Constance, Duchess of Brittany

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Duchess of Brittany
Reign 1166–1201
Predecessor Conan IV
Successor Arthur I
Co-rulers Geoffrey II (1181-1186)
Arthur I (1196-1201)
Guy of Thouars (1199-1201)
Born circa 1161
Died circa 5 September 1201
Burial Villeneuve Abbey, Nantes
Spouse Geoffrey II (m. 1181; dec. 1186)
Ranulph de Blondeville, Earl of Chester (m. 1188; ann. 1198)
Guy of Thouars (m. 1199)
Issue Eleanor, Fair Maid of Brittany
Matilda of Brittany
Arthur I, Duke of Brittany
Alix, Duchess of Brittany
Catherine of Thouars
House House of Penthièvre
Father Conan IV, Duke of Brittany
Mother Margaret of Huntingdon
Religion Roman Catholicism

Constance (Breton: Konstanza; 1161 – c. 5 September 1201) was Duchess of Brittany and Countess of Richmond between 1166[1][lower-alpha 1] and 1201. Constance was the daughter of Duke Conan IV by his wife, Margaret of Huntingdon, a sister of the Scottish kings Malcolm IV and William I.

Life and reign

Banner of Constance of Penthièvre

Constance's father Conan IV had reunited the Duchy of Brittany in wars with Henry II of England. After the wars with Henry II, Conan IV faced rebellions from some Breton nobles. He appealed to Henry II for assistance in putting down those rebellions.

In 1166, Henry invaded Brittany in order to punish the local barons' revolt. In order to gain complete control over the duchy, he forced Conan IV into abdicating in Constance’s favor and betrothing her to his fourth legitimate son Geoffrey. Five-year-old Constance succeeded him as Duchess of Brittany and Countess of Richmond.[2]

In 1181, twenty-year-old Constance was forced into marriage with Geoffrey. On August 19, 1186, Geoffrey was trampled to death in a riding accident during a tournament in Paris. Constance thereafter became the effective ruler of Brittany.

However, on 3 February 1188, Henry II of England arranged for Constance to marry Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester, one of the most powerful earls in England. Though Ranulf used, not consistently, the style Duke of Brittany, he never had the control of the duchy, and is not known to have played an important role there,[3] and the Bretons, as well as Constance, never acknowledged him as Duke jure uxoris, and excluded him from the government of the Duchy.[4]

In 1191, King Richard I of England officially proclaimed his nephew, Constance's son Arthur as his heir in a treaty signed with Philip II of France.

To promote her son Arthur's position and inheritance, Constance included him in the government of the Duchy in 1196. In response to this act that thwarted his projects, Richard summoned her to Bayeux and had her abducted by Ranulf in Pontorson and imprisoned in Saint-James de Beuvron. He spread the rumour that Constance had been imprisoned for matrimonial reasons. As a result, rebellions were sparked across Brittany on her behalf and Arthur was sent in Brest. Richard demanded that hostages were delivered to him in exchange for Constance's freedom. The Bretons agreed but Constance and the hostages remained imprisoned and rebellions went on. Richard eventually bowed to growing pressure and had the Duchess released in 1198.[5] Back in Brittany, Constance had her marriage annulled.

Constance took Guy of Thouars as her next husband between August and October 1199.[lower-alpha 2]

Between 1198 and the time of her death delivering twin daughters, Constance ruled with her son Arthur as co-ruler. Throughout these years, Constance advised her son towards a French alliance, pursuing the policy of her late husband Geoffrey II. [lower-alpha 3]


William, Constance’s brother

As a girl, Constance could not inherit the duchy at her father’s death if she had a brother. A charter by Margaret, Constance’s mother, seems to show that she and Conan had at least two children who had died young.[6][lower-alpha 4]

However, two charters made by Constance and her son Arthur towards 1200 mention a brother of Constance, William "clericus". As a boy, William should have inherited the duchy after Conan. According to Everard, Henry II’s forcing Constance’s father into abdicating in 1166 was meant to prevent any son of the Duke from inheriting the duchy.[7][lower-alpha 5]

Marriages and issue

Constance and Geoffrey had three children:

Constance and Guy had two daughters in 1201:

Contradictory sources state that Constance might have had another daughter:[11]

Death and Burial

Constance died, age 40, on 5 September 1201 at Nantes. She was buried at Villeneuve Abbey in Nantes.[citation needed]

Constance's cause of death is debated. Some historians believe she died of leprosy. Others believe she died from complications of childbirth, shortly after delivering twin daughters. Still others believe that she had leprosy, leading to a difficult delivery, and ultimately to her death shortly after the birth of the twins. Thus both leprosy and childbirth are possible causes of death. [lower-alpha 11]


Constance is a character in the play King John by William Shakespeare, in which she has several very eloquent speeches on grief and death. On screen, she has been portrayed by Julia Neilson in the silent short King John (1899), which recreates John's death scene at the end of the play, Sonia Dresdel in the BBC Sunday Night Theatre version (1952), and Claire Bloom in the BBC Shakespeare version (1984). She was also played by Paula Williams (as a girl) and Nina Francis (as an adult) in the BBC TV drama series The Devil's Crown (1978).


