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A lock of Leonardo’s locks….?

Leonardo da Vinci, from the link below

There are hopes that a lock of hair in the possession of a private collector in the United States may provide the key to Leonardo da Vinci‘s DNA. The hair is to be put on display at a function that is timed “….to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, which occurred on May 2, 1519….” The function will also mark the commencement of scientific investigations into the hair’s origins.

As with Richard III, the DNA of the hair will be traced through generations of Leonardo’s known family, to relatives who are alive now. Let us hope that a successful connection is made!

To read more, go to the Smithsonian magazine.





A new tool uses DNA to predict eye, hair, skin colour…

New DNA tool

A new tool uses DNA to predict eye, hair, skin colour …

Quote from the above article: “The tool has been used by law enforcement in the Netherlands, Poland, and Australia, but it has not yet been adopted in the United States, Walsh said. It has also been used on ancient DNA, and it was used to determine that King Richard III had blue eyes and blond hair.”

Ah, but was he blond as a child? Or throughout into manhood? And just how accurate is all this anyway?

Richard’s hair was NOT mousy…..!


Well, the trail to this 2015 item about the reconstruction of Richard’s head was somewhat tortuous. It started at the New York Times  which then led me to Liverpool John Moores University, and I finally fetched up at this facial reconstruction.

My quibble is: “Originally the king was thought to have dark hair and black eyes, but the new tests reveal he most likely had mousey-brown hair and blue eyes.” Black eyes? The result of a punch in the face is not what’s meant here – but who has black eyes? Unless they’re high as kites, of course. As for the “mousy-brown”. The colour shown in this illustration is a sort of dark-blond. Yes? Poor old Richard, they might have spared him the rodent label…


Beauty tips from the Middle Ages, including how to get a huge, freckle-free forehead ….


Beauty tips

The following article is from here. It is a light-hearted look at the things our medieval sisters did to make themselves look beautiful:-

Longing to know how to hide your devil’s marks and dissolve your hairline? Step this way!

Strictly speaking, the Middle Ages extend from the 5th to the 15th century, but here, I’ll be focusing on the late Middle Ages. Best to clear that up and avoid any mishaps. I mean, imagine what a fool you’d look if you turned up to a 12th-century-themed party in 6th-century makeup. How your friends would laugh!

The late Middle Ages liked its maidens with high foreheads, long necks, sallow complexions and lacklustre eyebrows. Added to that, the babeliest of Medieval babes rocked low sloping shoulders and protruding stomachs. This might seem a touch… um… surprising, but in the name of fairness (both kinds) let’s give these ladies the benefit of the doubt and try to unravel their beauty commandments.

Hide your hair

It is a truth universally acknowledged that hair is sexy. So, naturally, it was seen as sinful by the Medieval Church, and decent women hid theirs with veils, nets, hoods and hats. In warmer European countries, women might get away with braiding since hot weather rendered head-covering a bit of a nightmare. Elsewhere, the only women who left their hair unconcealed were peasants, prostitutes and very young unmarried girls.

Hand in hand with the desire to hide hair was the belief that the higher the hairline the better. Many women resorted to potions of vinegar or quicklime to erode their natural hairline (often taking skin with it), whilst to keep foreheads as unsullied as possible, eyebrows were tweezed within an inch of their lives.

Unsurprisingly, all this hiding only made hair a more potent symbol of temptation, and most tempting of all was blonde hair. We know that women tinted their hair blonde with saffron, stale sheep’s urine, onion skins, or by spending time in the sun (often wearing a hat to maintain modesty, but with a sneaky hole cut in the top). Chaucer’s Virginia (from “The Physician’s Tale”), a “maid in excellent beauty,” has “tresses resembling the rays of [Phebus’] burnished sunbeams.” Whilst the Old Woman from the “Roman de la Rose,” a 13th-century French poem, advises: If (a lady) sees that her beautiful blonde hair is falling out (a most mournful sight)… she should have the hair of some dead woman brought to her, or pads of light coloured silk, and stuff it all into false hairpieces.”

Remove all distinguishing marks from your skin.

Pallor was preferred (as so frequently and boringly through much of history) and smooth skin was highly prized. In a darker turn of events, freckles, moles and birthmarks were often cited as the devil’s mark on those accused of witchcraft–blemishes left by a woman’s erotic entanglements with Satan.

Techniques used for reducing skin to a blank canvas include:

• To remove spots, lick an amethyst and rub the slobbery stone over offending areas.

• To remove freckles, boil oatmeal and vinegar together and smear it on. Alternatively, if you were out of porridge, you could use bull’s or hare’s blood.

• To eradicate redness, apply cucumber or strawberry juice.

• To soothe sunburn, use the squeezed juice of the waterlily.

