The Myths and History of Red Hair

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Red Hair Britannia

Copper Britannia

No place on Earth is more associated with red hair than Britain. In fact many of its most striking historical figures have possessed the fiery hue, including Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell, Boudicca and Winston Churchill.

There's also supposedly a legend that states that king Arthur had red hair and that in times of trouble a red-haired leader would come to lead the country. However, as I've only ever came across this legend on the internet and found no reference to it anywhere else I'll have to take it with a pinch of salt.

Boudicca

Boudicca is pretty much the first archetypal fiery redhead in British history. She is famous for leading the revolt against the Roman occupation of Britain in the first century CE. She was queen of the powerful Iceni tribe and was described by the Roman writer Dio Cassius as being "tall and terrifying" in appearance and as having a "great mass of red hair".

Red Hair and British Royalty

The best known red-haired monarch is probably Elizabeth I, Queen of England, however she's not alone. Other notable red-haired blue-bloods include;

Richard the Lionheart
"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."
From the Itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis Ricardi by Richard de Templo

Henry II
"The lord king has been red-haired so far, except that the coming of old age and gray hair has altered that colour somewhat."
From the Epistolae of Peter of Blois

Another red-haired royal was Elizabeth Woodville, who was described as "the most beautiful woman in the Island of Britain" with "heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon." Incidentally, her daughter Elizabeth of York, wife to Henry VII, was also a redhead.

Nell Gwynne, the mistress of Charles II also had red-brown hair. As did Oliver Cromwell, the man that brought Charles' father, Charles I, to the scaffold (see Cromwell's Head).

Red hair wasn't uncommon on the Scottish side of the border either.

Alexander II, King of Scotland, had red hair;
"[King 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.'"
From the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris

Mary Queen of Scots was also possibly red-haired. I say 'possibly' because so far the only description I've came across describing her thus was this one from a 19th century periodical;

"I have a miniature of her in a gold setting (French) of her period, which represents her with blue eyes and red hair. I believe it is known that she wore wigs of different colours, for most of her portraits give her dark brown hair. We may, perhaps, conclude from this that her hair was really red, and, of course, her eyes blue, as few persons would choose red hair, but might prefer to appear with it dark."

It should also be noted that highland cattle owe their toffee-coloured coats to Queen Victoria, as her preference for the colour led cattle owners to selectively breed for the tint during her long reign during the 19th century.

The Red-Headed Bandits of Mawddach

One particular curiosity I've come across are the red-headed bandits of Mawddach. They were a large band of outlaws and thieves that terrorised Wales during the 16th century. Many, if not most, were related to each other and they caused havoc murdering and pillaging their way through parts of the Welsh countryside. Most were eventually captured, and on one day alone a staggering 80 were executed. A burial mound at Rhos Groch (the Red Moor) is said to be where their bodies are buried.

Winston Churchill

Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill was another great British redhead and he was apparently nicknamed "Copperknob" at school because of it.

Other redheaded political figures from Britain's history include Thomas Clarkson, the abolitionist, and Emily Wilding Davison, the red-haired suffragette - famously trampled to death by the King's horse at the Epsom Derby. I'd also like to make mention of Red Ellen, the Labour MP who represented Middlesbrough East in the Houses of Parliament. She acquired her nickname because of her striking red hair and her left-leaning politics. She was also the MP that persuaded parliament to pass the 1946 School Milk Act that gave free milk to all British schoolchildren (famously taken away by Margaret Thatcher's government decades later).

Lady Ottoline Morrell

Another British redhead who deserves mention is Lady Ottoline Morrell. She was an aristocratic socialite who was a member of the Bloomsbury Group - a loose association of writers, artists and intellectuals in the early 20th century. She was six foot tall with fiery red hair and generally dressed in an extremely flamboyant fashion. She is believed to be the inspiration for several fictional characters, most notably Hermione Roddice in D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love." Her circle of influence included the likes of Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and T.S. Elliot, as well as famous political figures of the day, including Herbert Asquith and Winston Churchill.

Other Noted Figures

Rob Roy - the famous Scottish folk hero and outlaw was a redhead.

Lady Hamilton - best remembered as a model and the mistress of Lord Nelson. Her red hair can been seen in the paintings of artist George Romney.

James Bruce - the red-haired Bruce was a Scottish explorer and the first to discover the source of the Blue Nile.

Mad MacAdder - the orange-haired cousin of Blackadder in the third series of the sitcom.

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