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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

STEPMOTHERS: In Folklore and History

The stepmother is a frequent motif in folklore, from a dialect term for cow parsley - stepmother's blessing - to the stepmother in the story and pantomime of Cinderella.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the dialect term 'stepmother's blessing' was giving stepmothers a positive spin. You would be wrong; because other dialect terms for cow parsley are, from Yorkshire, 'mother-die', and from Essex, 'kill your mother quick'. These terms derive from the belief that if cow parsley was brought into the home, the mother would die - but how more satisfying if it was the stepmother! Why cow parsley was though to be so dangerous is probably, according to Roy Vickery in his book on Folk Flora, because it could so easily be mistaken for the truly deadly hemlock plant.

Stepmothers are almost always portrayed as evil and wicked, and not just in English Folklore. This motif is found across the world, and across time; from Germany (Brothers Grimm and 'Hansel and Gretel') to Malaysia, from Ancient Greece to Ancient China. They are found everywhere, but why? Bruno Bettelheim, the analyst of folktales, maintains that psychologically children see both sides of their mother, the good mother and the bad mother; and Bettelheim argues that this division is most easily portrayed and understood by children by the splitting in stories of the real mother from the stepmother.

A simpler explanation is sociological, namely that in reality in the past many women died young, most notably in childbirth, and in order to provide his children with a mother (and get them off his hands) the widower would remarry. The second wife then gave preference to her own children above her stepchildren. This in turn was largely financially motivated by the question of who would inherit the father's wealth (whatever that might be); the children of the first or of the second marriage? or, perhaps, even the second wife herself, the stereotype of the gold digger.

This more prosaic explanation has been given a factual grounding in my own family. My grandfather's mother died young and his father remarried. The second wife was, in the opinion of all the children of the first marriage, a gold digger. She reputedly treated the children badly and they were, perforce, brought up by their older sister. The boys adored their substitute mother all her life and also retained warm memories of their real mother right up to their own end.

The cultural picture of the evil stepmother must be a dreadful hurdle for second wives to overcome, even in today's very changed world. Yet such long established stereotypes are so ingrained in us that it will take many years before they are rejected. Indeed, because there are still examples of difficult childhoods where stepmothers feature, perhaps the stereotype will never be entirely eliminated.

History often merges with folklore and presents a story where it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. One such case concerns Dowager Queen Elfrida and her son Edward the Martyr. Elfrida was King Edgar's second, possibly third wife, and after her husband's death there were two boy claimants to the throne; Edward, Edgar's son by a previous marriage, and Ethelred, Elfrida's son. The great nobles of Saxon England lined up, for their own personal advantage, behind one or other of the boys. There was a political standoff between the two parties. In 978, however, Edward was fast approaching the time when he would be judged old enough to rule on his own. It was at this time, on 18th March 978, that he was murdered at Corfe Castle in Dorset. Many versions of the murder surfaced but in all of them his stepmother, Elfrida, figured prominently. She now became Regent for her own son, Ethelred. The usual story told is that Elfrida offered Edward a cup of wine on his returning from the hunt. Thus distracted Edward was murdered by the Queen's servants. This picture of Elfrida does not sit well with what we know of her. She was reportedly a religious woman who gave a lot of time and money to the support of monastic settlements in England. Her grandson, whom she brought up, thought highly of her. Perhaps we shall never know the truth.

One stepmother who does come well out of history is Henry VIII's last wife, Catherine Parr. She became a genuine mother to the child Princess Elizabeth, later Queen. On Henry's death Catherine married, with undue haste, Thomas Seymour. They lived, together with Elizabeth, now a teenager, at Sudeley Castle in The Cotswolds. We have accounts of Thomas visiting Elizabeth whilst she was still in bed in the morning, and frolicking. Catherine was pregnant but is said at first to have joined in the play. Eventually, Elizabeth was sent away, perhaps Thomas was becoming too interested or more likely Elizabeth was, because Thomas had an ulterior motive, namely marrying Elizabeth and taking the throne. Of course, he would have had to ditch Catherine in some way, but the precedent of getting rid of inconvenient wives had been firmly established by Henry VIII. As it happened Catherine died shortly after a stillbirth, and shortly afterwards Thomas was accused of treason and beheaded. Elizabeth sailed on.

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