Medieval Hair Colours

Richard III has changed his look three times in the last three years. In the latest version he is sporting unkempt mouse-coloured hair. Is that plausible?

Late Medieval Comb © V&A
Late Medieval Comb © V&A

Since the first reconstruction of the face of Richard III he has changed looks several times. First he was presented with brown eyes and dark hair. Later, after DNA-analysis had shown that his eyes were blue and his hair blond, he had a serious “makeover”. Last week however, he went to the hair-salon once more. Now he is presented with a mouse-coloured look and rather unkempt hair.

The last bit is probably totally non-medieval. Chances are that Richard III owned several highly valuable combs and that he used them on a daily basis. For medieval men and woman combs were essential to dress the hair, as well as to rid it of lice, fleas and nits; and none of the portraits show him with unkempt or unruly hair. Further, boxwood or Ivory combs with elaborate carved and pierced decorations were also fashionable accessories for both women and men from about 1400. It is almost certain that many were made in France but they were probably produced much more widely. Many were decorated with short love inscriptions (in French) or love imagery such as pierced hearts, indicating that they were intended as appropriate gifts from a lover. Others were embellished with delicately carved courtly scenes. Some were according to V&A originally protected in a leather case that could also be decorated with a love theme.

Dying Hair

Comb with lovers in a garden late 15th century © V&A
Comb with lovers in a garden from the late 15th century. © V&A

But did he also colour his hair? This we shall probably never know (a chance find of a Ricardian shopping list documenting this is highly unlikely). However, we do know that medieval people knew of recipes for hair-colouring and also that they probably used them.

In the 11th century Trotula de Ruggiero from Salerno wrote a treatise “De Ornatu Mulierum” (also know as Trotula Minor). In it she wrote about how to stay unwrinkled, remove puffiness from face and eyes, remove unwanted hair from the body, lighten the skin, hide blemishes and freckles, wash teeth and take away bad breath.

She also wrote of hair-dying and from her we know that Agrimonia sp and Buxus sp (boxwood) could be used to colour hair blond, while Black Henbane or Sage was used for colouring hair black. This or a more golden colour might also be achieved by using burnt grapevine ash, crocuses, dragontree, dwarf elderberry, greater celandine, madder, myrtle berry, oat and saffron. Extracts from these plants were often mixed up with liquorice and used as shampoo. Other plants were used as remedies to lengthen hair or making it soft and curly (olive oil). Many of these recipes were handed down through the centuries in later cosmetic handbooks, of which we know of several from the 15th century. It appears there were lots of medieval hair colors around

Many of these plants are still used in modern herbal remedies, which may be bought at any Boots.


We don’t really know if medieval men coloured their hair. But we do know women were known to colour their hair on a vast scale, since male moralists loved to scorn them for it. Later, during the reign of Elizabeth I, high-ranking men dyed their hair and beards auburn to signal their loyalty to the queen. This might be achieved with a mixture of saffron and sulphur powder.

Perhaps, next year Richard III will be exhibited once more as “The Golden Boy”. Or with a more funky hair-do in lilac as photoshopped her (to the right).


Ambigous Locks by roberta milliken coverThe first cosmetic treatise of history. A female point of view
By M. C. Proto Cavallo, C. Pruno, A. del Sorbo and M. Bifulco
In: International Journal of Cosmetic Science
Volume 30, Issue 2, pages 79–86, April 2008

Ambiguous Locks. An Iconology of Hair in Medieval Art and Literature.
By Roberta Milken.
McFarland & Co. 2012

Encyclopedia of Hair: a Cultural History.
By Victoria Sherrow
Greenwood Publishing Group 2006



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