Seondeok – d.647 – Silla, Korea

Korea

 

Embroidered portrait of Seondeok dressed in traditional Korean robes and a tall golden grown.

Seondeok was the first woman to rule as queen of Silla (one of the three kingdoms of Korea) and her reign coincided with that of Empress Wu Zetian in China.

A precocious child, there is a story from her childhood in which Seondeok’s father, King Jinpyeong of Silla, received a box of peony seeds from China. This particular strain had not been seen before in Korea, and so the box of seeds was accompanied by a painting of the flower. The young princess observed that the flowers were very pretty, but did not have a scent. She’d come to this conclusion because the artist had not painted bees or butterflies around the illustration.

Painting of three peonies in pink, lilac and white with Chinese text

17th Century Chinese painting of a Peony (source)

Whether or not this story is true, it was used in later years to demonstrate Seondeok’s clever mind and aptitude for logic and reason which made her fit to rule. Jinpyeong had no sons, and named Seondeok as his heir – a highly unusual move.

Seondeok ascended to the throne of Silla in 632 and ruled for fourteen years. Her reign was largely focused on power struggles with neighbouring kingdom Baekje and strengthening political ties with China. She sent selected Korean subjects to China – scholars on diplomatic missions and soldiers to learn Chinese martial arts.

These actions paved the way towards the unification of Korea, which happened only two decades after her death, thanks to the alliance with China.

Photograph of the star gazing tower - a tall conical building made from large grey bricks with a large square window at the centre and a square platform at the top.

17th Century Chinese painting of a Peony (source)

The queen’s reign marked Korea’s movement towards Buddhism as a national religion, and several Buddhist temples were built in Seondeok’s name. She also oversaw the construction of one of the earliest known observatories in the Far East, called Cheomseongdae; the ‘Star-Gazing Tower’.

Though Seondeok’s reign is generally regarded as successful and beneficial for the kingdom of Silla, the queen was not without her critics. Early in 647 she was faced with an uprising and attempt to overthrow her. Aided by one of Korea’s finest military minds, Kim Yushin, the rebellion was defeated.

Unfortunately, Seondeok did not live to see her enemies quashed. She died in February 647 and left the throne to her cousin, Jindeok, who became Korea’s second reigning queen.


In Fiction:

  • Lee Yo-won and Nam Ji-hyun both portrayed the empress in the Korean TV series Queen Seondeok in 2009.
  • Park Joo-mi and Hong Eun-hee played her in The King’s Dream (or Dream of the Emperor) which aired on KBS1 in 2012-2013.

References:

On Wikipedia:

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Khawlah bint al-Azwar خولة بنت الأزور – c.7th Century – Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Kawlah bint al-Azwar

Khawlah bint al-Azwar was a warrior like no other. Born during the 7th century, the daughter of a chief of the Bani Assad tribe, her family was amoung the first to convert to Islam, during the life of Mohammed.

Living during the times of the Muslim conquests, she clearly had some serious military training behind her. In fact, the first time we hear about Khawlah is in the heat of battle. She was working as a combat nurse during the Battle of Sanita-al-Uquab in 634 when her brother, Zirrar (sometimes Dhirrar), the commander of the Rashidun army, was wounded and captured by the Byzantine army.

Khalid ibn Walid, the leader of the Muslim forces, set off on a rescue mission, and Khawlah went with them. She dressed as an ordinary soldier in an attempt to blend in – but her bravery in singledhandedly fighting off the Byzantine rear guard made her somewhat conspicuous.  In fact, she so distinguished herself that the soldiers who saw her fight thought she must be Khalid himself.

When the Byzantines finally fled the battlefield, Khalid came to find the warrior he had heard so much about. He found Khawlah drenched in blood and asked her to lower her veil. Her identity revealed, Khalid ordered his army to chase the remaining Byzantine soldiers – led by Khawlah.

Khawlah fought alongside Khalid and her brother many more times. In another battle she was knocked off her horse and captured by the enemy. As a woman, she did not have the rights a male captured soldier had. She was the spoils of war.

But the enemy had sorely underestimated her. Imprisoned alongside other women captives, Khawlah got organised. She led the women as they tore the camp apart, using the enemy’s tent poles as weapons, killing thirty Byzantine knights as they escaped.

