Since it is Mother's Day in the UK today, I have been thinking about mothers. The last Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, held the role for fifty years before her death in 2002. She made the role her own but she was not, of course, the first prominent royal mother in England.
The Anglo-Saxons are commonly considered not to have had any queens. This is based on the ninth century writer, Asser, who produced a biography of Alfred the Great. Asser claimed that, due to the bad conduct of a queen named Eadburh, the office of queen was banned in Wessex. While it is true that most ninth century queens of Wessex were of low status, that is not the case for all Anglo-Saxon king's wives, with many, including Aelfthryth, the wife of King Edgar, and Emma, the wife of, first, Aethelred II and then Cnut, establishing themselves as queens. Even women who were unable to take on the political role of queen during their husband's lifetime were able to play a role as queen mother in the next reign.
The first prominent queen mother is Eadgifu, the third wife of Edward the Elder. On Edward's death, his second son, Aelfweard, who was his chosen successor, took the throne, dying soon afterwards. Edward's eldest son, Aethelstan, took the opportunity this presented to take the throne himself, something which led to rivalry with his stepmother, Aelfflaed, who was Edward the Elder's discarded second wife and the mother of his sons, Aelfweard and Edwin. Aelfflaed appears to have supported Edwin in a rebellion against Aethelstan, with Eadgifu, the king's widow, supporting her eldest stepson. It has been suggested that Eadgifu made an agreement with Aethelstan that the price of her support would be the recognition of her young sons as his heirs - certainly, Aethelstan never married, something highly unusual at the time.
Following Aethelstan's death, Eadgifu's eldest son, Edmund became king and Eadgifu began to witness charters for the first time, demonstrating her regular attendance at court. Following Edmund's murder his brother, the sickly Eadred, succeeded with his mother taking on quasi-regnal powers on his behalf. During the reigns of her sons Eadgifu was able to truly establish herself as a queen through the use of her power as queen mother. It is telling of how powerful she had become that her grandson, Eadwig, deprived her of her estates soon after he came to the throne, when he was attempting to establish his own wife as a queen. Eadgifu was probably involved in the rebellion in 957 which split England in two and brought Eadwig's younger brother, Edgar to prominence. When Eadwig died in 959 and Edgar became king of the whole of England, he returned his grandmother's lands to her.
Eadgifu was the first prominent queen mother in England. She was followed by Edgar's wife, Aelfthryth, who is popularly held responsible for the murder of her stepson, Edward the Martyr, and who took the regency during the minority of her son, Aethelred II (r.978-1016). Emma of Normandy was very powerful during the reign of her son, Harthacnut (r.1040-1042), with her eldest son, Edward the Confessor (r.1042-1066), wary of her power, depriving her of her lands and influence when he came to the throne. After the Conquest, Eleanor of Aquitaine was particularly powerful during the reign of her son, the absent Richard I (r.1189-1199). She was also influential in helping her youngest son, John (r.1199-1216) win the crown. Henry III's mother, Isabella of Angouleme, and Edward I's mother, Eleanor of Provence, enjoyed personal influence over their sons, even if they had little direct political power. Isabella of France, Edward III's mother, of course, was notorious for actually deposing her husband and ruling for her son for some time. In the fifteenth century, Catherine of Valois died when her son, Henry VI, was too young to give her any particular role, while Elizabeth Woodville was deprived of the chance to rule on behalf of Edward V, the elder of the princes in the Tower. Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, while not actually queen mother, used the title of 'my Lady, the king's mother': making it almost an official role.
Motherhood was important to women in the medieval and Tudor periods. Bearing children was considered to be a woman's primary role and acting in support of a child was also seen as an acceptable outlet for maternal political ambitions. It is perhaps telling that, in the twelfth century, when the Empress Matilda and King Stephen fought for the crown, the Empress was heavily criticised for her political actions, while Stephen's wife, the highly active Matilda of Boulogne, received little censure. Stephen's wife was able to openly act on behalf of her husband and children, something which the Empress, as claimant in her own right, was unable to do.