Trịnh lords

The Trịnh lords, also known as Trịnh clan or House of Trịnh, were a noble feudal clan who were the de facto rulers of northern Vietnam while Nguyễn lords ruled southern Vietnam during the Later Lê dynasty. Both of two rulers referred to themselves as Chúa and controlled their countries while the Later Lê emperors did not have any real power, only maintained their title. The Trịnh lords traced their descent from Trịnh Khả, a friend and advisor to the 15th-century Vietnamese Emperor Lê Lợi. The Trịnh clan had officially 12 lords that ruled Northern Vietnam and the royal court of Later Lê dynasty for more than 2 centuries.

Founding of Trịnh lords

Rise of Trịnh family

After the death of emperor Lê Hiến Tông in 1504, Lê dynasty began to decline. In 1527, power-usurping courtier Mạc Đăng Dung gained the opportunity to make a coup on Lê dynasty and seized the throne of emperor Lê Cung Hoàng and established Mạc dynasty ruling kingdom of Đại Việt. In 1533, a general and Lê royalist Nguyễn Kim uprose to make revolution against Mạc dynasty in Thanh Hóa and restore the Lê dynasty. Then, he tried to find the royal successor of Lê dynasty who was the son of emperor Lê Chiêu Tông, prince Lê Duy Ninh and he was enthroned with the title Lê Trang Tông. After 5 years of revolution, most of the southern region of Đại Việt were captured by Revival Lê dynasty, but not the capital city Thăng Long


The founder of the clan was Trịnh Kiểm, born in Vĩnh Lộc commune, Thanh Hóa province. Trịnh Kiểm was raised in a poor family. He often stole chickens from his neighbors because chicken was his mother's favorite food. When his neighbors found out, they were extremely angry. One day, when Trịnh Kiểm left home, his neighbors abducted his mother and threw her down an abyss. Trịnh Kiểm returned home and panicked due to the disappearance of his mother. When he finally found his mother's body, it was infested with maggots.
After the death of his mother, he joined the army of the revival Lê dynasty led by Nguyễn Kim. Because of Trịnh Kiểm's talent, he was given the hand of Kim's daughter Ngọc Bảo, and became his son-in-law. In 1539, Trịnh Kiểm was promoted to general and received the title of the Duke of Dực. In 1545, after the assassination of Nguyễn Kim, Trịnh Kiểm replaced his father-in-law as the commander of the Lê dynasty royal court and military.

Strengthening of Trịnh family's power

Elimination of Nguyễn lords

In spite of the threat of Mạc dynasty in the north, the priority of Trịnh Kiểm was eliminating the power of the Nguyễn lords. He ordered the killing of the oldest son of Nguyễn Kim. The second son of Kim, Nguyễn Hoàng fearing that he would face the same fate as his brother, requested Trịnh Kiểm to allow him move south to guard Thuận Hóa province. Trịnh Kiểm feared the political repercussions against him if he killed both brothers. Besides that, Thuận Hóa was far from the capital city and it would allow more opportunity for Trịnh Kiểm to seize control of the whole government. Eventually, Trịnh Kiểm consented to allow Nguyễn Hoàng to guard Thuận Hóa. Trịnh Kiểm established the Trịnh lords regime and firmly ruled in proxy through the Lê dynasty government while Nguyễn Hoàng escaped to Thuận Hóa province and established his own Nguyễn lords regime in the south to oppose the rule of the Trịnh family in the north.

Reinstall Lê emperor">Revival Lê dynasty">Lê emperor as figurehead

In 1556, emperor Lê Trung Tông died without heir, Trịnh Kiểm aimed to seized the throne of Lê dynasty but he was still worried about public opinion. Therefore; he seek to the advice of former mandarin Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm who was living a secluded life. Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm advised Trịnh Kiểm should not take the throne of Lê dynasty although this government was just a puppet. Trịnh Kiểm decided to enthrone one of Lê royal member namely Lê Duy Bang, who was 6th generation of Lê Trừ. Lê Duy Bang took throne with the title Lê Anh Tông and Trịnh lords continually controlled the government with emperor as the figurehead.
In 1570, Trịnh Kiểm died and there was the power struggle between two of his sons Trịnh Cối and Trịnh Tùng. Then, both of them fought each other in the war. Simultaneously, the army of Mạc attacked Lê dynasty from the north and Trịnh Cối was surrendered to Mạc dynasty.Emperor of Mạc The emperor Lê Anh Tông supported Trịnh Cối to become the next Trịnh lords and cooperate with him to defeat Trịnh Tùng. Trịnh Tùng found out this conspiracy then emperor Lê Anh Tông with 4 sons had to flee to the other places. Later, Trịnh Tùng enthroned the youngest son of emperor, prince Đàm as the next emperor with title Lê Thế Tông. After that, Trịnh Tùng searched and capture emperor Lê Anh Tông and murder him.

Lê –Mạc civil war

The Trịnh–Nguyễn alliance

In 1520, fearing the ambition of Mạc Đăng Dung, the Nguyễn and the Trịnh left the capital Hanoi 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 lords 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 lord 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.
The armies of Nguyễn Kim and Trịnh Kiểm captured the summer palace and crowned their own puppet Lê emperor, Lê Trang Tông, in 1533. 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. Kim had two 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 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 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 historical victory of the Trịnh' over the Mạc was a common theme in public Vietnamese theaters.

The Trịnh–Nguyễn War

In 1620, after the enthronement of another figurehead Lê Emperor, 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 succeeded 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. 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 that stretched a few miles from the sea to the hills. These walls were built north of Huế. The walls were about 20 feet tall and seven miles long. The Nguyễn defended these lines against numerous Trịnh offensives that lasted from 1631 till 1673, when Trịnh Tạc concluded a peace treaty with the Nguyễn Lord, Nguyễn Phúc Tần, dividing Vietnam 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.
Business by the Dutch East India company was ceased with the Trịnh lords on 1700.

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. 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, 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 lords 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 Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Empire, for aid against the peasant usurpers. The Qianlong Emperor responded by sending a large army into Vietnam to restore the Lê Emperor. The Qing army captured Thăng Long in 1788. The last Trịnh lord, Trịnh Bong, took the position as de facto 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 Qing army. The Qing forces retreated, leaving Nguyễn Huệ in control of a united Vietnam. The Lê family fled north to China along with the Trịnh family. About 100 years later, 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. 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 the Ming dynasty and Manchu-led Qing dynasty of China. Unlike the Nguyễn Lords who were happy to accept large numbers of Ming refugees into their lands, the Trịnh did not. When the Qing conquered the Ming and therefore extended the 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 Qing intervened twice during the rule of the Trịnh Lords, once in 1537, and again in 1788. Both times, the Qing 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..

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.

Chronological list of Trịnh lords