Today Khawlah is honoured in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East as a heroine. The Iraqi all-women military unit is named the Khawlah bint al-Azwar unit, and the first military college for women in the UAE is called the Khawlah bint Al Azwar Training College.


References:

On Wikipedia:

Bathild – c.626 – 680 – Burgundy and Neustria

Britain, England, France

Bathild

Of uncertain origins, Bathild’s curious life appears to have begun in East Anglia, Britain, where she possibly born into a noble family. Whatever the circumstances of her upbringing, she was at some point uprooted and sold into slavery – possibly as a result of the war for the throne of East Anglia.

Still a little girl, Bathild now found herself a very long way from home, in Neustria (part of modern day France), where she entered service in the household of Erchinoald, a powerful Frankish nobleman.

The story goes that Bathild grew up into the ideal medieval woman – beautiful, modest, subservient and pious. When Erchinoald’s wife died, he was keen to make Bathild his wife. Unfortunately for him, Bathild was uninterested in the man who had bought her as a child, and hid herself away until he found someone else to marry.

Eventually (though the details are murky) Bathild got a much better offer of marriage – Clovis II, king of Burgundy and Neustria. This time, she said yes.

Like all good medieval Christian queens, Bathild engaged in public acts of charity. She donated enough money to the church to found two Abbeys, Corbie and Chelles – and possibly three others. She also had three sons, Clotaire, Childeric and Theuderic.

Their eldest son was only five years old when Clovis died, leaving little Clotaire on the throne, but Bathild in charge. As queen regent she really came into her own. She was an intelligent and capable politician, even handling an attempted coup.

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Bathild’s seal matrix (sourcesource)

Her greatest triumph was the abolition of Christian slavery – something which must have been very dear to her heart. Historical sources also write that she worked to free children who had been sold into slavery by paying for them herself and giving them their freedom.

All three of Bathild’s sons became kings – Clotaire of Neustria, Childeric of Austrasia and Theuderic of Burgundy. Satisfied that she had done her job, Bathild retired to the Abbey she had founded in Chelles, where she lived peacefully until the end of her life.

 

 

 


References:

Bathild Seal Matrix – Norfolk Museum

On Wikipedia:

Wu Zetian 武則天 – 624 – 705 – Chang’an, China

Ancient China, China

Wu Zetain

The word ‘formidable’ has been used to describe a number of consorts (wives of kings or emperors) throughout history, from Egyptian queen mother Tiye to Roman matron Livia. While these women often operated in private, behind closed doors in order to achieve their own political agendas, and did so very successfully, none had quite such an impressive career trajectory as Wu Zetian, the concubine who became sole ruler of imperial China.

Described in turns as ruthless, power hungry and benevolent, Wu Zetian made history as not only China’s only female ruler, but as one of its most controversial.

The daughter of a timber merchant, Wu entered the Imperial court at the age of fourteen as a concubine to Emperor Taizong. She remained a lesser wife until Taizong’s death in 649. When an emperor died, his widows were supposed to enter a convent and become Buddhist nuns for the rest of their lives. But Wu was different.

Instead of retiring to a life of celibacy and religious ritual, Wu Zetian somehow managed to stay on at court – as the concubine of Taizong’s son, the newly crowned Emperor Gaozong. With Gaozong, Wu began to rise through the ranks, gaining influence and forming her own alliances.

In 654, Wu gave birth to her third child, a daughter, who died suddenly. Though none of the historical sources can agree what happened, Wu lost no time in accusing Gaozong’s chief wife, Empress Wang, of murder. She later accused Wang and Wang’s mother of witchcraft, and by 655 Wu Zetian had managed to remove her rivals and secure the role of empress for herself.

Wu and Gaozong ruled almost equally for a time, and were known as the ‘two sages’, considered wise and just leaders. Wu was well versed in history and literature, and considered extremely quick witted and capable. She was also ruthless, gathering a close group of allies to root out anyone plotting against her or the emperor. Wu ordered so many exiles and executions for treason that no one dared criticise her.

