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In search of a princess

by Brian Wainwright

Within the Fetterlock
ISBN: 0-9722091-1-5

Constance of York is quite often omitted from Plantagenet family pedigrees, but she was a real person. Even if the facts of her life are pretty incredible.

My first glimpse of her was a passing reference to her in an old book. To say too much more would be a plot spoiler, but the reference was so startling that I was immediately drawn in. This was obviously no "ordinary" medieval princess. I had to learn more.

Up until that time I had not even known that Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, had a daughter. Let alone one that I would find so fascinating that I would traipse all over the place looking for new scraps of information about her.

The next thing I discovered was that she had been married "before 1379". We know this because John of Gaunt gave her a wedding present. It seemed a bit odd, bearing in mind that her parents weren't even married until 1372. Their first child, Edward, was born in 1373. It therefore followed that Constance could not have been born until 1374 at the very earliest. However, the dates checked out - she was very much a child bride, if not a baby one. And her husband? Thomas Despenser, head of the same family that had such an interesting time of it in Edward II's day. He wasn't that much her elder, but he was one of the dozen richest lords in England, and Constance's father was granted his "marriage" for her. After that, she is always referred to as Constance Despenser, even though it seems likely she stayed in her father's household until the (unknown) time when the marriage was consummated. York was actually granted money out of the Despenser estates for her keep. A nice bargain for him, at least.

It's generally quite hard to find much of significance about medieval women once they are wives. They went into a legal state known as "coverture". Among other things they could not sue or be sued in their own right, and rarely show up in the records except maybe as an adjunct to their husband. Of course, Constance had at least three children with Despenser, and, unusually for the era, two of the dates of birth or known.

In widowhood Constance becomes much easier to track. She shows up quite a few times in the public records, usually when she's in trouble. I particularly relished one formal document that complained that she had ignored King Henry IV's commands not once, but "many times". Clearly she did not lack for spirit. It was a pretty unconventional widowhood for the era, one way and another. In political and personal aspects alike.

As one small scrap of information built onto another, I began to get a "feel" for Constance's personality. A couple of her letters survive - albeit in Norman French - and the content was another small piece of the jigsaw. The more I found out about her, the more I liked her and I was determined to tell her story.

Of course, there are fictional elements in the novel, including one particularly significant aspect of the plot, but most of it is built around a solid core of historical fact. It was a real blow to me as a writer to find that she could not have attended Richard II's marriage to Isabelle of France. I would have loved to take her there, but history kept her heavily pregnant at Cardiff. (Writing novels around history can be a pain at times.)

It's a funny thing, but even now I occasionally find out new things about her. Only the other week, I found that she was once hauled up before the King's Bench court on the petition of a man she had claimed as her serf. I don't know what the outcome of the case was, but I wouldn't mind a small bet that she made a fight of it. She was not a woman to give in easily.

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