See also


  1. Although she inherited the Earldom of Richmond from her father in 1166, Constance did not enter her inheritance until 1183/1184 (see Judith Everard and Michael Jones, The Charters of Duchess Constance and Her Family (1171-1221), The Boydell Press, 1999, p 38)
  2. Judith Everard, Michael Jones, The Charters of Duchess Constance of Brittany and her Family (1171-1221), The Boydell Press, 1999, p 135: "The first occasion on which the names of Constance and Guy are linked is at Angiers in October 1199. (...) cf. also the date of Gu2 [a grant for the monks of Buzay], which records that on 27 August 1201, Guy was still only in his second regnal year."
  3. When Richard I died in 1199, Phillip II agreed to recognize Arthur as count of Anjou, Maine, and Poitou, in exchange for Arthur swearing fealty to Phillip II, becoming a direct vassal of France. However 13-year-old Arthur was captured while besieging Mirebeau, and the following year he was transferred to Rouen, under the charge of William de Braose, and then vanished mysteriously in April 1203. After Constance's death, Arthur was thought to have perished himself in 1203 after a period of imprisonment under John I. He was succeeded by his infant half-sister, Alix of Thouars. Guy served as regent of Brittany for Alix from 1203 to 1206. During the conflicts with John I, Constance's eldest daughter Eleanor was captured and imprisoned at Corfe Castle in Dorset and later elsewhere until her death.
  4. Margaret of Huntingdon made a donation for the souls of "herself, Duke Conan IV, and 'our boys', or 'our children' (pro salute anime... puerorum... nostrorum). This would seem to be a reference to at least one son of the marriage who did not survive infancy, leaving Constance as heiress in 1166." (Everard and Jones, The Charters of Duchess Constance and Her Family (1171-1221), The Boydell Press, 1999, p 94).
  5. According to Everard, the fact that Constance’s brother was called William seems to indicate that he was not an illegitimate son of Conan IV, as William was the name of one of Margaret of Huntingdon’s brothers. (Everard, Judith (2000). Brittany and the Angevins: Province and Empire, 1158-1203. Cambridge University Press, 2000, p 43).
  6. Dom Lobineau mentions her existence in his Histoire de Bretagne
  7. Andre III was the last member of his family to be Sire of Vitré, which, after this death, came into the hands of the Counts of Laval.
  8. According to historians Dom Morice, Dom Charles Taillandiers, Prudence-Guillaume de Roujoux and Arthur Le Moyne de La Borderie, Constance and Guy had a third daughter, called Margaret.
  9. Historians Pierre Daru and François Manet state that Constance and Guy had three daughters, but do not specify their names.
  10. According to Medieval Lands website, Margaret was the daughter of either Ranulf de Blondeville and Constance of Brittany, or Ranulf de Blondeville and his second wife Clémence de Fougères, but no primary sources have confirmed this parentage.
  11. That Constance was having twins, at the age of forty, in the unsanitary conditions of the age, should be taken greatly into account in this debate. As the exact date of the twins' birth is not currently known, and may never be known, there may never be a resolution to this question.


  1. Judith Everard, Michael Jones, The Charters of Duchess Constance of Brittany and her Family (1171-1221), The Boydell Press, 1999, p. 38
  2. Everard, Judith (2000). Brittany and the Angevins: Province and Empire, 1158-1203. Cambridge University Press, 2000, p 42
  3. Eales 2008
  4. Jacques Choffel, La Bretagne sous l'orage Plantagenet, 1990, pp 140 and 165
  5. Jacques Choffel, La Bretagne sous l'orage Plantagenet, 1990, pp 203-204.
  6. Judith Everard and Michael Jones, The Charters of Duchess Constance of Brittany and Her Family (1171-1221), The Boydell Press, 1999, pp 93-94
  7. Everard, Judith (2000). Brittany and the Angevins: Province and Empire, 1158-1203. Cambridge University Press, 2000, p 43
  8. Michael Jones, « Eleanor, suo jure duchess of Brittany (1182x4–1241) », Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 ; online edition, January 2008.
  9. Guy-Alexis Lobineau, Histoire de Bretagne, Palais Royal, 1973, I, p. 171, CLIX
  10. Malcolm A. Craig, « A Second Daughter of Geoffrey of Brittany », Historical Research, vol. 50, n° 121 (May 1977), p. 112-115.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Arthur Le Moyne de La Borderie, Histoire de Bretagne, Tome troisième, p. 288
  12. 12.0 12.1 Pierre-Hyacinthe Morice, Histoire ecclésiastique et civile de Bretagne, Tome premier, p. 129 and 150
  13. Charles Taillandier, Histoire ecclésiastique et civile de Bretagne, Tome second, p. IX
  14. 14.0 14.1 Prudence Guillaume de Roujoux, Histoire des rois et des ducs de Bretagne, Tome second, p. 231
  15. Pierre Antoine Noël Bruno, comte Daru, Histoire de Bretagne, Tome premier, p. 407
  16. François Manet, Histoire de la Petite-Bretagne, ou Bretagne Armorique, depuis ses premiers habitans connus, Tome second, p. 308
  17. Medieval Lands
  18. Stéphane Morin, Trégor, Goëlo, Penthièvre. Le pouvoir des Comtes de Bretagne du XIIe au XIIIe siècle, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010. ISBN 9782753510128, Tableaux généalogiques p. 102 & 123.
Constance, Duchess of Brittany
Born: 1161 1201
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Conan IV
Duchess of Brittany
Countess of Rennes

with Geoffrey II (1181–1186)
Arthur (1196-1201)
Guy (1199-1201)
Succeeded by
Arthur I
Preceded by
Countess of Nantes
with Geoffrey III (1185–1186)
Arthur (1196–1201)
Peerage of England
Preceded by
Conan IV
Countess of Richmond
with Geoffrey II (1181–1186)
Arthur I (1196–1201)
Guy (1199-1201)
Succeeded by
Arthur I