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Ayutthaya's Mighty Kingdom, Part 2

The Heroism of Queen Suriyothai

The year is 1548 and His Majesty, King Chakrapat, is in the Grand Palace, in his Capital City of Ayutthaya, conferring with his Council of Nobles and Military Commanders. The Burmese in the North have been causing problems and the possibility of aggression has been vexing the Siamese Monarch. Suddenly a messenger enters the chamber, prostrates himself to the floor in homage, and delivers his news - a Burmese army is approaching and is almost at the gates of the city. There is an immediate call to arms, Nobles and Commanders rush to their duties and the King's personal servants hastily buckle him in to his fighting armor. How did this state of affairs arise? How was the Burmese army able to catch Ayutthaya by surprise?

Since its foundation 198 years earlier in 1350, the city of Ayutthaya had grown and prospered. Under successive Monarchs it had, indeed, become the Stately Capital of the Siamese Nation. Its influence, with vassal states paying tribute, extended from Luang Prabang, in the north, to Mergui and Tenasserim in the west, east as far as Chantaboon (Chantaburi) and reaching south through the Malay States to Malacca and Johore Baru. Princes and Sultans throughout the land regularly sent "trees" of gold and silver as tribute and indications of their allegiance to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was the acknowledged kingpin of South East Asia.

However, maintaining such a widespread nation required a lot of political finesse on the part of the Siamese Monarch and, sometimes, military persuasion to keep vassal states in line. Ayutthaya's hold on some far-flung territories was tenuous at best so it was no great trauma when, in 1511, the Portuguese seized Malacca. Nevertheless, the Portuguese didn't want a war on their hands the only wanted Malacca as a trading base so they sent emissaries to the Thai Monarch (King Ramatibodi II) to establish friendly relations. The King appreciated this and, in return, sent a Thai emissary to represent him in Malacca.

Thus was established the first positive trading and commercial link with a European nation. Business flourished with the export of sugarcane, timber, spices and gemstones. The Thai Monarchs held monopolies on all goods entering or leaving the Kingdom so taxation revenues were abundant indeed. After cordial relationships were established with the Portuguese, King Ramatibodi purchased the latest in musketry and cannons from them. Also, as part of trade and goodwill, the King, and his successors, began to employ Portuguese mercenary soldiers to teach the Thais about the new weaponry and to become part of the regular army. While most states accepted the power and influence of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, the Burmese were an ongoing threat and had to be watched.

And so Ayutthaya blossomed; European trading vessels began to arrive as they were able to navigate up the great Menam Chao Phraya, as far as possible, and discharge or load cargoes using small barges. So it was a situation which afforded substantial success and power to the Siamese Kingdom with the Capital of Ayutthaya at its centre. The growing power of an aggressive Burma had to be controlled but what was overlooked were the intrigues, betrayals and rivalries within the Thai Royal Court. It was the latter which almost destroyed Ayutthya just prior to the first Burmese attack.

In Burma factions had been fragmented for years with a lot of infighting between the Burmese, Mons and Shans. However, when the Burmese King Tabinshweti succeeded to the throne at Toungoo, he was able control the various elements and unite them under his personal banner. Tabinshweti was to become possibly the mightiest of Burmese Kings as he expanded his influence though aggression and conquest. In doing so, he threatened the power and stability of Ayutthaya and the relative peace it had enjoyed for so long. The northern province of Chiangmai had already fallen to Burmese occupation.

Meanwhile, at the Siamese Royal Court in Ayutthaya, the combined foes of disease and treachery were not far away. King Ramathibodi II had passed away in 1529 the same year that Halley's Comet scudded across the heavens was this perhaps an ominous sign? He was succeeded by King Boromrajathira IV who died, four years later, from smallpox. In turn, King Chairajathiraj ascended the throne and, through his wife Queen Sri Sudachan, fathered two sons the Princes Phra Yord Fah and Phra Sri Silp. Their father died in 1546 suspected by poisoning at the hand of his wife! The Crown Prince Phra Yord Fah, aged only 11, was too young to rule so his mother, Queen Sri Sudachan, began to govern as Joint-Regent with the younger brother of the late King.

This was Phra Tianraja but it was soon clear that he didn't relate well to Queen Sri Sudachan, thanks to her constant intrigues, so he resigned as Co-Regent and became a Monk at Wat Rajpradit. The Queen was left as sole Regent! The Royal Court and Nobles were not happy with this and when they suddenly discovered the Queen had been in an adulterous affair with her cousin, during her husband's lifetime, they were quite horrified. Something had to be done! So, using the pretext of inspecting a new Royal White Elephant, the Queen Pretender to the Throne was lured outside of the city, ambushed and put to death. The Nobles then invited Phra Tianraja to leave his temple and take up the mantle of Kingship. This he did, so taking the title of King Chakrapat he began to reign, with his wife Queen Suriyothai by his side, in 1548.

The Burmese King Tabinshweti had been aware of the disarray within the Court of Ayutthaya and decided now was the time to march! As the new King of Ayutthaya, King Chakrapat, prepared his defensive plans, discussing strategies and details with his Nobles, Military Chiefs and Officers of the Portuguese mercenaries, the messenger stumbled into the room, prostrated himself, and gasped the tidings that the Burmese army was almost upon them. They had come, not from the north, but through the Three Pagodas Pass in the mountains to the west and had already decimated Kanchanaburi. As Nobles and Military Commanders rushed to their duties, the news of the advancing Burmese spread like wildfire.

The year is 1548, foot soldiers prepare themselves feverishly, muskets are primed, canons are run out and the great War Elephants are readied for battle. Not even one year into his reign, King Chakrapat straps on his armor and, as he does so, his beloved Queen Suriyothai comes to his side and says she is going to join him against the Burmese. The King gives an emphatic "No" but the Queen is a strong-willed lady and, despite the dangers, insists on fighting alongside her husband. The King sighs and reluctantly accepts her joining in the battle. Queen Suriyothai's servants quickly buckle their Queen into military armor and she, and her husband, rush to mount their respective elephants.

As the King and Queen enter the battle, a frenzied fray is going on all around them. Men are shouting and screaming, canons roar, swords and lances clash and the air is constantly rent with the trumpeting of the War Elephants. All is noise, turmoil and chaos. In normal times the King (or anyone of high-rank) ride in the howdah atop the elephant but, as now, the king is astride the elephant's neck in full control of his war-beast. Atop, in the howdah, an officer waves batons, right and left, to direct the movement of the foot soldiers running alongside, urging them forward to ensure that the flanks of the elephant are protected.

King Chakrapat presses forward to engage his enemy, King Tabinshweti, but suddenly appears to lose his balance. Queen Suriyothai sees her King losing ground and charges her elephant
forward to assist him. In doing so, she is immediately engaged by the Burmese King's frontline Commander, Phra Jao Prae Tado Thammaraja, and their long fighting-lances ring out as they clash together. It is a fierce, hectic skirmish but the Burmese elephant, pushing forward from its haunches, destabilizes its Thai counterpart and Queen Suriyothai is caught by a series of chopping blows which penetrate her armor and mortally wound her. For Queen Suriyothai, the battle is finished.

This Queen, one of Thailand's greatest heroines, dies in combat protecting her husband and defending her nation. Later, Queen Suriyothai's two sons, Phra Ramesuan and Phra Mahin retrieve their mother's body from the battleground. King Chakrapat survives the fighting and lives to mourn the loss of his Queen. Ultimately, the war is won and the Burmese are driven off. But they will return again ... and again!

See related articles (History of Ayutthaya):

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