Your RDA of Irony

Happy Mother’s Day

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton hadn’t written that for a Mother’s Day card, but it could have been appropriate. Royalty does not tend to make good parents. You could ask Prince Charles…or his sons, and they are dysfunctional at a time when they are only pampered mannekins. Imagine what they would be perpetrating on each other if real power were at stake. (Prince Philip found impaled on polo mallet…. Prince Charles belatedly discovers that many poisons are organic vegetables.)

But on this day, we should pay special tribute to some of the worst mothers in royal history:

Being the sister of Caligula, Agrippina the Younger (A.D. 15-59) was brought up thinking that incest was a form of positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, her son Nero really did not need any further encouragement. Indeed, dating Mom may have spoiled him where other women were concerned. He had one wife suffocated and personally kicked to death a second–who was pregnant at the time. And he proved to be an unappreciative son; he had Agrippina murdered although he first attempted to make him look like an accident. However, most drowning victims don’t have stab wounds.

The Empress Irene (752-803) might be one reason that the Byzantines have a bad reputation. She had been selected in a beauty contest to be the wife of the Byzantine crown prince. (Doesn’t this already sound like an Aaron Spelling script?) In time, the prince became the Emperor Leo IV–but not for very long. His abrupt death at the age of 30 might seem suspicious. In any case, Irene became the regent for her son, Constantine VI. But, due to the inconveniently high standard of Byzantine life and medicine, Constantine grew up to rule in rule in his right–but not for very long. In 797 Irene had her son blinded and deposed; being patriotic, she was willing to occupy the now vacant throne. How did the world respond to this crime? The Pope sent his congratulations, and the social-climbing Charlemagne offered to marry her.

What happens when you have two children and only one kingdom? What is a mother to do? Isabeau of Bavaria (1370-1435), the Queen Mother of France, thought that there was a practical solution. Her son Charles was repulsive and powerless; her daughter Catherine was more likable and also the Queen of England, married to the repulsive but powerful Henry V. In fact, English armies were occupying half of France and Henry had forced the French to acknowledge him as the next king of France, following the long awaited death of Isabeau’s husband Charles VI. To Henry’s surprise, however, he died first. Then Charles VI died. That raised the question of who should succeed to the French throne: Isabeau’s son or her half-English grandson, Henry VI. Isabeau decided that she preferred her grandson, and then announced that her son Charles was illegitimate. She couldn’t deny his maternity–too many people had noticed her pregnancy–but she certainly could dispute his paternity. Isabeau declared that Charles VI was not the father of the French claimant, and so her son had no right to the throne. Of course, Isabeau was counting on a comfortable English pension for her efforts, but how many other women would confess to to being whores just to spite a child? (If disinherited by his mother, at least the dauphin was adopted by Joan of Arc.)

But let’s conclude this on an uplifting note: Catherine the Great (1729-1796) despised her son Paul and insinuated to him that his paternity was an open question; yet, if only out of etiquette, she could not bring herself to disinheriting him. I guess that makes her this list’s Mother of the Day.

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene —

    Czarevich Paul fully returned the hostility that his mother, Catherine the Great, felt for him. On one memorable occasion, in Paris, Paul scandalized the French court by declaring, “If my mother thought that there was so much as a dog who loved me, tomorrow morning it would be flung into the Seine with a stone around its neck.”

    It’s true that Paul’s paternity was an open question, but then again, since he turned out to be a raving lunatic like Catherine’s husband, Peter III, he may have been a chip off the old block after all.

    Also, I wouldn’t give Catherine too much credit for not disinheriting Paul. It may be that she planned to do so, but never got around to it. Certainly, Paul was so fearful that she had executed a document passing him over in favor of her grandson, Alexander, that he ransacked her papers as she lay dying.

    Maybe next Mother’s Day you can write about composer Steve Sondheim’s mother. Story goes that Sondheim once acknowledged the gift of a handsome silver tray by asking, “But where was my mother’s head?”

    Happy Mother’s Day,


  2. Dear Hal,

    Let’s not forget Paul’s ultimate act of vengeance against Mom. He rewrote the laws of the imperial succession so that a woman would never again be the sovereign of Russia.

    You are right that Paul’s insanity has been cited as evidence that he actually was the son of Tsar Peter III, Catherine’s less than loved husband. Ironically, that very same irrationale might prove the illegitimacy of Charles VII of France. Charles VI was crazy, and so was his undisputed grandson Henry VI; but Charles VII was NOT. So Isabeau (known as the Shewolf of Bavaria) probably was a truthful tramp.


  3. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene —

    I thought that Paul’s ultimate act of vengeance against his mother was to have his father’s body disinterred and placed on the throne so he could inherit the crown from Dad instead of Mum.


  4. Dear Hal,

    I will have to add Paul to my tribute to Necrophile Day. (He can keep Juana of Castille company.)


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