After Do Anh Di’s death in 1188, his assistant Ngo Ly Tin attempted to direct affairs but became the object of public humor instead. Ngo Ly Tin was a soldier who rose to prominence in the early 1180s, first by suppressing the banditry that had reached the level of rebellion under the leadership of the disgraced crown prince Ly Long Xuong, and then by leading an expedition into the mountains of modern Laos. In 1189, the court was in some disarray due to the influence of Mac Hien Tich, who was the lover of the queen mother, Do Thuy Chau. Court officials obtained an order from the 16-year-old king for Ngo Ly Tin and another official to investigate Mac Hien Tich, but these two were afraid of him and nothing was done. A song was sung in the streets of Thang Long comparing the two ineffectual men to a pair of famous idiots in the city at that time.
The situation changed rapidly in 1190, beginning with the death of the queen mother. Bereft of her protection, Mac Hien Tich was exiled to a distant outpost in the mountains. Within a few months Ngo Ly Tin died and was succeeded by Dam Di Mong. Dam Di Mong was a kinsman of a general whose daughter had entered the palace in 1186 and who in 1194 gave birth to Ly Sam, the last Ly king. Dam Di Mong was the leading figure at court for the next quarter-century. Later historians described him as uneducated, without guile, lacking backbone, and indecisive.
This characterization of Dam Di Mong might encourage an identification with the palace guard officer of the same name who in the coup of 1150 had prevented his fellows from killing Do Anh Vu immediately upon arresting him, arguing that they should follow proper procedure. If indeed this was the same person then he must have lived to a very old age. Dam Di Mong never exercised the dominant position held by Le Ba Ngoc, Do Anh Vu, To Hien Thanh, or even Do Anh Di. This was not simply due to his lack of personal quality. It was also due to the breakdown of the Ly political system, based initially on the personal charisma of kings and then increasingly on the swords of the families of aristocratic women brought into the palace.
Lady Y Lan’s challenge to this system was mitigated by the emergency of the Song War, but her dominant influence in the palace and Ly Can Duc’s lack of an heir froze any practical consideration of the future of the dynasty for over forty years. By the time of her death, Ly nobles had mobilized a consensus about how to proceed. However, without strong adult kings, able and ruthless men with high connections in the hierarchy of palace women became the leaders of the dynasty. Any powerful family could aspire to have their women enter the palace and give birth to a king, and the competition for this opportunity gradually superseded attention to the actual business of governing. Dam Di Mong was the first strongman to attain pre-eminence on the expectation of his kinswoman giving birth to a prince rather than on the actual birth of such a prince. The prejudice in favor of child kings, easily controlled by their adult mentors, had made this increasingly likely as time passed. During Dam Di Mong’s era, the Ly court disintegrated into open warfare among powerful families based in various regions of the Red River plain. In the 1190s, Dam Di Mong appeared to demonstrate a certain level of energy putting down rebellions in the southern provinces and in the region just north- west of Thang Long. He also inspected the performance of officials to decide whether they should be promoted or demoted, and exams were held on the “three religions” of the Buddhists, the Confucians, and the Daoists and to select scholars to teach the king. Nevertheless, he perceived that the authority of the court was fading, and he decided that the Buddhist temple population had become too large and unresponsive to the monarchy. In 1198, Dam Di Mong blamed the Buddhist monks for subverting public morality. He told the king that monks were as numerous as the working population, flocking together in groups to indulge in drunken orgies, sleeping during the day and carousing all night. He accordingly gathered the monks and defrocked most of them, tattooing their hands to permanently mark them. Dam Di Mong’s purge of the monks did not stop the spread of disorder. That same year, 1198, rebellion again broke out in Nghe An led by someone claiming to be a descendent of Dinh Bo Linh. This rebellion was suppressed, but the following year floods and famine spread over the land, and in 1200 the court was distributing food to the starving. In 1202 an official in charge of the monks addressed the king in response to the popularity of Cham music at court, which was sad and mournful, making listeners weep with emotion. He quoted from a classical text, “Preface to the Odes,” about how the sounds of a disordered kingdom are plaintive, lamenting, angry, and resentful. He then described the present time: “The people rebel, the kingdom is in distress, the ruler pursues pleasure without limit, government is in a state of anarchy, the hearts of the people are perverted.” His conclusion was that the current fashion in court music was “an omen of ruin.” The following year, the 30-year-old king, Ly Long Trat, unimpressed by the “omen of ruin,” embarked on a vast project to build a complex of more than ten palaces, some with upper stories and towers, surrounded by ponds and gardens. For the next three years he entertained himself there, playing games and carous- ing with his eunuchs, women, and favorites. To pay for these pleasures, he opened his hand to bribes, which led to royal decisions being made by the highest bidder. Gangs of robbers sprang up and spread through the countryside, opening the way for the ambitions of rebel leaders. Construction of the palaces caused much distress among the people. A bird built a nest in an uncompleted tower and was viewed by some as an evil omen, but a eunuch persuaded the king that it was a good omen. Dam Di Mong’s efforts to maintain some modicum of order in the kingdom were to no avail. At one point, Dam Di Mong whipped another official in an altercation over the construction schedule and was publicly denounced to the king. This led to a brief period of symbolic demotion for Dam Di Mong to appease his enemies. An episode on the Cham frontier is an indication of how