Life as a Joseon Queen: Part 1

(featuring Queen Sinui, Queen Sindeok, and Queen Jeongan; the early Queens Consort of Joseon Dynasty)

(4) The Person Who Left The World 10 Months Prior to Joseon’s Founding…but Acknowledged as The First Joseon Queen Consort.

Queen Sinui of the Han Clan was a woman who was acknowledged as the first Queen Consort of Joseon Dynasty, although she never got to hold that position officially during her lifetime. 10 months prior to the founding of Joseon in 1392, she passed away in the 10th month of the year 1391.

Yi Seong-gye, the founder of Joseon Dynasty, was born in Hamheung, Hamgyeong-do in 1335 to his father Yi Ja-chun and Lady Choi, the daughter of Choi Han-gi. In the Annals of King Taejo, his early days were recorded as such:

“He was a bright child with a tall nose from the day he was born into this world, and his visage was that of a king’s. His appearance was outstanding, and there was nothing lacking with his skills and wits. His brightness and bravery far surpassed others.”

He was great at hunting and archery since his younger days, and his skills were said to make the Northerners who trained hawks to say this, ‘I want to have a hawk that is as good as Yi Seong-gye.’ In 1351, the 17-year old Yi Seong-gye married the daughter of Han Gyeong, who hailed from a powerful and influential family of the neighbouring area. The 15-year old bride was Queen Sinui.

Yi Seong-gye’s great-grandfather married Choi Gi-yeol’s daughter when he first came to Anbyon County after driving off the Jurchens from Tumen River area, gaining trust from the influential families of that area and forging a close relationship with them. That relationship continued through the generations, which led to Yi Seong-gye’s marriage to Lady Han as well. It was said that she was born nearby a hill named Cheonghaksan, but the sound of billowing winds did not stop for 3 years after her birth, so it was renamed as Pungryusan Hill. She gave birth to her firstborn Bang-woo and resided in Hamheung’s Unjeon-ri Village. She also gave birth to Bang-gwa, Bang-ui, Bang-gan, and her fifth son in 1367, Bang-won.

It was a turbulent period for Goryeo with endless invasion attempts coming in all directions – Red Turban rebels and Jurchens in the North and the Wako (Japanese pirates) in the South – when Lady Han married Yi Seong-gye and raised the family. Yi managed to block the attempt made by Red Turban rebels to invade the northern Amnok River, and he led the Goryeo forces as a Military Commander in the Northeast region to push the Jurchens off Goryeo land, gaining a great contribution to the dynasty and earning himself a further established position in the court. His huge victory in Hwangsan Battle against the Japanese pirates in 1380 added to General Yi’s popularity in the government.

The Wihwado Retreat that took place in 1388 was no doubt the biggest event which became a turning point in the family’s lives. In the middle of uncertainty about the success of the retreat, Lady Han was told to flee from Pocheon to Hamheung. The success of the retreat became the first step towards the founding of the new dynasty of Joseon, but Lady Han did not get to witness it herself when she passed away the year before when she was 55 years old.  She was interred in Chisok-chon, Haepung-gun County in south Kaesong, North Korea.

Taejong included the following statement about Queen Sinui’s character and her effort in supporting her husband in the epitaph dedicated to her:

“The late Queen was virtuous, ladylike, and gentle ever since she was young; her intelligence and sensibility were different from ordinary people. […] When the Grand Former King (Taejo) first became a commander and spent many years on the battleground, there was not even one year of complete peace. However, she successfully managed the household with all her might. She treated the concubines with respect since it was in her nature, and she instilled the sense of loyalty in her sons.”

She raised her six sons and two daughters in the middle of the turbulent period to maintain a family when her husband went out to the battles. Two of her sons ended up becoming the kings of Joseon (Jeongjong and Taejong), so it was deserving of her to be referred to as the first Mother of the Nation for Joseon.

Although she did not get to witness the founding of Joseon herself, she received the recognition of being Taejo’s first wife. She was posthumously honoured as a queen with the title Faithful Consort (Jeolbi) and her grave was made into a royal mausoleum called Jereung. Her sons put their best effort in honouring her name: when Yi Bang-gwa rose to the throne as Jeongjong, he honoured Lady Han as Queen Sinui in 1398 and named the shrine where her spirit was venerated as Insojeon Hall. When Taejo passed away, the shrine was used to honour both Taejo and Queen Sinui, so the name was changed to Munsojeon Hall. Taejong further honoured his mother by having a temple name made for her in 1408. Jereung is now located in Kaesong, together with Hureung, the tombs of Jeongjong and Queen Jeongan. Although Joseon Royal Tombs were declared as the UNESCO’s World Heritage site, the two tombs located in North Korea did not make it into the list because of their location. Perhaps, someone will get to visit the tomb one day and see the place where Queen Sinui was laid to rest.

