Picturing History: A portrait set of early English kings and queens

King William I ('The Conqueror')
King Henry I
King Stephen
King Henry II
King John
King Edward I
King Edward III
King Richard II

King Henry IV
King Edward IV
King Edward V
King Richard III
King Henry VII
King Henry VIII
Anne Boleyn
Queen Mary I

English kings and queens, oil on panel, 1590-1610, NPG 4980(1-16)

This portrait set of English kings and queens is one of the most important surviving sets of its type. Probably painted between 1590 and 1620, it comprises fifteen portraits of English rulers from William the Conqueror (1027-1087) to Mary I (1516-1558) plus Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and mother of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Anne Boleyn’s inclusion as the only consort in the group may indicate that the set was made while Elizabeth I was still on the throne although it is probable that other portraits from the set have been lost over time. For example, the sequence of monarchs is incomplete and it is likely that the set originally included portraits of Henry V and Henry VI, both of whom were viewed as key figures in the history of the English monarchy. The set may originally have culminated with a grander portrait of Elizabeth I, who is also missing from the group.

Portrait sets of kings and queens and other groups of ‘worthies’ were increasingly found in long galleries and great halls throughout the Tudor period. The display of groups of portraits probably reached the height of their popularity in the 1590s and the first decade of the seventeenth century. Displayed in a narrative or chronological sequence, royal sets were most often found in the grand homes of the aristocracy and the gentry, but they were also hung in civic buildings and educational establishments. The portraits were often rapidly and cheaply produced and were based on pre-existing patterns that could be transferred or copied by artists to make multiple versions. Late-Tudor and Jacobean portrait sets were often fixed into panelling in the upper levels of a room to form a decorative frieze beneath the cornice, or hung up high above textile hangings. The characteristic bold colours and linear style of these paintings reflects their primary function as decorative objects and indicates that many were intended to be viewed from a distance. The growing popularity of portrait sets in the second half of the sixteenth century was due in part to an increased interest in the history of the nation and in historical portraiture. In addition, sets of kings and queens asserted the owner’s allegiance to the crown and their acceptance of the hereditary claim of the reigning monarch.

Details from William I, Richard II, Henry IV
Details from William I, Richard II, Henry IV
Details from William I, Richard II, Henry IV

Details from Henry IV, Richard II, William I

Technical analysis on all sixteen portraits was carried out in early 2011. The results have helped to answer the following questions:

Were all sixteen portraits painted by the same artist?

Visually, it is clear from the style of the portraits in this set that they have not all been painted by one person. It was previously suggested that the portraits of William I, Henry II, and the later monarchs from Edward III onward were painted by one artist, and that the portraits of Henry I, Stephen, John and Henry III were by another, but technical analysis has revealed that a more complex network of painters and craftsmen were involved in the making of this set.

Several portraits can be grouped together as follows: 

The ‘Crooked eye’ group

NPG 4980(2) - © National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 4980(3) - © National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 4980(5) - © National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 4980(6) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

The portraits of Henry I, Stephen, John and Henry III (erroneously inscribed ‘Edwardus’) are very similar in style and it has previously been suggested that they were produced by the same artist or workshop. This has been confirmed by technical analysis, which points to strong links between these paintings. The results indicate that the portraits of Stephen, John and Henry III were produced by a single painter and the portrait of Henry I was produced by a second artist working in a very similar style, probably in the same workshop.


The panels and the pigments used are comparable in all four portraits and a similar painting style has been used for each. For example, microscopic analysis of the painted surface has revealed that in each case the flesh paint has been applied with a characteristic softly blended technique. In addition, the mordant (the preparatory layer beneath the areas of gold leaf) has been applied in a similar way in all four portraits.

Photomicrographs of Stephen and Henry I
Photomicrographs of Stephen and Henry I

Photomicrographs of Stephen and Henry I


The drawing underneath the paint layers is also very similar across the group. Infrared reflectography allows us to see that the artists have used extensive drawing to mark out the pattern before applying the paint. In general, the artist appear to have been more confident when marking out the faces, which are drawn in a less sketchy way than the costume, indicating an established pattern was employed for this part of the composition in each case.

