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A Queen mother was a dowager queen who was the mother of the reigning monarch (or an empress mother in the case of an emperor). The term has been used in English since at least 1577. It arises in hereditary monarchies in Europe and is also used to describe a number of similar yet distinct monarchical concepts in non-European cultures around the world.
"The Queen Mother" usually refers to Elizabeth The Queen Mother, 1900–2002 (queen, 1936–1952; queen mother, 1952–2002), who was the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, and held the status of queen mother for 50 years.
A widowed queen consort, or dowager queen, has an important royal position (regardless whether or not she is the mother of the reigning sovereign) but does not normally have any rights to succeed a king as monarch on his death unless she happens to be next in line to the throne (one possibility would be if the King and Queen were also cousins and childless, the King had no other siblings, and she in her other position as his cousin was also his heiress presumptive).
A new reigning king would have (at accession or eventually) a wife who would be the new queen consort; and, of course, a queen regnant would also be called 'queen'. More to the point, there may be more than one queen dowager at any given time.
The title 'queen mother' evolved to distinguish a queen dowager from all other queens when she is also the mother of the reigning sovereign. Thus, upon the death of her husband, George V, Mary of Teck became a queen mother, retaining the status throughout the reigns of her sons, Edward VIII and George VI.
The title also distinguishes a monarch's mother who was not previously a queen consort. For example, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld was "the Queen's mother" when her daughter Victoria became queen regnant but she was not "queen mother". It should be noted, however, that the title in British usage is purely a courtesy title. Whereas the wife of a king must be "queen", there is no constitutional or statutory recognition of the "Queen Mother" as a "real" title.
As the monarch's mother, the queen mother is typically supported throughout her remaining years and given honour as a beloved relative, but has no official position or power. She is expected to carefully abstain from any involvement in governance or politics. Elsewhere, the position she occupies is somewhat more ritualistic in nature.
In the Ottoman Empire, "Valide sultan" (Ottoman Turkish: والده سلطان, literally "mother sultan") was the title held by the empress mother of a ruling Sultan. The title was first used in the 16th century for Ayşe Hafsa Sultan, consort of Selim I and mother of Suleiman the Magnificent, superseding the previous title of mehd-i ülya ("cradle of the great"). The Turkish pronunciation of the word Valide is [vaː.liˈde].
The position was perhaps the most important position in the Ottoman Empire after the sultan himself. As the mother to the sultan, by Islamic tradition ("A mother's right is God's right"), the valide sultan would have a significant influence on the affairs of the empire. She had great power in the court and her own rooms (always adjacent to her sons) and state staff. In particular during the 17th century, in a period known as the "Sultanate of Women", a series of incompetent or child sultans raised the role of the valide sultan to new heights.
In Swaziland, for example, the queen mother, or Ndlovukati, reigns alongside her son. She serves as a ceremonial figurehead, while her son serves as the administrative head of state. He has absolute power. She is important at festivals such as the annual reed dance ceremony.
In many matrilineal societies of West Africa, such as the Ashanti, the queen mother is the one through whom royal descent is reckoned and thus wields considerable power. One of the greatest leaders of Ashanti was Nana Yaa Asantewaa (1840–1921), who led her subjects against the British Empire during the War of the Golden Stool in 1900.
In more symbolically driven societies such as the kingdoms of the Yoruba peoples, the queen mother may not even be a blood relative of the reigning monarch. She could be a female individual of any age who is vested with the ritual essence of the departed queens in a ceremonial sense, and who is practically regarded as the monarch's mother as a result. A good example is Oloye Erelu Kuti of Lagos, who has been seen as the iya oba or queen mother of every succeeding king of that realm, due to the activities of the three successors to her noble title that have reigned since her demise.
Recent British Queens Mother
The following queens became queens mother, though not all chose to use that style.
- Queen Alexandra (1844–1925): widow of King Edward VII and mother of King George V.
- Queen Mary (1867–1953): widow of King George V and mother of kings Edward VIII and George VI. Queen Mary never used the title Queen Mother, because she thought it implied advancing years, choosing instead to be known as "Queen Mary" and that style was used to describe her in the Court Circular. But she was a queen mother just the same. When her granddaughter acceded to the throne as Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, the new queen's mother became queen mother, and Queen Mary became known as Queen Mary, the Queen Dowager.
- Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (1900–2002): the widow of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II. In some of the British media, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was often referred to as the Queen Mum, and the term "Queen Mother" remains associated with her after her death.
