(featuring Queen Wongyeong and Queen Soheon, whose families fell victim to Taejong’s effort to consolidate the royal authority)
It was through The First Strife of Princes in 1398 that Yi Bang-won acquired the real political power behind his brother Bang-gwa’s ascension to the throne as King Jeongjong, while waiting for the right time for himself. Then, Bang-won managed to suppress The Second Strife of Princes in 1400 organized by his fourth brother Bang-gan and Park Po, leading Jeongjong to officially hand over the throne to him. Yi Bang-won was to rule as the third king of Joseon, Taejong. With him sitting on the throne, Lady Min naturally became the queen. This new mother of the nation was later known as Queen Wongyeong, and she was the person who played an active part in putting Taejong in the position he had as the ruler of Joseon.
Coming from an illustrious family that emerged in the late Goryeo Dynasty, Queen Wongyeong was the daughter of Min Je from Yeoheung Min clan. She married Bang-won, who was two years younger than her, at a slightly later age of 18 in 1382, and Bang-won lived in with Lady Min’s family according to the marriage customs at that time. At that time, Bang-won’s family was not even a significant one, born in the humble border town of Hamheung. But then, Lady Min’s family saw his potential and agreed to the marriage.
Lady Min was granted the title Princess Jeongnyeong after the founding of Joseon Dynasty in 1392 before crowned Crown Princess Jeong when her husband was made the Crown Prince in the second month of 1400. In the eleventh month of the same year, as Bang-won ruled as Taejong, she was referred to as Queen Jeong in her lifetime.
After Joseon was found, Bang-won did not have much to do since he was left without anything in the political arena of the new country, thanks to Taejo’s most loyal advisor Jeong Do-jeon. He woke up from his idle days of gritting his teeth by himself when it was announced that his half-brother Bang-seok would be made the Crown Prince; he stated rallying and encouraging his brothers to eliminate both Jeong Do-jeon and Bang-seok. But then, Jeong Do-jeon’s side didn’t let them win easily, putting up a worthy counterattack against Bang-won’s forces. Bang-won was cornered when Jeong Do-jeon pushed for the private army reform in order to force the princes into giving up their weapons. Since it was Jeong who had the power at that time, Bang-won had to surrender his private armies to the central government and threw their weapons into the fire; however, Lady Min secretly hid weapons in her natal home in preparation for disaster that might come upon them, showing her determination.
This move proved to be effective later during the First Strife of Princes in 1398. On that day of the coup, Lady Min used the excuse of having a severe stomach ache to call out Bang-won who was on night duty in the palace beside his father Taejo. Bang-won made it out of the palace and proceeded to attack Jeong Do-jeon. Together with her brothers Min Mu-gu and Min Mu-jil, Lady Min mobilized the private armies with the weapons she kept hidden at her natal house and ambushed Jeong Do-jeon and Nam Eun. Even during the Second Strife of Princes in 1400 instigated by Bang-gan and Park Po, she showed a strong heroine side of her when her own husband showed signs of hesitation. The Annals of King Jeongjong recorded her action at that time as such:
“She soon put on the armour on top of her unlined clothes, commanding the armies to make their moves for the great cause.”
However, when her husband actually became the king, Queen Wongyeong was forbidden from taking part in politics, plus the concubine issue further deepened the endless discord between husband and wife. Taejong, who used to express strong discontent with regard to Jeong Do-jeon’s measure to strengthen the new government, ended up putting all his energy into consolidating the royal authority after his coronation as a king. He made up his mind to cut the potential of maternal family’s domination over the royal family right at its roots. Min Mu-gu and Min Mu-jil, his brothers-in-law who made the biggest contribution in putting him on the throne ended up being accused of disloyalty and then sentenced to banishment.
Queen Wongyeong noticed Taejong’s intention of exterminating her family and planned a secret coup with her family, but this caused her relationship with Taejong to get worse. Taejong stopped at nothing in suppressing Queen Wongyeong’s family: Min Mu-gu and Min Mu-jil were ordered to commit suicide, while the other two brothers of the queen – Min Mu-hyul and Min Mu-hoe – were sentenced to death upon accounts of treason. Under the excuse of dispersing the power of royal maternal family and strengthening the royal authority, Taejong took in as many as 9 concubines, which caused the huge discord with Queen Wongyeong. It was even recorded that “Queen Jeong (Wongyeong) was infuriated and enraged at the sight of the king getting close to a palace maid, hence the maid was strongly rebuked, causing the king to be livid and eventually abandoning the queen.”
Queen Wongyeong was the closest political comrade who made her husband the king, but Taejong chose to suppress not only her but her natal family as well. Perhaps, the pent-up frustration built up inside her heart caused her to pass away at the age of 56 in 1420 in Suganggung Palace (present-day Changgyeongung Palace). At that time, her son Sejong chose a spot at the foot of Daemosan Hill in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do Province to become her final resting place. It would be known as Heolleung. Two years later, Taejong also passed away at the age of 56 and laid to rest beside her. It is currently situated in Naegok-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul, built as twin mounds as if to show the husband and wife comfortably resting there in eternity.
