Images of contemporary royals are everywhere - Prince Harry's red hair and Queen Elizabeth II's height can be seen on everything from tea towels to tabloids. But what about royals in the past? What did they actually look like?
Though it's hard to get an accurate picture - there are no photographs from the 15th century, of course, and portrait artists may have often bent the truth to flatter their patrons - firsthand written descriptions still exist.
But just because these are eyewitness accounts doesn't mean they are objective. Biases inform how people saw royals throughout history. Written descriptions weren't just straightforward lists of physical features; writers sometimes inserted politics into their accounts and characterized royal rule through descriptions of their looks: virtuous rulers, for instance, were often presented as good-looking ones. (Conversely, rulers who fell out of favor with history - such as Richard III - could become inextricably linked with physical abnormalities.)
Accurate or not, these physical descriptions provide a window into what historical royals may have looked like - and how conceptions of beauty have changed over time.
By the time King Henry VIII of England perished in 1547 at the age of 55, he weighed nearly 400 pounds. But as a young man, he was heralded as an athletic, handsome ruler who embodied kingly ideals.
One eyewitness to the young king's appearance was Sebastian Giustinian, the ambassador from Venice. In 1519, he wrote that 29-year-old Henry was "extremely handsome" and that "nature could not have done more for him." He continued:
He is much handsomer than any other sovereign in Christendom; a great deal handsomer than the king of France; very fair, and his whole frame admirably proportioned. On hearing that Francis I [of France] wore a beard, he allowed his own to grow, and, as it is reddish, he has now a beard that looks like gold.
- Age: Dec. at 56 (1491-1547)
- Birthplace: Palace of Placentia, London, United Kingdom
For Marie Antoinette, appearances were undeniably political matters. But no matter how much she worked to cultivate the image of a regal, extravagant queen of France, many continued to define her through her Austrian origins - a perspective that marked her as a foreigner.
Her personal hairdresser Léonard-Alexis Autié (Marie Antoinette loved a good hair style) defended his patron after her execution. After first meeting Marie Antoinette shortly after her arrival in France in 1770, Autié recalled that the young Dauphine was on the verge of becoming a truly French royal:
Marie-Antoinette was then neither beautiful, pretty, nor attractive. There were only promises of beauty in her. Her figure, well-set, slender, but disparaged by an extreme thinness, still lacked grace, without however being disfigured by that Austrian stiffness, which Her Highness had fortunately left on the banks of the Danube.
The hair of the daughter of Marie-Thérèse, which was then a pale blond, seemed to me very badly arranged; but perhaps people may think that this part of my judgment should be accepted with distrust as that of a rival Larseneur. The eyes of the Dauphine were azure blue with a quick, witty, but somewhat bold, expression.
She had a high forehead, a nose of a too pronounced aquiline shape, a small mouth, thick lips, but of great freshness, a complexion of dazzling whiteness and set off by natural but rather high color. Marie-Antoinette carried her head high; there was haughtiness in her manner, but a haughtiness tempered by a sweetness of countenance and tone which captivated at the very moment when one was about to feel offended at the pride which this kindness successfully belied.
- Age: Dec. at 38 (1755-1793)
- Birthplace: Vienna, Austria
Queen Mary of Scotland did not get much praise for her politics during her reign from 1542 to 1567 - she abdicated the throne before she was 25.
Her appearance, on the other hand, was highly regarded. According to a diplomat from Venice, the queen was "personally the most beautiful in Europe." She was also tall - Mary's height was almost 6 feet.
- Age: Dec. at 45 (1542-1587)
- Birthplace: Linlithgow Palace, Linlithgow, United Kingdom
Holy Roman Emperor Charles V first reigned as king of Spain in 1516. That year, the courtier Sancho Cota described the new, 16-year-old Spanish king:
He was of medium height, with a long face, blond hair, beautiful light-blue eyes, a narrow but well-proportioned nose, his mouth and chin not as beautiful as his other features... He was a graceful man in very good shape; an upright man in his life, eating and drinking in a measured fashion, very clever for his years; liberal and magnificent and very virtuous.
Cota's description of Charles's "long face" and unattractive chin were veiled references to his so-called Habsburg Jaw, or a chin that markedly protruded. Thanks to the Habsburg dynasty's shallow gene pool - they intermarried frequently - many of the members of the royal family had this distinct physical feature.
- Age: Dec. at 58 (1500-1558)
- Birthplace: Ghent, Belgium