Memorable mothers: history’s most remarkable mums
From Caroline of Ansbach, who engaged in a long feud with her eldest son, to Josephine Baker, who created her own unique family, we look back at seven historical mums who have gone down in history. While some mothers were willing to wage war for their children, others' offspring made them "want to vomit"…
As we approach Mother's Day 2022 in the UK, we take a look at seven mums who have gone down in history...
Caroline of Ansbach
Queen Caroline of Ansbach (1683–1737) had a total of nine children with her husband, King George II. However, her life was marred by an enduring feud with their eldest son, and heir to the British throne, Prince Frederick.
Writing for BBC History Magazine, Tracy Borman has stated that Frederick “suffered a horrendous upbringing” at the hands of his parents, who openly despised him. When George became Prince of Wales in 1714, he and Caroline moved to England, leaving Prince Frederick behind in Hanover. When Frederick was finally allowed to rejoin his family “they made no secret of their loathing for him” according to Borman. Caroline even “famously declared that he made her want to vomit".
Historian Janice Hadlow has described how Caroline and her son “quarrelled bitterly in private and in public about money, politics and family matters” for many years. Frederick undoubtedly fuelled the feud, behaving badly in public, racking up gambling debts and taking mistresses. Nevertheless, Hadlow suggests that “the hatred George and Caroline felt for their son is quite shocking”.
A few months before her death, Caroline’s relationship with her son reached rock bottom. Frederick’s wife Augusta was pregnant with their first child, and it was customary for a royal birth to be attended by senior members of the royal family. However, determined to prevent his mother and father from being present at the birth of their grandchild, Frederick forced his wife (who was in labour at the time) to travel to St James's to avoid them. Appalled by her son’s actions, Caroline reportedly exclaimed “That wretch! That villain! I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell!”
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Despite the years of fighting, in her dying days in 1737, Queen Caroline sent a letter of forgiveness to her son. However, their feud was never resolved in person and the Prince of Wales refused to attend his mother’s funeral. Frederick never became king, predeceasing his father. He died aged 44 from a burst abscess in the lung, commonly believed to have been triggered by a blow from a cricket or tennis ball.
The 1920s dancer and singer Josephine Baker (1906–75) was anything but conventional, and her experience of motherhood was fittingly out of the ordinary. Unable to have children of her own, in 1953 Baker went about creating her own unique family from scratch. After a decade of planning, she began a remarkable experiment, adopting 12 children from countries as diverse as Japan, Finland, Columbia, France, The Ivory Coast and Korea. Baker called her new family from across the globe the ‘Rainbow Tribe’ and encouraged each child to maintain the customs, language and religion of their home country.
Baker and her husband Jo Bouillon decided to raise the 12 children in a 15th-century château on her ‘Les Milandes’ estate in the countryside of southern France. She turned the estate into an extravagant pleasure park for the children, with a pool, farm and circus rides.
Unsurprisingly, the press were fascinated by the racial diversity of Baker’s ‘Rainbow Tribe’. She was keen to invite this interest, setting her family up as an exemplar of racial harmony. “I will prove that human beings can respect each other if given the chance,” she told Le Monde. “These small children will be like brothers and live together as a symbol of democracy.”
However, Baker’s desire to hold her new children up as symbols of racial toleration and unity was tiring and difficult for some of the children themselves. Speaking to Der Spiegel in 2009, her son Jarry explained how they felt like ‘pet monkeys’ on display for the press and visitors to ‘Les Milandes’. In bringing together the ‘Rainbow Tribe’ Baker had created not only a family but also a public spectacle.
Ruler of Egypt between 51 and 30 BC, Cleopatra utilised motherhood to her political advantage. In 47 BC, after an affair with Roman leader Julius Caesar, she gave birth to her first child, Caesarion. Being the mother of Caesar’s son served to bolster Cleopatra’s power, and she exploited this fact. Despite the fact that Caesar never publicly acknowledged Caesarion, Cleopatra insisted he was the Roman general’s child. Even Caesarion’s name, meaning ‘Little Caesar’, was clearly intended to advertise his parenthood.
When Caesarion was only three years old, his mother installed him as her co-ruler. In her book Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt (2008) Joyce Tyldesley states that, “With a son by her side, Cleopatra could abandon any thought she might have had of adopting the role of a female king and could develop instead a powerful new identity as a semi-divine mother. Now she was to be specifically identified with Egypt’s most famous single mother, the goddess Isis.”
In 30 BC, Cleopatra committed suicide rather than submit to her enemy, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian. In her final moments, she sought to protect Caesarion, laying out an escape route for him. However, her attempts to protect him were fruitless, as Caesarion (who was aged around 16 or 17 at the time) was captured and killed by Octavian’s troops.
Cleopatra had three other children with the Roman general Mark Antony: Ptolemy Philadelphus (born 36 BC) and twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios (born 40 BC). When Cleopatra died they were taken to Rome and raised in the household of Mark Antony’s widow Octavia.
Between 1840 and 57, Queen Victoria had five daughters and four sons with her husband Prince Albert. Contemporary images of the royal family portrayed them as the perfect picture of domestic bliss. However, the accuracy of this public image has been much debated by historians.
Tracy Borman has argued that after Victoria’s own “rather melancholy” and stifled childhood, she made sure to give her children a happy upbringing. Writing for BBC History Magazine, she suggests that Victoria and Albert “made sure the children had plenty of fun, albeit of the instructional kind.” The royal couple built a wooden chalet for their children in the woods at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where they served the adults tea, ran a toy grocery shop and tended their own garden plots.
