27 March 2012

Women Who Ruled: Toregene Khatun of the Mongol Empire

Jeannie Lin

Due to the demands of living out in the harsh conditions of the steppe, Mongolian women often shared the responsibilities of hunting and herding with the men. They knew how to ride horses and shoot. With the men frequently absent to wage war, women began to wield more influence, with some notable women assuming control as rulers. 

One such woman was Toregene Khatun. Khatun is a title meaning ‘queen’ or ‘empress’. Toregene was married to Genghis Khan’s third son Ogedei and served as regent after her husband’s death from 1241 until 1246, ruling over the largest empire in the world.

Toregene was a part of the Merkit clan, but when Genghis Khan conquered the Merkits, she was given to Ogedei as second wife. She gave birth to Ogedei’s oldest son and thus acquired a higher status than his first wife.

Ogedei was known to be a drunkard and it’s believed that Toregene began to exercise influence in his absence. The oldest recorded evidence of Toregene’s authority was an order to print Taoist texts which was issued in 1240 while Ogedei was still alive, which shows that she had already established herself within the Mongol court before his death.
By custom, after the khan’s death, it was up to the khatun, his wife, to summon the Mongolian nobility to an assembly to appoint the next ruler. Toregene postponed calling the assembly and handing over command to a successor. Instead, she dismissed Ogedei’s ministers and appointed her own and the most powerful role in her court was given to another woman, Fatima, who became her chief advisor.
During her five years as regent, she showed herself to be a capable ruler, negotiating with and eventually invading the powerful Song Dynasty and fighting them to a ceasefire. Toregene may have also had a hand in shaping the political development of the region. Toregene supported Emir Arghun Aqa, who went on to be one of Persia’s most long-serving and effective governors.
When Toregene did hand over the throne, it went not to Ogedei’s favored son and chosen successor, Kochu, but to her eldest son Guyuk, who she supported. After Guyuk took the throne, he turned around and undermined her authority, having Fatima executed for witchcraft and replacing her appointed ministers. Toregene herself died a year after his succession.
Historians Juvaini and Rashid ad-Din cast Toregene as a cunning and ugly shrew – but it makes one wonder whether this was in reaction to a woman who dared to seize power and take command in an empire controlled by men.
Mongolian noblewoman: The costumes in Star Wars prequels were inspired by Mongolian clothing.
Lockhart, Andrew G. “Women Behind the Throne.” http://www.andrewglockhart.co.uk/Women%20Behind%20the%20Throne%20excover.pdf (March 15, 2012)
Weatherford, Jack. “The Women Who Ruled the Mongol Empire.” The Globalist. http://www.theglobalist.com/StoryId.aspx?StoryId=4601 (June 20, 2005)
Jeannie Lin writes historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China. Her current release, CAPTURING THE SILKEN THIEF, is an ebook novella available from Harlequin Historical Undone. Her upcoming novel, MY FAIR CONCUBINE, will be available June 1, 2012 from Harlequin Historical. For more information about her books, go to http://www.jeannielin.com


Heather said...

Excellent post! (I love that you included the part about Queen Amidala's outfits.)

Julie K. Rose said...

Fascinating! Loving this series on women who ruled, and learning a bit about Mongolia has been wonderful. Thank you!

Jeannie said...

@Heather - I saw pieces of an exhibit showing how storm trooper armor was inspired by Japanese samurai. It was interesting to see how little they had to embellish the Mongolian outfits to create the look for the movie.

@Julie - This was fabulous to research as well.

CCH said...

Toregene was an amazing woman, but she is not one of the ladies in the portraits of Yuan consorts.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I never knew that before.

Do you know anything about Uralic peoples? I bet there's lots of stuff to be inspired by. He he!

I'm a Finn myself and believe that we Finns were once perhaps more Asian than European but our gene pool slowly changed over time but we kept the language. There are those who think otherwise but for one reason or another they tend to be associated with Storm front.

Anyway, although I'm not a big reader myself, I'm going to tell folks about your books.

All the best and rock on!


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.