UPDATE: A finished version of this book is now available on Amazon in both Kindle and Paperback edition.]
When it comes to royalty red hair seems to be surprisingly common. So common it almost seems like a royal trait at times. We mentioned in the last chapter how red or blond hair could be seen as a natural halo, and how gold was deemed to be the king of metals. In this chapter we make the next logical leap and suggest that those red hair-haloes are effectively golden crowns.
On face value this claim may look slightly far-fetched, and seem a little bit like wishful thinking on the part of redheads, however as we go through the long list of red-haired rulers it becomes unavoidably apparent. Interestingly, this correlation between red hair and royalty has often been picked up by modern myth makers as well, and has seeped into popular culture because of this. Helping to re-mythologise the colour in modern times to some extent. In Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code the central female character Sophie Neveu is given red hair - a token of her descent from the line of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. On top of this red hair often gets linked on-line with that other famous grail family, the Merovingians.
Another frequently made claim is that King Arthur was a redhead. In fact, one often repeated on-line legend states that a red-haired leader will always come to lead Britain in times of trouble, with Elizabeth I, Boudica, Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill (all redheads) often being cited along with Arthur as fulfillments of this apparent ancient prophesy. Whether any of these popular myths have any genuine pedigree, or even have any precedence beyond the modern era is difficult to ascertain. However, as the following chapter will show, they do tap into quite a noticeable historic vein.
When it comes to actual history a good place to start is England. The first "red-haired" king of England is often cited as William II, aka William Rufus or William the Red. However, although he was called "the red", the historian William of Malmesbury described him as having yellow hair (once again that confusion between red and blond cropping up). Incidentally, he also stated that William possessed different coloured eyes - it's difficult not to imagine some medieval, gingery-blond David Bowie type figure.
The first actual red-haired English king we have on record is Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England, and it's with the Plantagenet line that we really start to see red hair and English kingship go hand in hand. We know he was "red-haired" because he was described as such by the French cleric Peter of Blois. We can also be reasonably sure his hair was this colour because his father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou was also a redhead. He apparently had reddish-gold hair, and was described by John of Marmoutier as "handsome, red-headed, jovial, and a great warrior". Geoffrey is also depicted with reddish hair in the enamel effigy that appears on his tomb in Le Mans.
The wife of Henry II was the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine. Sadly there are no surviving written accounts that describe her hair colour, however there is a 14th century illustration that depicts her with yellowy-blond hair. If this is accurate, and given that Henry was a redhead, it won't come as a surprise to find that their children were predominantly fair-haired too. It's been suggested that their sons John and Henry were both redheads. John would later become the famed King John, and Henry would become known to history as "Henry the Young King" - as he reigned alongside his father, who sadly outlived him. John supposedly had dark red hair and Henry hair of a more red-gold colour. This appearance of Henry was noted at the time in a contemporary court poem, which described him as being "tall but well proportioned, broad-shouldered with a long and elegant neck, pale and freckled skin, bright and wide blue eyes, and a thick mop of the reddish-gold hair".
However, both Henry and John were eclipsed by another of their brothers - the equally red-haired Richard the Lionheart. The famed king and crusader was described in the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi (a Latin narrative of the Third Crusade) as follows: "He was tall, of elegant build; the colour of his hair was between red and gold; his limbs were supple and straight. He had long arms suited to wielding a sword. His long legs matched the rest of his body." One particularly interesting story about Richard comes from the chronicler Giraud le Cambrien. He claimed that Richard was fond of telling people that his family were descended from a countess of Anjou who in actual fact was a fairy Melusine - a Melusine was a mythical figure from European legend that was supposedly a woman from the waist up and a fish or serpent from the waist down. Sometimes she would be depicted in art as a mermaid type figure, only with two tails instead of one. Much like the famous Starbucks logo. Richard would conclude this strange tale by stating that his whole family had "came from the devil and would return to the devil".