But other historians have painted a very different picture of Victoria’s relationship with her children, questioning whether the idea of her as an affectionate mother was anything more than propaganda. Helen Rappaport suggests that in private “she hated being pregnant. She had prenatal and postnatal depression. She was not in the least bit maternal.” Jane Ridley agrees, arguing that Victoria “was not a doting mother - she thought it her duty to be severe. She didn't do affection.”
Victoria could be intensely possessive over her children, and Ridley suggests that even when they reached adulthood, her need to control their lives “was almost pathological. She set up a network of spies and informers who reported back to her on her children's doings. Being a daughter of Queen Victoria was like playing an endless game of musical chairs - there was always one who was out of favour. There was always a favourite, too.”
Victoria’s relationship with her eldest son Prince Edward, known to his family as Bertie, was particularly problematic. He proved a constant disappointment to his mother, struggling at school lessons as a child and becoming embroiled in a series of scandals as an adult. Victoria reportedly said of her son, "Handsome I cannot think him, with that painfully small and narrow head, those immense features and total want of chin." Their relationship reached breaking point with the death of Prince Albert. Albert became sick after taking a long walk in the rain with his son, to give Bertie moral instruction after his involvement in a sex scandal with a prostitute. Victoria blamed her son for the death of her beloved Albert for many years, writing "I never can or shall look at him without a shudder".
The ‘People’s Princess’ became a mother on 21 June 1982, when she gave birth to her first son Prince William. Diana threw out the rulebook of royal motherhood, taking a hands-on approach to parenting in an attempt to give her sons a more down-to-earth upbringing. From the very beginning, she broke with tradition. At William’s birth (and that of her second son Harry two years later) she became the first royal mother to have a hospital birth.
Writing for BBC History Magazine, Tracy Borman says that “Diana’s quest for normality continued as her boys grew up”, as she was “determined to give her boys as normal an upbringing as possible.” The princess would do the school run with her sons whenever possible. She also took William and Harry out in public more than any previous royal children, organising children’s parties and trips to theme parks.
“On one famous occasion,” says Borman, “Diana took them on the London Underground to Piccadilly Circus and caught the bus back to Kensington Palace. She also took them to McDonald’s, but insisted that they wait in line like everyone else.” Despite attempts to keep William and Harry protected from too many photographers, the media thrived on images of Diana having fun with her sons and she became more popular than ever.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
As a royal mother in a period of upheaval and conflict, for Eleanor of Aquitaine (c1122–1204) motherhood and politics were inextricably linked.
A highly sought-after royal bride with a significant dowry, Eleanor married Henry of Anjou (her second husband and future king of England) in 1152. Although the couple argued often, they had eight children together in the years between 1153 and 1166. They separated in 1167 (possibly because of Henry’s various infidelities) and Eleanor formed her own household in Poitiers.
In 1173 Eleanor’s maternal loyalty was tested, as her son Henry the Young King launched a plot to overthrow his father (Eleanor’s estranged husband Henry II) and seize the English throne. Eleanor came out in support of her son and was consequently arrested for treason. She was imprisoned for at least 10 years, until, after years of conflict, Henry the Young King begged for his mother’s release on his deathbed. Henry II partially conceded, allowing Eleanor to rejoin the royal household for part of the year.
On Henry II’s death in 1189, Eleanor’s third son Richard the Lionheart took the throne, immediately restoring his mother’s full freedoms. Writing for HistoryExtra, Douglas Boyd suggests that it was in fact Eleanor who had prepared Richard to become a ruler. He states that Richard “learned the trade of ruling” at his mother’s side, watching her effectively govern Poitou and Aquitaine following her separation from Henry II. He argues that Richard’s mother was “the only noble woman to whom he showed any consideration”. He gave her significant political power, appointing Eleanor to rule as regent in England when he was away fighting the crusades.
Eleanor also lived to see her youngest son John become king of England. Elizabeth Norton has suggested Eleanor played a role in the political manoeuvrings that secured the throne for John, calling her John’s “greatest and most active supporter” up until her death in 1204 at the remarkable age of 82.
When Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, he was desperate for a son and heir. However, when Anne gave birth to their first child in September 1533, rather than the son he had wished for, it was a daughter, Elizabeth. Nevertheless, Tracy Borman suggests that far from being ashamed of her female child, Anne doted on Elizabeth and even had “a special velvet cushion made so that the baby could lay next to her when she was conducting court business.”
After Anne’s miscarriage of a male heir in January 1536, her relationship with Henry broke down rapidly. By May that same year, Henry had Anne executed for adultery. Her daughter Elizabeth was only two years old at the time.
Elizabeth’s praise for her father and infrequent mention of her mother in public have led to the assumption that the princess was ashamed of her mother, who was still vilified at court as ‘the Great Whore’. However, Tracy Borman has argued that this is a misconception, and that despite losing her mother so young, Elizabeth cherished her memory. Understanding how politically problematic Anne was, Elizabeth pragmatically used “more subtle ways to demonstrate her affection”. For example, when posing for a portrait as a teenager, she wore a pendant of her mother’s, which bore the initial ‘A’. Borman calls this “an audacious stunt that would have landed her in hot water if her father had spotted it”.
During her own reign, Elizabeth promoted Anne’s relatives to prominent positions and wore a locket that contained images of herself and her mother facing each other. She also owned a ruby and diamond ring, which featured a secret compartment containing a miniature portrait of Anne. This ring was taken from Elizabeth’s body on her deathbed in 1603, suggesting that the early and traumatic loss of her mother stayed with her throughout her life.
Ellie Cawthorne is section editor for BBC History Magazine. This article was first published by HistoryExtra in March 2016
Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.