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.

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 his own 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. Bob Kincaid says:

    Among the great ones, add to the list Atossa, Queen of Persia, wife of Darius and mother of Xerxes. Even given the limitations inherent in being female in Persia, she managed to keep Darius’ first son off the throne, kept young Xerxes alive and had him named Darius’ heir. Interestingly, Xerxes’ luck ran out only after his Mama had shuffled off the all-too-frequently mortal Persian coil.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Atossa was simply exercising a mother’s duty to be a rotten stepmother. After all, her offspring should come first.

      And Atossa seems the kindest of souls compared to Mrs. Augustus Caesar. If Suetonius and Robert Graves can be trusted, Livia was the ultimate wicked stepmother. She was alleged to have sabotaged and eliminated two generations of her husband’s first family–all to insure that HER son Tiberius would be the next emperor.


  2. Leslie Jo says:

    It’s good to be a commoner.

  3. Jerome says:

    Just to show how grateful he was, the Czar Paul immediately instituted the Salic law on his accession that excluded women from the succession. One empress was one too many for Paul.

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