Infrared reflectogram mosaics of John and Edward II
Infrared reflectogram mosaics of John and Edward II

Infrared reflectogram mosaics of John and Henry III


Detail from Stephen

Detail from Stephen - eyes

In terms of their design and composition, all four portraits relate to a series of woodcuts published in 1597, matching these designs more closely than others in the set (see below for more information on the woodcuts). The portrait of Henry III has a drooping eyelid, a physical condition that was recorded in medieval chronicles and repeated in sixteenth-century written histories including Holinshed’s Chronicles, which was first published in 1577. Although the portrait of Henry III in this set does appear to have been based on the 1597 woodcut, this aspect of the king’s appearance has been emphasised in the painting, which suggests that written descriptions may also have informed the design of these portraits. Like the others in the group, the portrait of Stephen also appears to have been based on the 1597 woodcut. In both images the king is depicted with slightly crooked eyes. There is no documentary evidence that he looked like this in reality. Instead, it is likely that this design was ultimately based on a forward-facing image of the king in a medieval manuscript illustration in which his eyes were depicted in this way unintentionally. King John’s eyes are also slightly crooked, possibly because the artist found it difficult to paint a face in a half-profile position.

Dating and dendrochronology

Further evidence that these portraits were produced as a group has been supplied by dendrochronology (tree-ring dating): the panel used for the portrait of Stephen is made of wood from two trees, one of which was also used to make the panel for the Henry III portrait, and the other, for the portrait of John. The two boards used to make the panel for Stephen come from trees for which the earliest possible felling dates are 1585 and 1592, which means that the paintings cannot have been made before 1592.


The ‘Eyebrow’ group

NPG 4980(7) - © National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 4980(10) - © National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 4980(9) - © National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 4980(11) - © National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 4980(15) - © National Portrait Gallery, London



Evidence from the technical analysis strongly suggests that the portraits of Edward III, Henry IV, Edward IV, Edward V and Anne Boleyn were also produced as a group, painted by several artists working in a very similar way.


In each of these portraits the artists have painted the eyes, lips and eyebrows in full before painting the flesh around these features. This is an unusual method and has resulted in distinctive bold eyebrows in each of these sitters. There are some differences across the group in the way the paint has been handled, however, which rules out the possibility that they were all produced by the same painter. For example, the painting seen in the portrait of Edward IV is softer and by a more accomplished hand than that seen in the portrait of Edward V, which has been painted in a rather crude way in comparison. The portrait of Edward III has been more finely painted than some of the others in the group.

Details from Edward IV and Anne Boleyn
Details from Edward IV and Anne Boleyn

Details from Edward IV and Anne Boleyn - eyes

Other common features of these portraits include a very thin and streaky priming layer which shows up in infared light, the use of a pale brown paint to mark out the facial features and similar brushwork. In three portraits in the group (Edward III, Henry IV and Edward V) the pigment indigo has faded considerably in the costume, causing the colours of the tunics to fade from a dark blue in the case of Henry IV, and from a purple colour in the cases of Edward III and Edward V. Remnants of the original colour can been seen at the bottom of the panels where the paint has been covered by the frame.

Detail from Henry IV showing the original blue colour of the costume

Detail from Henry IV showing the original blue colour of the costume

Dating and dendrochronology

The techniques and materials used for these paintings are consistent with work from the period 1590-1620. Dendrochronology has revealed that wood from the tree used to make the Edward V panel is also present in both the Edward IV and Anne Boleyn panels. The latter two also contain wood from another common tree. The wood that is present in the panels of all three paintings comes from a tree that was felled between 1589 and 1605. This means that the group cannot have been produced before 1589.

Links between the portraits of William I and Henry II

Visually, the portraits of William I and Henry II look very much alike and both panels are slightly narrower than the rest of the set. In addition, there are close parallels in the style and techniques used for these two paintings. For example, the details on the gilding have been defined with brown lines in a similar manner in both cases. But the portrait of Henry II has been painted in a softer, less crisp way than the portrait of William, which indicates that they have not been produced by the same hand. Yet the similarities suggest that the painters of these portraits were trained in the same workshop and may have been working together as part of a team.

NPG 4980(1) - © National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 4980(4) - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Photomicrographs of the gilding from William I and Henry II
Photomicrographs of the eyes from William I and Henry II

A jewel specialist?

Although the portraits of Richard II and Richard III are stylistically different overall, the gilding and the jewels in each case have been executed in a very similar way.


Details of jewels from Richard II and Richard III

For both portraits the painter has used red lake and copper green glazes over gold leaf to depict the jewels, finishing with lead white highlights. The similarities indicate that one artist, perhaps a jewel specialist, was responsible for the jewellery, and possibly also the gilding, in both of these portraits. Furthermore, dendrochronology has found wood from the same tree in these two panels, indicating that they were probably made in the same workshop.