This strange story is quite intriguing as there's a parallel to the Melusine myth in Eastern European lore. There they have female water spirits called Rusalka - these are likewise similar to mermaids, however in this case they're often depicted with red or light hair as well (oddly they're also sometimes described as green-haired too). These water spirits are said to be the spirits of young women that have committed suicide or that have been drowned for becoming pregnant with unwanted children. They're said to lure young men to their death, much like the mermaids and sirens in the mythologies of other cultures. They were also at times said to be the spirits of unbaptised children. In this light it's interesting to note the parallels with the red-haired vampires we mentioned in the previous chapter. In both cases they apparently represent the spirits of those that have died in unsanctified ways.
Returning to King Richard it's hard not to see his red hair, along with his mythic Melusine ancestry, as part of a similar strand. It's also tempting to return to the supposed red hair of the Merovingians and take a fresh look at them as well. The Merovingians were likewise said to be descended from a sea monster (hence the mer, meaning sea, in their name), and although we have no genuine evidence regarding their hair colour we do know that they were noted for having long hair - being referred to as the "long-haired kings". It seems we're quite close to some sort of link between red hair, mermaids and royalty, but we don't quite have the evidence to make the jump.
Talk of King Richard and red hair does allow us to go off on another red-haired tangent though. This time into the realms of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. There's no exact consensus on when (or if) Robin Hood existed, however we're generally used to seeing his antics set during the days of King Richard. Specifically during the period when Richard was absent from the kingdom whilst fighting the Crusades. For our purpose our main interest in Robin Hood lies with his name - in particular the idea that it may translate, quite literally, as "Red Head". This may seem quite odd at first, however once we dig a little deeper it isn't quite as illogical as it first seems.
Firstly, when we consider the name Robin the most immediate thing that springs to mind is the Robin Redbreast. The red or orange-breasted bird that appears in gardens and on Christmas cards every winter. Now it's my opinion that the word "robin" is simply a variant of the word red, hence explaining why it would be given to a red-coloured bird. I should point out that this isn't the generally accepted etymology of the word though. Most etymologists state that the name Robin comes from the name Robert, and that Robert in turn comes from the Old High German name Hrodebert, meaning "bright with glory" - hruod meaning "fame, glory" and berht meaning "bright". However, I'm going to be bold and suggest that the scholars might just have it wrong on this one. I would suggest that the word hroud is simply a variant of the word red, and that Hrodebert is more likely to translate as "bright red", or maybe even as "red beard". The fact that in German the similar sounding name rotbard translates as "Redbeard" adds weight to this argument. Therefore I would say that both Robin and Robert are related names essentially denoting the colour red. It would seem that the Robin Redbreast therefore got named robin because of its colouring, and that the name Robin Redbreast is just a compound of two separate names for the bird - both essentially meaning the same thing. This is backed up by the fact that in earlier times the robin was also called by the names robinet and ruddock. Again robinet is clearly just another variant of robin, and ruddock is no doubt cognate with the word ruddy - also meaning red, as mentioned in Chapter One. Given this it seems reasonable to speculate that the name robin in "Robin Hood" could also mean red.
Moving on to the word hood we can make a similar etymological leap. In language vowels can be quite interchangeable, and it's easy to see how hood could be pronounced as head and vice versa depending on the accent. Adding to this there's also the simple fact that a hood covers a persons head, so on some level the words could be cognate anyway. Putting this together with our red robin we can then speculate that the name Robin Hood actually means "red head", and then move on to the question of why this might be the case. One notable reason why may come from the fact that Robin Hood was an outlaw, as oddly enough red hair has been linked with outlaws and bandits at many times throughout history - both with on-land robbers (again the word rob) and with on-sea pirates. In fact, we could even suggest that the red-haired Judas, with his money-bag of ill-gotten gains, is another variant on this theme.
One such example of this is the story of the red-headed bandits of Mawddach. As the name suggests these were a band of red-haired robbers and thieves. They terrorised Wales during the 16th century and many of them ended up finding their way to the gallows for their various crimes. It's been suggested that on one day alone a staggering 80 of them were executed. A burial mound at Rhos Groch (the Red Moor) is said to be where their bodies are buried.