things had changed from previous eras when Ly armies kept a close border watch. A Cham prince appeared with several hundred armed men in some two hundred boats on the coast of modern Ha Tinh Province, just north of the border. He claimed to be fleeing from enemies in his own kingdom and had come to ask for help. Dam Di Mong went south to investigate. Fearing that “an anthill can break a dike,” he advised local officers to beware the strangers and to maintain guard against them. The local officers scoffed at his caution and asked how there could be anything to fear from people fleeing trouble. Angered by their attitude, Dam Di Mong left them to their own devices and returned to Thang Long. Belatedly, the local officers began to fear treachery and planned to attack the Chams. Hearing of this, the Cham prince struck first, ambushing and defeating local forces, killing the local leaders, and plundering the region before returning south. A rebellion broke out at Hoa Lu and armies sent against it were repeatedly defeated. Dam Di Mong built a defensive wall to contain the rebels and mobil- ized expert archers from the northern uplands to lead an attack, all to no avail. By 1207, two other major rebellions had also broken out, one based at modern Son Tay, west of Thang Long, and one at modern Hai Duong, east of Thang Long. Ly Long Trat was sufficiently sobered by the situation that he allowed an edict to be published apologizing for his misrule, promising to “make a new beginning with the people,” and saying that all the land and merchandise that had been confiscated by officials would be returned. In a more prosaic vein, Dam Di Mong and Pham Binh Di, the eunuch who had erased concern about the bird’s nest in 1203, marched against the most threatening rebellion, led by Doan Thuong, the leader of Hong Province in the region of modern Hai Duong, fifty kilometers east of Thang Long. As the king’s men approached, Doan Thuong requested that he be allowed to surrender to Pham Du, a prominent man in Khoai Province, a neighboring locality to the southwest. Money was passed from Doan Thuong via Pham Du to Ly Long Trat, who consequently ordered Dam Di Mong and Pham Binh Di to withdraw their troops. As a result of this, Pham Binh Di acquired an intense hatred of Pham Du for outwitting him in the game of royal sycophancy. Pham Binh Di was the leader of Dang Province, fifty kilometers down the Red River from Thang Long at modern Hung Yen, southwest of Khoai, which was the bailiwick of Pham Du. The feud between these two men was about access to the king, which had to do with streams of money. Pham Binh Di had gained access to the palace through castration. Despite efforts to ban the practice, during the Ly dynasty, men submitted to self-castration as a way to get into the palace. Ly Thuong Kiet is only the most famous of such cases. Sometimes, as with Pham Binh Di, these men had wives and children and were prominent leaders in their localities. Pham Du was apparently not a eunuch, but he was very successful in gaining the king’s ear because of the wealth he channeled to the king. It was the manner in which he gained his wealth that offered Pham Binh Di an opportunity to openly oppose him. The competition of these two men for the king’s favor was the catalyst for an outbreak of violence that pulled the Ly court apart and brought Ly Long Trat’s reign to an end. The court was endeavoring to recruit soldiers to fight the increasing numbers of rebels and bandits. When the king appointed Pham Du to be in charge of the southern border region in modern Nghe An and Ha Tinh, Pham Du requested and received the king’s permission to recruit an army of personal soldiers. Pham Du quickly became a notorious robber baron and his soldiers became expert bandits. This encouraged an outbreak of banditry and rebellion that paralyzed communications and transportation in the kingdom. Pham Du organized a network of marauders allied with Doan Thuong in Hong. In 1208, amidst floods and famine, Pham Binh Di received a royal commission to attack Pham Du’s allies south and east of Thang Long. Pham Du returned from the southern border and joined with Doan Thuong against Pham Binh Di. After months of fighting and repeated setbacks, Pham Binh Di finally defeated Pham Du in 1209 and proceeded to inventory and confiscate or destroy all of Pham Du’s considerable property. However, when he went to report to the king, Pham Binh Di was detained under arrest in a palace, for Pham Du had arrived before him and brought the king to his side. Hearing of this, Pham Binh Di’s general Quach Boc broke down a gate into the palace intending to rescue his leader. But before he could do so, Pham Du slew Pham Binh Di. Pham Du and the king fled as Quach Boc went on a rampage, retrieving Pham Binh Di’s corpse and taking the 15-year- old crown prince Ly Sam, along with his younger brother, his mother, and his two sisters, before hastening downriver for refuge with allies of Pham Binh Di. The most powerful of Pham Binh Di’s allies was Tran Ly, grandson of a man named Tran Kinh, who had come from Fujian Province in China. Tran Kinh had arrived when the opening of new lands and a quickening of trade with Southern Song and Southeast Asia had stimulated an expanding economy, attracting people with an eye for opportunity to the Red River’s coastal region. Tran Kinh reportedly started out as a fisherman, but by the time of Tran Ly the family owned vast estates, commanded soldiers, and dominated the coastal region of the Red River. Tran Ly had married into the To family, and his wife’s brother, To Trung Tu, was a powerful ally; whether these people were related to To Hien Thanh is not known, but such would be a plausible conjecture. Tran Ly had three talented adult sons, Tran Thua, Tran Tu Khanh, and Tran Thu Do, all of whom would be prominent in coming events. Another of his assets was daughters, potential mothers of kings. The arrival of Quach Boc with the crown prince suddenly expanded the horizon of Tran Ly and To Trung Tu. Dam Di Mong, along with other members of the court appeared on the scene, following the winds blowing his kinswoman, the mother of Crown Prince Ly Sam. In a series of events orchestrated by To Trung Tu, Ly Sam and a daughter of Tran Ly, later known as Thuan Trinh, were married, and Ly Sam was proclaimed king.