The potency of all such unguents could be increased by the application of a plaster/band-aid made from sheep’s leather.

beauty tips - 2

Use enough makeup to keep your husband, but not enough to tempt the husbands of others

Just as women were encouraged to hide their hair so as not to lead men astray, excessive makeup was frowned upon. However, the views of Thomas of Aquinas show what a minefield makeup was.

On the one hand, Tom thought, yes, a woman should be allowed makeup in order to look her best for her husband, thus discouraging him from the sin of adultery. On the other hand, he cautioned: she should not make herself too pretty, thereby luring other women’s menfolk into an adulterous trap.

In terms of what was available to those willing to tread this very fine line, women could apply foundation, often lead-based, sometimes flour-based. Here’s a recipe from the 13th-century L’ornement des Dames:

Put very pure wheat in water for fifteen days, then grind and blend it in water. Strain through a cloth, and let it crystalise and evaporate. You will obtain make-up which will be as white as snow. When you want to use it, mix it with rosewater, and spread it on your face which has first been washed with warm water. Then dry your face with a cloth.

Eye makeup, despite being available since forever, simply wasn’t very fashionable. Most paintings and sculptures show women with pale, undefined eyes and thin eyebrows. However, we do know that women used to drop deadly nightshade into their eyes to dilate the pupils and make them appear bigger, which is possibly where the plant’s common name Belladonna, “beautiful lady”, comes from.

We know that a fair few women used rouge. Indeed, the 12th-century monge de Montaudon (monk of Montaudon) sang about statues in churches who complain that there is not enough makeup to decorate them “because of all the ladies who use rouge.” It was mostly made from ground plants (angelica or safflower), but the physician Gilbertus Anglicus mentions the effectiveness of brazilwood chips soaked in rosewater.

In terms of lip colour, similar rouge could be used, and also crushed berries to make stains. The 21st-century Lipstick Queen, Poppy King, named her famous Medieval lipstick in honour of the medieval trend for rubbing lemons on your lips to get a deeper colour.

I actually tried this myself and was amazed with the results. Sorry that these photos were so obviously taken in my kitchen, but that’s where the lemons live. I just cut one in half and squished it into my mouth, which was both yummy and effective; my lips look significantly more blood-filled, which is suitably medieval.

beauty tips - 3

Lip balm also existed, by the way. The book Secrets of Don Alessio Piemontese gives a recipe for “sweet smelling grease that will keep the lips and hands from chapping and make them moist and soft.” It’s made from suet, marjoram and wine.

I like the sound of wine-flavoured lip balm. I like the lemon trick, too. But I’ll keep my freckles and my hair, thanks.

beauty tips - 4

It’s so interesting to me that, in the age of Cara Delevingne eyebrows, St. Tropez tans and Big Sexy Hair, there’s a space in our beauty past like the Middle Ages. Just goes to show how subjective beauty can be.

The Earl of Lincoln, courtesy of Titian – and an author’s imagination….

Looking through Google images, I have come upon various uses of my tweaked version of Titian, whose masterpiece, Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, I was impudent enough to ‘adapt’ into my idea of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. Sorry Titian. Anyway, I’ve always been pleased with the result, so I thought I’d explain how it came about.

Writers of historical fiction always have to picture their characters. Well, all writers do, of course, but for historical fiction, featuring actual persons, one has to pay attention to known portraits and descriptions. We all know what Richard III and Henry VII looked like, and Margaret Beaufort. Even Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York have their famous likenesses. My main character, Cicely Plantagenet, daughter of Edward IV, is thought to have been like the picture below – well, maybe, since she and all her sisters are portrayed in exactly the same way. Peas in a Yorkist pod.


Were they really all so uniformly fair and golden? Or was this image merely an ideal? Thomas More described her as ‘not so fortunate as fair’, but I think the ‘fair’ refers to good looks rather than golden hair.

But other important men and women are still entirely unknown to us visually, obliging an author to ‘invent’ their appearance. One of these men was Richard III’s trusted nephew, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. John was the eldest son of Richard’s sister, Elizabeth, and the 2nd Duke of Suffolk, another John de la Pole. He was said to have been Richard’s choice as heir, and certainly he was worthy, but what do we really know about him? He was an important lord, but his looks, thoughts, character, family life and so on are a mystery. To me, at least. Maybe there is a wealth of information about him, in which case, someone please tell me how to see it.

So I needed to give him an appearance that would fit with the character I had created. After looking around for a suitable portrait to tinker with, I came upon Titian’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap. Perfect. Well, apart from the red cap and the main clothes, which do not fit a young aristocrat who died in 1487. So please overlook the fashion. The rest of my changes have recreated, to me, the dashing Jack de la Pole of my books.

