Christine de Pizan

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Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Constance, duchess of Brittany and countess of Richmond: "comitis Conani filia"

Constance, duchess of Brittany and countess of Richmond (died 5 September 1201)

Born about the year 1161 (according to some sources, she was born on 12 June 1161), Constance was the daughter of Conan IV, earl of Richmond and duke of Brittany. Constance's father struggled for years to obtain control of his dual inheritance--first, the title of earl of Richmond, after the death of his father, Alan, first earl of Richmond, in 1146; and then, the duchy of Brittany, after the death of his mother, Berthe of Brittany, in 1156.

A watercolor of
Constance of Brittany and 
her son Arthur
(by Madame Maria de Hocédé,
the French governess of the children
of Queen Victoria, dated 19 February 1860)
As historian Jean Dunbabin notes, the "threats" from outside of Brittany "were small": the "real problems lay within the duchy," notably "internal rebellions" among competing lords and a "succession crisis" when Conan III "dispossessed" his male heir and left the duchy to his daughter, Berthe, instead.* 

After Conan III's death in 1148, his dispossessed son, Hoel, took control of Brittany. Eventually Henry II of England, "presumably in his capacity as duke of Normandy, therefore overlord of Brittany," intervened in the conflict, supporting Berthe, whose son, Conan, was living at Henry II's court. 

In September 1156, after Berthe's death, Conan arrived in Brittany, claiming his role as duke. But Conan IV's position was never secure and his control over the duchy never quite settled. As for the English king, he had his own interests in Brittany, and in 1160, as insurance for his continued support, Henry insisted on a marriage between Conan and Margaret of Huntingdon. 

The three--Conan IV, Henry II, and Margaret--were related in complicated ways. Conan IV's mother, Berthe of Brittany, had been the illegitimate daughter of the English king, Henry I, who was Henry II's grandfather. (I think that makes Berthe of Brittany the aunt of Henry II, right?) Thus Conan and Henry were cousins. And Margaret of Huntingdon and Henry II were also cousins--Margaret's grandfather, David I of Scotland, was the brother of Matilda (or Maud) of Scotland, Henry II's mother. (Got all that?) Also of note, when it comes to the status of Margaret of Huntingdon, she was the daughter of Henry of Scotland, who died before he could inherit the throne of his father, David of Scotland--instead, after Henry of Scotland's death, Margaret's two brothers, Malcolm, reigned 1153-1165, and William, reigned 1165-1214, succeeded their grandfather as kings of Scotland. (Whew!)

But back to Brittany. Despite the English king's intervention--and the close familial connections among Conan IV, his wife, Margaret, and Henry II--unrest persisted in Brittany, and Conan's own misjudgments and misadventures, along with ongoing interference from the English king, contributed to the unstable situation. In 1166, Henry arranged a betrothal between his eight-year-old son, Geoffrey Plantagenet, and Conan's daughter, Constance--who was only five years old.** Henry also "persuaded" Conan IV to abdicate, and although the little Constance was now nominally duchess of Brittany, the English king "took control of Brittany in his son's name."

Meanwhile, Constance's father, Conan IV, retained only his county of Guingamp, where he would remain until his death in 1171. Her mother, Margaret of Huntingdon, survived another thirty years; she was only twenty-six at the time of Conan's death, and she remarried twice, giving birth to several more children. She died in 1201. 

Even though her parents were both still living, Constance spent her childhood in the household of Henry II or in that of his queen, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, traveling with the courts as they moved through their vast territories in England and on the continent. We catch a glimpse of her in the next few years; by 1170, she is part of the queen's household in Poitiers, and in the spring of 1174, she travels with Henry from Poitiers to Normandy; later that year, in July, she travels with him to England, where she is sent to the castle of Devizes.

Henry II remained in control of Brittany until July 1181, when the twenty-year-old Constance was at last married to Geoffrey. Geoffrey had already been involved in a rebellion against his father, and two years after his marriage to Constance, he was again in open revolt. Now Geoffrey II, duke of Brittany, he was at the court of the French king, perhaps planning another rebellion, when he died on 27 August 1186. Although accounts vary, the most frequent story about his death is that he was trampled by a horse during a joust.

While there is "some evidence" to suggest that Constance had begun to act as duchess of Brittany after her marriage, it is likely that "her exercise of authority" was primarily "subject to her husband." During Geoffrey's lifetime, the pair jointly issued a number of charters, She had also come into her inheritance as countess of Richmond in 1183. 

Charter issued by Constance of Brittany

Now, as a widow, Constance of Brittany was finally "free to govern in her own right." She was also the mother of two daughters, Eleanor and Matilda, and a son, Arthur, born after Geoffrey's death. But her independence did not last long--on 3 February 1188, Henry II married her off to Ranulf, earl of Chester, one of his most loyal supporters. 

Constance of Brittany's seal,
a female figure bearing a flower
in her right hand
and a bird on her left, c. 1188
Though Constance's second marriage may have been useful to the king of England, it did not work out particularly well for Constance or Ranulf. He may have "styled" himself duke of Brittany and earl of Richmond, but as historian Jacques Choffel notes, "aucun Breton ne le reconnaîtra comme son sovereign" ("no Breton ever acknowledged him as his ruler"). J. A. Everard adds, "[w]hatever Henry II's intentions, Ranulf seems to have had no involvement in the government of the duchy of Brittany or the honour of Richmond." 

