Life as a Joseon Queen: Part 2.5

(featuring the cruel history of Sejong’s daughters-in-law: Crown Princess Hwi, Crown Princess Sun, and Queen Hyeondeok, all who were married to Munjong during his Crown Prince days and never made it to become queen in their lifetime)

(9) The Cruel History of Sejong’s Daughters-In-Law: The Eldest Daughter-In-Law Who Was Chased Out Due to Her Dependence on Bizarre Spells

The first condition to become a Crown Princess of the Royal Family of Joseon is to be married to the Crown Prince. The first step to the said royal marriage is the selection process. Since the Crown Prince would usually be married around the age of 10, the Crown Princess would be chosen among the young ladies of similar age.

The issues of selection process was also a problem to a sage king like King Sejong. There was actually an earlier case where a Crown Princess was expelled in a disgraced way during King Taejo’s reign.

After Yi Bang-seok was made the Crown Prince in 1392, Lady Yoo was chosen to become the Crown Princess and received the title of Crown Princess Hyeon. But then, on the following year, it was found out that she had an extramarital affair with an eunuch named Yi Man and was stripped off her position as a result of it. On the other hand, the wife of Grand Prince Yangnyeong was originally chosen to become his wife during his term as the Crown Prince under King Taejong’s reign, but she ended up being relegated to the status of a grand prince’s consort since Yangnyeong was removed from his Crown Prince position.

Thus, Sejong, who witnessed these precedent cases, put on utmost effort in making his firstborn son the heir to the throne and paved a smooth way for the Crown Prince to inherit the king’s title. Hence, he was deeply interested and kept himself involved in the matter of choosing the Crown Princess, who would later become the nation’s queen.

Sejong’s eldest son Yi Hyang (later King Munjong) married the daughter of Kim Oh-mun in his Crown Prince days. In the Sejong’s Annals on the 9th day of the 4th month in 1427, it was recorded that Lady Kim was made the Crown Princess and bestowed the title Crown Princess Hwi. On that day, the king wore the ceremonial red robe gangsapo with the crown called wonyugwan, as the book of coronation was bestowed to the crown princess in front of the officials in the Throne Hall.

However, the marriage life of the crown prince and princess did not sail smoothly. An entry in the Annals of King Sejong in the 7th month of 1429 recorded as such: ‘Hocho, a maid of the Eastern Palace (Crown Prince’s residence) is to be jailed in Uigeumbu, while Crown Princess Hwi is to be expelled to her parents’ residence.’ That was how the first Crown Princess was deposed only two years after the marriage.

What was the reason that drove the Crown Princess to the point of being deposed? The primary cause was the discord between the married couple. The Crown Prince was not close to Crown Princess Hwi. The anxious Crown Princess ordered Hocho to find out a way to gain the Crown Prince’s heart.

According to Hocho, in order to capture the Crown Prince’s attention, Crown Princess Hwi had to cut the shoes of the woman he loved and burn them down to ashes before grinding the ash. Then, the ash was to be added to the Crown Prince’s drinks so that he would grow closer to the Crown Princess, at the same time pushing the shoes owner further from the Crown Prince’s side. Hence, Crown Princess Hwi decided to put it into test using the shoes belonging to the Crown Prince’s favourite maids, Hyodong and Deokgeum. However, it was not an easy feat, hence the Crown Princess inquired for another method. According to Hocho, she heard from a courtesan named Habongnae that wearing a handkerchief with the excretion of mating snakes would enable the Crown Princess to gain the Crown Prince’s love.

The strange movement of the Crown Princess caught the attention of the Court ministers, and upon investigation, her maid was found hiding the leather shoes which had been cut into pieces.

Sejong and his wife Queen Soheon called in Crown Princess Hwi for an audience and asked for the whole story. The Crown Princess confessed to each and everything she did.  The king could not ignore it after what she did, trying to capture the Crown Prince’s heart using black magic and spells. In the end, Sejong had no choice but to issue the edict deposing Crown Princess Hwi, reducing her status to a commoner and expelling her from the palace. Sejong’s edict was as follows:

‘The Crown Prince’s appointment and his Consort’s selection were both carried out after receiving the blessings from the Royal Ancestral Shrine; to become an exemplary mother in continuing the huge blessings in long life. But then, even when Lady Kim had only become the Crown Princess not more than a few years, yet she had the audacity to concoct such a wicked plan. It was something the ancestors would not be fond of, and something the royal could not tolerate of, hence it was reasonable to have her expelled.’

