Life as a Joseon King and Queen: Part Extra (With Inserts!)

(featuring King Cheoljong and Queen Cheorin, the royal pair in the middle of Sedo Politics in 19th century Korea)

I am currently watching Mr. Queen, the timeslip, soul-switching historical drama on tvn at the moment, so I dug around some older and recently posted articles related to the characters portrayed in the drama. At the center of the drama is the current queen Kim So-yong, posthumously known as Queen Cheorin, and her husband the king, the 25th ruler of Joseon, King Cheoljong. Widely known as the puppet king who saw the beginning of peasant revolts in his time, there was not much known about Cheoljong other than him being the Ganghwa’s Young Master (강화도령), him being the breeding horse of the Andong Kim clan, and his love for drinks and women until his demise due to disease. There was also lack of mention regarding Queen Cheorin, and their rather short time as the royal couple probably made them not quite a popular choice for portrayals on modern medias as well. Maybe I should be thankful for the show, since it allows me to discover more tidbits about them and also for new articles to be posted locally as coverage for the drama. There is no other place to put these translated articles in case I need them for future reference, so I might as well as post it here for your eyes too! So, enjoy and please try to ignore the mistakes 😉 Happy reading!

For your reference, in case you need it:

(39) The Reason Why a Farmer Became the King, Cheoljong.

In the 6th month of 1849, Heonjong’s short life came to an end at the young age of 23. Although he had two queens consort and two royal concubines, he did not have any successor. He suddenly passed away before he could decide on who to inherit the throne and his position as the king. At that time, the most powerful member of royal family was Queen Sunwon, who acted as a regent for Heonjong and also the figure at the center of Sedo Politics (Politics of In-Laws) carried out by Andong Kim clan. She started looking for a suitable candidate for that reason; in the end, she nominated Yi Won-beom, also known as Ganghwa’s Young Master, who was exiled in Ganghwado Island from his ancestors’ time. Yi Won-beom received the royal edict at the island from the courtiers who visited him and returned with them to the palace. He was crowned the king on the 17th day of the 6th month in front of the Injeongmun Gate in Changdeokgung Palace and reigned as the 25th ruler of Joseon, Cheoljong.

Cheoljong (1831-1863, r. 1849-1863) was born in Hanyang in 1831 as the 3rd child of Yi Gwang (Grand Internal Prince Jeongye) and Lady Yeom. His early name was Won-beom but later changed to Yi Byeon. Although he was a descendant of royal family, his childhood was nothing but a series of unfortunate events. His family was involved in treason, leading to his life in exile in Ganghwado Island.

It started with Cheoljong’s grandfather, Prince Euneon Yi In. Prince Euneon was Crown Prince Sado’s son, which also made him the half-brother of Jeongjo. When Hong Guk-young was still a cherished official of Jeongjo, Prince Euneon’s son, Prince Sanggye Yi Dam was made the adopted son of Jeongjo and Lady Hong, who was also Hong Guk-young’s sister. But then, Prince Sanggye got himself involved in a revolt, dragging Prince Euneon into danger as well. Jeongjo managed to protect Prince Euneon despite his courtiers repeatedly insisting for his brother to be punished. But then, everything changed once Sunjo rose to the throne. When Queen Jeongsun was the regent for the young king, Prince Euneon’s wife Lady Song and his daughter-in-law Lady Shin were revealed to be Catholics and both were persecuted. Prince Euneon had another son, Prince Jeongye, and Prince Jeongye had three sons: Won-gyeong, Gyeong-eung, and Won-beom.

The unfortunate events did not stop there; it continued until the next generation as well. Cheoljong’s eldest brother Won-gyeong (Prince Hwepyeong) was swept up in a treason case involving Min Jin-yong in 1844, leading to his death. The rest of the family members – Gyeong-eung and Won-beom included – were all exiled to Ganghwado Island. At first, they were moved to Gyodong before going back to Ganghwado. The place where Cheoljong used to live before he became king stil exists until today as Yongheunggung Palace in Ganghwa Town, as a reminder of his traces as Ganghwa’s Young Master.

