The Trịnh lords (Vietnamese: Chúa Trịnh; 1545–1787) were a series of rulers of Vietnam who controlled the powers of government while leaving a figurehead as king. They have been referred to as the Vietnamese shoguns. The Trịnh lords traced their descent from Trịnh Khả, a friend and advisor to the Medieval Vietnamese Emperor Lê Lợi, and, for nearly a decade, the real power behind the throne of the Boy-Emperor Lê Nhân Tông. During the reign of the great Vietnamese Emperor Lê Thánh Tông, one of his top generals was Trịnh Văn Sái.
The Trịnh–Nguyễn Alliance
The Lê Emperors following Lê Thánh Tông were weak and the years following the death of Lê Tương Dực (in 1516) saw the rise to power of the strong, cunning, and ambitious man Mạc Đăng Dung. In 1520, fearing the ambition of Mạc Đăng Dung, the Nguyễn and the Trịnh left the capital Hanoi (then called Đông Do) and fled south, taking the young new Emperor Lê Chiêu Tông "under their protection". This was the start of a civil war with Mạc Đăng Dung and his supporters on one side and the Trịnh/Nguyễn supporters on the other side. Thanh Hóa Province, the ancestral home to the Trịnh and the Nguyễn, was the battle ground between the two sides. After several years of warfare, Tông was assassinated in 1524 by Mạc Đăng Dung's supporters. A short time later, the resistance collapsed and both the Trịnh and the Nguyễn leaders were executed. However, this was just the end of the first phase of the civil war because in 1527 Mạc Đăng Dung usurped the throne. He killed his own puppet Emperor Lê Cung Hoàng and started a new dynasty, the Mạc dynasty. Within months the civil war broke out anew. Both the Trịnh and Nguyễn clans again took up arms in Thanh Hóa province and revolted against the Mạc. The leader of this second revolt was Nguyễn Kim. His daughter then married the new young leader of the Trịnh clan Trịnh Kiểm. Within five years, all of the region south of the Red River was under the control of the Nguyễn–Trịnh army but the two families were unable to conquer Ha Noi (known as "Thăng Long" at that time).
The armies of Nguyễn Kim and Trịnh Kiểm captured the summer palace and crowned their own puppet Lê emperor, Lê Trang Tông, in 1533 (in Vietnamese histories this date marks the beginning of the second half of the Later Lê dynasty). The war raged back and forth with the Nguyễn–Trịnh army on one side and the Mạc on the other until an official Ming delegation determined that Mạc Đăng Dung's usurpation of power was not justified. In 1537, a very large Ming army was sent to restore the Lê family. Although Mạc Đăng Dung managed to negotiate his way out of defeat by the Ming, he had to officially recognize the Lê emperor and the Nguyễn–Trịnh rule over the southern part of Vietnam. But the Nguyễn–Trịnh alliance did not accept the Mạc rule over the northern half of the country and so the war continued. In 1541, Mạc Đăng Dung died.
The Trịnh take power
In 1545, Nguyễn Kim was assassinated by an agent of the Mạc. Trịnh Kiểm took this opportunity to assert control over the Nguyễn-Trịnh army. The Trịnh captured more and more of Vietnam from 1545 onwards (nominally fighting on behalf of a new Lê Emperor). Kim had two young sons, the younger, Nguyễn Hoàng, was put in charge of new southern provinces of Vietnam in the year 1558. He was to rule the southern lands for the next 55 years and his descendants ruled them for the next 150 years. In 1570, Trịnh Kiểm died and was succeeded by his second son Trịnh Tùng. Tùng was a very vigorous leader and he captured Hanoi from the Mạc Emperor in 1572. However, the Mạc Emperor (Mạc Mau Hop) recaptured the city the next year. The war continued at a low level for two decades, the Trịnh gradually gaining strength, the Mạc gradually weakening. In 1592, Tùng launched a major invasion and again captured Hanoi. This time the Royal (Trịnh) army captured the Mạc Emperor and executed him. Over the next few years the remaining Mạc armies were defeated in battles. In this "mopping-up" campaign, the Trịnh were helped by the Nguyễn army. As the years passed, Hoàng became increasingly secure in his rule over the southern province and increasingly independent. While he cooperated with the Trịnh against the Mạc, he ruled the frontier lands as a king. With the final conquest of the north, the independence of the Nguyễn was less and less tolerable to the Trịnh. In 1600, with the ascension of a new Emperor, Lê Kinh Tông, Hoàng broke relations with the Trịnh-dominated court, although he continued to acknowledge the Lê emperor. Matters continued like this until Hoàng's death in 1613.
