A remarkable number of the Tudors had ‘red-gold’ hair. Though the largest proportion of red hair in the world comes from Scotland, Ireland, and Teutonic countries, it can show up anywhere, so one has to assume the most probable source. We are dependent on descriptions of the day for the appearance of the Tudors (um, there were no cameras), and this leaves open the possibility for human error and bias.
The medieval standard for beauty was red-gold hair. Beauty in the Middle Ages was often equated with Northern European coloring. For example, Medieval depictions of the Queen of Sheba who is ‘black but comely’ portray her as black-skinned but golden haired in an attempt to reconcile both possibilities.
The Tudors were decendants of a rag tag group of upwardly mobile gentlemen who landed some high-born widows, or, in the case of the Beauforts, a hot lowly born widow of a knight. We don’t know what hair color, or even appearance, most of these jackpot-hitting upstarts had, but they must have been good looking according to the standards of the day.
It is pointless to go too far back in generations, since the further back you go, the less statisical significance an ancestor has on any given genes. For the sake of brevity, I will start with Elizabeth Woodville
All Tudors after Henry VII are decendents of Elizabeth Woodville’s through her daughter Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth Woodville is “beautiful,” but not described otherwise, so we can assume she had very fair skin.
I have only seen reproductions of the Elizabeth Woodville portrait. Some of them show her with obviously red hair, others with more blonde.
Elizabeth Woodville and the Tudors had a similar origin: a widowed highly born Princess marries a lowly born gentleman in their service. Jacquetta of Luxembourg, half Italian and half French, married Sir Richard Woodville following the death of her first husband, the Duke of Bedford. That Sir Richard Woodville must have been dreamy can be surmised: he not only captured the hand of the Duchess, he also fathered at least 16 of her children, of which Elizabeth was the oldest and most famous.
ELIZABETH OF YORK
Elizabeth of York was a red head according to the only known portrait of her. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, granddaughter of Jacquetta of Luxemborg on her mother’s side and Cecilly Neville (who’s mother was a Beaufort) on the other. Where the red head gene came from on her father’s side is anyone’s guess. He, himself was brown haired. He was English, with some Spanish and French blood, but primarily English. He and his wife were 2nd cousins.
Very, very little about Elizabeth of York is recorded: nothing about her education, opinions, political leanings or appearance. What can be ascertained by the later behavior of her children, she was regarded by her family and gave to them a family identity.
HENRY VIII GENERATION
Henry VIII’s generation was a mixed bag. Both Henry and Arthur had red hair. Margaret probably had genes for it, as Mary Stuart had auburn hair. Mary Tudor, however, was dark-haired later in life, though she may have been lighter earlier on. By the time she returned from France, she had dark hair as her marriage portrait to Charles Brandon testifies. I’ve often imagined that Henry VIII was attracted to Anne Boleyn because she reminded him of his headstrong, dark-haired, beautiful sister, Mary, of whom Henry was very fond. Anne, too, had a blonde sister, and though contemporaries are critical of her complexion and coloring, she probably wasn’t as dark as they supposed (some also claim she was covered in moles or witches spots and had 6 fingers).
Henry VII’s coloring is not described (correct me if I’m wrong on this, my books are currently all packed away in the attic), likely because it was unextraordinary, and because he was really a misery sort of person who was fond of dressing plainly in darker colors and wearing hats. He didn’t play up for pageantry or the cult of the icon. He was 1/4 Welsh, and his mother was a Beaufort, so both he and his spouse were decendants of Katherine Swynford. One could arguably make the claim that Katherine Swynford, or some Beaufort had red hair, since both the Stuarts and the Tudors have their genetic material. It can be guessed that Katherine de Valois probably did not have the possibility for red or blonde hair since none of her close relatives were redheads. Owain ap Meredudd ap Tewdwr is only known for being rash and without much sense, which proves nothing about his coloring.
My guess would lay with the Beauforts (who’s ancestors were John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford), and possibly with Owain ap Meredudd ap Tewdwr. A Lancastrian guess is a sound one, since the Tudors, the Stuarts, and Catherine of Aragon were all Lancastrians or Lancastrian Beauforts.
CATHERINE OF ARAGON
Catherine of Aragon was a remarkably beautiful princess by the standards of the day, despite her shortness. She had golden hair and fair skin, and was not at all dark such as movies like to show. Her appearance made her all the more pleasing to her father-in-law Henry VII. She was a legitimate decendant of John of Gaunt, the famous son of Edward III, whereas Henry VII was a product of John of Gaunt’s roll in the sack with Katherine Swynford. Catherine of Aragon was seen by the English people as being English in blood.
THE ELIZABETH GENERATION
Mary had red hair, which would stand to reason as she was the son of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. She, like her mother, was considered a beauty as a child. As she grew older it turned more ashy, as did both of her parents. Unlike movie depictions, Mary was never ugly. She was a beautiful child. When she reached her thirties, some considered her ‘plain,’ but never ugly.