Queen Soheon was the consort of King Sejong the Great, who is regarded as the wisest king in the history of Joseon. She was born in Yangju, Gyeonggi-do Province in the ninth month of the year 1395 to her parents: Shim On of the Cheonsong Shim clan and Lady Ahn of the Sunheung Ahn clan. Her family gained the status of a prestigious noble family through her grandfather and also her uncle: Queen Soheon’s grandfather Shim Deok-bu was made a meritorious subject of the first rank during the founding of the dynasty, while her uncle Shim Jong married King Taejo’s daughter, Princess Kyeongseon. At the age of 14, she was crowned Princess Kyeongsook after her marriage with the third son of King Taejong, Grand Prince Chunnyeong, who was two years her junior in age.
Her life had a 180-degree transformation when her husband was made the Crown Prince after the removal of Grand Prince Yangnyeong from the position 1418, and she became the queen two months after holding the Crown Princess’ position. She was referred to as Queen Consort Gong, which carried the meaning of being Courteous Consort. It was the most beautiful title ever conferred to a living queen in Joseon; however, the practice of giving titles to a living queen was soon abolished in 1432. [Previous titles given to the predecessor queens included: Faithful Consort (Queen Sinui), Illustrious Consort (Queen Sindeok), Virtuous Consort (Queen Jeongan), and Serene Consort (Queen Wongyeong)] But then, Sejong’s ascension to the throne in 1418 was only the beginning of Queen Soheon’s misery.
Former King Taejong was so into his effort in consolidating the royal authority that her natal family ended up being dragged into the fire pit. Her father Shim On was executed under the suspicion of committing treason, while her mother and her siblings were all forced to become government slaves. Queen Soheon herself was not spared from the aftermath of the situation. Yoon Jeong and Park Eun among others proposed her deposal, citing that “Since the father was found guilty, there is no reason for the daughter to remain in her position as the Queen.” Fortunately, Former King Taejong’s words enabled her to keep her position, saying “There were previous cases where the daughter became the Empress and Queen despite the father’s crime. The sentence is already carried out and there is no more of the illustrious family; I have already advised Queen Gong (Soheon) to forego her worries, so the ministers should know my intention.” Witnessing her father’s death and her mother’s downfall to a slave right after becoming the Queen broke Soheon’s heart. Her husband Sejong could do nothing since Taejong was adamant about carrying out his action, hence the only thing she could do in her position as the Queen was to soothe the anger she had deep in her heart. This heart-wrenching reason played an important part in her devotion to Buddhism.
Despite her personal hardship. Queen Soheon was diligent in supporting Sejong. In 1436, Sejong had set up his mind to depose Crown Princess Bong, who was the second consort of Munjong in his Crown Prince days. At that time, an entry in the Annals of King Sejong lauded Queen Soheon’s endless virtue in dealing with the situation. “The way we handle family matters will be thoroughly carried out after this. Even if my body gives up; I gain strength from the Queen’s support. The Queen has always been gentle in her temperament and magnificent in her behaviour; her heart is free from any speculation. Even King Taejong praised her overflowing virtues, saying that her virtues can weigh down a tree’s bough down to the ground.” Although Sejong was having a difficult time with the two deposed Crown Princess, it was emphasized that Queen Soheon’s support pulled him out of his misery, allowing him to recover from the disappointment.
Queen Soheon gave birth to 8 sons and 2 daughters through her marriage with Sejong. Their children were living proof that their marriage was a harmonious one; when compared to the royal concubines of Sejong, there were five concubines and they had a total of 10 sons and 2 daughters from their relationships with the king. The Queen herself did not have any discord with the concubines; she treated the concubines who were Sejong’s favourites with favour herself. Perhaps, it was her personality as the queen consort. The royal concubines also helped in raising the children and even the grandchildren of the queen, showing an exceptional case of good relationship maintained between a queen and the royal concubines.
Queen Soheon put behind her own pain in order for her to actively take part in supporting Sejong as his wife. In 1406, Sejong was on a visit to Hoengseong-gun County in Gangwon-do Province for military training when a huge fire broke out in Hanyang. Queen Soheon was the one who led the operation to suppress the fire. (At that time, the Crown Prince also followed the king, and Queen Soheon was pregnant. Hwang Hee, the Prime Minister at that time skipped the ordinary line of reporting and directly reported the progress to the queen.) She also supervised various national events such as banquets for the elderly and farewell banquets for the foreign and local envoys.
She eventually passed away in the year 1446 and Sejong constructed her tomb on the west side of Taejong’s mausoleum Heolleung. When Sejong himself died in 1450, their son Munjong buried him in one tomb together with Queen Soheon. Thus, the first joint tomb in the history of Joseon, Yeongneung, was born. But then, the site was deemed inappropriate for a royal tomb during Yejong’s reign, hence it was moved to its current location in Yeoju City, Gyeonggi-do Province, earning the city its nickname Sejong’s City for upholding the king’s reputation.