Keep it under your helmet

Keep it under your helmet

Three carved busts of men in cloaks. Photograph is in black and white, background is plain.
Carved heads from the quire of St George’s Chapel, photographed by Robert Burns Robertson in 1921.

St George’s Chapel is packed with details in stone, glass and wood and not all of them are immediately obvious to the casual observer. These striking carved heads are part of the original, fifteenth-century woodwork that decorates the quire of St George’s. For centuries they have looked down on visitors from above the Garter Knights’ stalls, where they act as helmet stands. These photographs were taken in the 1920s when restoration work was being carried out in the quire.

Each Knight or Lady appointed to the Order of the Garter has their achievements mounted above their stall in St George’s Chapel for the duration of their life. This is a full display of their coat of arms and includes a banner, mantling, a sword, a helmet and a crest. A brass stall plate is also added to the stall, which stays in perpetuity.

The banner is made of cloth, painted or embroidered with the coat of arms, it hangs on a flagpole above the stall. The mantling is also of cloth, in the principal colours of the coat of arms, and hangs on either side of the stall with a gold tassel at each end. The sword hangs at the front of the stall; these would once have been real weapons, but since the early-nineteenth century they have been wooden imitation swords, which are lighter and safer to hang above someone’s head. Above all of this sits the helmet, topped with a spike to hold the crest in place.

The crest is a device that represents the coat of arms. In origin, it was a physical sculpture strapped to the top of the helmet to identify a knight at a tournament (they were rarely worn in battle). Although that medieval custom has long since passed out of practice, the crests continue to be carved out of wood and painted for display in the quire of St George’s Chapel. The wooden heads are crucial to supporting these often-elaborate structures in their place.

It seems that the medieval carvers were not content simply to outline the shape of a head and shoulders and leave it at that. Although these carvings have spent most of their career covered by helmets, most of them have carefully carved features. We do not know who the models were, but it is easy to imagine that we could be looking at the faces of the workmen and their colleagues, or maybe even the Garter Knights of the day. Most are depicted wearing shirts and tunics covered by cloaks painted blue to match the blue velvet mantles worn by fully robed members of the Order of the Garter.

The wood carving for the quire was begun in 1477 under the supervision of Head Carver William Berkeley. Five other carpenters are named in the accounts from the time – Robert Ellis, John Filles, Hugh Gregory, William Crue and William Ipswich – but it is probable that a much larger team were involved in the work. It is certainly clear from these mug shot-style photographs, taken by Chapter Surveyor Robert Burns Robertson in 1921, that the carvings were done by craftsmen of varying levels of skill. While some have fine features, others are crude or cartoonish.

Three carved busts of men in cloaks, two of them have parts of their face cut off. Photograph is in black and white, background is plain.
These carvings have been cut down in the past so that a helmet could fit over them.

The wear and tear of the centuries can also be seen on many of these helmet stands. In cases when the decorative helmets and crests mounted upon them must have been smaller than the heads provided, they have simply been trimmed down to accommodate the helmet. That might be by the tip of a nose, or one ear, or might be a more significant portion of the head and face.

In the 1920s, Robertson designated thirteen of these carvings as spares and removed them from the quire. They can be found displayed and stored around St George’s, including two in the Archives. The remainder continue to provide sturdy service to the helmets and crests of today’s Knights and Ladies of the Garter.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.