Firsthand Descriptions Of What 14 Historical Figures Really Looked Like

For better or worse, history often paints its major players in ways that bear little resemblance to reality. Do any of us truly know what famous historical figures looked like? Was Napoleon really short? Was Anne Boleyn the beautiful seductress?

As historical retellings warp and change like a centuries-long game of telephone, firsthand descriptions by their contemporaries provide us with an understanding of how these famous figures appeared to their peers. Descriptive writings provide what portraits sometimes cannot. Maybe, like in the case of Charlemagne, there was no one in his time who developed their artistic abilities to perfectly recreate the human figure, or in the case of many kings and queens, their looks were enhanced in artworks they commissioned.

 Not only do these firsthand descriptions give insight into how a person looked, but they also provide an understanding of the person's personality and stature.


  • Marie Antoinette Was 'Well-Set... Without However Being Disfigured By That Austrian Stiffness'
    Photo: Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Before the French Revolution, which claimed her life in 1793, Queen Marie Antoinette took full advantage of the opulence afforded by her royal status. Her hairdresser, Leonard Autie, enjoyed the fame that came with creating luxurious and increasingly audacious styles to adorn the head of his queen.

    In his book, Recollections of Léonard, Hairdresser to Queen Marie-Antoinette, he stated:

    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-Therese, 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 of Larsen-neur. 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 pro-nounced 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.

  • George Washington’s Personal Appearance Was ‘That Of The Perfect Gentleman And Accomplished Warrior’
    Photo: Charles Willson Peale / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1760, 15 years prior to the American Revolution, Washington was merely a colonel in the colonial armed forces and the Fairfax County justice of the peace, but even then, he emanated an aura of great stateliness. His friend and brother-in-arms George Mercer wrote of him:

    He may be described as being as straight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings, and weighing 175 pounds when he took his seat in the House of Burgesses in 1759. His frame is padded with well-developed muscles, indicating great strength. His bones and joints are large, as are his feet and hands. He is wide shouldered, but has not a deep or round chest; is neat waisted, but is broad across the hips, and has rather long legs and arms. His head is well shaped though not large, but is gracefully poised on a superb neck. A large and straight rather than prominent nose; blue-gray penetrating eyes, which are widely separated and overhung by a heavy brow. His face is long rather than broad, with high round cheek bones, and terminates in a good firm chin. He has a clear though rather a colorless pale skin, which burns with the sun. A pleasing, benevolent, though a commanding countenance, dark brown hair, which he wears in a cue. His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.

  • Joan Of Arc Was 'Reasonably Good-Looking, And With Something Virile In Her Bearing'
    Photo: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In a letter penned in 1429, Perceval de Boulainvilliers, Chamberlain of Charles VII, wrote of the 17-year-old girl who believed God had chosen her to lead France’s fight against England:

    This girl is reasonably good-looking, and with something virile in her bearing; she speaks but little, and is remarkably prudent, in what she does say. She eats little, and drinks wine still less; manages both her horse and her arms superbly well; greatly likes the company of knights and soldiers; scorns the company of the rabble; sheds many tears; has a happy expression; so great is her strength in the endurance of fatigue that she could remain completely armed during six whole days and nights.

  • ‘Nature Could Not Have Done More For’ King Henry VIII
    Photo: Walker Art Gallery / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1519, Venetian Ambassador Sebastian Giustinian visited the court of the young and beguiling King Henry VIII:

    His Majesty is twenty-nine years old and extremely handsome; nature could not have done more for him. 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 wore a beard, he allowed his own to grow, and, as it is reddish, he has now a beard that looks like gold.

  • Anne Boleyn Was 'Not One Of The Handsomest Women In The World'
    Photo: National Portrait Gallery / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    History may have cast the ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII as a stunning temptress, but the diary of a Venetian ambassador tells a different story

    Not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised... eyes, which are black and beautiful.

  • Charles II Of Spain Was ‘Covered With Scabs’ And Was Always ‘Extremely Weak’
    Photo: Wilhelm Humer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Descended from a long line of Habsburgs, Charles II of Spain suffered a plethora of physical defects due to inbreeding. When he was born, his father Phillip IV was concerned over rumors that his child was a girl rather than a male heir. To fend off any rumors, he allowed ambassadors from neighboring states to come see the young prince, one of whom was French Lord Jacques Sanguin. Though he was pleased to see the child was a boy, he wrote in his report back to Louis XIV:

    The prince seems extremely weak, both cheeks have a herpes-type rash, the head is covered with scabs, and below the right ear a type of suppurating duct or drainage has formed. We have heard of this through other channels as the bonnet the child usually wears prevents seeing this area.

    His physical illness continued throughout his life and he was even given the nickname "the bewitched king" as many believed his defects arose because he was a target of witchcraft. In the final years of his life his condition grew progressively worse. French ambassador Marquis d'Harcourt wrote to Louis XIV, "He is so weak that he can not be out of bed for more than one or two hours... he must always be aided when getting into or out of his carriage... he has swollen feet, legs, abdomen, face and sometimes even his tongue so that he can not speak.”