Perhaps, it was a huge relief to have the two sons of Prince Jeongye still surviving in Ganghwado after Heonjong’s death. Not only that the late king had no child, most of the royal relatives were mostly involved with treason, leading to Queen Sunwon’s deep concern regarding Heonjong’s successor issue.

After taking into consideration that there was no one but Yi Won-beom who was Yeongjo’s descendant, he was made the successor. After Gyeongjong’s era, the situation of continuous political conflict coupled with the Sedo Politics in the 19th century had left Heonjong without any royal relative within 6-chon, leading to Ganghwa’s Young Master as the only option for the position.

The Veritable Records of King Cheoljong stated, “King Heonjong passed away on the 6th day of th 6th month in 1849, hence by the order of Queen Sunwon, Cheoljong was escorted from Ganghwado Island and made the royal successor to the throne after Heonjong.” Although there was also Yi Gyeong-eung (Prince Yeongpyeong), Queen Sunwon probably deemed someone who was not yet 20 years old to be more suitable for the role, hence Yi Won-beom was chosen. After Cheoljong’s coronation, his birth father Prince Jeongye became the third prince in Joseon to bear the title Grand Internal Prince (Daewongun), after Seonjo’s birth father Grand Iinternal Prince Deokheung and Injo’s birth father Grand Internal Prince Jeongwon.

Perhaps, Cheoljong was probably content enough with his life as a farmer back then as long as he could preserve his life, after the tormenting experience of witnessing his family being involved in treason for his whole life. While living his life feeling anxious, he must had been so surprised with the procession of the courtiers coming to greet him. At first, he could not believe it when the Premier Jung Won-yong said that they were here to escort him as the new king. He was in a state of confusion for the whole journey to the palace but in the end, he was really made the king.

Although he became the king, Cheoljong did not get proper lessons befitting a successor to the throne since he was staying in the rural area of Ganghwado fo a long time. When Jung Won-yong asked about the books he had read, Cheoljong answered, “I read the first volume of Essentials of Comprehensive Mirror and the first two volumes of Elementary Learning, but I had now forgotten what I read back then.” His answer caught a lot of people in surprise. Realizing that he might be lacking in qualities for a king, Queen Sunwon’s first edict for the courtiers right after Cheoljong’s enthronement was for the king to be assisted in his learning process. On the other hand, it was strongly implied that the time he spent among the citizens would have positive influence in his future tasks. Although he was personally frugal, it was clear that Cheoljong was lacking in both academic and political skills.

The reason for Cheoljong’s ascension to the throne was because there was no other alternative who was suitable to inherit the position. But then, having a puppet king was also in line with the political stance of Andong Kim clan and Queen Sunwon, who wanted to maintain their favourable positions in the court and to continue exercising their Sedo Politics stance, hence it was the most ideal situation for them.

Queen Sunwon continued to act as a regent in Cheoljong’s stead since he was only 19 at the time of his coronation. It was her second regency term after the first one with Heonjong. That showed how huge the political influence possessed by the Andong Kim clan through their representative Queen Sunwon, and the Sedo Politics only continued to flourish.

Cheoljong, who was still a bachelor, married Kim Mun-geun’s daughter of Andong Kim clan as his consort (later Queen Cheorin). This was the third time the king’s consort being from the Andong Kim clan from Sunjo, Heonjong, and now Cheoljong. Of course, this only served as another reason for their status to be further secured and those who dared to go against them were being eliminated in large numbers.

