What Did William The Conqueror Look Like?

We can never know for sure. However, one eminent scholar writing in 1964, David C. Douglas, thought an 18th-century copy of a 16th-century portrait might provide the closest thing to an actual glimpse at him:

“When in 1522 William’s tomb at Caen was opened for the first time, the body in its original stone coffin was found to be in a state of good preservation, and, according to an early account, it was that of a large man with notably long arms and legs . . . a portrait was drawn from the remains, and this, painted on wood, was hung over the sepulchre . . . there survives at Caen an extraordinary picture made early in the eighteenth century which may well be a copy of the sixteenth-century painting. This depicts a large and dominating monarch, massive in bulk, with full-fleshed face and russet hair. He is dressed in the manner of a sixteenth-century king, and he resembles closely the famous contemporary portraits of Henry VIII.”

It’s the body, not the face, that calls to mind the iconic portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, lost in a fire but known to us through many copies.

Depictions of kings and queens in William’s time showed status, not likeness. We have no artist’s portrait of William the Conqueror in the modern sense. Among the myriad that you’ll find online—all created centuries after his lifetime––the one Douglas describes would be easy to overlook. I had difficulty finding the original, and only obtained good poster-sized prints of it through the kind help of M. Jacques Legendre of the Abbaye de St. Etienne in Caen, which the Conqueror founded, where his tomb lies, and where this painting can be seen in the sacristy. It is reproduced below as it appears on the late William R. Wilson’s excellent website, The Travelling Historian:


William’s stance and garments in the painting do bring to mind the Holbein portrait of Henry VIII, which he painted some years after 1522, the year in which the Conqueror’s tomb was opened. Below is a link to a Wikipedia article on portraits of Henry VIII, including the Walker Gallery copy of the now-lost portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, and below that, as reproduced in the Wikipedia article, is the portrait.


The Walker Gallery Portrait of Henry VIII
After Hans Holbein the Younger
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Retrieved June 14, 2014.

In a footnote Douglas says, “It will be recalled that Henry VIII had visited France in 1520 for the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’”—suggesting that the painter who embellished William’s postmortem portrait might have relied on a personal view of the English king in what must have been a characteristic pose, standing with feet planted far apart.

It seems more likely to me, however, that the first painting in 1522 portrayed William as he was clothed in his tomb and that a later painter who had seen the Holbein portrait made a picture with William’s face on a Henry VIII lookalike body, as well as adding the regalia. The maker (or, I suspect, makers) of the 18th century copy–if that is what it is––would presumably have been familiar with the Holbein portrait in one of its copies. The reason I think there may have been more than one hand involved is that the 18th century painting shows uneven skills. The face may be the best anyone could have done under the circumstances, but the anatomy is questionable and the flaring red apron-like garment is not especially well rendered. The metallic effects, though—especially in the fabrics but also in the crown and scepter—are rather accomplished. Of course it’s entirely possible that a single painter was better at some things than others.

The painting of William lacks the anatomical coherence that Holbein’s portrait of Henry has. William’s head looks tacked on. Henry’s head and shoulders, torso and limbs appear naturally strung together. He stands up straight, his chin tucked in. His legs, despite the painful varicose ulcers from which he suffered—and despite the fact that Holbein had to paint them longer than they were in order to balance his massively padded shoulders––solidly support him.

Holbein so vividly conveyed the king’s commanding presence that the portrait has been described as a piece of propaganda designed to promote Henry’s image as powerful, potent, virile; a monarch who would sire that male heir yet. (See, for example, Derek Wilson’s article published in the year marking the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/5206727/Was-Hans-Holbeins-Henry-VIII-the-best-piece-of-propaganda-ever.html)

No one in the past 900+ years has thought William the Conqueror was anything other than powerful and potent. He dominated his duchy of Normandy, conquered the kingdom of England, and fathered at least nine children, four of them the requisite sons. The Caen painter may have meant to recognize all this by attaching William’s head to a body and garments like those of Henry VIII in the Holbein portrait. (Omitting, however, Henry’s colossal codpiece, which in William’s case might have seemed superfluous.) Seen this way, it’s the body, not the head, that was tacked on.

This in my view suggests that the clues Douglas hoped were to be found in the Caen portrait may actually be seen in it. William’s face looks as though it could have been drawn based on his long-preserved remains. The eyeballs appear sunken and unfocused, the lids fixed partly open. The lips are slightly parted (nothing like the living Henry VIII’s tightly pursed little mouth) and sag a bit to one side as if gone slack in that position. By the time of his death at about age 59, William could have had the full beard and mustache that we see in the picture. What else can we see? A well-defined broad browbone, large orbits with eyes set fairly wide apart, a straight nose and high cheekbones, the shape of the beard suggesting a strong jawline. I have attempted to sketch a more lifelike face on the basis of this one:


interestingly, although William wears a crown and holds a scepter in the painting, the script at the bottom of the picture identifies him as Duke of the Normans—not as King of England.

Even if the Abbey of Saint Stephen’s 18th century painting of William is an original not based on any earlier portrait, it isn’t clear to me why a painter in Caen, Normandy—one of the Conqueror’s favored cities—seemingly chose as a model the image of an English king.

Postscript: A reconstruction of the face of King Richard III has been made, based on his skull:_65707982_richardibsen_getty

Here the reconstruction, in a Getty Image published by the BBC on February 5, 2013, and accessed online September 8, 2014, is shown next to Michael Ibsen, Richard III’s 17th generation descendant, who furnished the DNA for a positive identification of the king’s remains. If only the possibility of such a reconstruction existed for King William I! But his tomb was torn open in later centuries and his bones scattered. The one bone–which the French authorities believe is authentic–that lies in his tomb now is a femur, which, at most, gives a clue to his height (tall for his time).

  • Jessica

    An 18th century portrait, based on a 16th century portrait of a corpse that had been dead for 400 years? Somehow, I wouldn’t think that would result in a very accurate picture of what the man looked like.

  • JBLyle

    Agreed: it is an extremely long shot. But worth a try, I thought.

  • Ellen Woodrow

    Actually, the 16th century portrait (face anyway) could be more accurate than you’d think. There are many cases of caskets being opened and the remains still very much intact if it was sealed well, and it’s buried in a cold place. So it may be a good likeness based on that. And the new portrait does look like the same person, but with life-like features. I agree that the 16th century portrait looks like it was done in haste from what was found – probably because it was the only chance to ever have a portrait of him.

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