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Tales from the Palace: Cheoljong, the beggar king (Part one)

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Ganghwa Island in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection
Ganghwa Island in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

Korea's history is filled with epic tales of heroism and fantasy.

The rulers of the peninsula's great dynasties and kingdoms were hatched from eggs, or were golden frogs, or betrayed their own sovereigns, leading to fields of battle where the victors were proclaimed righteous and won the right to provide the narration for their acts.

But not all Korean monarchs had privileged or heroic pasts; some had rather humble beginnings.

On July 25, 1849, King Heonjeong ― Joseon Korea's 24th monarch ― died, leaving Korea in a horrible state. Although he had ruled (in name) for some 15 years, he was only 21 at his death and had no heir. There was only one option, for the Dowager Queen to adopt a distant relative and proclaim him king.

A Korean high official on an outing in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection
A Korean high official on an outing in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection

The choice fell on a distant relative ― Yi Won-beom, a 19-year-old who would come to be known as King Cheoljong. The decision was apparently based mainly on the boy's illiteracy and lack of grace, not on his wisdom or courage ― a perfect tool for the Dowager Queen to continue to rule the country.

Before he could be crowned, however, he had to be found. Politics in the Joseon era were dangerous and so, for their own protection, the boy's family had moved into obscurity on Ganghwa Island.

In James Scarth Gale's Korean history book ― published in the 1920s ― we are told that Jeong Won-yong, the elderly prime minister, "wholly unannounced [and] carrying [the Dowager Queen's] order in his coat-sleeve," made his way to Ganghwa Island where he informed the island's governor of his intention of returning to Seoul with Yi Won-beom. The startled young and future king was found plowing a field, "his hair in a queue down his back and his face tanned by the sun."

The West Gate of Ganghwa city in 1967 ― taken from a signboard near the gate. Robert Neff Collection
The West Gate of Ganghwa city in 1967 ― taken from a signboard near the gate. Robert Neff Collection

In 1863, Charles-Antoine Pourthie, a French missionary, gives a very unflattering account of how the king-to-be was discovered. He claimed that the youth was found with "clothes covered with filth, his hands dirty, and his face smeared with the juice of a melon which he was eating heartily."

There is another variation ― one that has gained great popularity over the years ― that claims Won-beom was not found plowing a field but was resting on a nearby hill where he had been gathering wood.

The young woodcutter had noticed a huge procession of men ― said to number about 500 officials, soldiers and servants ― who had traveled from Seoul aboard a ship and arrived at Ganghwa in great pomp, complete with flags and banners indicating a royal procession and a royal palanquin.

The West Gate in the spring of 2020. Robert Neff Collection
The West Gate in the spring of 2020. Robert Neff Collection

The population gathered in awe ― it was the most impressive thing that had happened on the island in their lifetime ― but this soon turned to disbelief when they discovered they were looking for Won-beom.

Prime Minister Jeong assured the population and Won-beom that his arrival was not for nefarious reasons but rather to conduct the young man to his rightful place on the throne. A humble island youth was to become king.

Won-beom was quickly taken back to Seoul but his welcome wasn't assured. The prime minister sent word that he was returning with the king and requested an honor guard of men be present at the river port to escort them into the capital. He confessed to those around him that if the guard was not present then surely they would all die. Fortunately, they were there.

The beauty of Ganghwa's wooden slopes. Spring 2020. Robert Neff Collection
The beauty of Ganghwa's wooden slopes. Spring 2020. Robert Neff Collection

The boy was promptly proclaimed king and quickly married to the daughter of one of the strongest families in the capital. Despite the extravagance and wealth about him, King Cheoljong was still a rather simple man who could not hide his past.

Even in the Western community of Shanghai, Cheoljong's austere past became known after Monsieur de Montigny, the French Consul, and a group Westerners traveled to Korea in 1851 and rescued a group of shipwrecked French whalers from an island. During their short stay, the rescue party learned:

"The newly ascended King whose designation is Jin-ho (Sun-fire) is said to have sprung from a very humble position in society, he who is now a King, being actually said to have been once a beggar!"

Tomorrow we will look at the short reign of the beggar king.

The wooded slopes along the walls of one of Ganghwa's fortifications. Spring 2020. Robert Neff Collection
The wooded slopes along the walls of one of Ganghwa's fortifications. Spring 2020. Robert Neff Collection





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