Meet Korea's First Solo Monarch, Queen Seondeok 선덕여왕
After Confucianism was introduced to Korea in the Goryeo Dynasty (918 BC - 1392 BC), women steadily lost more and more of their rights in the ancient world. Despite this strictly patriarchal culture, however, a few powerful women battled their way to the throne – the first woman to claim the kingship as their own was Queen Seondeok of Silla.
Born as Princess Deokman (덕만공주님) in 595BC, Seondeok was the eldest daughter of King Jinpyeong (진평왕) and Queen Maya (마야 부인). Out of all the king’s children, Deokman was thought to be the most generous and wise. Since King Jinpyeong had no male heir, he considered one of his sons-in-law to be a worthy enough successor. However, Princess Deokman had won the trust of the people and proved herself to be the best candidate to sit the throne – making her King Jinpyeon’s successor.
In 632, despite fierce opposition from many male officials who rose against her to prevent her from being crowned, Princess Deokman became Queen Seondeok, the first solo-female-ruler to preside over the throne of Silla.
Queen Seondeok accomplished much during her fifteen-year reign. After she was crowned, Queen Seondeok lowered the taxes of the common class while reducing the taxes of the middle class. She actively helped the orphaned, widowed and elderly citizens who had no one to support them. These acts of kindness, which few rulers had done before, earned Queen Seondeok the peoples’ love and support.
She also contributed to Silla’s agriculture by building a star-gazing tower, or Cheomseongdae (첨성대), to assist the farmers. Queen Seondeok also constructed Hwangnyongsa (황룡사), a nine-storey pagoda that would block invasions and calm the people. Even though the royal treasury was dangerously depleted, Queen Seondeok told her subjects to tear down her palace and use its bricks and timber to complete the pagoda.
Eventually, opposition to her reign came from those whom Queen Seondeok was close to. In 647, a rebellion was lead by one of the Queen’s court officials, a trusted friend who claimed that the throne should be taken over by a man. This rebellion lasted for less than ten days, but during this time Queen Seondeok became ill and died before the rebels were defeated. She was fifty-two.
Despite attempts to install a king on the throne, the next ruler was the late-Queen Seondeok’s cousin Princess Seungman, who became Queen Jindeok (진덕여왕). Queen Jindeok continued in her cousin’s footsteps, being a wise and benevolent ruler. Throughout her seven-year reign, Queen Jindeok strengthened ties Quen Seondeok made with the Tang Dynasty, as well as built-up Silla’s defences and foreign policies. According to rumour, it was widely believed that Queen Seondeok never married, so she could avoid political tension. Some say this influenced Queen Jindeok, and later Queen Jinseong, to refrain from marriage.
Although she never lived to see the three kingdoms of Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo unite as one, Queen Seondeok played a major role in the unification of Old Korea. Through her determination, patience and kindness, she won the hearts of her people, protected her kingdom and, most importantly, paved the way for future queens to rule without a king.
Written by Claudia Deborah | Illustrations by @kikitsa.draws