Jewellery in other portraits in the set also appears to have been painted by an artist skilled in this particular area. In the portrait of Anne Boleyn, for example, the jewels have been painted with a degree of quality that cannot be seen in the rest of the painting. Also, strong similarities in the way in which the jewels have been painted in the portraits of Mary I, Henry VII and Henry VIII, seemingly by an artist painting with methodical care, suggest that one artist worked on the jewels for all three portraits.

Photomicrograph of jewels from Anne Boleyn
Photomicrograph of jewels from Anne Boleyn

Were all sixteen portraits produced at the same time and were they always a set?

The original provenance of these portraits is not known and, as such, we cannot be absolutely certain that they were produced and acquired as a set. However, we do know that in 1898 they were hanging as a group at Hornby Castle near Bedale, the North Yorkshire seat of the Duke of Leeds, and it is possible that they were always in the collection there. All sixteen portraits are of a size and scale that was conventional for sets of this type in the late sixteenth century. It is possible that some were commissioned and some were purchased ‘off the peg’ (most probably the portraits of the later monarchs), but that they were all acquired around the same time with the intention that they would hang as a series.

Dating of the set

When the set was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1974 it was thought that the portraits of the later monarchs (from Edward III) were painted in the 1590s and that portraits of the early kings (possibly excluding William I and Henry II) were painted around 1620. This conclusion was reached on the basis of differences in the painting style. However, dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) has found that the wood used for all sixteen panels dates from around the same time and in all cases, could have been felled as early as the 1590s. It is not known how soon the wood was put to use after the trees were felled but we would expect to have found more variety in the date of the wood had the portraits been painted at significantly different times. We can be relatively certain that the individual portraits in the subgroups described above were produced at the same time as each other due to links between the panels and painting techniques. The fact that the wood used for all sixteen panels comes from trees felled around the same time makes it possible that all of the portraits were produced as part of a single commission, outsourced to several different workshops. Alternatively, the set may have been assembled using ready-made paintings acquired from a number of different sources.

What were the sources for the portraits and how important was the concept of ‘authentic likeness’?

King William I ('the Conqueror')
by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke)
NPG D23604

Tudor portraits of historical figures, including medieval kings, were largely fictional. Throughout the sixteenth century, however, the concept of a ‘true likeness’ became increasingly important and antiquarian sources including coins, tomb monuments, illuminated manuscripts and written descriptions were sometimes consulted in the making of painted and printed portraits of historical figures. Woodcuts or engravings often provided the designs for painted historical portraits, especially from the 1590s onwards as prints became more readily available in London. Portrait types became standardised through the multiple copies of both paintings and prints that were produced. As a result, sometimes even fictional designs became recognisable and gained acceptance as ‘authentic’ likenesses.

Graphic sources for the early kings

In this set, the portraits of the kings from William I to Henry III were probably derived from a series of woodcuts that were published in 1597 in a Booke Containing the True Portraiture of the Kings of England by the antiquary Thomas Talbot (born c.1535). Some slightly later sets, including a set in the collection of Dulwich Picture Gallery dating from 1618-20, are based on a series of engravings published in 1618 by Henry Holland, entitled Baziliologia (or Book of Kings).

King Henry IV
probably by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke)
NPG D23731

The sources for Edward III onwards

The portraits of Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV are all versions of standard portraits of these kings that were developed in around the 1570s or 1580s. The portrait of Edward III was based on the king’s tomb monument at Westminster Abbey and the likeness of Richard II was taken from a painting of the king made in the 1390s, which also survives at Westminster Abbey. The portrait of Henry IV is fictional and appears to have been partially based on an engraving of the king’s contemporary, King Charles VI of France. For the later kings, the existence of life portraits meant that the likeness of the sitter was more accurate. Artists’ workshops would have had patterns of the portraits of famous sitters, especially kings and queens, so that multiple versions could be made. In this set, the portraits of Henry VII and Henry VIII are based on portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger and the portrait of Mary I is based on portraits by Anthonis Mor and Hans Eworth. The portraits of Edward IV, Richard III and Anne Boleyn are standard portrait types by unknown artists, probably painted during their lifetimes. This set appears to have been unusual in including a portrait of the ill-fated Edward V. The portrait is fictional and may have been based on images of a more recent child king: Edward VI.

[Henry IV probably by Renold Elstrack, 1618, also from the Baziliologia]