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Royal mothers and ruling children: 60 seconds with Carey Fleiner

From wicked step-mothers to saintly icons, stereotypes about royal mothers have persisted into the modern era. At our Winchester History Weekend this October, Carey Fleiner and Ellie Woodacre will re-evaluate the image of these women, drawing on examples from Ancient Rome to Restoration England...

Published: August 15, 2017 at 3:49 pm
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Ahead of her talk, ‘Misunderstood Matriarchs?: The Role and Reputation of Royal Mothers from Ancient Rome to Restoration England’, we caught up with Carey to find out more…


Q. What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A: Our talk (I’m speaking together with my colleague Ellie Woodacre) focuses on the relationship between royal mothers and their ruling children. We’ve worked on our own and together with colleagues to re-evaluate the image that such mothers have had – the traditional view is that such women were pushy stage mothers or aggressively trying to snatch political power by ruling through their children. This image persists because most contemporary histories or images perpetuated this stereotype in their own culture, and then modern media such as films produced by Hollywood continue it. We will be talking about recent scholarship which re-evaluated these original sources to reveal that frequently, ruling kings and queens in fact very much valued the input and advice they had from their mothers.

Q. Why are you so fascinated by this topic?

A: We’ll never know exactly how people thought or what their motivations were, since we’re limited by the evidence that’s come down to us. We’re missing so much in terms of nuance and context, that we end up filling in the gaps with our own experiences in order to try to relate to a culture and society that existed so long ago and only survives in fragments. The more pieces of the puzzle that we have in order to put together some insight on how the society works is fascinating, yet we’ll never really know. As I tell students, imagine the only thing of our society that survives 2,000 years from now is a handful of YouTube videos, the script of a Quentin Tarantino film, the ruins of Disneyland, and about 50% of a single newspaper’s archive. I’d recommend David Macauley’s Motel of the Mysteries, Walter M. Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (in particular, the very last chapter).

Q. Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history.

A: I study and teach Roman history, the imperial period in particular. Some of the ideas people have about the Julio-Claudian family have been reinforced by uncritical reads of the original sources and then in modern popular culture for a long time. It might surprise people to know that Claudius wasn’t forced into adopting Nero as his step-son or naming him as his heir – it was actually prudent of him to do so, as Nero’s lineage helped to strengthen Claudius’ own stability as a ruler. Claudius also wasn’t as hen-pecked or manipulated by his fourth wife Agrippina (Nero’s mum) as contemporary sources make him out to be; he very much supported her as a helpmeet, as she was a direct descendant of Augustus (Claudius wasn’t, not directly). Her pedigree was important to reinforcing his own legitimacy as emperor, and he married her to make sure no one else did and subsequently could challenge his position.

A sestertius bearing the image of Roman Emperor Claudius (41–54 CE). (DeAgostini/Getty Images)


Q. What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked about your area of expertise?

A: I once had a student ask me if he were zapped back in time to the Roman era, would the materials be available to make a battery to power up his laptop. An engineering pal helped me to work that one out.

Q. If you could go back in time to meet one historical figure, who would you choose and why? 

A: It's a toss up between Tacitus or the person who consigned Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who episodes to the scrapheap. I'd ask Tacitus to place a complete copy of his Annals and his Histories in a nice, dry place, and I’d offer to take those Doctor Who episodes - and then come back to the future to return them to the BBC, no strings attached!

Q. If you could go back in time to witness one moment in history, what would you choose and why?

A: Probably at the moment when some invention or device did as it said on the tin, like when the person who ground the first eyeglasses lenses tried them out – I have lots of love for that as a fellow speccy. Or perhaps to be the right age at 1963 through to 1965 and be properly stuck in with the movers and shakers of London’s pop music scene.

In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin led an expedition to the Arctic to navigate the Northwest Passage. His ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (pictured), were lost in the snowy north, and all those involved in the expedition perished. (De Agostini Picture Library)

Q. What historical mystery would you most like to solve?

A: To be honest, the one that fascinated me the most growing up has been solved – twice as it were: the location and rediscovery of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.

Q. What job do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t a historian/author?

A: A reference librarian in a research/university library or an archivist.


Carey Fleiner is a senior lecturer in classical and medieval history at the University of Winchester. Carey will be speaking about the role and reputation of royal mothers at BBC History Magazine's Winchester History Weekend on Sunday 8 October.


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