Gaozong was a sickly ruler, and died young, leaving behind his two sons with Wu Zetian (any sons he’d had with other women had been removed much earlier). The elder son was difficult to control, so Wu simply replaced him for his younger brother – deciding that she would in fact speak for him.

The empress continued to rid herself of any rivals to the throne, interrupting the line of the Tang dynasty. Her reign was marked by endless plots against her – followed by swift and merciless treason trials.

After three years as regent, Wu Zetian proclaimed herself Emperor. With the help of her secret police and rigorous investigations of the nobility, Wu Zetian became the first (and, as yet, only) woman to rule China.

Tang_Dynasty_circa_700_CE

The estimated reach of Wu Zetian’s empire (source)

Though considered bloodthirsty and cruel by the nobles who she persecuted, Wu Zetian was very popular with the common people. Her quest to disempower her enemies has also been viewed as an attempt to flush out corruption within the imperial court. She reformed the government by reducing the military – Wu established an entrance exam for the government, meaning that the running of the empire was in the hands of educated scholars, rather than generals.

She also commissioned a number of historical texts intended to elevate the position of women in society, including Collection of Biographies of Famous Women. Her reign was one of culture, literature and scholarship. Among Wu Zetian’s other achievements, she also promoted Buddhism as the new state religion of China (over Daoism), creating a wealth of Buddhist art across the country.

In 705, Wu Zetian was eighty-one, and had been in power (in one form or another) for over fifty years. She had become less fierce with age, and finally gave up her throne to her third son. She died peacefully that same year.


In fiction:

Wu Zetian has been portrayed across a range of media in films, novels, television and video games. A full list can be found here.


References:

On Wikipedia:

 

Eanswith – c.614 – c.640 – Kent, England

Britain, England

Eanswith

Eanswith (sometimes Eanswythe or Eanswide) was an Anglo Saxon princess who founded the first nunnery in England.

She was the granddaughter of Bertha of Kent, and her family were the first Anglo-Saxon royals to convert to Christianity – at the time a very new religion. Kent was a powerful kingdom and Eanswith would have been one of the most highborn women in England.

Eanswith was clearly beloved by her father, King Eabald, who helped finance her plans to build the nunnery. He also listened to his daughter when she refused a proposal of marriage from a neighbouring prince.

The Benedictine Folkestone priory was completed in about 630, and Eanswith quickly moved in and adopted a monastic lifestyle, along with a number of other women. It was the first religious settlement for women in the British Isles.

After her death in 640, Eanswith was canonised as a saint by the Catholic Church. Her feast day is celebrated on 12th September.

Unfortunately the site founded by Eanswith eventually eroded into the sea, though a second building, Folkestone Priory, was constructed further inland in 1137. This site included a church dedicated to St Mary and St Eanswith, and contains Eanswith’s remains.


References:

Woman under Monasticism Lina Eckenstein

A Companion to British Literature, Volume 1: Medieval Literature, 700 – 1450Heesok Chang, Robert DeMaria, Jr., Samantha Zacher

On Wikipedia:

Chen Shuozhen 陳碩真 – d. 653 – Muzhou, China

Ancient China, China

Chen Shuozhen

China is no stranger to women warriors, but while Fu Hao, Mother Lü, Yuenü, and Princess Pingyang were all rabble rousers from noble houses, Chen Shuozhen came from more humble origins.

A peasant woman living in Muzhou, Tang dynasty China (modern day Chun’an, Zhejiang), we know very little about Chen Shuozhen’s background prior to the rebellion in 653. She would have lived through the last years of Emperor Taizong’s reign, during which there was likely a recession in China due to some large building projects.

Taizong’s successor, Gaozong, was seen as a weak ruler, and wars at the Chinese boarders during the early years of his reign caused further discontent among the common people.

Against this backdrop of general discontent and poverty Chen Shuozhen led a rebel army of more than 14,000 soldiers. Historical sources say that she rang bells and burned incense as she marched, leading some to believe that there were religious motivations behind the uprising.

She declared herself Emperor Wenjia – becoming the first woman in Chinese history to declare herself emperor (more than forty years before Wu Zetian) and took three cities before she could be stopped.

Though the rebellion lasted only two months, Chen Shuozhen’s name lived on in Chinese folklore as a hero and the first woman to claim the title of emperor.


