It is well known that various royal families from across the globe have had run-ins with bouts of insanity over the years. While many of us are familiar with tales of madness from European royals, one of the most shocking revolves around the Korean Royal family.
Depending on who you listen to, Prince Sado was either a sadistic madman, the victim of poor mental health care and societal taboos, or the focus of an insidious conspiracy to control the Korean royal family. Who was this man, and what did he do to garner such a disputed reputation?
Prince Sado was born on February 13th, 1735, and was the second son of King Yeongjo of Joseon and his Royal Noble Consort Mother, Yeong of the Jeonui Yi clan. Although he was only the second son, it was expected that one day Sado would sit on the royal throne.
This was because his older brother, Crown Prince Hyojang, had died before Sado’s birth. This made Prince Sado the next in line.
Most of what we know about Prince Sado comes from a memoir that his wife, Lady Hyegyeong, wrote in 1805. It paints a picture of a tragic young man, who thanks to a youth of constant abuse and tragedy, was driven insane.
King Yeongjo was a hard man with a fiery temper. His son was a constant disappointment to him. Yeongjo saw Sado as weak from an early age and would often lash out at him.
The young prince grew increasingly timid around his father, which in turn caused his father to lash out more. From a young age Sado, who adored his father and only wanted his approval, was left a wreck.
His relationship with his mother wasn’t much better. She was predominantly concerned with staying on the fiery king Yeongjo’s good side. He had laid down a set of harsh rules on how Sado must be treated if he was going to grow to be strong and she followed them. A loving mother-son relationship wasn’t a part of these rules.
Prince Sado was married to Lady Hyegyeong when they were both only eight years old. Due to their tender ages, they were introduced as playmates first and lived separately.
In 1745, at the age of 9, Sado had his first brush with ill health during which he often lost consciousness. His disapproving father was disappointed at this seeming weakness and grew even harder on the young prince.
Sado was made regent when he came of age at 15. His father hoped that giving him the ability to make decisions on administrative matters would teach him to be a good king. Sadly, in his father’s eyes, every decision Sado made was the wrong one and he constantly second-guessed his son’s decisions.
Even worse, he liked to humiliate his son. He was not allowed to visit the ancestral tombs and was barred from high-profile court events. He also liked to chastise his son in front of large crowds such as in front of ladies-in-waiting and court eunuchs.
Driven to Madness
The first signs that Sado’s mind was unraveling came in 1752. As a result of his cruel father and distant mother Sado had grown incredibly close to his sister, Princess Hwahyeop. When she died in 1752 his grief was enormous.
That same year it is reported he read the Taoist text Okchugyeong. The text gave him hallucinations in which he saw the Thunder God. It left him with a phobia of storms and a fear of any engraving which bore the text’s characters.
Then in 1757 Sado’s adoptive mother, Queen Inwon, as well as another of his father’s wives, Queen Jeongseong, both died. During an otherwise tricky childhood, both women had been kind to him and he had been close to both. The loss of both, less than a month apart, broke him.
Supposedly, as a way of dealing with the rage of his loss, Sado began beating the royal palace’s eunuchs. In the same month that Queen Jeongseon was buried, it was said that Sado calmly walked into his chambers holding the severed head of a eunuch. He demanded his ladies-in-waiting and wife look upon it (this incident appears in Hyegyeong’s memoir).
This was the first of many murders. Reportedly, if anything went slightly wrong Sado would fly into a rage and kill a string of servants and there are reports that several bodies were removed from his palace every day. He also had a reputation for heavy drinking (a severe cultural taboo) and raping his ladies-in-waiting.
In 1760 he flew into a rage at his parents and berated his entire family. He demanded that Princess Hwawan, his father’s favored daughter, use her influence over the king for him. When he didn’t get this way he threatened to slash her with his sword. Some reports claim he also attempted to seduce/ rape the young princess who was at that time only a child.
How Did He Die?
Eventually, enough was enough, and king Yeongjo was forced to act. The entire royal family was terrified that the mad prince was going to end up killing one if not all of them. On July 4th, 1762 Sado was summoned before King Yeongjo.
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The Royal family had a serious problem. By court rules, a royal body could not be defiled (aka executed). The kingdom also practiced communal punishment, this meant any punishment carried out on Sado had to be carried out on his innocent wife and son. Not only would this look bad, but the King also had no desire to kill Sado’s son, the next in line to the throne.
The King stripped Sado of all his titles and then ordered him to climb into a wooden rice chest. Sado begged for his life but it was for nothing. Sado stayed in the chest until the night of the seventh day. On the eighth day, it was opened and Sado was pronounced dead, probably as a result of the fierce July heat and a lack of water.
15 days later the king posthumously restored Sado’s position and titles to him so that his son could replace Sado as next in line. He also banned any mention of Sado’s name for the rest of his reign.
However the old king’s attempt to strike Sado from the history books was a complete failure. After King Yeongjo’s death Sado’s son, Jeongjo, became king. One of his first acts as king was to declare himself the son of Prince Sado. He had always been a dutiful son to his mentally ill father and wished to honor him.
King Jeongjo went on to be known as one of Korea’s greatest-ever kings. Throughout his rule, he worked to clear his father’s name and quell some of the more outlandish rumors that surrounded his father.
His mother did much the same with the release of her memoirs, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. Rather than attempt to hide Sado’s madness, the memoirs helped explain it.
Throughout the 19th century, rumors circled that Sado was never ill. He had been framed by his political opponents. However, all evidence, including the above memoirs points to the opposite. It seems likely that if Sado had been framed his wife and son would have revealed it. Despite what he had put them through, both remained loyal long after his death.
In all likelihood, Prince Sado was truly “mad”. We’ll never know the true number of his victims. But at the same time, Sado was also a victim. The son of unloving parents, a childhood of coldness, constant abuse, and loss clearly made him crack. Living in a society with serious taboos concerning mental health and a lack of proper treatment meant he never stood a chance.
Top Image: Prince Sado committed some monstrous acts, but was he driven insane by his family’s treatment of him? Source: Quietword / Adobe Stock.
By Robbie Mitchell
Howard. N. 2022. The Prince in the Rice Box. Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/the-history-inquiry/the-prince-in-the-rice-box-4458670fa900
Eun-Soo. J. 2015. The ever-changing history of Prince Sado. Korea JoongAng Daily. Available at: https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2015/10/14/movies/The-everchanging-history-of-Prince-Sado/3010313.html
JaHyun. K. 2013. The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea. University of California Press.