The Trịnh–Nguyễn War
In 1620, after the enthronement of another figurehead Lê Emperor (Lê Than Tông), the new Nguyễn leader, Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên, refused to send tax money to the court in Đông Đô. In 1623, Trịnh Tung died, he was succeed by his oldest son Trịnh Tráng. After five years of increasingly hostile talk, fighting broke out between the Trịnh and the Nguyễn in 1627. While the Trịnh ruled over much more populous territory, the Nguyễn had several advantages. First, they initially were on the defensive and rarely launched operations into the north. Second, the Nguyễn were able to take advantage of their contacts with the Europeans, specifically the Portuguese, to produce advanced cannons with the help of European engineers (for more details, see Artillery of the Nguyễn lords). Third, the geography was favorable to them, as the flat land suitable for large organized armies is very narrow at the border between the Nguyễn lands and the Trinh territories - the mountains nearly reach to the sea. After the first offensive was beaten off after four months of battle, the Nguyễn built two massive fortified lines which stretched a few miles from the sea to the hills. These walls were built north of Huế (between the Nhật Lệ River and the Sông Hương River). The walls were about 20 feet tall and seven miles long. The Nguyễn defended these lines against numerous Trịnh offensives which lasted (off and on) from 1631 till 1673, when Trịnh Tạc concluded a peace treaty with the Nguyễn Lord, Nguyễn Phúc Tần, and so Vietnam was divided between the two ruling families. This division continued for the next 100 years.
The Long Peace
The Trịnh lords ruled reasonably well, maintaining the fiction that the Lê monarch was the emperor. However, they selected and replaced the emperor as they saw fit, having the hereditary right to appoint many of the top government officials. Unlike the Nguyễn lords, who engaged in frequent wars with the Khmer Empire and Siam, the Trịnh lords maintained fairly peaceable relations with neighboring states. In 1694, the Trịnh lords got involved in a war in Laos, which turned into a multi-sided war with several different Laotian factions as well as the Siamese army. A decade later, Laos had settled into an uneasy peace with three new Lao kingdoms paying tribute to both Vietnam and Siam. Trịnh Căn and Trịnh Cương made many reforms of the government, trying to make it better, but these reforms made the government more powerful and more of a burden to the people which increased their dislike of the government. During the wasteful and inept rule of Trịnh Giang, peasant revolts became more and more frequent. The key problem was a lack of land to farm, though Giang made the situation worse by his actions. The reign of his successor Trịnh Doanh was preoccupied with putting down peasant revolts and wiping out armed gangs which terrorized the countryside.
Tây Sơn Revolt
The long peace came to an end with the Tây Sơn revolt in the south against the Trương Phúc Loan, the regent of the Nguyễn Lord, Nguyễn Phúc Thuần (1765–1777). The Tây Sơn rebellion was looked upon by the Trịnh lord, Trịnh Sâm, as a chance to finally put an end to the Nguyễn rule over the south of Vietnam. As was usual, a dynastic struggle among the Nguyễn had put a weak 12 year-old boy in power. The real ruler was the corrupt regent named Trương Phúc Loan. Using the evil rule of the regent as an excuse for intervention, in 1774, the hundred year truce was ended and the Trịnh army attacked. Trịnh Sâm's army did what no previous Trịnh army had done and conquered the Nguyễn capital, Phú Xuân (modern-day Huế), early in 1775. The Trịnh army advanced south but after some fighting with the Tây Sơn, a truce was reached. This truce allowed the Tây Sơn army to conquere the rest of the Nguyễn lands. The Nguyễn lords retreated to Saigon but even this city was captured in 1776 and the Nguyễn clan was nearly wiped out. However, the Tây Sơn were not willing to be servants of the Trịnh Lords and after a decade consolidating their power base in the south, the chief Tây Sơn brother Nguyễn Huệ marched into north Vietnam in 1786 at the head of a large army.
The Trịnh themselves were fatally divided at this time by a struggle for power following the death of Trịnh Sâm in 1782. The Trịnh army refused to even fight the powerful army of Nguyễn Huệ. The new Trịnh lord, Trịnh Khải, fled from his rebellious army and then committed suicide after being captured by a small band of rebellious peasants. The last Lê Emperor, Lê Chiêu Tông, fled to China and formally petitioned the Chinese Emperor, Qianlong, for aid against the peasant usurpers. The Chinese responded by sending a large army into Vietnam to restore the Lê Emperor. The Chinese army captured Thăng Long in 1788. The last Trịnh lord, Trịnh Bong, took the position as defacto ruler but this was short-lived. Nguyễn Huế was able to rally his forces and, like Lê Lợi before him, he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Chinese army. The Chinese retreated, leaving Nguyễn Huệ (now calling himself Quang Trung) in control of a united Vietnam. The Lê family fled north to China along with the Trịnh family. About 100 years later (after the French took Vietnam as a colony), the last of the Trịnh returned to Vietnam as ordinary citizens.