Whether it conjures your idea of Lincoln is a matter of choice. Maybe you see him as big, brawny and blond, or red-haired and freckled, with a snub nose. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.


Blond or dark? The decoding of Richard’s DNA….

Blond Richard...Dark Richard

Was Richard blond? Or was he dark-haired? Professor Hofreiter explains in the article below.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Following our post on Sunday, ( you may have heard that there was a lock of hair in Moyse’s Hall Museum, Bury St. Edmunds, belonging to Edward’s granddaughter Mary “Tudor”, who became Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk. This was investigated at the behest of John Ashdown-Hill, as she would share mtDNA with Edward’s sons, but there has been no success so far:


Recently a lock of hair purporting to be from the head of Edward IV turned up at Rosebery’s for what  was, in my opinion, a very low estimated price. Edward’s tomb in Windsor was opened in the  latter part of the 1700’s  and it was said that visitors emerged clutching handfuls of ‘long brown hair.’ One lock found its way to the Society of Antiquaries; another is (or was) in Brighton museum. This latest lock seems to have come from an unspesified source, but unfortunately the lot was withdrawn before it went to auction; I suspect it was either sold to a private collector or the auction room wasn’t happy with the provenance (although, as it came with a document that does appear to be of some age and bears a legible signature, it appears authentic to me. The colour of the hair also seems a close  match to the other known swatches.)

One wonders what other interesting mementos of the Yorkist dynasty might reside in private collections. And what could they tell us?

A lock of hair, if the roots remained, could give us dna. In Edward’s case, we might be able to put the rumours of his illegitimacy to rest…or prove them. (Unfortunately the hair from the Society of Antiquaries’ collection was not viable.)

A sample could possibly tell us things about Edward’s health, and again confirm or deny the ‘poisoning’ rumours that attended his death.

The extant hair does, of course, prove that Edward was not the ‘blond giant’ beloved of fiction writers. His portraits showed brown hair, which is verified by the existing hair, and from the description of it at the tomb’s opening. Hair can change colour post-mortem, due to chemical processes, but generally it becomes lighter and redder as the pigments are revealed.

So, folks, keep your eyes peeled at auctions and sales, for you never know what granny or grandad has hidden in the attic, documents, jewellery, flags, preserved hair…Such items obviously do exist, many probably unrecognised for what they are, and what seems like a bit of old junk just might be very important to the study of Richard III and his family.


In the recent newspaper reports about further genetic testing on King Richard’s remains, a surprise for many people was the fact he had a fairly strong blond gene. As is typical, the newspapers jumped on this new information immediately, inundating us with a series of badly photoshopped pictures of Richard III with bright yellow Barbie-doll hair. Theories came out that his hair had been shown dark in his portraits, all painted after his death, to emphasise that he was ‘evil’, that his ‘deeds were dark.’
As is also usual, people failed to read the original scientific article, in which geneticist Dr Turi King, explained that the gene is primarily associated with hair colour in youth, rather than adulthood, and provided a chart of hair colour possibilities for Richard. The latter two were firmly in the brown spectrum.
The led me to further research on this subject. I have known for years that many people in Britain and indeed along the whole western coast of Europe as far as Iberia (even parts of North Africa such as Morocco) have a tendency to be blond or fair-haired as children but by adolescence at the very latest, start to darken in colour, with the end results being brown hair ranging from light to dark and every colour inbetween. This includes me (a strawberry blond till 5, dark brown as an adult.) This part of Europe has a strong genetic affinity anyway, with autosomal results showing a fairly close split of 50/50 ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ genes.
The change in hair colour comes due to an increase in eumelanin in the body. It usually happens by age nine, but can be later. Sometimes hair changes colour more than once, with a second darkening of hue in adolescence due to hormonal change. It can even happen later still; my niece, who I would have described as ‘dark blonde’ as late as age 17, is now, in her mid-30’s, most definitely brown haired though with fair highlights.
Further exploration into the results of genomic testing for traits also turned up that nearly a third of those recently tested in Europe and shown to have a ‘blond’ marker, were not in fact blond, at least as adults. It seems to be the least reliable hair colour for accurate prediction, probably because of the aforementioned changes in childhood and adolescence. Black hair and red hair, on the other hand can be predicted with about 85% accuracy.
As for the idea that Richard’s portraits were painted darker that reality, there is no account of this sort of dark/evil symbolism in art of the late medieval/early modern era. The idea seems fairly recent. Several kings who were unpopular and were deposed, such as Edward II and Richard II, were depicted in art as blond and not dark. In Richard’s case there is also no evidence of over-painting in regards to hair colour unlike the other features of his portraits, such as his skin, lips, eyes and shoulder.blondr

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