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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Richard of Conisbrough, the Traitorous Earl

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Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge

Richard of Conisbrough seems to have been a very controversial figure throughout his life, from questions of his paternity, through his secret marriage, to his untimely death for his involvement in a particularly ill-thought-out plot.

He and I were born within 3 miles (and, of course,  6 centuries) of each other. As a student, I even gave guided tours at the Castle in which he was born. And the man is a completely fascinating, and yet such a shadowy, figure. The grandfather of both Edward IV and Richard III, he seems to have been a mediocre diplomat and soldier, and his eventual treason barely registers in the history books.

Richard’s birth is obscured by time. Although sources seem undecided, the most likely date of his birth appears to be 1386 (although some place it as early as 1375). He was a grandson of Edward III through his father, Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York; and his mother, Isabel of Castile (sister of John of Gaunt’s wife, Constance), was described by chronicler Thomas of Walsingham as having ‘loose morals’. She and Edmund appear to have been an ill-matched pair from the beginning.

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Isabel of Castile

Married in 1372, two children soon followed; Edward of Langley in c.1373 and Constance in c.1374. It seems the couple’s relationship cooled soon after, as no other children were forthcoming for over 10 years. As a result, the arrival of Richard of Conisbrough in 1386 appears to have raised some eyebrows and most people – even of the time – suspected that he was the son of Isabel’s lover, rather than the Duke of York.

Isabel’s relationship with John Holland, Duke of Exeter and half-brother of the king, Richard II, was probably an open secret. The fact that his father and brother, both, left him out of their wills has fuelled this theory. However, leaving a son out of your will was not entirely unusual – Edmund of Langley was, in fact, left out of his own father’s will (that of Edward III) – and, my research suggests that Richard of Conisbrough was already dead by the time his brother, Edward, made his will.

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Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York

Isabel died on 23rd December 1392. Her will made Richard II her heir, but specifically asked him to provide an annual pension of 500 marks for her youngest son. Richard’s allowance was paid regularly until 1399, but following the deposition of Richard II and accession of Henry IV, payments were made only sporadically and Richard of Conisbrough became the Royal Family’s ‘poor relation’.

Richard of Conisbrough’s father, Edmund of Langley, died in 1402 and the dukedom of York passed to Richard’s older brother, Edward.

Although his regular pension petered out under Henry IV, Richard’s career was largely unremarkable. In 1403/4 he was given command of a small force to defend Herefordshire against the last native prince of Wales, Owain Glyndwr. Richard was able to make several connections in the area; most notably with the Mortimer family. The Mortimers were cousins of Richard’s through the marriage of Lionel, Duke of Clarence’s daughter Philippa (Edward III’s granddaughter) to Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March.

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Edmund of Langley and the King of Portugal

Richard of Conisbrough secretly married Anne Mortimer (Philippa’s granddaughter) sometime in 1406. The couple had married without parental consent, or the papal dispensation required due to their being 2nd and 4th cousins. The dispensation was finally obtained in 1408.

Probably a love-match – Anne seems to have been as destitute as her husband. Born in December 1390 Anne’s family were close to Richard II; her father, Roger Mortimer, being seen as his possible heir until his death in 1398. Seen as rivals claimants by the new King, Henry IV, Anne’s fortunes changed in 1399 and  she was described as ‘destitute’ after her mother’s death in 1405.

The marriage of Anne and Richard produced 2 children; Isabella was born in 1409 and Richard, later Duke of York, was born in 1411. Not yet 21 years old, Anne herself died in September 1411, probably due to complications following the birth of her son. She was buried at Kings Langley, alongside Edmund of Langley and Isabel of Castile.

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Tomb of Edmund of Langley, containing the remains of Edmund, his 1st wife Isabel of Castile and his daughter-in-law Anne Mortimer.

Richard would marry as his 2nd wife, sometime between 1411 and 1415, Maud daughter of Thomas, 6th Baron Clifford and divorced wife of John Neville, 6th Baron Latimer. Following his death, Maud continued to live at Richard’s birthplace of Conisbrough Castle, dying there in 1446.

Richard was knighted by Henry IV in 1406, probably with a view to his escorting Henry’s daughter, Philippa, to Denmark, for her marriage to King Erik. Richard’s stay in Denmark was short and unremarkable; he was back in England 2 months after witnessing the wedding.

Little more is heard of Richard until he was created Earl of Cambridge in the reign of Henry V, in 1414. The earldom did not improve his prospects, as it came without the usual grants of land or revenue to support the title; Richard was thought the poorest of England’s Earls.

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Conisbrough Castle

Fuelled by resentment Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge, began plotting with Sir Thomas Grey and Henry 3rd Baron Scrope. Their scheme was to murder Henry V and his 3 brothers at Southampton, before their embarkation  for the invasion of France, and replace him with Richard’s brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March.

However, it seems unclear whether March himself was in on the plot as it was the Earl who revealed it to the king on the 31st July 1415.

Cambridge and his co-conspirators were quickly rounded up. Arrested as the ringleader and at just 30 years old, Cambridge’s honours and estates were declared forfeit. Despite pleas for mercy he was beheaded for treason at Southampton Green on 5th August 1415. He was buried in the Chapel of God’s House, Southampton.

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Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York

Although his honours were forfeit, Richard of Conisbrough was not attainted and his son remained his heir and was therefore able to inherit the dukedom of York, from his uncle Edward, following his death at Agincourt just 2 months later, in October 1415.

The 4-year-old Richard, Duke of York, was made a royal ward. He was raised by the Nevilles, a powerful northern family, and would marry Cecily Neville, daughter of Ralph, 1st Earl of Westmorland. The combination of his York and Mortimer inheritances not only made the Duke of York the wealthiest of English landowners, but also gave him a strong claim to the English throne. As a result, during the ineffectual reign of his cousin, Henry VI, Richard of York made a play for the crown.

His defeat and death at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460 meant he never became king, but his eldest son Edward took up the mantle and was proclaimed king on 11 April 1461, following his overwhelming victory over the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton on 29th March 1461.

With just a short interlude of 6 months in 1470/71, the Readeption of Henry VI, the Yorkist dynasty would rule for the next 24 years.

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Photos: taken from Wikipedia, except that of the tomb of Edmund of Langley which is taken from findagrave.com

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Sources: The History Today Companion to British History, edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by J.P. Kenyon; The Oxford Companion to British History, edited by John Cannon; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; The Wars of the Roses by Martin J Dougherty; englishmonarchs.co.uk; womenshistory.about.com; findagrave.com; conisbroughcastle.org.uk; hrionline.ac.uk.

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From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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