Relations with the outside world
In 1620, the French Jesuit scholar Alexandre de Rhodes arrived in Trịnh-controlled Vietnam. He arrived at a mission which had been established at the court in Hanoi around 1615 (Tigers in the Rice by W. Sheldon (1969), p. 26). The priest was a significant person regarding relations between Europe and Vietnam. He gained thousands of converts, created a script for writing Vietnamese using a modified version of the European alphabet, and built several churches. However, by 1630 the new Trịnh lord, Trịnh Trang, decided that Father de Rhodes represented a threat to Vietnamese society and forced him to leave the country. From this point on, the Trịnh Lords periodically tried to suppress Christianity in Vietnam, with moderate success. When the Nguyễn successfully used Portuguese cannon to defend their walls, the Trịnh made contact with the Dutch. The Dutch were willing to sell advanced cannons to the Trịnh. The Dutch, and later the Germans, set up trading posts in Hanoi. For a time, Dutch trade was profitable but after the war with the Nguyễn ended in 1673, the demand for European weapons rapidly declined. By 1700, the Dutch and English trading posts closed forever. The Trịnh were careful in their dealings with Ming China and Manchu Qing. Unlike the Nguyễn Lords who were happy to accept large numbers of Ming refugees into their lands, the Trịnh did not. When the Manchus conquered China and therefore extended Qing Empire's borders to Northern Vietnam, the Trịnh treated them just like they had treated the Ming Emperors, sending tribute and formal acknowledgements of Qing authority. The Manchus intervened twice during the rule of the Trịnh Lords, once in 1537, and again in 1788. Both times, the Manchus sent an army south because of a formal request for help from the Lê emperors - and both times the intervention was unsuccessful.
The Trịnh Lords were, for the most part, intelligent, able, industrious, and long-lived rulers. The unusual dual form of government they developed over two centuries was a creative response to the internal and external obstacles to their rule. They lacked, however, both the power and the moral authority to resolve the contradictions inherent in their system of ruling without reigning. (Encyclopedia of Asian History, "The Trịnh Lords").
It does seem the case that the Trịnh had lost nearly all popularity in the last half of the 18th century. While the Nguyễn lords, or at least Nguyễn Anh, enjoyed a great deal of support - as his repeated attempts to regain power in the south show - there was no equivalent support for the Trịnh in the north after the Tây Sơn took power (Vietnam, Trials and Tribulations of a Nation D. R. SarDesai, pg. 39, 1988).
Chronological list of Trịnh lords
- Trịnh Kiểm - Ruled 1545–70. He was the first Trịnh lord. He ruled across the reigns of three figurehead emperors Lê Trang Tông (1533–48), Lê Trung Tông (1548–56), and Lê Anh Tông (1556–73). Died 1570.
- Trịnh Cối Ruled 1569–70. The eldest son of Trịnh Kiểm, ineffective, lost to the Mạc, deposed shortly thereafter by his younger brother Trịnh Tùng.
- Trịnh Tùng - Ruled 1570–1623. A most active and successful leader. He ruled across the reigns of several nominal Emperors: Lê The Tông (1573–99), Lê Kính Tông (1600–19), and the first reign of Lê Thần Tông (1619–43).
- Trịnh Tráng - Ruled 1623–57. He ruled across the reigns of several nominal Emperors: Lê Chân Tông (1643–1649), and the second reign of Lê Thần Tông (again: 1649-62).
- Trịnh Tạc - Ruled 1657–82. He ruled over the reign of figureheads Lê Huyền Tông (1663–71), Lê Gia Tông (1672–1675) and Lê Hy Tông (1676–1704).
- Trịnh Căn - Ruled 1682–1709 with the name/title "Dinh Vương".
- Trịnh Cương - Ruled 1709–29 with the name/title "Phong Phuc Pho". Ruled across the reign of Lê Dụ Tông (1705–1728) and Hôn Đức Công (1729–32).
- Trịnh Giang - Ruled 1729–40 with the title "Uy Nam Vương". He ruled over the reign of Lê Thuần Tông (1732–1735) and Lê Ý Tông (1735–40) but was deposed due to poor leadership.
- Trịnh Doanh - Ruled 1740–67 with the title "Minh Do Vương". He ruled across part of the reign of Lê Hiển Tông
- Trịnh Sâm - Ruled 1767–82 with the name/title "Tinh Do Vương". He ruled across part of the reign of Lê Hien Tông (1740–1786).
- Trịnh Cán - Ruled September - October 1782, defeated by his half-brother Trịnh Khai.
- Trịnh Khải - Ruled 1782–86 with the name/title "Doan Nam Vương".
- Trịnh Bồng - Ruled 1786–87 with the name/title "An Do Pho". In power only briefly due to the Later Lê dynasty reclaiming its power; he later disappeared.
- Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam: From Hong Bang to Tự Đức. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995. p119ff. 
- List of the Trịnh lords and the nominal Lê emperors
- Encyclopedia of Asian History, Volumes 1-4. 1988. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. - "Trịnh Lords" Article by James M. Coyle, based on the work of Thomas Hodgkin.
- The Encyclopedia of Military History by R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy. Harper & Row (New York).
- Coins of Vietnam - with short historical notes
- Southeast Asia to 1875 - by Sanderson Beck
- World Statesmen.org - Vietnam
- Tay Sơn Web Site by George Dutton (has a great bibliography)
- A glimpse of Vietnamese history - contains some errors
|Ruler of northern Vietnam
(along with the Later Lê dynasty)
Tây Sơn dynasty