It's also interesting to recall the red-haired Phoenicians of the first chapter. In that discussion we catalogued the links between red hair and fire. Maybe in this case we can add the word pirate to this chain of thinking too - maybe it shares its root with the word pyro (fire). We've already mentioned the common pirate nickname "Redbeard" too. In fact, the North Yorkshire coastal village of Robin Hood's Bay springs to mind as well, with its legends of pirates and smugglers. We could also add to all this the famous Scottish outlaw Rob Roy - another redhead.
Of course, Scotland also has its fair share of red-haired monarchs too, so this may be a good point to move back to the topic at hand and start discussing royalty again. One Scottish monarch worth mentioning at this point is King Alexander II. He too had red hair. Strangely we know this because of a quote we have from his contemporary, the previously mentioned King John. According to the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris John "taunted King Alexander, and because he was red-headed, sent word to him, saying, 'so shall we hunt the red fox-cub from his lairs.'"
This all seems slightly odd given the fact that we've already mentioned that king John was also a redhead. Maybe we have it wrong regarding his hair colour, then again I guess it could be an example of one not-so-very-red-haired person taunting another who has a much more noteworthy shade of it. Alternately, the quote itself may be without substance. Or maybe King John just didn't care about the hypocrisy. In fact, given the less than wholesome reputation of King John it might be better for redheads of all shades if we just kick him out of the redhead club and leave it at that ..but then again, maybe if we start doing that after a while we won't have too many left. Incidentally, while on the Scottish theme it's also interesting to note that the famed King Macbeth was called "the Red King". No-one is really sure what this redness alludes to, but I suppose hair colour would be as good a guess as any.
Going back to England, another king we can put in the maybe pile is Edward I. It's said that he had blond hair, however there are a few images which show him with hair of a slightly more gingery colour. He was also the grandson of King John. I also came across this strange bit of red-related trivia regarding Edward's son and successor King Edward II. In the Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, a 17th century work by the English antiquary John Aubrey, the author relates the following bit of curious information.
"Johannes Medicos. who lived and wrot[e] in the time of Ed[ward] 2, and was Physi[cian] to that king, gives an account of his [curing] the Prince of [the] Smallpox (a distemper but then lately known in England) by ordering his bed, his room, and his attendants to be all in scarlet, and imputes [the] cure in great measure to the [virtue] of [the] colour."Quite an odd scene to envision.
Our next round of red-haired rulers moves us into the Wars of the Roses era. Fascinatingly enough the word rose even comes with connotations of the colour red . The term "rosy-cheeked" for example. Also in Italian the word rosa means both "rose" and "pink", so a pink rose would be "una rosa rosa". It would be tempting to suggest that the red and white roses of the Houses of Lancaster and York were somehow symbolic of red and blond hair, but I think that would be pushing things. We could maybe consider though the possible relationship between the red rose and the rising sun. The double meaning of the word rose equally evoking images of redness. Another echo of the heavenly/kingly halo. Jesus too of course was the risen son. Interestingly, it's also been suggested that the name Russia (which I guess could be cognate with the word rose) means land of the reds - though this is contested by scholars. We may recall however the above referenced Rusalka of Eastern Europe, with their fair or red coloured hair. So maybe there's some truth in this link between Russia and red hair after all.
The most noteworthy of the redheads from this period is probably Elizabeth Woodville. She was the wife of Edward IV and grandmother of Henry VIII. She was described as "the most beautiful woman in the Island of Britain" with "heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon." This dragon reference maybe plays into the legend surrounding Richard the Lionheart and his Melusine heritage. On top of this the mother of Elizabeth Woodville was Jacquetta of Luxembourg. The Luxembourgs were likewise said to descend from a Melusine water deity - via their ancestor Siegfried of Luxembourg. Jacquetta was actually put on trial for witchcraft too. We don't know what colour hair she had, but I think we can have a guess (if I used emoticons in this book I'd be putting a winky face right about now.)
Many of Elizabeth Woodville's daughters were also red-haired, including both Mary and Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth of York was the wife of Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England, and Elizabeth's red-gold hair was her legacy to this dynasty - reappearing on the heads of many of the following monarchs of that line. Most notably her grand-daughter Elizabeth I of England. It's with the Tudor dynasty that we really see red hair take center stage.