(5) A Strong Supporter of Taejo, and A Revenge Target of Bang-won.

The first person who rose to the position of Queen Consort after Joseon was founded was not Taejo’s first wife Queen Sinui, but his second wife, Queen Sindeok of the Kang Clan.

Queen Sindeok in the drama My Country (2019)

Starting out as a rising military officer who stood out in various battles in the late Goryeo, Yi Seong-gye came from an ordinary family in Hamheung. On the contrary, Queen Sindeok was the daughter of an influential family. Her father, Kang Yoon-seong of the Goksan Kang clan, held the office since the time of Yuan’s interference in Goryeo, rising to the position of a Chief Councillor. Although he had the backing of his first wife, Lady Han’s family back in Hamheung, it was a matter of fact that Yi Seong-gye was in need for strong support from his in-laws, which led to his second marriage to Lady Kang.

Unlike in Joseon, it was allowed for a man to have two or more primary wives in Goryeo. The wife who stayed in the countryside was called hyangcheo, while the wife who stayed in the capital was referred to as gyeongcheo. Queen Sindeok stayed in the capital with Yi Seong-gye as he gathered his forces to build a new dynasty, so she played her role in the founding of Joseon as a supporter of her husband.

In addition to that, she also played an important role in arranging the marriages of Yi Seong-gye’s children. Two of Queen Sinui’s sons, Bang-won and Bang-gan, studied in Gaegyeong (the capital of Goryeo), and Queen Sindeok was the one who looked after them. It was also thanks to her that these two brothers married into the powerful family of Yeoheung Min clan. When Yi Seong-gye chided Bang-won for ‘killing a minister rashly’ after string Jeong Mong-ju on the Seonjukgyo Bridge, it was Lady Kang who soothed his wrath and showed determination in defending Bang-won, “The young master has always looked up to you General (as his father), so imagine how shocked and terrified he was for him to arrive at this kind of solution?” Yi Seong-gye appointed Lady Kang as the queen with the title of Illustrious Consort (Hyeonbi), thus opening up a path for her to rise to the status of a Queen Consort.

After founding the dynasty, the biggest issue for Taejo, who ascended to the throne at the late age of 58 was the issue of his successor. Bang-won fought hard against the campaign to make Queen Sindeok’s sons the Crown Prince. Despite the strong objection from the courtiers, Taejo initially decided on making Bang-beon as his successor. But then, Bang-beon was a son-in-law of the overthrown Goryeo’s Royal Family of Wang, hence this was used as an issue by the ministers. Hence, in an attempt to compromise with them, Taejo finally made his second son with Queen Sindeok, Bang-seok, as the Crown Prince. Queen Sindeok probably observed the whole situation while thinking to herself that her descendants would inherit the throne from one generation to another, with her son becoming the first Crown Prince in Joseon Dynasty’s history. Little did she know that she would not get the chance to see her son becoming the king herself, as she passed away in 1396. Bang-won then broke her dreams without any mercy.

Stricken with grief after the passing of his queen, Taejo constructed the tomb named Jeongneung for Queen Sindeok in the area nearby the current location of Deoksugung Palace, where it would be easily seen from Gyeongbokgung Palace. Two years after her death, Bang-won took lead in the First Strife of Princes in 1398. He got rid of the Crown Prince and also Jeong Do-jeon, the strong supporter of Bang-seok, before seizing complete authority of the court. In order to further push through with his campaign of putting a legitimate successor in the line of succession, he made his second eldest brother Bang-gwa took the throne since their eldest brother Bang-woo had passed away. It could be said that Jeongjong, the second king of Joseon, owed it to Bang-won’s thorough political calculation for his ascension to the throne.

In 1400, Jeongjong officially sat on the throne after the abdication of Taejo as Bang-won embarked on his political revenge against Queen Sindeok in a menacing way. Right after Taejo’s passing in 1408, Jeongneung, which originally lied inside the city walls, was moved to its current location Seongbok-gu. The original pavilion was demolished and the mound was completely flattened. In 1410, a huge flood destroyed Cheonggyecheon Stream’s Gwangtonggyo Bridge, which was made from soil. Taejong took the tombstones of Jeongneung and used them to reconstruct the bridge. Despite being the first Queen Consort of Joseon Dynasty, Queen Sindeok’s spirit tablet ended up not being enshrined in the royal Jongmyo Shrine.

As the Neo-Confucianism ideology took hold of Joseon later, the matter of restoring Queen SIndeok’s honour and the renovation works of Jeongneung were brought up during the reign of Hyeonjong. At the suggestion of his courtiers including Song Si-yeol, Hyeonjong agreed for the restoration of Jeongneung to commence and Queen Sindeok’s spirit tablet to be enshrined in Jongmyo. In 1669, on the day her spirit tablet was placed in Jongmyo, this was written in the Annals of King Hyeonjong remarking her restored honour and claiming her rightful position: “Just like how the stars will surely return, the Queen is finally returning home after 300 years.” On the day her tomb regained its original status as Jeongneung and the ancestral rites were carried out there, it was said that a sudden shower poured over the site. The people saw this as a sign of Queen Sindeok’s grudge being washed away by the rain. The original location of Jeongneung near Deoksugung Palace maintains its name as Jeongdong until today, as a nod to the memories of Queen Sindeok.

