If the medieval standard for beauty was red-gold hair, then Elizabeth I was stunning.
Her dynasty, The Tudors, were decendants of a rag tag group of gentlemen who landed some high-born widows, as in the case of Owen Tudor, (Owain ap Meredudd ap Tewdwror) 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 fortunate men had, but they must have been very striking, according to the standards of the day, to hit the jackpot as they did. It is pointless to go too far back in generations, since the further back you go, the less statisical significance an ancestor has but or the sake of recency, I will start with Elizabeth Woodville since all Tudors after Henry VII are decendents of Elizabeth Woodville through her daughter Elizabeth of York.
Elizabeth Woodville has been described as “beautiful” so we can assume she had very fair skin since fairness was definitely a prerequisite for beauty in those days. Some portraits show her with obviously red hair, others with more blonde. She and the Tudors had a similar origin: a widowed, highly-born Princess marries a lowly-born gentleman in their service. Her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, half Italian and half French, did just that by marrying Sir Richard Woodville, the squire of her dead husband, Duke of Bedford. That Sir Richard Woodville was dreamy can only be assumed. 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 ... shall we say 'daring' if we can believe the story of how she lured and snapped up her 2nd cousin, Edward IV.
The eldest daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV was Elizabeth of York, a red head according to the only known portrait of her. She was the granddaughter of Jacquetta of Luxemborg on her mother’s side and Cecilly Neville (who’s mother was a Beaufort) on the other but where the red head gene came from on her father’s side is anyone’s guess. Edward was brown haired with some Spanish and French blood, but primarily English. Very little is recorded about Elizabeth of York: nothing about her education, opinions, political leanings or appearance. What can be ascertained by the later behavior of her son, Henry VIII, is she gave the Tudors an identity the world will never forget.
Henry VIII’s generation was a mixed bag. Both Henry and his elder brother Arthur had red hair. Their sister Margaret probably had the same hair colour genes since Mary Stuart had auburn hair. Their other sister 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 wondered if 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. Though historians are critical of Anne's 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), likely because it was unextraordinary, and because he was really a misery sort of person who was fond of dressing plainly in darker colours, wearing hats and not playing up his rank. 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 had red hair, since both the Stuarts and the Tudors have their genetic material. 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 Katherine Swynford).
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, (doesn't that name keep popping up?) the famous son of Edward III, whereas Henry VII was a product of John of Gaunt’s roll in the sack with Katherine Swynford.
Bloody Mary had red hair, which would stand to reason as she was the son of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and she, like her mother, was considered a beauty as a child. As she grew older her hair 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 then again she had some serious health issues that would certainly drain the youth from anyone.
By the time Elizabeth was born, the Tudor hair color became more than just a sign of beauty or appearance. It was viewed as proof of legitimate Tudor decent and heaven knows, Anne Boleyn needed every help she could find to prove her daughter's legitimacy. 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 Tudor appearance cast aside any doubts. The 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 husband (though they were obviously Margaret's), 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).
The Queen of Nine Days, Lady Jane Grey, is also mentioned as having auburn hair and 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 Queen of Scots' hair color is suspicious. Early accounts in France mention that her hair color was brown ‘almost grey’ presumably ash although some mention her as 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 in accounts. No one can make up their mind what color she actually 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, she suffered from hair loss, much the same as Elizabeth did (hence the wigs). And fifth, she went to her execution wearing a very red wig – the one her decapitated royal head fell out of – so apparently she saw nothing wrong with it.
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. But that is speculation, and statistically hard to prove). The French didn’t have a blonde or red-head anywhere, 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 in marriage 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) was very blonde, and of Lancastrian decent.
Elizabeth's father, 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.