Other notable mothers of kings
These mothers of monarchs, and others, albeit not always officially so titled have also been considered equal to queen mothers:
- Amarindra (1810–1826) Siam
- Anna Pavlovna of Russia (1849–1865) Netherlands
- Anne of Austria (1643–1666) France and Navarre
- Ayşe Hafsa Sultan (1520–1534) Ottoman Empire
- Bathsheba (11th century BC) Israel and Judah
- Blanche of Castile (1226–1252) France
- Bona Sforza (1548–1557) Poland and Lithuania
- Catherine de Medici (1559–1589) France
- Catherine of Valois (1401–1437) England
- Debsirindra (1834–1861) Siam (Thailand)
- Desideria (1844–1859) Sweden and Norway
- Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont (1890–1934) Netherlands and Luxemburg
- Elizabeth, Queen Dowager of England (1483-1483) (1486-1492) England
- Frederica of Hanover (1964–1981) Greece
- Gayatri Devi (1919−2009) Jaipur (India)
- Hedvig Eleonora of Holstein-Gottorp (1636–1715) Sweden
- Helen of Greece and Denmark (1940–1948) Romania
- Kosem Valide Sultan (1623-1648) Ottoman Empire
- Ingrid of Sweden (1972–2000) Denmark
- Josephine of Leuchtenberg (1859–1872) Sweden and Norway
- Jijabai (1598–1674) Maratha Empire (India)
- Keōpūolani (1778–1823) Hawaii (United States)
- Margaret of Savoy (1900–1926) Italy
- Maria Christina of Austria (1906–1929) Spain
- Maria of Romania (1934–1961) Yugoslavia
- Marie de' Medici (1610–1642) France
- Queen Mother Moore (1972–1996) Ashanti people (Ghana)
- Nazli Sabri (1936–1950) Egypt
- Norodom Monineath (from 1936) Cambodia
- Saovabha Phongsri (1910–1919) Thailand
- Sri Suriyendra (1767–1836) Siam (Thailand)
- Tiye (14th century BC) Egypt
- Zein al-Sharaf Talal (1952–1994) Jordan
- Ingeborg of Norway (1301–61), Duchess of Sweden, acted and ranked as if she were a queen regnant for a year before the Swedish reign of her son, King Magnus IV, and thereafter as if she were his queen mother, serving intermittently on his board of regents. However, she was never officially recognized as queen or queen mother.
- Her granddaughter-in-law Margaret (1353–1412), who ruled all of Scandinavia as the mother of one king and the adoptive mother of another, held a similar complicated unofficial position, but much longer and in traditional history given the title of Queen. Early in her career, she had been Queen consort of Norway for 17 years and of Sweden for one year.
- Jijabai: She was neither consort of a ruling king nor a ruling queen/regent. In practical terms her husband Shahaji was nobleman under other rulers. But her son founded an independent empire and became a sovereign emperor. Hence she is given the status of Queen Mother - Rajmata.
- Helen of Greece and Denmark: wife, from 1921 to 1928, of the future Carol II of Romania, and mother of King Michael of Romania. In circumstances that read like a soap opera, Michael first ruled 1927–30, before his father was king (and again after his father abdicated). When in 1930 Carol returned to Romania and assumed the throne, he actually retrodated his reign to 1927, the year his father (King Ferdinand) died. As Helen had not yet divorced her playboy husband at the time (that was to happen in the following year), he unwittingly granted her the retroactive title of queen. Thus, in 1940, after his abdication and the second accession of their son, she rightfully became the queen mother of Romania.
- Similarly, Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur was the third wife of her husband, the monarch, but not the mother of his successor, a son by the king's first wife. However, she has been accorded the title of queen mother (Rajmata) anyway.
- The Valide Sultan, the mother of an Ottoman Sultan, is sometimes referred to as queen mother, even though she may never have been queen consort.
Diana, Princess of Wales, reportedly once suggested to journalist Andrew Morton (author of Diana: Her True Story) that when her son, Prince William, became king, she would be known as "King Mother". No such designation has ever officially existed, nor is there independent evidence that such terminology was ever considered. Queen mother means "queen who is mother to the current monarch", not "mother of the queen"; "king mother" is a contradiction in terms.
However, of note, and possibly Diana's basis for the idea, is the style My Lady The King's Mother, held by Margaret Beaufort during the reign of her son, Henry VII of England. In the Strontium Dog story "The Royal Affair" in 2000 AD a few years earlier, the mother of the reigning King was referred to in-story as the King Mother.
If a king were to abdicate and pass the throne to his child, then in that case the king could have his son or daughter style him as a king father. King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia was styled as HM King-Father Norodom Sihanouk when he abdicated in favor of his son. When King Albert II of the Belgians abdicated in 2013 his style shorted to His Majesty King Albert (as did King Leopold's before him); "king father" is the name of his role rather than forming part of his style or title.
Currently Jigme Singye Wangchuck is the king father of Bhutan.
When Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III of Brunei abdicated, he became the Begawan Sultan or the Sultan-Father. He was given the title of His Majesty the Sultan-Father and this office became vacant when he died.
Bhutan is the only country in the world that currently has a queen grandmother. The title is currently held by Kesang Choden.
Current European Comparisons
Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Paola of Belgium and Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands hold a similar role as mothers of their country's reigning monarchs. Jean, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, King Albert II of Belgium and King Juan Carlos I of Spain hold a similar paternal role.
- A queen mother is defined as "A Queen dowager who is the mother of the reigning sovereign" by both the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's Third New International Dictionary.
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Davis, Fanny (1986). "The Valide". The Ottoman Lady: A Social History from 1718 to 1918. ISBN 0-313-24811-7.
- Peirce, Leslie P., The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, Oxford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-19-508677-5 (paperback)
- Michie, God Save The Queen at 290
- Michie, God Save The Queen at 381–382
- Grethe Authén Blom Norsk Historisk Tidskrift Oslo 1981 p. 425
- Source: Andrew Morton, interviewed by Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show on RTÉ