Sejong’s first daughter-in-law whom he himself handpicked ended up being a Crown Princess who could not receive the Crown Prince’s love and turned to black magic as her way of resolving the matter. In the end, her choice became the reason she fell from the Crown Princess’ position. Still, Crown Princess Hwi’s deposal was only the beginning of the cruel history around Sejong’s daughters-in-law. After the first one, Sejong only grew more concerned in his search for the next daughter-in-law.

(10) From Excessive Drinking and False Pregnancy to Same-sex Relationship..and Another Deposal

After Crown Princess Hwi was deposed in 1429, merely 2 years and 3 months after sitting on the Crown Prince’s seat, Sejong set out to choose the second Crown Princess. Sejong talked about his standard in selecting the Crown Princess through the entry on the 4th day of 8th month in the same year:

“Now, in order to choose a proper spouse for the Eastern Palace (referring to the Crown Prince), I should choose the correct maiden for the position. Although family lineage and female virtues are both important, if she happens to be lacking in beautiful appearance, then it might not be proper as well.”

Besides the family and virtues of a proper woman, Sejong also stressed on the importance of having a decent appearance. Sejong also suggested that the candidates for the selection to be gathered at the Changdeokgung Palace so that the selection could be handled by Grand Prince Hyoryeong and assisted by the palace eunuchs and ladies in waiting.

But then, only Heo Jo objected and answered, “If we are to gather them in one place in order to carry out the selection and focusing on the appearance alone, then we would not pick someone according to their virtues.” Sejong retorted, “We are only going to get a glimpse of them, so how it is possible to know such virtues? If it impossible to ascertain their virtues, then it would also be impossible to decide on the appearance alone. It would be appropriate to visit the prospective maidens’ homes for the first stage and it would be better to choose one after gathering the final candidates at the Changdeokgung Palace.” His ministers agreed with this suggestion.

The daughter of Bong Ryeo was chosen to become the Crown Princess in the tenth month and bestowed the title Crown Princess Sun. In order not to let the same thing happen like Crown Princess Hwi, Sejong instructed the female instructor to teach the new Crown Princess using the book Biographies of Exemplary Women, pouring his whole heart into it as a father-in-law. But then, after few days of learning from the book, Crown Princess Sun threw the book away. Although she was living in the palace, she led a carefree life of her own, drinking alcohol to her heart’s content.

Her strong dependency on alcohol and her attitude even made it into Sejong’s records in an entry on the 7th day of 11th month of 1436:

‘Her temperament is of one who enjoys drinking and prepares the drinks in her room; she also likes drinking using big bowls one after another and getting drunk on top of that. There are times when she would force her female attendants to carry her on their back and walk around her palace; when she deems the alcohol insufficient, she would personally go back to her parents’ residence just to bring back the drinks to her palace and drink it.’

Since her relationship with the Crown Prince was not good, naturally there was no sight of heir at all; hence, for that reason, Sejong had chosen three ladies to become the Crown Prince’s royal concubines. But then, these concubines became the target of the Crown Princess’ jealousy and hatred. When one of the concubines, Lady Kwon seunghwi, (King Danjong’s birth mother, later known as Queen Hyeondeok) was pregnant, she was outraged and resented the Crown Prince even more. She even claimed that she had signs of pregnancy, but it turned out to be a lie and it was just a false pregnancy, breaking people’s trust in her.

However, the major factor which led to Crown Princess Sun’s deposal was same-sex relationship. Perhaps it was because she was abandoned by the Crown Prince that she turned to a maid named Sossang for love, and Crown Princess Sun made it that it was impossible for the maid to leave her side. After hearing about the rumour, the Crown Prince approached Sossang who was tasked with cleaning the palace one day and asked whether she really slept with his wife, and Sossang shockingly admitted to it. Hence, the Crown Prince sent a strong warning message to the Crown Princess, but nothing changed afterwards. In fact, Crown Princess Sun grew even more agitated whenever Sossang had to leave her side. The scandal of Crown Princess Sun and Sossang soon spread like a wildfire across the palace.

Sejong finally made the decision to depose the Crown Princess after summoning Sossang and finding out the truth about the issue. An edict issued by Sejong on the 7th day of the 11th month in 1436 said, expressing his apologetic heart towards his courtiers and his subjects, “Not only the current Crown Prince’s previous consort Lady Kim was deposed, his current consort Lady Bong is also being deposed; this is brought upon by both the Crown Prince and I, who lack proper control of the household.”

