Don’t be misled by the drama’s title. At the crux of The Princess’s Man (2011) is not a princess and her man, it is a king and his brother.
More precisely, a sickly king and his power-mad brother. A brother so ruthless he will kill his own family members if that will pave his way to the throne. Who is this man and is he for real? To uncover the answers, allow me to take you on a quick tour of the history behind this gripping drama (fifteen episodes devoured in four days). The last time I did something similar (the devouring, the researching, the writing) was for last year’s best drama, Jejoongwon. With nine more episodes to watch, I do not know if The Princess’s Man will be my drama of the year this time but a Top 3 placing looks almost certain. Just the political feuding alone has me on the edge of my seat and positively salivating.
To begin, let’s go back more than five hundred years, to the reign of the fifth king of Joseon.
The eldest son of King Sejong the Great (Joseon’s fourth king), Yi Hyang was born in 1414 and became King Munjong in 1450. For many years prior to his reign, and in his official capacity as Royal Prince Successor, he had assisted King Sejong in state affairs.
In 1420 when Yi Hyang was just six years old, King Sejong established the Hall of Worthies (Jiphyeonjeon). Scholars personally selected by the king undertook research in the sciences and humanities, thus heralding the start of an era that historians have christened “the golden age of Korean culture.” Among many of the Hall’s sterling accomplishments, the most major would be the creation of the Hangul phonetic writing system.
Historically (and as depicted in the drama), scholar-officials from the Hall of Worthies formed the backbone of the king’s political support. From the time of his father’s reign and during his own, King Munjong associated closely with the scholar-officials and sought their counsel.
In the twilight years of his life, King Sejong (born 1397; reigned 1418-1450) was beset by multiple health problems. His chosen successor was likewise physically frail; King Munjong ruled Joseon for just two years (1450 to 1452) before succumbing to his illnesses. He was 38 years old when he passed away—a fact that some viewers might have difficulty believing because the king in the drama looks much older!
CROWN PRINCE HONG-WI
King Munjong had seventeen brothers. Keenly aware that his days were numbered and that a power struggle among his younger siblings would erupt once he was gone, he rallied the Hall of Worthies around his son, Hong-wi, forming a regency council to safeguard the young prince’s well-being.
Born in 1441 (his mother, Queen Hyeondeok, died that same year; during childbirth, perchance?), Hong-wi was bestowed the title “Royal Prince Successor Descendant” by his grandfather King Sejong the Great. During his father’s brief reign, he was officially made “Royal Crown Prince,” a title meant to preempt any kingly intentions his uncles might harbor. If any of them thought the throne would bypass King Munjong’s offspring, they’d better think again.
In 1452, Hong-wi became King Danjong, Joseon’s sixth king. He was just eleven at that time.
King Danjong ruled from 1452 to 1455 and died in 1457. Why was his reign so short and why was his life snuffed out when he was merely sixteen years of age? Keep reading to find out.
According to the drama (and I was paying rapt attention even if the first two episodes weren’t as captivating as subsequent episodes; still, I might have missed the relevant hints), Hong-wi had only one sibling, Princess Gyeong-hye. The annals, however, show that King Munjong had more than two children with his queen and consorts.
Princess Gyeong-hye was born in 1436, which meant she was just five years older than Hong-wi. I can scarcely find anything about her in English on the Net, but the drama depicts her as being fiercely protective of her brother. Her spouse was Lord Jeong Jong whom she married when she was sixteen, the year her father died (I can’t find the exact date of the wedding so am just going to go along with the timeline in the drama). Two separate sources have Jeong Jong perishing in 1457 and 1461, both dates offering scant comfort because I so adore this character in the show! Well, the Jeong Jong in the drama was still alive and kicking the last time I checked so that’s what I’m going to cling to, historical records be damned. Live, dear Royal Son-law, live!
Also, the records state that the princess and Jeong Jong had one offspring. That fact just makes me smile so wide. Can’t wait for that particular plot development!
GRAND PRINCE SUYANG
Dastardly. Bloodthirsty. Brilliant. All apt adjectives to describe King Sejong’s second son, Yi Yu.
