May 14, 2024 | Christine Tran

Bloody Facts About History's Most Ruthless Matriarchs

“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.

1. Mother's Slaughter

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 schemed the St. Bartholomew's Day Event—a purge of French Protestants that conveniently also eliminated Catherine's daughter's most troublesome 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.

History's Worst Mothers

2. 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 orchestrated the successful elimination 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.

Sultans FactsWikimedia Commons

3. Mom Left You Something in the Fridge

Nurbanu Sultan's first act as Valide Sultan (Queen Mother) of the Ottoman Empire was putting her Sultan/husband's lifeless body into an icebox. When Selim II unexpectedly ceased to live in 1574, Nurbanu's son, the presumed heir, was residing out of town. News of Sultan Selim II's passing 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.

Most Ruthless Matriarchs FactsWikimedia Commons

4. 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.

Catherine De Medici factsReign (2013–2017), CBS Television Studios

5. 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 implying she was morally justified in causing his demise, but disrespecting your grandma remains criminally impudent in my perspective.

Most Ruthless Matriarchs FactsWikimedia Commons

6. 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 employed medieval methods of punishment and witchcraft against her brood to assert her will.

Most Ruthless Matriarchs FactsWikimedia Commons

7. Ma Makes Her Mark

Historians continue to discuss the role of Kate “Ma” Barker, presumed 20th century matriarch of the illicit Barker syndicate. However, when J. Edgar Hoover himself labels you as "the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful law-breaker's mind of the last decade," your husband and sons might have found you at least a little intimidating. Regrettably, Barker met her end in an FBI shootout, thus she could never testify to her own version of events.

Most Ruthless Matriarchs FactsWikimedia Commons

8. Still Alive

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 exceptionally resilient, and it wasn't until she reached the ripe age of 83 that her son could finally ascend.

Queen Ranavalona FactsWikipedia

9. 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).

Cleopatra FactsWikipedia

10. 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, tradition dictated that she should have retired to a Buddhist nunnery upon the passing of the Emperor. 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 following Gaozong's departure from life, Wu even claimed the throne of China for herself.

The Forgotten History Of Wu ZetianShutterstock

11. 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.

Emmeline Pankhurst factsFlickr, The National Archives UK

12. 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 genuinely stepped into the role of family leadership following their father's passing. No word on how he took it! But I’m not an expert in pirate family law, so no judgement.

Grace O’Malley FactsFlickr

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.

Agrippina The Younger FactsWikipedia

14. 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.

Most Ruthless Matriarchs FactsWikimedia Commons

15. 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.

Most Ruthless Matriarchs FactsGetty Images

16. 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?

Marie Antoinette FactsWikimedia Commons

17. 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.

Hatshepsut factsShutterstock

18. 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 were granted a pardon from the governor that disbanded their mother-son familial tie.

Ching Shih factsCaptain of Destiny(2015), TVB

19. 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.)

Elizabeth Woodville factsThe White Queen (2013), BBC

20. 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 freed after her estranged husband's life had ceased, and her favorite son, Richard the Lionheart, ascended to the throne and bailed out the parent who supported him through his rebellious stage.

Henry II factsGetty Images

21. 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.)

Edward II factsBraveheart(1995), Paramount Pictures

22. 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".

Margaret Tudor FactsFlickr

23. 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.

Indeed, when King Philip (Alexander's father) met his untimely end in 336 BC, presumably due to stabbing, some groups speculated that Alexander and his mother were involved in his demise. With the throne now free for the taking, Alexander quickly eliminated any enemies who stood in his path. With assistance from the Macedonian army, he eliminated all other potential heirs to the throne. His mother Olympia aided Alexander's quest by eliminating King Philip's daughter and influencing his wife Cleopatra to take her own life.

Ancient Greece factsWikimedia Commons

24. Teen Mom: Edition of Internal Conflict

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 triumphed in the Roses conflict if Margaret hadn't spent her life advocating for 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.

Elizabeth Woodville factsThe White Princess (2017), Starz!

25. 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). In order to protect her brood, Jia personally eliminated several of the Emperor's other concubines once their pregnancies became visible.

Agrippina The Younger FactsShutterstock

Sources:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25


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