Famous Mothers in History

In honor of Mother's Day, here's a look at what seven famous historical moms did for their sons and daughters.
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In honor of Mother's Day, here's a look at what seven famous historical moms did for their sons and daughters.

If there's one constant throughout history, it's the close relationship between mothers and their children. Though different historical periods and circumstances lead to different actions, mothers will always love, protect and fight for (and perhaps try to control) their offspring. In honor of Mother's Day, here's a look at what seven famous historical moms did for their sons and daughters.

Olympias

Olympias Photo

Olympias. (Photo: Published by Guillaume Rouille(1518?-1589) ("Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum ") [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

When it came to her son, Alexander the Great, Olympias was a mother whose support knew no bounds. Alexander was born in 356 B.C.E. to Olympias and Philip II of Macedon, who'd married in part to strengthen ties between Macedon and her home of Epirus. When Philip, who practiced polygamy, later took a young Macedonian wife, it was clear that a full-blooded Macedonian heir could threaten Alexander's claim to the throne. After Philip was assassinated in 336 B.C.E., Olympias therefore came under suspicion for masterminding the killing (though there were plenty of other potential suspects). Whether or not she was behind her husband's assassination, Olympias was likely responsible for the subsequent death of Philip's new wife and baby.

Alexander succeeded his father and proceeded to expand the empire. As he did so, Olympias assisted her son by offering advice about policies and people in his circle (as a snake charmer who could make reptiles do as she wished, politics must have been a piece of cake for her). The one thing Olympias didn't do was accompany Alexander on his military campaigns, but she probably wished she had — if she'd been on hand, perhaps her devotion could have prevented a 32-year-old Alexander's untimely death from malaria in 323 B.C.E.

Mother Lu

About 2,000 years ago in China, during the Xin dynasty (9–25 C.E.), Mother Lu's son, who was a district official, was charged with a minor offense and then executed by the district magistrate. Afterward, Mother Lu channeled her upset in an unexpected direction: She raised a force that captured the magistrate in 17 C.E.; in retaliation for her son's death, the man was beheaded.

Mother Lu died shortly after getting her revenge. However, many of the fighters she'd assembled went on to combat the forces of the Xin dynasty (this uprising came to be known as the Red Eyebrows Rebellion because these fighters painted their brows red to try to look like demons). While the Xin dynasty was short-lived for many reasons — its emperor, Wang Mang, was viewed as a usurper; his reforms didn't result in peasant support; and flooding of the Yellow River led to food shortages and unrest — the power of Mother Lu's fury at her son's death also played a part in its end.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn Photo

Anne Boleyn. (Photo: Author unknown, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Getting her head chopped off when her daughter, the future Elizabeth I, was only two years old, ensured that Anne Boleyn didn't have much to do with the girl's upbringing. But Anne had already done an important thing for her daughter: because she'd managed to marry Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, it was possible for Elizabeth to eventually become queen.

In 1526, the married Henry wanted Anne to become his mistress (a position several women, including Anne's sister, had already filled). Anne vetoed the mistress idea, thus setting in motion a chain of events that would alter English history: When the Pope wouldn't annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, England broke away from the Catholic Church and Henry dissolved the marriage himself. Henry then secretly wed a pregnant Anne in 1533, and Elizabeth was proclaimed a princess when she was born.

If Anne had just been another mistress, Elizabeth would not have been included in Henry's Third Act of Succession (1544). Though Elizabeth's younger half-brother and older half-sister would hold the English throne before her, in 1558 she got her chance thanks to her mother.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth, 1864. (Photo: Sojourner Truth (original author) Libary of Congress (digitalization) (Library of Congress), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sojourner Truth gave birth to her children while being held as a slave in New York. Though Truth gained her freedom in 1826, she was forced to leave her older children behind (New York was in the process of gradually abolishing slavery, but people born after July 4, 1799, were required to complete a period of service before being freed). However, Truth was stunned when she learned that her five-year-old son, Peter, had been sent to an Alabama plantation. His sale was not only a moral outrage, but it was also illegal: New York's laws forbade the selling of a slave out of state.

