Constance, Duchess of Brittany
Died: September 5, 1201
Brittany, France (Age 40)
Constance in History
Constance was the daughter and sole heir of Conan, Duke of Brittany, in an area within France that the Angevin kings of England were always eager to have a firm hold on. For this reason it is no surprise that King Henry II suggested a marriage between Constance and his son Geoffrey as early as 1166, when Constance was no more than five years of age. Henry II gained more power in Brittany upon Conan's death in 1171 and even more so when Geoffrey and Constance were officially married in 1181. Despite the fact that the marriage between the two was an obvious political match, it seems to have been a happy one, producing two daughters and a son, Arthur, who was born shortly after Geoffrey's death in a jousting accident in 1186. The people of Brittany were happy with Arthur's birth and looked at him to ultimately free them from Angevin control. After Geoffrey's death, Constance would go on to marry Ranulf, Earl of Chester. The marriage was a disastrous one, even for the time, and Chester would actually end up imprisoning his wife at one point for her defiant actions towards him. Constance also seems to have had somewhat strained relations with King Richard I, who succeeded Henry II on England's throne in 1189. Richard did supposedly name Arthur as his heir in the French territories (though the king's younger brother John seems to have been the undisputed heir in England in the extremely unclear debate on who Richard I's real heir was), but Brittany was kept under a very firm hand by the warrior king. This alienated Constance, who was very popular amongst her subjects.
The year 1199 would prove to be a highly significant one for Constance. Firstly, she married for a third time (this time to Guy de Thouars) and produced three more daughters (like her first marriage, this one seems to have been a happy one). Secondly, Richard I died suddenly while performing a siege in the Limousin. The English throne was immediately seized by his brother John, who also expected to be recognized as ruler of the Angevin territories in France. Arthur, however, was a very popular figure within Brittany, and a number of leaders, including Philip II of France, supported the cause of the young duke against the hated Angevin empire. However, Constance's life would be cut short in 1201 when she supposedly contracted leprosy. Other chronicles will claim that she was simply worn out from her three previous pregnancies, which all came within two years of one another. In the end, Constance was able to raise herself higher than a mere bargaining tool between her father and the English king. One can only wonder what she may have accomplished if given a longer life.
Constance in Shakespeare
Appears in: King John
Within King John, Constance is portrayed as a strong, independent woman to the point where she even seems to scare her own son at times. She has formed an alliance with Philip II of France against John in order to press Arthur's claim to the throne. After some fighting has occurred between John and the French, an agreement is made that betroths Louis the dauphin to John's niece Blanche, merely awarding Arthur with the duchy of Brittany. Constance is, understandably, upset that she has been betrayed in such a way by the French king and is even more distraught when Arthur is captured by John. It is later announced by a messenger that she has passed away. Historically, Arthur was captured by John in 1202, the year after Constance's death.