“If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?” —Milton Berle
In the telling of history, strong moms occupy a precarious place. Sometimes, they’re villainized as power-hungry, domineering harpies who just want to control their children. Other times, they’re over-idealized as domestic angels with impossibly low levels of self-interest. Moms just can’t catch a break. Nevertheless, the specter of motherhood looms large in tales of powerful dynasties.
Although it’s by no means universal law, motherhood was one of the few ways a woman could assert her right to property and agency within patriarchal societies. Sure, the primal instincts to protect one’s young was strong, but it was hardly the only reason that mothers in power would so fervently defend their turf, especially when the brood in question were heirs to large empires. With such stakes, is it such a surprise that mothers would go so far? From in-law massacres to ponytail strangulations, witness the limits of motherly love with 25 soothing facts about history’s most ruthless matriarchs.
History's Most Ruthless Matriarchs Facts
25. Mommy Massacre
Could a single fact ever hope to contain the raw power of Catherine de Medici, arguably the most ruthless Queen Mother of France? Throughout the 16th century, Catherine saw three of her sons as Kings of France through the Wars of Religion. She also masterminded the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre—a purge of French Protestants that conveniently also killed Catherine’s daughter’s most pesky in-laws. Seeing as she also introduced early-modern Frenchwomen to the concept of underwear, Catherine is a mother that you should royally read more about.
24. A Split End
In 1648, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was just a seven-year-old boy named Mehmed IV. As a result, Mehmed’s grandmother, Queen Regent Kösem Sultan, and his mother, Turhan, fought viciously for control of his regency. Turhan most likely ordered the successful assassination of her own mother-in-law. Some allege that the elderly grandmother Kösem was asphyxiated by a curtain, others say Kösem was betrayed by her own luscious locks and strangled with her own hair.
23. Mom Left You Something in the Fridge
Shoving her Sultan/husband’s dead body into an icebox was Nurbanu Sultan’s first act as Valide Sultan (Queen Mother) of the Ottoman Empire. When Selim II died suddenly in 1574, Nurbanu’s son, the assumed heir, was living out of town. News of Sultan Selim II’s death would have enticed their rivals to seize the throne in the prince’s absence. Thus, for 12 entire days, Nurbanu played things chill, and she told almost no one about the Sultan-flavored popsicle in her freezer until her son arrived home, to everyone’s cold surprise.
22. From One Queen to Another
Catherine de Medici and Nurbanu Sultan were pen pals. Because even royal moms need support networks. These Queen Mothers of distant but powerful states (France and the Ottoman Empire respectively) kept in frequent correspondence with each other, albeit for the pretense of political reasons. But I’m sure they could vent some wild stories to each other about royal parenting, if they cared to.
21. Don’t Talk to Grandma Like That. Or Else.
Being a grandma isn’t all cookies and birthday money if you’re Safiye Sultan, Queen Mother of the Ottoman Empire. Her son came first in everything—even above her own grandkids. It appears Safiye played a role in the execution of a grandson who appeared to challenge his father’s power. The prince spoke out against dad as weak and over-influenced by his money-hungry Grandma Safiye. Not saying she was morally right to kill him, but insulting your grandma is still criminally bratty in my book.
20. Assassinations? Witch One?
Queen Didda of Kashmir deposed a grand total of three grandsons in order to secure her own power in ancient India. Legend says this 10th century regent even used medieval torture and witchcraft against her brood to get her way.
19. Ma Makes Her Mark
Historians still debate over the agency of Kate “Ma” Barker, alleged 20th century crime matriarch of the Barker organized crime family. However, when J. Edgar Hoover himself is calling you “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade,” your husband and sons might have found you at least a little intimidating. Unfortunately, Barker was killed in an FBI shootout, so she could never testify to her own version of events.
