To most, a helm (or helmet) is a helm and the various types we see in heraldry atop shields (if the differences are even noticed) are just artists being creative. However, that is not so. The details of the helms have meaning unto themselves and denote ranks or titles of nobility. Accidentally using the wrong one may put the armiger in an uncomfortable position when questioned by someone who understands and knows the difference. It must be noted that systematic use of helms to denote rank didn’t happen until the beginning of the 17th century.
In this post, we’ll examine the various types of helms that are used to denote rank or nobiliary status. The general rule of thumb is that helms with their visors open or with bars is for the higher nobility while the rest use helms with their visor closed.
The helm of the sovereign (king, queen, etc.) is golden, stands facing the viewer (affronté) and has six or seven bars, also of gold. The children of the sovereign (Princes of the Blood Royal) use the same helm on their arms.
The rest of the high nobles (dukes, marquess, earl/count, viscount) use a helm of silver that is in profile (facing dexter or the viewer’s left) and decorated in gold. This helm uses five or six bars (of gold).
Baronets and knights use a helm of steel, decorated in silver and standing affronté. This helm is not barred and has the visor raised.
Finally, non-nobles or burghers (esquires & gentlemen) use helms of steel, are placed in profile (facing dexter or the viewer’s left) and have their visor closed.
There are times when more than one helm is used on top of a shield and these cases, the helms are placed in the following fashion:
- If there are 2 helms, they are placed facing each other
- If there are 3 helms, 2 are placed facing each other with the third in the middle placed affronté
- If there are 4 helms, they are placed 2 facing the other 2
- If there are 5 helms, do as with 4 helms and the fifth affronté in the middle
A note should be made that a single helm, placed in profile facing *sinister* (or the viewer’s right) is a sign of bastardy.
Of course, if a non-“standard” helm is used, then the rules above are meaningless as it does not fit into the mold. For example, the helm used with my arms is one of those non-standard ones where the artist created a variation of an ancient Greek helm. The same model can be used by anyone (I’d love to see an emblazonment with a samurai style helm 🙂 )
A note here, in some places the above rules are not at all followed and armigers are free to assume anything they like. For example, as Mr. Ton de Witte mentioned in an email,in the Netherlands the most common helm used is the barred one which would make someone think they’re all Peers of the Realm! 🙂
Note: All images are courtesy of Wikipedia