Having faced two daughters-in-law with unexpected sides to them and ended up deposing them one after another, Sejong’s pain was immeasurable; thus, he decided to choose the next Crown Princess among the current concubines of the Crown Prince. Lady Kwon rose to the position amidst the anticipation from members of the royal family and gave birth to a son (later King Danjong), but she unfortunately contracted postpartum disease and passed away two days after giving birth. After that, the Crown Prince did not take in any new consort. The firstborn son of Sejong, Munjong, was the only king in the history of Joseon who did not have any living queen during his reign.    

(11) Danjong’s Birth Mother Who Passed Away Two Days After Giving Birth

Munjong’s consort Queen Hyeondeok had never actually sit in the queen’s position in her lifetime. Why she was referred to as a queen, then? It was due to her being posthumously raised to the position of a queen after her death. Queen Hyeondeok was born in 1418 as the daughter of Andong Kwon’s Kwon Jeon and Choi A-ji in Hapdeok Village, Hongju, Chungcheong-do Province. After the deposal of Crown Princess Hwi, Crown Princess Sun became the next consort of the Crown Prince, but she soon became a problematic presence too and failed to produce an heir, hence Sejong chose three concubines – Ladies Kwon, Hong, and Jung – for the Crown Prince.

When Queen Hyeondeok first became Munjong’s concubine in his Crown Prince days, she was made a concubine of the junior 4th rank seunghwi, and later promoted to junior 3rd rank yangwon in 1436. After the deposal of Crown Princess Sun, she was made the next Crown Princess in 1437.Unlike the regular practice where a Crown Prince’s consort would be chosen through a selection process, this was the first case of a consort to be chosen among the existing concubines of the Crown Prince. She was of admirable nature and had given birth in 1436 to a daughter, Princess Gyeonghye despite having no son, so she was chosen among the concubines.

After she became the Crown Princess, the long wait of the royal family for an heir was finally coming to an end with the birth of Danjong in 1441. Sejong expressed his happiness after spending years of feeling worried for the aging Munjong who was still without an heir. The king even granted a special pardon in huge scale for those who were punished for their crimes to celebrate the occasion.

But then, the joy did not last long when the Crown Princess passed away two days after giving birth. Expressing the late Crown Princess’ graceful figure and how people around Sejong were all saddened by her death, Sejong’s records stated as such, “The Crown Princess has passed away. She possessed graceful virtues; a compassionate and dignified manner by nature, hence she was the object of affection of both the King and the Crown Prince. Even when she was in critical condition, she still rose from her bed a few times when the King paid her a visit. After her death, both the King and the Crown Prince were greatly saddened and refused their meals; there was no single person in the palace who did not shed a tear for her.”

Sejong decided on a site in Ansan, Gyeonggi-do Province for the royal tomb and bestowed her with the posthumous title Hyeondeok. When her husband ascended to the throne in 1450, she was posthumously honoured as Queen Hyeondeok and her royal tomb was named Soreung.

After Munjong’s passing in 1452, he was entombed in Hyeonreung, on the east side of Geonwonreung. The married couple was separated in death. To make matters worse, Queen Hyeondeok and Soreung faced many difficulties afterwards. When the plan to reinstate Danjong failed in 1456, Queen Hyeondeok’s brother Kwon Ja-shin was found guilty to have participated in it; as a result, her mother and her mother were both sentenced to death penalty.

Even, King Sejo, who usurped the throne from Danjong had an episode of Queen Hyeondeok’s posthumous revenge recorded in Yeonryeosilkisul, a book of unofficial history:

‘One day, Sejo had a dream of Queen Hyeondeok, who appeared in full wrath and said, “You killed my son who did nothing wrong, so I would do the same to your children. Remember that.” Sejo woke up in shock and suddenly, he received the news that the Crown Prince (Sejo’s firstborn son Crown Prince Uigyeong) had passed away. Because of that reason, Soreung (Queen Hyeondeok’s tomb) was dug up.’

Queen Hyeondeok was not considered a queen by right for some time until King Jungjong’s reign. Her spirit tablet was enshrined in the Royal Ancestral Shrine, returning her to the rightful position as a queen consort. She was also moved to be entombed beside Munjong in Hyeonreung. It was said that there was a pine tree that stood between their mounds, but after the tree died and was cut off, it was as if there was nothing that could divide the mounds. They finally reunited after 70 years of being apart in death. Their tombs are located in Donggureung Royal Tombs Complex in Guri and made in the form of one site with two ridges (their mounds are on separate hills). Hyeonreung still exists until today, holding a lot of stories for those who want to pay a visit.

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