Agincourt 600: Tudor Portraits of Henry V

As part of our 600th commemoration of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is currently exhibiting a unique temporary collection of arms, armour, art, music and manuscripts at the Tower of London. To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, one of the contributors of the publication, Catherine Daunt, British Museum, writes on the portraits of Henry V.

“He was of stature higher than the common sort, of body leane, well membred & strongly made, of face beautiful, somwhat long necked, blacke heared stoute of stomacke, eloquent of tong, in martiall affaires a perfect maister, & of chivalry the very paragone.”

Raphael Holinshed, The first volume of the chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (London: John Hunne, 1577), vol. 4, p.1218

NPG 545. King Henry V by Unknown artist oil on panel, late 16th or early 17th century. Credit line: © National Portrait Gallery, London.
NPG 545. King Henry V by Unknown artist oil on panel, late 16th or early 17th century. Credit line: © National Portrait Gallery, London. Currently in the Royal Armouries temporary Agincourt exhibition at the Tower of London.

In sixteenth-century England Henry V was viewed as a model of good kingship and was celebrated for his astonishing military achievements. Historians including Polydore Vergil, Edward Hall and the contributors to Holinshed’s Chronicles (a collaborative project) presented Henry as a courageous, pious and diplomatic ruler and the Battle of Agincourt as a divinely sanctioned moment of success and optimism.  Around 1599 Shakespeare famously drew on these sources in crafting his own portrayal of Henry V. The resulting play no doubt both fed an existing appetite for stories about the king and generated new interest in his life.

During the reign of Elizabeth I widespread interest in English history and the lives of its key protagonists was reflected in a growing demand for portraits of historical figures. By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V a standard portrait type of the king had been well established. The image, a bust portrait in which Henry is shown in full profile with a distinctive cropped hairstyle, had become recognisable through the multiple painted and printed versions (of varying quality) that had been produced. The precise origins of this design are unknown but it was probably developed in the first or second decade of the sixteenth century for either Henry VII or Henry VIII. The earliest known example of the image is a panel painting that survives in the Royal Collection and which has recently been dated by dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) to the years 1504-20 (see image below). It is part of a small group of posthumous royal portraits that also includes paintings of Henry VI and Richard III. Each portrait is set against a red brocade-style background and is painted on an oak panel (all three of which contain wood from the same tree) measuring around 22 x 14 inches (56.5 x 35.5 cm). It is therefore highly likely that these paintings were made as a small set.

Henry V by an unknown artist, oil on panel, 1504-20. The Royal Collection. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Henry V by an unknown artist, oil on panel, 1504-20. The Royal Collection. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Although visual sources dating from the sitters’ lifetimes were probably used in the making of the Royal Collection group, sketchy drawing beneath the paint and small changes to the designs indicate that these paintings may have been the original prototypes for the standard portraits of Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III. Panel paintings of this type are not known to have been produced in England during the reign of Henry V so it is likely that the visual sources used in the making of his portrait took another form. It has been noted, for example, that the distinctive hairstyle with which Henry V is depicted in the Royal Collection picture resembles images of the king in illuminated manuscripts including Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, 1411-32 (see below).

Detail of a miniature of Henry V from Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, 1411-32 (British Library Arundel MS 38, fol. 37r).
Detail of a miniature of Henry V from Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, 1411-32 (British Library Arundel MS 38, fol. 37r).

The use of earlier sources may also explain why Henry V is shown in profile unlike Henry VI and Richard III who are depicted in a more conventional three-quarter-profile position. It has been suggested that a small devotional image may have been used in which the king was shown at prayer, which could also explain why his left hand is raised in the Royal Collection picture. Alternatively, the source may have been a medal or perhaps a contemporary likeness in another medium in which the king was shown in profile to hide the facial scar that he had sustained at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.

Whatever its origins, by the end of the sixteenth century the image was accepted as an authentic likeness. Although numerous copies and versions of the Royal Collection painting survive from the 1580s onward, there is little evidence to suggest that the portrait was widely copied before this time. Copies may have been made for a small number of elite courtiers at an earlier date but it was not until the last quarter of the century that the image was reproduced for a larger audience. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, panel portraiture in general became more accessible to a wider audience in the second half of the century as paintings could be acquired more easily and had become more affordable. Secondly, the architectural fashion for long galleries, built in emulation of those added to the royal palaces during the reign of Henry VIII, generated a demand for paintings to decorate these newly created spaces.

This in turn led to a fashion for portrait sets of historical figures, primarily sets of English kings and queens, which would hang alongside or perhaps above, family portraits and images of contemporary sitters. It was common practice for painters to copy pre-existing paintings or to trace designs and as more and more copies of particular portrait types were produced, it became easier for other painters to obtain the patterns. As a result, ‘authentic’ images of famous figures became standardised and recognisable. The development of the print trade in England and especially the availability of single-sheet portrait engravings from the end of the sixteenth century also helped spread the designs and in some cases provided the immediate prototype for painters.

© Trustees of the British Museum
© Trustees of the British Museum

Above: Henry V by Renold Elstrack, engraving, published as part of a bound set of engravings of English royal figures by Henry Holland titled the Baziliologia, or Booke of Kings in 1618. A painted set of kings and queens in the collection of Dulwich Picture Gallery are based on the engravings in this set.

By the end of the sixteenth century an image of Henry V is likely to have been among the paintings in most substantial portrait collections. Those known to have owned one include William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (at Theobalds, Hertfordshire); Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, better known as Bess of Hardwick (at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire) and John Lumley, 1st Baron Lumley (probably at Lumley Castle, County Durham). In domestic long galleries portraits of Henry V were usually part of a set but in some cases they may have been acquired as a single portrait especially, perhaps, if the family could claim a specific historical connection to the king. Some institutions such as schools or civic buildings are also known to have owned portraits of Henry V, also usually as part of a set. Among the numerous versions that survive from the period are examples now at Ripon Deanery, North Yorkshire; Longleat, Wiltshire; Hatfield House, Hertfordshire; The Queen’s College, Oxford; Eton College, Berkshire and the Society of Antiquaries, London.

The painting of Henry V in the current exhibition at the Tower of London is the only painted portrait of the king in the collection at the National Portrait Gallery. Although it is known to have been produced in the late sixteenth century, it is not known where it first hung or whether or not it was made as part of a set. By the mid eighteenth century it was owned by the antiquary Dr. Andrew Gifford (1700-1784) who presented it to the British Museum where it was displayed for a number of years. In 1879 it was transferred to the NPG along with a number of other portraits. The painting is clearly derived from the Royal Collection picture and is probably a relatively typical example of a late-sixteenth-century version. To the Tudors the image was a symbol of national pride, heroism and exemplary kingship. Displayed alongside images of other English monarchs it was part of a display of royal genealogy that would have reminded viewers of the illustrious bloodline from which the reigning monarch was descended. In addition, with the words of Holinshed, Shakespeare and others in their minds, the picture no doubt reminded Tudor and Jacobean viewers of the great stories of Henry V’s reign.

To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ publication, please see further posts via this link, or pick up a copy for yourself via the Yale University Press websiteThe Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.