During Cheoljong’s era, the power was divided between Kim Jwa-geun, Kim Heung-geun, and Cheoljong’s father-in-law Kim Mun-geun, while their sons Kim Byeong-gi, Kim Byeong-hak, Kim Byeong-guk, Kim Byeong-gyo, and others flaunted their influence by acquiring important posts in the court. They sold the positions in the office to their kinsmen, and this practice went rampant. Bribes were exchanged and the officials were too busy reaping what they had invested in the positions while filling their own pockets, leaving the exploited citizens to suffer by themselves at the bottom of the pecking order. The endless evil cycle of Sedo Politics did not end because of its link to these kinds of corruptions that had been going on. The burden fell on the powerless citizens as a result of the corruption and the state of political chaos caused by the practice of Sedo Politics. The huge-scale peasant uprisings in rural southern areas like Jinju was fueled by the difficult life faced by people as a result of the political state.

On the other hand, Cheoljong’s family history of being involved in treason turned out to be a huge burden for the royal family. That could be the reason for the records related to his family’s association with treason to be erased. The traces could still be seen until today in the original copy of Ilseongnok (Records of Daily Reflection/ Daily Records of the Royal Court and Important Officials) kept in the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at the Seoul National University.  

Ilseongnok is a daily record detailing the matters related to state affairs from the year 1760 (the first year of Yeongjo’s reign) until 1910 (the 4th year of Sunjong’s reign). From 1783 (Jeongjo’s 7th year of reign) onwards, it would start off as the king’s personal diary before the Kyujanggak officials added the contents related to city administration and then made into the official records of state affairs after being approved by the king. This record provided insights into important policies and the precedents taken as references. Unlike the Joseon Wangjo Sillok/Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty which is being recognized as the ‘secret history of the royal family’ and focused on storing the information, Records of Daily Reflection was mainly the records used for reference regarding state affairs.

However, Ilseongnok was tampered after Cheoljong ascended to the throne. A total of 635 pages from Jeongjo’s 10th until 23rd year of reign were torn off. The person who ordered this was no other than Queen Sunwon. Although she was the one who suggested Cheoljong’s name for the king’s seat, the young king would always had his backstory following him, being the descendant of Prince Euneon who was accused of treason and exiled to Ganghwado Island. It would also became a burden to Queen Sunwon and the Andong Kim clan who were the masterminds behind his enthronement, hence leading to the erasure of the related records in the Ilseongnok. Hence, all the unfavourable records related to Cheoljong were all wiped out clean. When compared with the Veritable Records, most of the deleted entries were related to Prince Euneon and his son, Prince Sanggye.

The erasure of the records in Ilseongnok was an incident that reflected the slow decline of the royal authority in the late 19th century. Perhaps, the act of turning a farmer into the nation’s king overnight was also a hint of the royal family’s fate.

The Last Queen Dowager of Joseon, Queen Cheorin, and Her Frugal Lifestyle inside the Palace

The reason why Cheoljong did not have a huge presence as a king was probably due to the process of how he rose to the throne in a flash by Queen Sunwon’s suggestion, although he was just the Ganghwa’s Young Master who lived his life as a farmer on the island. Queen Cheorin, who later married Cheoljong, was not widely known too, plus she did not have any surviving child. She became a queen right at the moment when the Sedo Politics of Andong Kim clan was at its peak of power and influence in the 19th century. Let us take a look into the life of the queen, who lived in the era of internal and external conflicts.

Queen Cheorin was born on the 23rd day of the 3rd month of 1837 to her parents, Kim Mun-geun and Lady Min in Hanyang. Her epitaph read, “As she grew up, she became more silent; her words were short and her face displayed neither sign of happiness nor sadness. Her virtues and generosity matured early on, and her seriousness matched that of a grown up’s. There was no relative who did not praise her.” From this, it was known that she was of a reserved and gentle nature.

The royal family was concerned with the issue of successor to the throne, since Heonjong passed away in 1849 without leaving an heir behind. At that time, the most senior member of the royal family and the person with the power to decide on the successor was Queen Sunwon, wife of King Sunjo. She made the grandson of Prince Euneon, Yi Won-beom, as the successor, later to be known as Cheoljong. Cheoljong was only 19 at the time he was crowned the king, but he was still unmarried despite being way over the suitable age for marriage. Thus, the royal family hastened the marriage and Queen Cheorin was installed as his consort in 1851 at the age of 15. Cheoljong was already 21 years old by the time he married the queen.

