There are a surprising number of redheads depicted within historical narratives, and an equally intriguing panoply of theories that may provide an explanation. For example, red-haired or ginger individuals may be driven to succeed by the discrimination they face. Conversely, this unusual physical trait could reinforce a sense of eccentricity and distinction, prompting unusual levels of success.
It's possible that the perceived commonality of famous redheads is an illusion. Red hair is conspicuous, meaning those with the trait will be recorded as having it. Would historians bother to state that someone had brown hair? Nevertheless, many of these stories may be complete fabrications. For example, Alexander the Great (blond) and Napoleon (dark) are often claimed to have had red hair.
The following list of 20 famous redheads includes historical figures that were likely to have had reddish or ginger hair. They are placed in order of their birth date.
Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.)
Cleopatra was from a lineage of Greek pharaohs that ruled Ancient Egypt after the time of Alexander the Great. She was the last pharaoh, and she adopted the image of the Egyptian goddess, Isis. She committed suicide to avoid execution after the defeat of her Roman ally and lover, Mark Antony, by allowing herself to be bitten by an asp (snake). A fresco from Herculaneum depicts Cleopatra as having red hair, and many prominent Ancient Egyptians dyed their hair red using the plant extract, henna.
Judas Iscariot (unknown - about 36 A.D.)
Judas was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. He famously betrayed Jesus to the Romans in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. Ever since, his name has been associated with betrayal. Judas is shown with red hair in a number of medieval paintings, though this may be to distinguish him from other disciples.
Boadicea (unknown - 61 A.D.)
Roman sources describe Queen Boadicea as a redhead. She was ruler of the British Iceni tribe. When the Romans seized control of her province, she led a revolt, destroying many Roman cities. Despite having numerical superiority, she was eventually defeated by General Suetonius. Boadicea either died from illness or killed herself to avoid capture.
Richard Lionheart (1157-1199)
Richard I was a hero of medieval England for his efforts during the Crusades. His rivalry with Saladin was legendary, and his warrior spirit earned him the epithet, Lionheart. He was killed by a juvenile crossbowman within his own ranks in revenge for the death of the boy's father. On his deathbed, Richard spared the boys life, though he was later killed by the King's allies. The `Itinerarium Regis Ricardi' describes Richard's hair as being reddish gold.
Genghis Khan (1162-1227)
Temujin (also known as Genghis Khan) founded the Mongolian empire. His military campaigns led to the slaughter of about 40 million people, and his empire stretched from the Pacific to eastern Europe. He probably died from illness after a fall from his horse, though there are many legends surrounding the death of Khan. Several historical documents describe him as having red hair and green eyes.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
This Italian explorer discovered the American continents for the European powers, beginning an era of forcible colonization. He claimed much of the land mass for his employers, Spain. Many descriptions and artworks from the era show Columbus as having auburn hair.
Henry VIII (1491-1547)
Like many within the English Tudor dynasty, Henry VIII was a flame-haired monarch. He is one of the best known Kings of England and is famous for his six marriages. His children included Mary I and the well-known queen, Elizabeth I, though he longed for a male heir. He invaded France twice with moderate success and formed the Church of England.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
Elizabeth I of England inherited the red hair of her father Henry VIII. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was one of the wives executed by Henry. Following recent film portrayals, she may be even more famous than her father. Despite ruling for 45 years, Elizabeth was the last Tudor monarch, fueling popular claims about her virginity. She presided over the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the prime of William Shakespeare.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
This Italian astronomer was one of the most famous physicists of all time. His achievements include discovering four of Jupiter's moons, confirming the phases of Venus, improving telescope design, advancing kinematics, and supporting the Copernican view that the Earth orbits the Sun. The latter saw him investigated by the Christian Inquisition and sentenced to spend the remainder of his life under house arrest.
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)
Oliver Cromwell was another famous British leader with red hair. He was a deeply religious man who rose to political power before becoming the figurehead for the British revolution that overthrew King Charles I. The king was executed and Cromwell became effective leader of a short-lived British Commonwealth. Despite being regarded as a hero by some, his persecution of the Irish and Scottish bordered on genocidal.
This Italian composer was an expert violinist and Catholic priest whose red hair earned him the nickname: `The Red Priest'. His most famous work was called `The Four Seasons', and he wrote over forty operas. Vivaldi spent many of his years at an orphanage, and composed many of his pieces while working there.