Henry's son, and England's most famous king, Henry VIII was said to possess "auburn" hair. His siblings had hair of a similar colour. Arthur, Prince of Wales, his elder brother who died aged 15, was said to have reddish hair, and his sister Mary Tudor, Queen of France, was said to possess red-gold hair. She was also described as tall, slender and grey-eyed. The first wife of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, was said to be red-haired too. In fact, a painting thought to show a young Catherine, by the artist Juan de Flandes, shows her with bright red hair. Catherine's sister Joanna of Castile (aka Joanna the Mad) was also red-haired, as was their mother Isabella I of Castile. Their ancestor Ferdinand I of Aragon was also said to be thin, ruddy and freckled.
James IV of Scotland was likewise said to be a redhead. He married Henry's sister Margaret Tudor. James was the last British monarch to die in battle, falling at the Battle of Flodden Field. His body was apparently recovered from the battlefield and taken to London where it was seen by a certain John Stow, who claimed to have seen its severed head, along with it's red hair, before it was buried at St Michael Wood Street. Interestingly, another person from the Tudor era that was said to be red-haired was the Nine Day Queen - Lady Jane Grey.
The most famous redhead of the period, perhaps one of the most famous redheads of all time, was of course Elizabeth I. Her life and her red hair are both quite well known, however what's less well known is that her rival and relation Mary Queen of Scots was also possibly red-haired too. The hair colour of Mary has been much contested and we only really have her portraits to go on. Some of which show hair of a darker colour, others of hair much fairer. However, apparently there are miniature portraits contemporary with the period that show her with red hair and blues eyes. Given that her grandfather was the red-haired James IV and her grandmother a Tudor - Margaret Tudor in this case - this wouldn't be too far-fetched. Also, although we don't know exactly what colour the hair of her father, James V, was, we do know that there are portraits that show him, along with his wife Mary of Guise (Mary's mother) with reddish hair.
Interestingly, during her lifetime Mary Queen of Scots was branded a "mermaid" by her detractors (again we see the royal, red hair, mermaid/melusine vibe). Mermaid was a euphemism at that time for a prostitute. Actually, if we go off-piste a little bit we can even link this all in to that other "fallen" red-haired Mary - Mary Magdalene. Again, we're wandering quite far from the beaten track of accepted history and etymologies here, but if we look at things with fresh eyes we may throw some fresh light on things. Believe it or not if we take the name Mary Magdalene we can actually translate it as mermaid. Mary means sea, as in Stella Maris, "Star of the Sea" and Magdalene can mean maiden. A variant of the name Magdalene is Madeleine, and in German this translates as "little girl" (mädelein). Hence from Mary Magdalene we get Sea-Maiden or Mer-maiden. Now I know the most common translation generally given for Magdalene is tower - "magdala" - but even with this translation the sense can still mean maiden. As in maidens being kept in towers to protect their chastity - a common motif in fairy tales. No doubt this will have literally been the case for royal maidens that actually lived in castles with towers.
We can also link the name Mary to the word sex. The name Mary is obviously similar to the word marry - and also the word merry. Now a marriage is simply a formalised celebration of a sexual coupling. In bygone times two people that had sex would be considered married by virtue of this fact alone. With the children produced being the evidence of this union. So it's not unrealistic to think that originally to marry someone simply meant to have sex with someone - it would only later over time come to denote the formalised ceremony that celebrated that coupling, not the actual act itself. Marry is therefore probably cognate with the word merry too, and is no doubt where we get the term "to get merry" from. In fact, in old English the name for mermaids was actually merrymaids.
With this new translation of Mary at hand we can then look at the major figures of Christianity in a new light. The Virgin Mary would simply be a married virgin - a virgin that's had sex. This would make a lot more sense of the whole "virgin birth" tradition. Mary Magdalene would likewise translate similarly, meaning the exact same thing - a married maiden. In fact, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are in all probability just the same woman - or rather two duplicates of the same symbolic female archetype. We can even see echoes of this in other traditions. For example, Maid Marian from the stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Again, no doubt Maid Marian was simply a symbolic married maiden - or a maid marrying, another version of this same very ancient archetype. This is no doubt why Maid Marian and Robin Hood are associated with pagan May Day celebrations. In my opinion all these traditions are simply ancient celebrations of sex and marriage that have evolved over time to the point where we don't know what they symbolise anymore. Why many of the people in these traditions have red hair is something of a mystery, but once again we can see a link between red hair and sexual license.