18. Not Dead Yet
On one hand, Madagascar’s a Queen Ranavalona I might have poisoned her young husband to get ahead, and she also enacted grisly executions on foreigners who defied her. On the other hand, none of this seems too unreasonable when you remember European colonizers were sweating in their breeches to encroach on her country. Her son, Radama II, was much more amenable to French exploitation of the land. As a result, the Europeans were much more amendable to replacing her with him. Unfortunately (for some), Ranavalona was just that hard to beat, and her boy couldn’t ascend until after her death at a whopping 83 years old.
17. Babies Before Bros
She wasn’t just a lover; Cleopatra was a mother. And an active one: the Egyptian queen allegedly poisoned her own younger brother just to maintain regency over her son-king, the 3-year-old Caesarion. (We should also mention that Caesarion was her child via the infamous Julius Cesar. Just saying this kid had a lot of Machiavellian blood in his veins).
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16. Snatch That Rising Son
Wu Zetian was Ancient China’s only independently ruling Empress, who married the roles of “powerful consort” to “powerful mom” in a way that our modern sensibilities might describe as “sketchy.” As she was a concubine of Emperor Taizong, custom decreed she should have retired to a Buddhist nunnery upon his death. Wu, however, refused to give up on power so easily. She stayed at court by attaching herself—politically and romantically—to the newly crowned Emperor Gaozong, aka her own pseudo-stepson! The unlikely couple went on to have multiple children, and Wu even claimed the throne of China for herself after Gaozong’s death.
15. Mom Squares Up
Emmeline Pankhurst was a wife and mother of five, but she was also a leader of the British suffragettes who led the movement to new levels of civil disobedience. Fed up with the lightweight professions of mainstream suffrage, Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)—a suffragette offshoot that was as much about breaking windows and setting fires as it was about women’s voting rights. In this sense, she was the tough-love mom that both her family and first-wave feminists needed.
14. Arrgh, My Inheritance!
Grace O’Malley was a 16th century Irish pirate and matriarch of the “Ní Mháille” dynasty. Although she had a half-brother, it was Grace who truly inherited the family leadership after their father’s death. No word on how he took it! But I’m not an expert in pirate family law, so no judgement.
13. Zero Gratitude From Nero
Through the men in her life, Agrippina the Younger led a life of highs and lows. On a high note, her uncle/husband, Emperor Claudius, was so influenced by her that he named a Roman colony after her: the flamboyantly titled Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis, or Agrippinensium. On a low note, her son was Nero. When Nero embarked on an affair with a woman she didn’t approve of, her son responded to her maternal advice by executing her.
12. Mother Furious
Hoelun was a woman who braved multiple kidnappings and exile in the wilderness until one of her sons rose to be one of Asia’s greatest conquerors. Of course, this dude was the one and only Genghis Khan. But clearly, Hoelun herself was not to be messed with. When the conqueror tried to execute his brother against Hoelun’s wishes, Genghis Khan’s mom summoned such a rage that even he himself had to bow down and take it all back.
11. Make up the Difference
Mary Kay Ash was only a 45-year-old single mom when she founded Mary Kay Cosmetics. To support her three kids, Ash sold products and became one of the best sales reps in her field. However, she was frequently passed up for promotion because of her gender. So, in 1963, she started Mary Kay Cosmetics as flexible way for working women all over the country to effectively become their own bosses and set their own schedules. Family women’s schedules (and make-up counters) have never been the same.
10. Royal Litter
Empress Maria Theresa ruled a huge chunk of Europe for most of the 18th century. Accordingly, she birthed a huge amount of kids (16 children to be exact) and arranged political matches for them around Europe to maintain the dynastic control. These days, Maria Theresa is mostly known as the only woman of the mighty House Habsburg to rule in her own right, and for her reformation of the Imperial army. She’s also known as the mother of Marie Antoinette, the doomed Queen of France. It’s okay if you forgot that part—with 16 kids and half of Europe to rule, who can keep track of it all?