Edward VI hair was more blonde. Elizabeth was blond-red. What it would have become later, we will never know since it fell out by the age of 28 (see previous post). Frances and Eleanor Brandon, children of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, where probably brown haired.
By the time of the Elizabeth generation, the Tudor hair color became more than just a sign of beauty or appearance. It was viewed as proof of legitimate Tudor decent. Commentary by visitors to court would be on the coloring of all of Henry VIII’s children. That Mary was born with red-gold hair is not such a surprise. But it must have been a great relief to black-haired Anne Boleyn that her only child – though a daughter – had the Tudor red-gold hair. And it was indeed noted. When Elizabeth’s paternity was questioned, her appearance cast aside any doubts.
Same applies to the Scottish monarchs. James V, son of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, was born with red hair. When Henry excluded Margaret’s line from his will he did so under the supposition that Margaret’s children were not those of her husbands (though they were obviously Margarets!), but this was very probably false. Margaret’s first husband, James IV was not really of Scottish decent. His father was German and Danish, with some Beaufort ancestry (again).
BEYOND THE ELIZABETH GENERATION
Jane Grey is mentioned as having auburn hair. Both of her parents would claim Elizabeth Woodville as an ancestor. Her father was a Grey, who were the product of Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage, and her mother’s mother a Tudor. Her sister Catherine, I seem to remember, is described as a beauty. The only description of her youngest sister, Mary, is of her body: she may have been a dwarf, a hunchback, or possibly both.
Mary Stuart’s hair color is suspicious. Early accounts in France mention that her hair color was brown ‘almost grey.’ Some mention her has having auburn hair. Some even go so far as to claim she had golden hair. My guess is she dyed it at some point, and here is why. First, the variability. No one can make up their mind what color she was. Second, hair dying was very common in France. Queen Margot (Marguerite de Valois) would have been in the same generation and was famous for her hair dying. Third, she may have gone grey early, as there is at least one description of her in her late teens as having ‘almost grey’ hair. Fourth, her hair, like Elizabeth’s became redder as she became older. Fifth, she suffered from hair loss. And sixth, she went to the execution as wearing a very red wig – the one her decapitated royal head fell out of – so apparently she saw nothing wrong with it.
RED HAIR AND ENGLAND
That red hair was popular in Elizabethan England is undeniable. But was it popular on the continent? Not so much. Perhaps that was because the English were attempting to emulate their monarchs. Perhaps it was because it was viewed as an English/Scottish phenomenan. The Hapsburgs had a large proportion of blondes, inherited, possibly from the same root that gave Catherine of Aragon her red-gold hair (which ironically may have been the same genes that gave the Tudors their red-gold hair as well, the Lancastrians. But that is speculation, and statistically hard to prove). The french didn’t have a blonde or red-head in the lot, and neither did they really care.
The Tudors, though their origins were Welsh, were not very Welsh at all. Henry VIII was 1/8 Welsh. That’s all. He was primarily English. That four of Henry VIII’s six wives were English and that his two foreign brides were either of partially English royal blood or blonde must mean something. The other candidate for Henry VIII’s hand after the death of Jane Seymour was Christina of Denmark (who famously said if she had two heads she would gladly give one to England.) who was very blonde, and also of Lancastrian decent. Henry VIII gave a lot of power to appearance, and probably so did his subjects.
Astonishingly enough, given that only 1 to 2% of the human population has red hair (statistics may have been different in the 16th century), by the time Elizabeth died, England had had a red-headed monarch (either king or queen) for 138 years!!!* Tudor era men were conditioned to find high status women as attractive, so it would stand to reason that red hair would be viewed as beautiful in England.
SO WHERE DID IT COME FROM
What all of the red and blonde-haired Tudors or Tudor brides have in common is decent from John of Gaunt. Very many of them were also Beaufort decendents via Katherine Swynford. So they were all distant cousins. But statistically, fair hair, or a low amount of eumelanin, would have slowly disappeared if not more introductions of phemelanin and low eumelanin capable genes. These introductions could have likely come from, say, Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwr, Elizabeth Woodville (via possibly her father?), and Anne Boleyn. So, it came from lots of places.
THE “GENE” FOR RED HAIR
Hair color is not a Mendelian gene. It is the result of numerous genes, some which impact others, effecting which are expressed and which are not. There is no such thing a ‘a red haired gene’ since red hair is the absense of eumelanin combined with the presence phemelanin, both of which are governed in turn by more than one gene. Therefore, a person from Spain or Africa or India or Polynesia can have the potential for red hair, but the expression of such would depend very highly on choice of mate and probability. The mutation that allowed for the production of the red color in hair is something like 40-50,000 years old (blue eyes, youngsters that they are, are only about 10,000 years old), so it is probably pretty widespread. Therefore, to have ‘red hair’ is commentary on appearance, not on genetics or ethnic decent.
*I didn’t count the reign of Richard III since we don’t know what hair color Anne Neville had (though some depictions DO show her with red hair).