Constance of York, the Rebel Countess

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Conisbrough Castle, possible birthplace of Constance of York

Constance of York was born around 1374, possibly at Conisbrough Castle in Yorkshire (although that is far from certain). She was the 2nd of 3 children born to Edmund of Langley, Duke of York and 5th son of Edward III, and his wife, Isabella of Castile. Edmund and Isabella also had 2 boys, Edward of Norwich in around 1373 and Richard of Conisbrough, who is thought to have been born around 1375/6, but could have been born as late as the early 1380s.

Contemporary sources suggest that Edmund and Isabella were an ill-matched pair and their relationship was a rocky one, with Isabella accused of having an affair with John Holland, Duke of Exeter and half-brother to Richard II. Holland has also been suggested as the father of Isabella’s youngest son, Richard.

Constance’s childhood was short-lived. At the age of 4, in April 1378, she was betrothed to Edward le Despenser. However, young Edward appears to have died shortly after the betrothal as by November 1379 Constance was married to his only surviving, younger brother, Thomas, who was about 6 at the time.

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Isabella of Castile, Constance’s mother

It is highly likely that 4-year-old Constance remained in her parents’ household for several years after her marriage, although she may have spent time also in the household of her mother-in-law, who retained wardship of young Thomas despite her husband’s death.

Thomas le Despenser was a great-grandson of the infamous Hugh le Despenser the Younger, despised favourite and alleged lover of Edward II, who was executed on a 50-foot high gallows in 1326. The marriage was seen as a good match on both sides: the Despenser family had a considerable fortune and were among the 12 richest families in the country, while Constance was a granddaughter of Edward III. Her hand in marriage completed the rehabilitation of the Despenser family.

In 1386, at just 12-years-old Constance was made a Lady of the Garter by her cousin, Richard II; she was one of the youngest ever recipients of the award. In 1392 Constance’s mother died and the following year her father re-married. His new bride was about 6 years younger than Constance and was a niece to Richard II; Joan Holland was the daughter of Thomas Holland, 2nd earl of Kent and granddaughter of Joan of Kent, Princess of Wales. In a bizarre twist, she was also the niece of John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter, the late Duchess of York’s alleged lover.

Thomas, meanwhile, was learning his trade as a soldier. He served with Richard II in Scotland in 1385, probably as a page or squire, given his tender years. In 1388 he was knighted by the Earl of Arundel, following his involvement in a naval expedition against the French. In 1391 Thomas travelled to Prussia to join the “crusade” against the Lithuanians.

It seems likely that, by 1394 with Thomas back in England, Thomas and Constance were finally living together as a couple.  In March of that year, Thomas had been granted full possession of his lands; he had been a ward of his mother, Elizabeth de Burghersh, since his father Edward’s death in 1375.

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Arms of Thomas le Despenser, 1st Earl of Gloucester

It’s possible the couple had as many as 5 children, but only 2 survived infancy; a son, Edward, died young, Hugh died around 1401 and a daughter, Elizabeth, born around 1398, also died young.

The 1st definite date of birth of a child is Richard, possibly their 2nd son but the 1st to survive childhood, who was born 30th November 1396. Richard would inherit his grandmother’s title of Baron Burghersh on her death in about 1402. Richard married his 2nd cousin Eleanor, daughter of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmoreland, and Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.

Unfortunately, Richard and Eleanor had no children before Richard died, still only in his 20s. His title passed to his younger sister, Isabella, who had been born around 1400 and was married successively to 2 men, cousins, of the same name; she married firstly Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester and secondly Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Isabella’s daughter by Warwick, Anne, would later marry Richard Neville, known as the Kingmaker, and be the mother of Richard III’s queen, Anne Neville.

Thomas le Despenser was a great supporter of Richard II, he was involved in the arrest and prosecution of the Appellant lords, the Duke of Gloucester and the Earl of Arundel in 1397; in return for which he received a share of their lands. And on the 29th September 1397, le Despenser was created Earl of Gloucester.

In spite of his close links with Richard II, Gloucester initially supported the accession of Henry Bolingbroke as Henry IV, after usurping Richard’s throne. However, after he was attainted for his role in the death of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and deprived of his earldom he became disillusioned with the new regime.