9. Erasing Her Efforts
Although Hatshepsut was one of the first female Pharaohs in Egyptian history, almost all contemporary monuments to her rule were destroyed by Thutmose III, Hatshepsut’s own stepson, whom she protected as regent for years. Sounds a bit ungrateful on his part, if you ask me.
8. Incestuous Ambition
Here’s a fact to make you sea-sick: most remember Ching Shih was a 19th century Chinese courtesan who married into one of Asia’s most elite pirate families. Inheriting her husband’s fleet in 1807, Ching Shih rose to be the matriarch, not only to her family but over the seas themselves. In retirement, however, Ching Shih settled down and got remarried…to her own adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai, after they received a pardon from the governor that dissolved their mother-son legal bond.
7. Taking an Old One For Big Sis
Edward IV of England pulled a fast one on everybody when he married Elizabeth Woodville for love. Before Woodville was protecting her sons as the Princes in the Tower, the Lancastrian widow made sure to put her delicate fingers in many dynastic wells. She drew the ire of the English nobility when she ushered in a dozen or so marriages between her siblings and the country’s wealthiest houses. (Most scandalously, her 20-year-brother was betrothed to a rich widow likely in her 60s.)
6. A House Divided
In 1173, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s sons by Henry II of England felt left out of their dad’s government. Eleanor did the rational thing, and she egged her kids on to rebel against their father. When this failed, she was jailed for roughly the next 16 years. She was only released when her estranged husband died and her favorite son, Richard the Lionheart, came to the throne and bailed out the parent who supported him through his rebellious stage.
5. This She-Wolf Howls Back
Isabella of France didn’t earn the title “She-Wolf” for nothing. Married to Edward II of England when she was only 12, she grew up to depose her own husband in 1326. She did so with the help of her lover, Roger Mortimer, and ruled England as regent to her son, Edward III. (Her son took his mother’s fondness for her lover in mind when he grew up to execute Mortimer without the traditional quartering and disembowelment expected for condemned traitors.)
4. Scottish and Sick of Your BS
It’s Mary Queen of Scots who gets to star in those CW period dramas, but without her mom, Marie de Guise, would there be a Scotland to be queen of? Widowed just days after Mary’s birth, Marie held the fort down in Scotland for years as her daughter was raised. She led multiple defensive campaigns against English attempts to seize the king-less Scotland. In 1549, she left the English army in evisceration and only remarked, "the English had left nothing behind but the plague."
3. Before He Was Great
Alexander the Great seemed to inherit a ruthless streak from his mother, the infamous Olympias. In our opinion, it’s rather unfair that people remember Alexander the Great’s tutor (Aristotle) as a greater influence upon the Macedonian ruler than his mom—a woman tied to so many machinations and assassinations that Plutarch spread rumors that she slept with snakes. Even Alexander himself made a point to keep his mom’s power in check during his lifetime.
In fact, when King Philip (Alexander's father) was assassinated in 336 BC, some circles suspected that Alexander and his mother had a hand in his stabbing. With the throne now free for the taking, Alexander quickly eliminated any enemies who stood in his path. With help from the Macedonian army, he murdered all other potential heirs to the throne. His mother Olympia helped Alexander’s quest by killing King Philip’s daughter and leading his wife Cleopatra to commit suicide.
2. Teen Mom: Civil War Edition
When she was barely a teenager, Margaret Beaufort gave birth to Henry VII, and therefore the Tudor Dynasty itself. Henry was her only child, and it’s doubtful he ever would have emerged triumphant in War of the Roses if Margaret hadn’t spent her life representing her son’s interests at court. This pint-sized teen mom was an instrumental part of Henry’s reign, even outliving her son by a small margin.
1. Big Belly, Bloody Hands
As the mother of four daughters but no sons, Jia Nanfeng is a 3rd century Jin Dynasty concubine whose power was great but precarious (see the “no sons” part). To look out for her brood, Jia personally killed several of the Emperor’s other concubines once they revealed their pregnant bellies.