Meanwhile, Ly Long Trat had rallied his followers and regained Thang Long. He sent Pham Du to join with Doan Thuong to attack Tran Ly and To Trung Tu. Pham Du, distracted by a princess, missed his pre-arranged rendezvous with Doan Thuong and was captured by men who sent him to Tran Ly, who killed him. Tran Tu Khanh, Tran Ly’s second son, then mobilized Tran and allied forces and attempted to seize control of the capital, but a sudden storm scattered his boats and he lost over three hundred men to Thang Long’s defenders.
After this, those who had gathered with Tran Ly and To Trung Tu to make Ly Sam king were dismayed, and many crept back to Thang Long, including Dam Di Mong, who endured a public rebuke, but nothing more than that, for his lack of loyalty to the king. In 1210, Ly Sam returned to Thang Long as the crown prince, leaving his Tran wife behind. Soon after, bandits killed Tran Ly, and, shortly after that, the king fell sick and died. When a clique of warlords opposed the accession of Ly Sam, To Trung Tu attacked and defeated them and was accordingly given a high rank at court by the new king. Of course, Dam Di Mong was given the leading position at court, now that his kinswoman was indeed the queen mother.
There followed six years of intrigue and fighting. Beneath the surface of seemingly random violence was a consideration that had become the basic principle of Ly dynastic politics and that motivated the combatants. It was a struggle to the death for the possibility of one’s kinswoman becoming the mother of a king. The Tran had struck first with the marriage of Ly Sam and Thuan Trinh, but the queen mother was determined not to allow the Tran clan to gain a foothold in the palace. Her efforts to do away with Thuan Trinh would not reach the level of homicidal fury until 1216 when a pregnancy signaled the potential imminence of a crown prince’s birth and moved Ly Sam to the most decisive act of his life. Until then, the hopes and fears of many men led them from battlefield to battlefield. Without a strong decisive king or a dominant court master, there was nothing for the men of the kingdom but to fight the matter out among themselves.
It was not until To Trung Tu had gained a strong position at court in the spring of 1211 that the Tran sent Ly Sam’s wife to Thang Long. However, within a few weeks, To Trung Tu was dead, struck down by the husband of a princess with whom he was having an affair. The queen mother then shifted the influence of the court behind the most formidable enemy of the Tran, Doan Thuong in Hong, who had been charting his own course since 1207. Tran Tu Khanh, Queen Thuan Trinh’s brother, accordingly attacked Hong. The fighting was long and bitter. At one point Tran Tu Khanh broke the dikes and flooded large parts of Hong. At another point, Doan Thuong was invited to Thang Long where he was feted and granted high titles. After a significant victory, Tran Tu Khanh arrived at the capital hoping that his battlefield deeds would translate into access to the court, but the queen mother refused him entry. To emphasize her point, she had Thuan Trinh demoted in the hierarchy of palace women.
Tran Tu Khanh saw nowhere to go but back to the battlefield. The fighting continued through 1212. Ly Sam was so discouraged that he had to be talked out of retiring to a monastery. In early 1213, royal armies were sent to attack Tran Tu Khanh. The queen mother plotted to seize Tran Tu Khanh’s mother, matriarch of the To family, who had entered the palace when her brother To Trung Tu had been ascendant. Tran spies heard of it and Lady To escaped downriver.
