of an armet used in England during the late 15th century.

The helmet has its original visor, detachable from the pivoted terminals with hinges, and its original cheekpieces. The gorget plates (to protect the neck) and a spike for the lost wooden crest were added during the late 17th century. 

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