George Washington (1732-1799)
This founding father of the United States was also its first President. Prior to this, he led the Continental army to victory against the British during the American Revolutionary War. Washington had red hair in his youth, though he powdered it white. Despite the contemporary fashion, he did not wear wigs.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Thomas Jefferson was another of the founding fathers, and the 3rd President of the United States. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, which finally cut all ties with Britain. Jefferson was a skilled writer and philosopher, and he founded the University of Virginia in his later years. Like Washington, he had red hair that he powdered white, although he often wore wigs.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
This prolific American poet wrote almost two thousand poems. Those that were published during her life were heavily edited by the publishers. After her death, the complete poetry collection wasn't published in its unedited state until 1955. She since became one of the most important American poets. Dickinson was a highly reclusive individual who didn't like to greet guests, and she communicated mainly by correspondence. Her poems covered themes including death, immortality, religion, and nature.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
This American humorist writer was a master of wit and satire, and is hailed as the father of American literature. His birth name was Samuel Clemens but he adopted the pen name Twain in 1861. He is possibly the most quoted writer of all time, though Twain is famous for his two greatest works, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
Van Gogh was a Dutch painter whose work gained great notoriety and influence in the 20th century. He painted landscapes, sunflowers, orchards, cypresses, and wheat-fields with bold color in the post-impressionist style. His self-portraits clearly show his ginger hair. Van Gogh suffered from depression and his death may have been a suicide. He famously cut off his ear and handed it to a prostitute. He was later known as the redheaded madman.
Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924)
Though Lenin started losing his hair before he was 20, a number of authors have claimed it was red. Indeed, Russians of Mongolian lineage commonly have red hair, which owes to the promiscuity of Genghis Khan and his descendants. Lenin is famous for leading the Marxist Bolsheviks to victory in the 1917 Russian revolution; an event prefacing the Soviet Union.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of Britain during World War 2. His wartime policies helped to defeat Nazi Germany. He is regarded as one of the greatest Britons who ever lived, and was known for his profound and inspirational speeches. In his youth, he attended the Harrow school where his red hair earned him the name `copper knob'.
Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962)
This American actress, singer, and model was born with the name Norma Jeane Mortenson. Shortly after World War 2 she was given the name Marilyn as she reminded a media executive of Marilyn Miller. Monroe was the maiden name of Norma's mother. Marilyn Monroe dyed her hair blond and went on to became a cultural icon and sex symbol for her appearances on the silver screen.
Prince Harry (1984- )
While not yet a historical figure, Prince Harry is perhaps the most famous redhead in the world today. As the grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, and son of Prince Charles, he is fourth in line to the British throne. Prince Harry served with the British army in the Afghan War, and is known for his rebellious party lifestyle.
Redheads certainly appear prolifically in the annals of history. However, this may be ascribed completely to the trait being notable enough for mention. If one considers the entirety of historical figures and icons, red hair may not be so common after all.
If there is a genuine abundance, this could be explained if redheads are more likely to feel special and distinguished; or feel a need to rebel against discrimination. In the case of Napoleon and Alexander the Great, claims were fabricated for unknown reasons, meaning the number of famous redheads in history may be overstated.
Bretton Ferguson on April 24, 2020:
According to Chinese history, Bodhidharma, the guy who brought Shaolin and zen buddhism to China was a redhead. He is believed to have been an Indian prince. Back then the Indian nobility, descended from the original Aryan invaders from central Asia, were still white because of the caste system they didn't marry darker castes.
Hikermiker: on September 26, 2018:
Donald Trump is a redhead,not a blond!
astrid tollefsen on September 10, 2018:
Marilyn's father, Mortensen, a seaman, was from Haugesund Norway. There is a statue of her there by the waterfront. There are many redheads in that area and it is probable she had reddish/ brown hair which is so prevalent there and throughout that area. .
Laurie Bennett on February 07, 2017:
Marilyn Monroe was born brunette
Apostolos on December 08, 2016:
Also hurrem sultan of the Ottoman Empire was redhead.
Cardia from Barbados. on May 08, 2015:
Really interesting read - I certainly didn't know that Churchill was a redhead! You really do learn something everyday. Enjoyed this one!
Dan Lipinski on April 23, 2015:
You can't have a redhead list without Lucy!
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 14, 2013:
Cheers for commenting La Verne Amigo!
La Verne Amigo from Philippines on August 08, 2013:
Very interesting hub... I like studying about the lives of these important figures in History. Thanks:)
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 16, 2013:
Thanks for commenting SavannahEve!
Suzi Rayve from California on July 15, 2013:
Now you KNOW I gotta comment on this hub! Many many of these I didn't know about. I had absolutely not a clue that Marilyn was a redhead! Wow! Thanks for an interesting and enlightening hub.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on June 19, 2013:
Thanks for commenting brownella. Yea the Romans really persecuted her and her family. Perhaps they wanted to humiliate the Iceni leader to show their dominance in the region. I'm not entirely sure of everything Boadicea did, but from what I know, she was justified to respond in the way she did.
brownella from New England on June 18, 2013:
Interesting hub, I was always fascinated by Boadicea, people often only remember her brutal tactics, not the horrors she witnessed that pushed her to such extremes. Thanks for sharing :)