Despite the risks of speaking out, Truth insisted, "I'll have my child again." She filed a complaint with the Ulster County grand jury, then raised money for an attorney. The man who'd sold Peter had likely thought he'd get away with it — many slaveowners in New York disregarded the law because they wanted to get as much profit from the people they owned while they could. But Truth's actions forced the seller to bring her son back to New York.

In the spring of 1828, Peter was returned to his mother. He had scars from being whipped, beaten and kicked during his time in Alabama, but Truth had saved him from a lifetime of such mistreatment.

Clara Brown

Clara Brown Photo

Clara Brown. (Photo: [Public Domain], Wikimedia Commons)

Clara Brown didn't have the luxury of legal action when she and her children — Richard, Margaret and Eliza Jane — were split up and sold in Kentucky in 1835. While still enslaved, Brown learned of Margaret's death, and that Richard had been sold so many times there was no trace of him. Even after Brown was freed in 1857, she wasn't able to search for Eliza Jane, whose last known whereabouts had been in Kentucky — if Brown didn't leave the state within a year, she risked being enslaved once more. She therefore headed west and established herself in Colorado.

The end of the Civil War made it possible for Brown to journey to Kentucky in October 1865 to search for her daughter. Yet despite talking to ministers and other people, she couldn't uncover Eliza Jane's path. Sadly, Brown wasn't the only one in this desperate situation — at the time, many former slaves who'd been separated for years and even decades were trying to find one another with the help of newspaper advertisements, churches and letters.

Brown returned to Colorado, but her love for her daughter endured. In 1882, she somehow discovered that Eliza Jane was in Iowa. Mother and daughter were then able to reunite at last.

Queen Victoria

15th February 1892:  A smiling Queen Victoria in an open coach.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

15th February 1892: A smiling Queen Victoria in an open coach. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Queen Victoria may have had a country to rule, but that didn't keep her from trying to govern the lives of her offspring as well (her husband, Prince Albert, once accused her of holding "the mistaken notion the function of a mother is to be always correcting, scolding and ordering them about"). While all nine of her children had to cope with some interference — she didn't trust the judgement of her heir, Bertie, and therefore wouldn't let him see cabinet and state papers — it was her youngest child, Beatrice, who experienced the greatest level of control.

A widowed Victoria didn't want Beatrice to leave her, so when the princess fell in love with and asked to marry Prince Henry of Battenberg, her mother wasn't pleased. The queen gave her daughter the silent treatment for months, communicating solely by written note. Victoria finally relented and allowed the marriage to take place in 1885, but she also demanded that the couple live with her. Beatrice went along with this — after all, if your mother's also your queen and sovereign, it's hard to tell her "no."

And in the end, Beatrice, Henry and Victoria were happy living together. In this case, maybe mom did know best.

Maria von Trapp

Maria Augusta von Trapp Photo Courtesy Getty Images

Maria Augusta von Trapp. (Photo: Getty Images)

Though many of the details in the beloved musical The Sound of Music are wrong, one thing it gets right is Maria von Trapp's love for the von Trapp children. In fact, she agreed to Georg von Trapp's marriage proposal because in it he asked her to become his children's second mother — she later admitted, "If he had only asked me to marry him I might not have said yes." (Maria did grow to love her husband.)

It was lucky for the von Trapps that Maria married into their family in 1927. She managed to overcome their dire financial situation in the 1930s by getting them to take in boarders, cut expenses and start performing as a singing group. After the Nazi party came to power, a pregnant Maria helped her husband and their nine children — the seven von Trapp children she'd adopted, plus two youngsters she'd given birth to — leave Austria in 1938.

The real-life Maria was determined enough that she probably could've shepherded her family over the Alps, but the von Trapps didn't follow the route depicted in the movie. Instead, using the excuse of a vacation, Maria and her family took a train to Italy.