The early 19th century saw the emergence of the politics run by members of the royal family’s in-laws and how it lasted for about 60 years. Also known as Sedo Politics, the era of its prosperity also resulted in the regression of both the society and the royal family of Joseon. The in-laws families – Gyeongju Kim, Andong Kim, and Pungyang Jo clans – contributed to the regression by acting on their own interests in running the government, instead of taking into consideration the citizens and the royal family’s wellbeing.
The death of Jeongjo in 1800 gave way to the first royal in-laws to be in power through Queen Jeongsun, who became a regent for 3 years in Sunjo’s stead since the king was young, which also opened the path for her family Gyeongju Kim clan to assert their power. When Sunjo’s son Crown Prince Hyomyeong became a regent in his stead in 1827, the crown prince’s in-laws Pungyang Jo clan became the powerful in-law family for the next 3 years until his sudden death at the young age of 21. This opened the second term of Andong Kim clan in power for the next 11 years, with many things happening in between. When Sunjo passed away in 1834, Crown Prince Hyomyeong’s young son rose to the throne at the age of 8 as Heonjong, with Sunjo’s consort Queen Sunwon acting as a regent for the young king until 1841.
The future consort of Cheoljong, Queen Cheorin, was born in 1837, during this second term of Andong Kim clan in power; but then, she grew up under the era of Pungyang Jo clan. When Queen Sunwon’s regency term ended in 1841, Heonjong began ruling on his own, with the help of Jo In-young as his Prime Minister. Jo In-young was also the person entrusted by Sunjo to take care of the king.
Queen Cheorin witnessed how the world turned upside down in front of her. As Pungyang Jo grew stronger, Andong Kim suffered through events that put them at a disadvantage; from the concern of producing a royal heir through their blood, to the loss of the family’s central figures. Heonjong’s consort Queen Hyohyeon, who was from Andong Kim clan, passed away in 1843 without leaving behind any issue, while her father Kim Jo-geun, who was the key person of the family’s power, passed away in the following year. That was how the world where the future Queen Cheorin changed under the rule of Pungyang Jo, but it only continued until 1849 as she turned 13.
Without any successor to the throne, Heonjong’s death in 1849 called in for Prince Deokwan, his distant uncle of 7-chon to be made the king. Of course, Andong Kim did not let go of this opportunity to seize the power through the Grand Royal Queen Dowager at that time, Queen Sunwon. Seeing how the nation fell into an emergency situation with the absence of an heir and a king, Queen Sunwon adopted Prince Deokwan as her son to be made the next king, ruling as Cheoljong. It was a way to bind the new king legally to Andong Kim clan. Although Cheoljong was already 19 by the time he rose to the throne, Queen Sunwon still acted as a regent for the first 3 years of his reign. This marked the third term of Andong Kim clan in power further consolidating their position in the court.
Queen Cheorin was also set up to marry Cheoljong during this time around the second year of Queen Sunwon’s regency in 1851. Not only they managed to hold complete authority over the court, but Andong Kim also wished to top it off with the royal wedding. The 15-year old queen had to be mindful of her every action because of the political marriage, and she could not afford to act rashly, since every step she took would decide the future of Andong Kim clan.
Although Queen Cheorin became the queen at the expense of Andong Kim being her natal clan, perhaps it was luck playing a role on her side too. That luck was being someone who was neither too far or too closely related to Queen Sunwon. The family which gave birth to the most number of queens consort in Joseon Dynasty was the Kims. Excluding those who were revered as queens after their husbands’ death, 10 out of the 36 Joseon queens were Kims. The second one was the Yoons, with 6 queens. There was none with the surname Yi, since the royal family and the kings themselves were all Yis.
There was another constraint with regard to blood relation which could render someone ineligible for the position of a queen. It was something related to the dowager’s blood relatives. At the time of Cheoljong’s reign, there were three living dowagers: Grand Royal Queen Dowager, Royal Queen Dowager, and Queen Dowager. The relatives of these dowagers could not participate in the selection for the queen’s position. For instance, Queen Sunwon’s relatives of the same surname (Kim) within 7-chon degree of relation or those of different surnames (maternal relatives) within 6-chon would not be considered for the candidates of the king’s wife.
Although Queen Cheorin was Queen Sunwon’s relative sharing the same surname, she was her 9-chon relative, which allowed her to be considered for the position. They were originally more distant (13-chon) but thanks to Cheorin’s father Kim Mun-geun being adopted by Sunwon’s close relative, they became more closely related. Still, it was still considered distant, and it was probably difficult for the new queen to gain the trust of her elder despite being related to each other and meeting the requirements for the position of the queen.