Just months after the marriage, Henry II died, and the new king, Richard, traveled to Brittany, intending to assert his authority there by assuming control both of the duchy and its heir, Arthur. Faced with the opposition of Constance and of the "Breton barons," the new English king "relented." Constance was allowed to continue governing Brittany as she had been doing, and Richard left Arthur with his mother, but he took custody of Constance's daughter Eleanor in September of 1189, evidently to insure Constance's good behavior. 

Richard was soon off on his big crusading adventure, however, and between his departure in 1190 and his return in 1194, Constance was able to govern Brittany without his interference and in the almost complete absence of Ranulf, who seems to have had no role in Brittany other than referring to himself as the duke. 

From 1188, in fact, Constance seems to have acted on her own in Brittany, though her legal claim to do so was not entirely clear. Was she acting as duchess in her own right? She had been her father's heir, but her father had renounced his rights as duke of Brittany to Henry II, who had then granted them to his son, Geoffrey. Had Constance's hereditary rights been somehow reinstated after Geoffrey's? But she was now a married woman, her husband claiming the title duke of Brittany. Could she, as a married woman, be exercising power on her own? Or was she acting as regent for her son, Arthur? 

During Geoffrey's lifetime, the couple had issued charters jointly, but during her marriage to Ranulf, Constance issued charters only in her own name, using her ducal title "Constantia, comitis Conani filia, ducissa Britannie, comitissa Richemondie." She presents herself not as a wife of a duke or a mother of a duke but as the daughter of a duke. As Elodie Chaudet notes
Sur soixante-dix-sept chartes, soixante et une ont été émises par Constance seule. . . . Cette pratique d’émission solitaire souligne que l’exercice du pouvoir par Constance s’est effectué sans tutelle. Elle a gouverné seule, certes entourée de conseillers, mais ayant le choix de la décision finale et de l’application effective des décisions. [Of seventy-seven charters, sixy-one were issued by Constance alone. This practice of issuing them independently underscores that Constance's exercise of power is carried out without guardianship. She governed solely, certainly surrounded by counselors, but having the ability to make the final decision and to effect the implementation of her decisions.]
In 1196, Constance called together the Breton états--the gathered assembly recognized the nine-year-old Arthur as duke of Brittany. Reaction was swift--Richard of England demanded that Constance place her son, potentially the king's heir, into his custody. With her daughter Eleanor still in the English king's control, Constance refused. Summoned to meet with Richard in Normandy, Constance was taken captive by her husband, Ranulf, as she traveled. He arrested her and imprisoned her in his castle of Saint James en Beuvron. For his part, Richard aimed to march into Brittany to "rescue" Arthur, but the boy was sent to the French court for safekeeping.

Because of continuing unrest in Brittany and ongoing opposition to his plans, Richard eventually relented. By 1198, Richard made sure that Constance was released from her captivity--and at some point thereafter, likely after Richard died in April 1199, Constance's marriage to Ranulf was annulled. (About the details of the marriage's end, Chaudet writes that sources are silent--she suggests that an annullment is most likely, probably on the basis of non-cohabitation or non-consummation.) 

By the fall of 1199, Constance had married once more, this time to Guy of Thouars, probably a match suggested by the French king. She gave birth to at least two more daughters, Alix (b. 1200?) and Catherine (b. 1201?). It may well be that there was a third girl, Marguerite (b. 1201?)--according to some sources, Constance died either giving birth to twins or shortly having given birth to twins. (Other, less favorable accounts of Constance of Brittany, claim she died of leprosy . . . )

Constance of Brittany died on 5 September 1201. She was buried in the Cistercian abbey of la Villeneuve--she had planned for the institution's foundation and issued a charter in 1201, endowing it with an annual rent. She also issued an agreement with the archbishop of Tours about her burial at the abbey.

Villeneuve abbey, as it appeared in 1695

Constance's mother, Margaret of Huntingdon, died in the same year as her daughter. Constance's son, Arthur, survived his mother, but he was captured by King John on 1 August 1202--Eleanor of Aquitaine had taken refuge at the chateau of Mirebeau, and Arthur had laid siege to it. He was imprisoned in the Château de Falaise. He remained there, but after April 1203, he was never seen again. Interestingly, Arthur's elder sister, Eleanor, "the fair maid of Brittany," was also imprisoned by King John in 1202; she remained in captivity throughout the life of King John and after his death in 1216, his son and successor, Henry III, maintained her as a prisoner until her death in 1241. (Family values, huh?)

*For a useful account of Brittany during the time of Conan III and Conan IV, see Jean Dunbabin's France in the Making: 843-1180 (click here)

**As historian Amy Kelly notes in Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, this marriage "was definitely consanguineous, but Henry had been careful to appeal for a papal dispensation to circumvent that difficulty." The occasional detail about Constance's life is found in Kelly's biography of Eleanor ofAquitaine and, similarly, in Alison Weir's biographyEleanor of Aquitaine. What both historians make clear is that Eleanor of Aquitaine neither likes nor trusts Constance of Brittany.

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