Born in 1417, three years after the birth of his brother Yi Hyang, Yi Yu was given the title “Grand Prince Suyang” in 1428. A military commander, Suyang was supposedly made Crown Prince-elect by his grandfather King Taejong but it was his older brother Yi Hyang (King Munjong) whom their father groomed for the throne. Would that explain why Suyang always felt the throne belonged to him?
Greatly resenting the powers of the regency council (established by King Munjong to protect his son Hong-wi), Suyang surrounded himself with his own cadre of antsy and ambitious allies. Said allies kept planting “you should seize control of the throne” seeds in his head.
The more he cultivated those thoughts, the more Suyang disliked one man in particular: Right State Councilor Kim Jong-seo, King Munjong’s most trusted adviser. In 1453, when his young nephew (King Danjong) was barely one year into his reign, Suyang used the pretext of treason (accusing the council members of plotting to overthrow the king) to stage a coup. Kim Jong-seo and the Chief State Councilor, Hwangbo In, together with other members of the regency council, were killed. So were their sons.
Swiftly consolidating his powers, Suyang made himself the Chief State Councilor and relegated King Danjong to puppet-king. In 1455, he forced his nephew to abdicate, stripping him of his title as king and sending him into exile. By 1457 Joseon’s sixth king was dead, his death by poisoning mandated by his own uncle. Two uncles (Prince Anpyong and Prince Geumsung) who supported him were put to death in similar fashion. Scholar-officials from the Hall of Worthies who were opposed to Suyang were summarily executed.
Suyang became King Sejo, seventh king of Joseon. He reigned from 1455 until his death in 1468.
RIGHT STATE COUNCILOR KIM JONG-SEO
An outstanding general during the reign of King Sejong the Great, Kim Jong-seo was sent by the king in 1433 to destroy the Manchu. By capturing several strategic fortresses, that military campaign succeeded in restoring Korean territory up to the Songhua River. As one of the Hall of Worthies’ top scholar-officials, Kim Jong-seo also led the committee which compiled the Goryeosa (History of Goryeo). Personally commissioned by the king, the Goryeosa comprised thirty-nine volumes of meticulously recorded history.
When King Sejong died and the throne passed to his appointed successor, Kim Jong-seo became the new king’s closest confidant. As Right State Councilor, he curtailed the powers of many royal family members so that they would stop meddling in affairs of the state. That led him on a direct collision path with Grand Prince Suyang.
As tensions escalated between the two enemies, and as King Munjong’s health failed rapidly, Kim Jong-seo vowed to the ailing king that he would protect Crown Prince Hong-wi with his life.
Based on official records, Grand Prince Suyang had one daughter (as well as four sons). Yi Se-seon was born in 1442; that would make her a year younger than her cousin, Crown Prince Hong-wi. At the age of thirteen, she became Princess Uisook when her father usurped the throne.
Princess Uisook married Jeong Hyeon-jo, supposedly the grandson of Kim Jong-seo if some sources are to be believed. That confuses me, however, because Jeong Hyeon-jo’s father was Jeong In-ji aka Lord Munseong. During King Sejong’s reign, a Jeong In-ji (1396-1478) was vice-minister of education. Not sure if they are the same person and especially unsure if Princess Uisook really married the grandson of her father’s archenemy!
To add to the mystique (or confusion!), legend says Princess Uisook fled the palace after becoming disillusioned with her father for murdering her cousin and uncles. Many years later, when King Sejo was old and ill, father and daughter met by chance on Songni Mountain. A mother of two sons, she was living a simple life on the mountain and refused her father’s requests to return to the palace.
Anyway… I have it on good authority (okay, Mister X aka Anarchist aka SAGEUK GURU told me) that the Yi Se-ryeong in the drama is entirely fictitious!
Also fictitious is Kim Seung-yu, oops. That, however, does not make his make-believe story any less compelling. I’ll have lots more to say about Kim Seung-yu (second son of Kim Jong-seo in the drama) and the other lead characters in Part 2 of this series. Please stay tuned!