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Painting of Pontefract Castle by Alexander Keirincx

Fearful of losing his estates, and possibly his life, in January 1400 he joined in a conspiracy with the earls of Kent, Salisbury and Huntingdon. Known as the Epiphany Rising, the earls planned to seize the king during a tournament at Windsor, intending to kill Henry IV and replace him with Richard II – still imprisoned at Pontefract Castle. The conspiracy was betrayed to the king by Edward of Norwich, Constance’s older brother and the conspirators were arrested and executed.  Richard II himself became the prime victim of the plot, which led Henry IV to believe it was too dangerous to keep the erstwhile king alive; he died shortly afterwards, still in custody at Pontefract Castle, probably from starvation.

Thomas le Despenser was executed on 13th January 1400. It is tempting to feel sorry for Constance of York, former Countess of Gloucester, mother of several infants and pregnant with her late husband’s child. And, indeed, it must have been difficult for her; a young, pregnant widow of a convicted traitor. With her husband’s lands forfeit, she could well have wondered what was going to happen to them all, especially following the death of her father in 1402. However, Constance herself was not beyond plotting.

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Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York

In February 1405, during Owain Glyn Dwr’s rebellion, Constance became involved in the plot to abduct Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March from Windsor Castle. March had the greatest claim to the throne of all Henry IV’s rivals, being descended from Edward III’s 2nd surviving son, Lionel of Antwerp. The plan was to deliver March and his younger brother, Roger, to their uncle, Sir Edmund Mortimer, who was married to Glyn Dwr’s daughter.

The boys were successfully released from Windsor, but recaptured before entering Wales. Although Constance does not seem to have suffered retribution for her part in the plot, she did implicate her brother Edward of Norwich, Duke of York, who was imprisoned in Pevensey Castle for 17 weeks as a consequence.

Constance was also to cause scandal in her love life. As a young widow, she started a liaison with Edmund Holland, 4th Earl of Kent and the brother of Constance’s step-mother, Joan. A daughter, Eleanor, was born to the couple at Kenilworth in about 1405. She would later marry James Touchet, Lord Audley.

Whether or not Eleanor’s parents married became a bone of contention for the young woman when she attempted to lay claim to her father’s lands and titles in 1430. Although she produced witnesses to prove the marriage of her parents, in about 1404, on the petition of Edmund’s sisters, Joan Duchess of York (Eleanor’s step-grandmother) and Margaret Holland, Duchess of Clarence, Eleanor was adjudged illegitimate and unable to inherit from her father.

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Reading Abbey

Edmund was killed at the Battle of Ile-de-Brehat in September 1408 and buried on the island of Lavrec.

Constance outlived her lover by 8 years, dying on the 28th November 1416, the last survivor of the 3 York children. Her younger brother, Richard, had been executed in August 1415, for his part in the Southampton Plot to assassinate Henry V; and older brother Edward, Duke of York, was killed at Agincourt in October of the same year.

Constance of York, Countess of Gloucester, was buried at Reading Abbey in Berkshire.

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Pictures: Conisbrough Castle is ©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly. All other pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sources:Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Life and Times of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; yorkistage.blogspot.co.uk; richard111.com; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016

10 thoughts on “Constance of York, the Rebel Countess

  1. evelynralph 07/11/2015 / 16:23

    Interesting, and tying in other things I have heard about, but oh, so confusing. Guess you had to be in it to understand it?
    Evelyn

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 07/11/2015 / 16:27

      Totally agree, Evelyn. Getting the relationships straight in my head took some doing with this post! 🙂

      Like

  2. atravelguru 07/11/2015 / 17:00

    Always interesting to read your blog, Sharon!

    Like

  3. nmayer2015 26/05/2016 / 14:57

    One needs a chart to follow the tale and keep the people straight. I was interested in how I could see the originals of titles still extant today.
    I am curious about the origins of names and wonder how people first started using them.

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 26/05/2016 / 15:16

      Fascinating, isn’t it? I love uncovering all the different relationships between the noble houses. There’s so much still to find out. 🙂

      Like

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