Dam Di Mong raised armies and joined Doan Thuong against Tran Tu Khanh. Tran Tu Khanh fended them off and even captured Nguyen Non, the Ly general in charge of a region centered on the modern city of Bac Ninh, thirty-five kilometers northeast of Thang Long. Nguyen Non’s bold demeanor and lack of fear were so impressive that Tran Tu Khanh made him a son-in-law and gave him a command. However, within a year, Nguyen Non became the most implac- able enemy of the Tran family, greatly complicating its ambitions.
The year 1214 began with an all-out attack on Thang Long orchestrated by Tran Tu Khanh. Defeated everywhere, Ly Sam and his mother fled to Lang Son on the northern border, and the last information recorded about Dam Di Mong is his departure to seek help from Doan Thuong. Doan Thuong could do nothing, for Tran Thu Do, the third Tran brother, had just ravaged his home province of Hong.
Tran Tu Khanh sent messengers to Lang Son inviting the king back to Thang Long. The queen mother said no. She and the king, abandoned by all their followers except for around thirty guardsmen, wandered through the mountains waiting for a turn in events. Tran Tu Khanh, giving up on Ly Sam and his intransigent mother, tried to raise another prince to the throne in Thang Long, but this merely provoked Nguyen Non at Bac Ninh and others to turn against him. In exasperation he plundered and burned the palaces. The king and queen mother then emerged to place themselves under the protection of Nguyen Non. By the time Nguyen Non fought his way into Thang Long, the entire city had been looted and burned to ashes by Tran Tu Khanh. Thang Long having become a battlefield, the king and his mother took residence in a thatched house built beside a shrine outside the city.
Fighting between Tran Tu Khanh and Nguyen Non went back and forth through 1215 with Tran Tu Khanh facing upstream, Nguyen Non facing down- stream, and Thang Long the center of attention. With the king and queen mother was the residue of the Ly court, noblemen susceptible to the spies and bribes of both sides. At one point, Ly Sam shaved his head to be a monk, but the press of events and the appeals of his entourage did not allow him that luxury. A thatched palace was built on the western edge of Thang Long and by early 1216 Ly Sam and the queen mother were holding court. The queen mother had become a partisan of Nguyen Non while Ly Sam was pulled toward reconciliation with the Tran under the influence of his wife. Tran Tu Khanh endeavored to show a friendly face by returning some of the royal loot he had taken. In spring 1216, Ly Sam asked Tran Tu Khanh’s help against an obstreperous nobleman who was resisting his authority, and Tran Tu Khanh obligingly attacked the man, who fled to Nguyen Non.
The most fateful event at this time was that Thuan Trinh, Ly Sam’s Tran wife, was pregnant, and the queen mother wanted to do away with her. The queen mother commanded Thuan Trinh to commit suicide, but Ly Sam intervened. She sent poisoned food to Thuan Trinh, but Ly Sam kept his wife with him constantly and had her eat only from his own bowl. The queen mother’s homicidal schemes finally alienated Ly Sam from her. What began as a turning point in the mind of Ly Sam became a turning point in the morass of violence that had engulfed the Ly dynasty. When the queen mother sent a draught of poison with servants instructed to force Thuan Trinh to drink it, Ly Sam stopped them, and that night he took his wife and sought refuge with the soldiers of Tran Tu Khanh stationed near the palace. The 22-year-old king and his wife were quickly passed along up the chain of command to be welcomed with great joy by Tran Tu Khanh at his headquarters downriver from Thang Long. The queen mother found refuge with Nguyen Non
. Ly Sam’s flight from Thang Long in the summer of 1216 violated the principle that kings obeyed and belonged with their mothers, which had governed the Ly court since the time of Lady Y Lan. This principle had become increasingly disconnected from actual events, despite its hold on the minds of the politically alert. Without his mother and her men, Ly Sam would either have to be a leader in the mould of the first three Ly kings or he would have to disappear. He was not a leader. His one decisive act had come out of desperation, at best, not conviction. He was now in the hands of the men who led his wife’s family
. If one is inclined to favor the stereotypes of Ly Sam as irresolute and of Tran Tu Khanh as implacable, it might be tempting to imagine that the story of Ly Sam seeking refuge with the Tran to protect his wife was conjured by Tran historians to sanitize some less romantic event. In that case, one might conjecture that Tran agents forcibly took Ly Sam captive while rescuing one of their women, possibly pregnant with a future king, from homicidal schemes. Such might be thought to be more in keeping with the general atmosphere of the times as recorded in surviving annals. However, without further information, such would also be to choose the fatalism of violence over the possibility of the human spirit breaking out in unexpected ways. Whatever was going through the mind of Ly Sam as he and Thuan Trinh hastened through the night, be it a naïve sense of escape or a despairing sense of entrapment, the remaining ten years of his life were an agony of powerlessness as he watched the men of his wife’s family fashion a new regime.