Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Constance of York - the early years

Some of you may be wondering what all this stuff about Richard II and his quarrels has to do with the House of York. Well, they were there, on Richard's side up until 1399 when all hell was to break loose. I'll write shortly about Edward of York Earl of Rutland and his exploits in the removal of Uncle Gloucester and the rest, but for the present I want to turn to his sister, Constance. As you may know, I found her interesting enough to write a novel about her, and it's time I said something. This post at least will contain no spoilers.

Constance was born before 1378, probably in the range 1374-76. The first mention of her is on 16th April 1378, when her father was granted the marriage of Edward, son and heir of Edward, late Lord Le Despenser, for her benefit. Edmund of Langley was doing his duty as a father here, providing for her future in what was practically the only way available. Young Edward Despenser must have died soon after this and his next (and only surviving) brother, Thomas, was substituted. Thomas and Constance were formally married before 7th November 1379 as John of Gaunt's Register records a gift to them of a silver-gilt cup and ewer on a stand, worth £22-0-4. (Getting on for the equivalent of nine grand today, and certainly better than a toast rack from Marks and Spencer.)

Thomas Despenser was barely 6 years old. He was descended from the famous (or is it infamous?) Hugh the Younger (his great-grandfather) and Eleanor de Clare, and was thus a (relatively remote) cousin of Constance, both being descended from King Edward I by different routes. He was (once he got hold of his lands) among the top dozen or so richest nobles in the kingdom, despite his relatively unimpressive title, Lord Despenser of Glamorgan and Morgannwg. (Which means, as those who know their Welsh will be aware, Lord of Glamorgan and Glamorgan.)

The Despenser family had spent much of the 14th century recovering from the disaster that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella had inflicted upon them. Thomas's father, and his great uncle before him, had served in King Edward III's wars, and their service was much appreciated and rewarded.

Edward Despenser is little-known today, except as the 'kneeling knight' of Tewkesbury Abbey, but in his day his reputation was up there with the league leaders, and he was a founder-member of the Garter. They had land in many counties of England, with a nice concentration in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, but the jewel in their crown was undoubtedly Glamorgan, at this time (prior to the Glyndwr rising) at the peak of its profitability.

Thomas's mother, Elizabeth de Burghersh, was the daughter of another famous knight and the heiress to considerable lands in her own right. Edmund of Langley had undoubtedly done well for his girl, given that he would almost certainly have struggled to produce a dowry capable of buying such a match in the open market. What the Despensers thought about it we cannot know, but if they were in a positive frame of mind they may have thought that marriage of their head of family to a granddaughter of King Edward III pretty well completed the rehabilitation process, and banished the spectre of Hugh the Younger hanging from his 50 foot gallows.

In January 1384 Constance was granted 80 marks a year (round about £21K modern money) from the Despenser lands towards her maintenance. Elizabeth de Burghersh (not Edmund of Langley) had Thomas's wardship, but she had to pay a fee to the Crown out of this, and I believe this grant would have been deducted from that fee. It suggests that Constance was still living at home with her parents - or at least under their roof - but it's not definite proof, and it could equally be that the cash just dropped into Langley's pocket for his general expenses. (He received another sum from the Despenser revenues in his own right, so altogether it was a nice little earner, and probably helped keep him in greyhounds.)

The next event in Constance's life that we know about was in 1386 when she was appointed, in her own right, to the Order of the Garter. (As an aside, it's interesting that Richard II appointed more women to the Garter than all the other medieval sovereigns put together - and while we're at it we can mention that that nice fellow Henry VIII stopped the practice altogether.) Constance was certainly one of the youngest persons ever appointed, and she became a Dame of the Order before her big brother Edward was made a Knight of it. Of course, the places for knights were always strictly limited, but King Richard seems to have appointed as many women as he liked, including several widows of distinguished soldiers. The honour was probably a sop to Edmund of Langley at a time when the King needed all the friends he could muster, but I like to think that Richard had a fondness for Constance as well.

I'm afraid I can't tell you when the marriage between Constance and Thomas was consummated. Or whether he courted her or just dived in. What I can say is that he was away quite a lot. With the King to Scotland in 1385 (probably as a page, given his age.) Then with Arundel on a naval expedition against the French in 1388, during which Arundel knighted him. Then to Prussia in 1391, on one of the 'crusades' against the Lithuanians that were so fashionable for young knights in those days - roughly the 14th century version of the Grand Tour. He was granted full possession of his lands in March 1394, just in time to accompany the King on that very rare thing - a successful English campaign in Ireland.

There is some debate about how many children Thomas and Constance had, one internet source giving them quite a castle full. However the Tewkesbury Chronicle sticks at three, and the first with a definite date of birth was Richard Despenser, born 30th November 1396. Which means that Constance missed out on the King's wedding to Isabelle of France!

Thomas Despenser had earned the King's favour, and was one of those involved in the arrest and prosecution of Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick. He received a share of their lands, which, interestingly, were granted to him and Constance in jointure. This was not the case for anyone else and suggests that either Thomas or (less probably) King Richard, wanted to make sure that Constance would be well-provided for in the event of Despenser's death.

On 29th September 1397 Thomas was created Earl of Gloucester and Constance became a Countess. The future must have looked very rosy indeed!


pamelaj said...

Thanks for this contribution about Constance my ancestress.

pamelaj said...

Thank you for these comments, would like to read the book about Constance, she is my ancestress..

Brian Wainwright said...

Hi Pamela,
Constance has many descendants and it's always good to hear from one.

The book should still be available via Amazon if you're interested. It's only out in traditional format - no Kindle version yet, and it may be some time before there is one.

Best to you, Brian