References:

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644 – Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles

On Wikipedia:

Princess Pingyang 平陽公主 – 598 – 623 – China

Ancient China, China

Pingyang

By single-handedly amassing an army of 70,000, Princess Pingyang was a key player in the destruction of the Sui dynasty and the foundation of the Tang dynasty – a golden age for China.

The daughter of a military commander, Li Yuan, and the wife of the chief of the imperial palace guards, Pingyang was a noble lady and a prominent figure at court. China had only recently been united under the Sui dynasty, and in the early 600s was under the control of Emperor Yangdi – an immensely unpopular ruler.

Yangdi spent China’s money on expensive invasions into surrounding Asia, dangerous construction projects like rebuilding the great wall (which caused millions of deaths) – and attempted to pay for everything through heavy taxation.

The imprisonment of Li Yuan was the final straw, and as soon as he was released he and Pingyang’s husband left the imperial palace to mount a rebellion. Pinyang stayed behind in a highly vulnerable position as the wife and daughter of two insurgents.

Pingyang was made of stern stuff, however, and eventually left the palace herself, heading for the safety of her family’s feudal lands in Hu county. Thanks to Yangdi’s oppressive policies, the people there were starving, having suffered a drought without being offered relief by the government. Pingyang flew into action, offering the people food from her own family’s stores and winning their loyalty.

Pingyang continued to work covertly to ally herself with other local rebel forces and so building her own army, which later became known as the Woman’s Army. She herself dressed in male military uniform, marching at the head of her troops like a general.

She was a strict leader, forbidding looting, raping or pillaging, in order to keep the rural people on her side. Wherever Pingyang’s Woman’s Army triumphed, they shared the food with the locals, and came to be seen as heroic liberators.

Eventually, thanks in part to Pingyang’s efforts, the Sui dynasty was defeated and Yangdi fled for his life. Li Yuan became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, and Pingyang was given the title ‘Princess’. She was also given the rank of marshal, and conferred all the honours due to an imperial prince.

Princess Pingyang died very young, at the age of twenty three. Her grief stricken father ordered an elaborate military funeral. When advisors complained that it was highly irregular to have such an extravagant ceremony for a woman, he replied –

“She was no ordinary woman.”


References:

Notable Women of ChinaBarbara Bennett Peterson

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles

On Wikipedia:

Princess Pingyang

Theodelinda – c.570 – 628 – Monza, Italy

Germany, Italy

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Theodelinda was a Baviarian princess who married Authuri, king of Lombardy (northwest Italy). Authuri died while Theodelinda was still young, and she selected Agilulf as her second husband and successor to the crown.

335px-Theodelinda_attends_to_the_construction_of_the_Cathedral_of_Monza_(detail)

Fresco despicting Theodelinda attending to the construction of the Cathedral of Monza (source)

As queen of the Lomboards, Theodelinda exerted a wide influence, particularly over religious matters. She was a follower of the Nicene creed – the doctrinal statement of belief in the divinity of god the father, son and holy spirt which is today followed by most mainstream Christian denominations. Theodelinda converted Agiluf, who was a pagan prior to their marriage, and as a result spread Christianity throughout Lombardy.

The queen was also responsible for the construction of a number of churches across Lombardy and Tuscany, including the Cathedral of Monza and the first Baptistery of Florence.

Theodelinda is also closely associated with the legend of the iron crown of Lombardy. The story went that the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I, Helena, had found the ‘true cross’ – the cross which Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified upon. She took from it a number of nails, considered holy relics, and gave them to her son. Helena used one of the nails to calm the sea during a storm. Another was mounted on Constantine’s helmet, and a third made into a bit for his horse.

800px-Iron_Crown

The Iron Crown of Lombardy (source)

The remaining nails were used as diplomatic gifts, and one was sent to queen Theodelina. She had the iron relique set into a golden, jewelled diadem, which became known as ‘the iron crown’. The crown is still on display today in the Cathedral of Monza, alongside 15th century frescoes which narrate the story of Theodelinda.


References:

Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 9L Lombardy – Paolo Silva

History of the Langobards – Paul, the Deacon

On Wikipedia: