The Image of the King – 10 Portraits from Medieval England

Early medieval England did not have the rich tradition of royal portraiture that existed among in the contemporary Byzantine, Ottonian, and Carolingian courts. Our earliest images outside of numismatics (coinage) date from the 10th c., and of those only a few are contemporary with the kings they sought to depict. But, as we shall see in this article, we are not entirely bereft and, as Anglo-Saxon rule gave way to the Normans and the Plantagenets, portraiture began to become more common and more sophisticated, with iconic images of Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III surviving to the modern day.

So today we are going to look at 10 royal portraits. Taking them chronologically, I will offer a brief interpretation of the image (they are invariably packed with political and religious allegory), and I hope that, alongside providing access to some amazing works of art, this will allow you to observe the evolution of royal portraiture over five centuries of English history.

1. Æthelstan (r. 924-937)


Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 183, f. 1v

This image of Æthelstan, the first Anglo-Saxon king to rule over something close to England’s modern borders, is the earliest extant portrait of an English king. It is a manuscript image (created with inks and vellum) forming the frontispiece of the copy of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica that Æthelstan commissioned for the community of St Cuthbert. Æthelstan donated the manuscript to the community in 934 at Chester-le-Street (the community was in exile from Lindisfarne) while campaigning to Scotland that year. It is the oldest surviving manuscript commissioned by a king in England. The portrait itself is intended as a visual representation of the donation – in it Æthelstan is presenting a book to St Cuthbert. It also supports the characterisation of the king that has come to us in chronicle sources: as a man fascinated by saints’ relics and cults, a generous patron of religious houses. Stylistically it owes much to the model of Carolingian royal portraiture.

2. Edgar ‘the Peaceful’ (r.959-975)


British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

This heavily stylised (but thoroughly attractive) manuscript image of Edgar ‘the Peaceful’ is the frontispiece in a ‘composite’ manuscript (codex) from the New Minster, Winchester (later Hyde Abbey). The codex was owned by the New Minster and is a compilation of all the royal grants that established the rights and extent of the Abbey into the 12th c. The first 33 folios comprise a charter known as S 745, this is Edgar’s refoundation charter for the New Minster and dates to c. 966. Opening the volume, this image is reminiscent of Æthelstan’s portrait opening the Historia Ecclesiastica – in both cases the king is holding the document that the image introduces, offering it to a holy figure. Here Edgar is offering the charter to Christ, while Christ blesses him for his deed. Stylistically the image also derives from Carolingian royal portraiture, though the purple tone to the background is rare in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and is a feature associated with imperial Byzantium. Quite the statement, though Edgar’s ‘imperial’ coronation at Bath in 973 also speaks to such ambitions.

3. Cnut (r. 1016-1035)

Cnut (2)

British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 6r

Another manuscript from the New Minster, Winchester, this codex was begun in 1031 and is primarily a list of patrons and benefactors of the Abbey (Liber Vitae) – it was a functional book in daily use as these names were to be included in the mass. This image of Cnut and his wife Emma forms part of the prefatory material and is found six folios in: they are presenting a cross on the altar of the New Minster and, as in Edgar’s portrait, they are being blessed by Christ for their generosity to the Abbey. The saints flanking Christ in this image are the same as those at the side of Edgar, the Virgin Mary and St Peter, the patron saints of the New Minster. This panel is one of a sequence of images stretching across several busy folios that draw heavily on imagery associated with salvation and the last judgement. Stylistically the portrait consciously mirrors that of Edgar, while also reflecting the Byzantine and Ottonian tradition of ‘double portraits,’ though it is unique in giving the queen equal prominence with the king.

4. Edward ‘the Confessor’ (r. 1042-1066)

The Confessor

The Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 1

Edward the Confessor is one of three Kings of England to appear in the Bayeux Tapestry, and he is depicted a number of times. This particular image opens the narrative of the Tapestry and in it Edward is speaking with his brother-in-law and the future king, Harold Godwinson. It is a discussion that sends Harold on a journey, first to his own lands in Sussex, before crossing to Normandy. It seems clear that Harold is receiving instruction from the king, though sources conflict on exactly what Harold’s task in Normandy was. Set in Winchester (which hopefully you now realise was the primary seat of kingship in late Anglo-Saxon England), this is a political portrait, lacking in heavily religious iconography. The trappings of kingship – crown and sceptre – are clear, and Edward is portrayed as much larger than his companions. Stylistically, there is little precedent for the Bayeux Tapestry as a work of art, though a front-facing portraits with the signals of kingship are common over the subsequent centuries.

5. Henry II (r. 1154-1189)

Henry & Eleanor

BNF, Lancelot du Lac, MS fr. 123 f. 229r

This 12th c. manuscript image of Henry II is remarkable as a near-contemporary (c. 1190) portrait. Contemporary portrayals of kings are rare from the Conquest to the 13th c. In this image from a manuscript of the Prose Lancelot Cycle, we see Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine holding court. The Prose Lancelot attributes itself to Walter Map, though scholars think him an unlikely author. This said, it is a link that would explain why this image appears in a rather unlikely manuscript. Henry was Walter’s patron, and Walter held various diplomatic and ecclesiastical offices at the behest of the king. As such, the image may be intended as a ‘dedication.’ In it the king and queen can be seen conversing, with Henry preeminent, as an advisor and scribe attend to them. Known for his architectural forays throughout his life, it is notable that Henry sits on a building, though it is unknown to which establishment this refers (this is an unremarkable stylistic conceit in portraits of the time, usually associated with religious houses).