The power of Andong Kim clan was at its peak when Queen Cheorin was made the queen, thanks to the practice of Sedo Politics through the influence of Queen Sunwon as the most powerful royal at that time. The clan had also managed to produce three queens for three subsequent kings – Sunjo, Heonjong, and Cheoljong – from its female members: Queen Sunwon, Queen Hyohyeon, and now Queen Cheorin. The queen’s father Kim Mun-geun held various important positions in the military such as Commander of the Royal Guards, Leader of the General Defense Unit, and Captain of Military Training. Her younger brother Kim Byeong-pil became a minister at ths age of 30 and later rose to the position of the Left State Minister.

A few days before the preliminary stage of the selection commenced, it was recorded in the Veritable Records about this, “A series of auspicious rainbows appeared one day after another in the water jar in front of Daecheong; people who saw it thought that it was strange.” After she made it through the final stage, she was staying at the Eoidong Detached Palace before the wedding. According to the records, “After she received the book Elementary Learning, she would memorize a whole page at a time and recite the page without pausing. Even when she managed to understand a particular context after few months, she was not confident and rather dissatisfied with herself. This showed how the queen was considerably refined in her knowledge.

Although Queen Cheorin became the queen, there were also three other living dowagers above her – Queen Sunwon, Queen Sinjeong, and Queen Hyojeong – which resulted in the young queen having not much presence. She had to assist the three dowagers with all her heart and live her life modestly. There was also the long time she spent by herself without any child. Although she did give birth to a prince in 1858, her child unfortunately passed away in the following year. With Cheoljong’s passing in 1863, she was elevated to the position of Queen Dowager, but Queen Sinjeong and Queen Hyojeong were still alive by then. Traces of her frugal life could be seen through the epitaph: “She did not wear any silk clothes; instead, she would always wear cotton clothes in the winter and ramie clothes in the summer. Her preference for frugality was unseen in the queens before her.”

Just like her husband Cheoljong, she lived her life in the palace quietly until her death on the 12th day of the 5th month in 1878, at the age of 42. She first received the courtesy title Myeongsun in 1863 and referred to as Queen Dowager once Gojong ascended the throne. She was also bestowed several titles during her tenure as a dowager – Hwiseong and Jeongwon in 1866, Sunyeong in 1873 – before receiving her posthumous title Cheorin after her death in1878. There was no queen consort after her who held the title Queen Dowager, so Queen Cheorin was recorded as the last Queen Dowager of Joseon Dynasty. She was entombed in a separate mound on the left side of Cheoljong in Yereung. Together with Hwireung (the royal tomb of Jungjong’s second wife Queen Jangkyeong) and Hyoreung (the royal tombs of Injong and Queen Inseong), the three royal tombs make up the Seosamneung Cluster (literally ‘Three Western Royal Tombs’ for its location in the western side of the capital) in today’s Goyang.

Do not miss the inserts on the following pages!

6 thoughts on “Life as a Joseon King and Queen: Part Extra (With Inserts!)

    1. You’re welcome! Having the drama around means more articles about Cheoljong, which is a good thing 😀
      I LOVED (and still loving and missing it tbvh) the drama so much! Hehehehe

  1. 1 – 자가 was actually the correct style for married princesses and royal concubines of the 빈 rank. The style of 마마 was actually reserved for those in the line of succession and their consorts, such as the king, the queen, the crown prince, and the crown princess. However, dramas probably want to simplify the styles, so 마마 is adapted for usage regardless of the ranks, as long as they’re royals.

    2 – There was no exact rule in the usage of 봉잠 and 용잠 back then actually. Of course, 용잠 was associated with the consorts of the king, but 봉잠 was even worn by royal concubines. I think the drama made the queen wear 봉잠 so as to indicate that she was of lower status than the two Dowagers above her in terms of seniority, hence showing her reverence for the elders of the royal palace.

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