(6) The King Who Reigned After being Pushed by his brother, Jeongjong…and The Queen Who Stayed Beside Him.

When Queen Jeongan is mentioned, many people found the name unfamiliar. It might be due to the short reign of her husband King Jeongjong, who sat on the throne of Joseon from 1398 until 1400 and left little impact behind. Born as the second son to Taejo and Queen Sinui, he had never thought that he would become the next reigning king when his brother Bang-won orchestrated the First Strife of Princes in 1398. The coup was carried out with the justification of Taejo making a mistake by selecting Bang-seok as the Crown Prince. It was the rule for the firstborn son of the primary wife to be the successor to the throne, yet Taejo chose the youngest son of the second wife to be made the Crown Prince. This was the deed that called for the coup, putting the emphasis on it being the unavoidable step in correcting the wrong.

But then, the firstborn son, Bang-woo, was already dead at the time of the coup. Hence, it was through Bang-won’s hidden political calculation that he proceeded with the coup, with his second brother Bang-gwa as the eldest son, effectively, to claim the right to the throne. Shortly after using the succession issue to justify his action, Bang-won raised his army in 1400 through the Second Strife of Princes and received the royal seal when Jeongjong abdicated in his favour, thus paving his way to the throne to rule as the third king of Joseon, Taejong.

Behind Bang-won’s political greed, there was Jeongjong who became the figurehead king over a short time, and also Jeongjong’s wife Queen Jeongan, who kept the position of the queen consort for a short moment. She became the queen at the age of 44, making her the oldest woman to rise to the highest position attainable by a female in Joseon history.

Queen Jeongan’s family clan was Kim, which hailed from Gyeongju; her father was Kim Cheon-seo, and her mother was Yi Ye from the Damyang Yi clan. She was invested as the Crown Princess Consort with the title Deokbin in 1398 and declared the Queen Consort a few days later when Jeongjong became the king. The investiture book bestowed upon her on the day of her coronation included the following:

“Lady Kim is neat and courteous, as well as quiet but leisurely; upright and virtuous. Having to manage the inner quarters early on, she provided a space for the family members to live in harmony. She cultivated herself with the proper decorum of a wife as she matured and received our respect. Even in the middle of the disturbance caused by the illegitimate Bang-seok, she supported her husband with all her might and helped him through the perilous moment.”

In 1400, after Jeongjong became the King Former, Queen Jeongan was made the Dowager, making her the first Queen Dowager of Joseon in the history. Even in her Dowager investiture book, her strong character was recorded as such: “Her Highness the Virtuous Queen (Deokbi) is gentle and is of beautiful character; she is also polite and possess a frugal heart. Her virtues grew inside her and bloomed beautifully early on, and her devoted heart towards the family helped to bind the relatives closer to each other.”

Queen Jeongan married Jeongjong, who was two years younger than her, when she was 19 years old in 1373, and became his wife for nearly 40 years; however, they did not have any child from the marriage. Jeongjong had 17 sons and 8 daughters from his 9 concubines, and it can be assumed that she lived a composed, quiet life until her death. When she passed away in the sixth month of 1412 at the age of 58, Taejong granted her the posthumous title of Queen Jeongan and her royal tomb named Hureung, located in Kaesong. The reason behind the choice for the gravesite was due to Jeongjong’s decision to move the capital back to Kaesong during his short reign, and he continued to stay there after he abdicated together with Queen Jeongan. Perhaps, the fact that Taejong’s birth mother Queen Sinui was laid to rest in the same area probably contributed to the choice of the spot too. Her spirit tablet was enshrined in Jongmyo Shrine in the eighth month, Jeongjong was recorded to spend time at her tomb for a few days after that. Sukjong also granted her additional posthumous title during his reign, more than 300 years after her death.

Although there are a total of 42 Royal Tombs of Joseon Kings and Queens, only 40 of them were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because the other two were located in North Korea. Those two were Jereung and Hureung, situated in Kaesong. All the tombs constructed before Hureung – Taejo’s Geonwonreung, Queen Sinui’s Jereung, and Queen Sindeok’s Jeongneung – were all single tombs, meaning that the king and the queens were entombed in separate tombs, making them stay apart in death. As for Hureung, Jeongjong, who passed away in 1419, was laid to rest in the same tomb area as Queen Jeongan, making it the first joined tomb in the history of Joseon. Although their marriage was a childless one when they were alive, their conjugal harmony continued even after death with the way their tomb was constructed.

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