On a side note it may also be worth mentioning here that the Rusalka sea spirits we mentioned earlier were said to be at their most dangerous during Green Week - an eastern European festival held in June, similar in tone to the May Day celebrations of pagan Europe. Green Week, or Rusalka Week as it was also called, has also been equated by scholars with Rosalia, the festival of roses. A festival celebrated during the days of the Roman Empire. So yet again we have the link with Roses.
Whilst on the topic of Mary Magdalene it may be worth mentioning that there are also numerous depictions of Jesus that show him with red hair too. In fact, research into the Rabula Gospels (a Christian manuscript dated to the 6th century) showed that an image of the crucified Jesus had been repainted - with his hair being changed from curly red to straight black. These images run counter to the standard narrative that has Judas as the redhead, but at the same time they maybe also play into what we mentioned earlier about orange being a symbol of enlightenment, and the orange likewise being a symbol of Christ.
It's going to be difficult getting back to red-haired kings and queens after that little Christian detour, but maybe the cavalier sex lives of some Stuart era redheads will help us do that. It's said that the mistress of Charles II, Nell Gwyn, had reddish hair. She was an actress and also at one time, along with her sister Rose, an "orange-girl". Orange-girls were girls that sold small sweet "china" oranges to theatre-goers for a sixpence. They were nicknamed "orange-wenches". I don't think there's any particular link to red hair here sadly but it seems worth including as it fits the general theme. Another infamous redhead was George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. It's rumoured that he was the lover of James I of England - the grandfather of Charles II. It's said that Buckingham was the "handsomest" man in all of England. His daughter Mary, Duchess of Richmond, was also a redhead.
After this period red hair seems to take a back seat in English royal affairs, so it may be time to step out onto the continent and list a few of the red-haired monarchs from Europe and elsewhere. It turns out that the Holy Roman Emperors Otto II and Otto III were both red-haired. In fact, Otto II was known as Otto the Red. The Holy Roman Emperors Frederick I Barbarossa and Frederick II were likewise ginger. Barbarossa translating as "red beard". Incidentally, Frederick II was amusingly described by the chronicler Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi as follows; "The Emperor was covered with red hair, was bald and myopic. Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at market." The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxemberg was also red-haired. In childhood he was nicknamed the "ginger fox" because of it.
Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem was red-haired too. He was described as "a blue-eyed, freckled, leprous evil-doer." Curiously there is, or was, a train of thought in some parts of the world that actually linked red hair with leprosy. In a 1662 book I came across by the German scholar Adam Olearius titled The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors (translated into English by John Davies) it states that Indian Muslims "love not flaxen or fair hair'd people, and have an aversion for such as are red hair'd, out of an opinion they have, that they are Leprous." It would be interesting to pursue this line of enquiry further, but so far I've only found the odd link here and there.
Going back to our list, Louis II of Hungary was also red-haired. As was Philip IV of Spain and his son Charles II (known as "the Bewitched"). Interestingly enough the early 16th century ruler Ismail I, Shah of Iran was also red-haired. He was described by a contemporary as follows; "His hair is reddish; he only wears moustachios, and uses his left hand instead of his right. He is as brave as a game cock, and stronger than any of his lords; in the archery contests, out of the ten apples that are knocked down, he knocks down seven." There's even a portrait showing him with striking ginger hair.
All in all quite an impressive list, especially when we consider that there's quite a sizable chunk of royals where we simply don't know the hair colour as we have no contemporary record or description of it. There are also many minor nobles and royals with red hair that I haven't included here for the sake of brevity. In fact, according to renaissance portraits at least, there seems to be a plethora of Medicis and Sforzas with red hair too (we'll mention some famous Italians with red hair in the next chapter incidentally).
In summary it would certainly appear that redheads are over-represented in royals circles. It seems a little anomalous to say the least. In the next few chapters we'll see how well represented redheads were in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. Can red hair be royal and revolutionary at the same time? I'm guessing you know the answer by this point.