6. Edward I (r. 1272-1307)

Edward I

Portrait of Edward I (?) on Sedilia at Westminster Abbey

Debate swirls around this painting in Westminster Abbey. Is it of Edward I, and is it contemporary? It is painted on the sedilia, which is a group of seats for clergy in the south chancel wall of a church, and the wooden Westminster Abbey sedilia does date from the reign of Edward I (or his father Henry who did much work on the Abbey). There are two kings depicted on the sedilia and it is thought that the other represents Henry III. So we’ll take it on a little faith that this is indeed Edward I. It is notable that the sophistication of the techniques and materials is improving, yet the iconography remains recognisable. Edward has his crown and sceptre and is recognisably king, though it is of note that some heraldry is beginning to creep into the portraits: a sign of the times.

7. Edward III (r. 1327-1377)

Edward III (2)

British Library, MS Cotton Nero D VI, f.31

Returning to a manuscript image, here we see a portrait of Edward III and his son the Black Prince. In it, Edward is granting his son the territory of Aquitaine – it is a miniature within a letter ‘E’ and illustrates the events the manuscript is discussing. It is not quite contemporary to Edward’s reign, dating to 1390, however it remains within living memory of his kingship. What is curious here is that, stylistically, it is very much in keeping with the imagery of earlier royal portraits: the king awkwardly yet prominently holds his sword/sceptre, he wears his crown, and is depicted performing as king (a charter once again in hand). This is notable due to the marked change that we will see in the royal portraiture of his successor’s reign. Nonetheless, the unique circumstances of Edward’s reign are noted in the martial bearing of both armoured men, and the presence of the fleur-de-lis on both men’s surcoats – these were the English heroes of the Hundred Years’ War and claimants to the French throne.

8. Richard II (r. 1377 – 1399)

Wilton (2)

The Wilton Diptych (National Portrait Gallery)

Richard’s reign marks a shift in royal portraiture, both in the realism of the images and in the normalisation of the practice. As a result, we have a reasonably faithful image of almost every king from the late 14th c. on. Indeed, there are a number of famous portraits of Richard himself that survive, the one we have here is known as the Wilton Diptych. This is a votive portrait – meaning the object is commissioned by its subject as a gift to the church (making the painted narrative an allegory for the object). While the technical skill brought to the image is more in line with modern perceptions of portraiture, the subject matter is very reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxons. Richard kneels before the Virgin and Child, flanked by John the Baptist, St Edmund the Martyr and St Edward the Confessor, he has gifted the pennant of his kingship to the Virgin. There is a great deal of symbolism here, eg. Richard wears a planta genista around his neck.

9. Henry V (r. 1413-1422)


Henry V (The Royal Collection)

This picture, and its derivative in the National Portrait Gallery, are often misrepresented as contemporary paintings of Henry V. In reality this, the earlier of the images, dates to between the years 1504 and 1520, meaning it was painted as much as a century after Henry’s death. I include it not just because it is iconic, but also because art historians believe this may well have derived from authentic models (the Royal Amouries can explain in detail). There are two reasons for this, first as his hair and dress reflect that which is described in texts and seems to fit well with more contemporary manuscript images. Secondly, because as a profile portrait it is quite unique to the time. It is well known that Henry took an arrow to his face in 1403 at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and he likely had significant scarring. This profile image would hide that scar and seems to lend credence to this painting being drawn from an authentic model, sometimes suggested to be a votive portrait based on the position of Henry’s hands.

10. Richard III (r. 1483-1485)

Richard III

Richard III (Left: The Royal Collection, Right: The Society of Antiquaries, London)

Two for one to finish off. Both of these images date to around twenty years after Richard’s death at Bosworth – that on the left was part of the same commission as the portrait of Henry V and they are stylistically similar. These images of Richard have a definite degree of authenticity – they were not based upon one-another, but rather on a prototype portrait created during his reign. It is thought that the picture on the right is the earlier portrait, though this would only have been by a few years. Most notable perhaps is the difference in facial features. Though recognisably the same man, the image on the left appears to a be of a severe man, with dark features, black clothes, taloned fingers, and notably uneven shoulders. The one on the right has rounded features, is dressed in kingly fashion, and appears to be without physical distortion. It is notable that the image on the left was commissioned by a Tudor monarch, and thus there was a vested interest in perpetuating a propagandist image of a ‘wicked’ Richard.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Edgar ‘the Peaceful,’ British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v.
  2. British Library, Richard III with overpaint, Richard III arch-top
  3. Catherine Karkov, The Ruler Portraits of Anglo-Saxon EnglandCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  4. Lucien Mussett, The Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005.
  5. Michael Prestwich, Edward I, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.
  6. Royal Amouries, Tudor Portraits of Henry Vaccessed 19/5/2018.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Art, Allegory, and the Authorship of the Bayeux Tapestry

Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets

Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

See our bibliographies on Anglo Saxon England and Biographical Studies

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