Constance of Brittany was born to Conan IV, Duke of Brittany and his wife, Margaret of Huntingdon – sister to Scottish kings Malcolm IV and William I – in 1161 at Brittany.
Duchess of Brittany and Countess of Richmond between 1166 and 1201, Constance was born in a time of struggle as her father battled to reunite the Duchy of Brittany in wars with King Henry II of England. Following the wars Conan IV faced rebellion from the Breton nobles and asked Henry II for assistance in putting them down.
The Duchy of Brittany was an area of France which the Angevin kings of England were eager to attain a stronghold over so Henry II agreed to lend his support and invaded Brittany in 1166. He swiftly put down the revolts and forced Conan IV to abdicate in favour of his daughter Constance whom Henry II felt he could better control, especially as he proposed a marriage between Conan IV’s then five-year-old daughter and his own son, Geoffrey Plantagenet.
Geoffrey and Constance were officially married in 1181 when she was twenty years old and Geoffrey became Duke of Brittany and the effective ruler of the duchy. Though it was undoubtedly a political match the marriage appeared to be a happy one and produced two daughters and a son, Arthur.
Geoffrey died suddenly and unexpectedly in August 1186 as the result of a jousting accident while at a tournament in Paris. Constance became ruler of Brittany following his death and occupied the position until 1196 when she abdicated in favour of her son Arthur, who was revered by the people of Brittany. They hoped Arthur would be the one to free them from British rule once and for all.
In 1188 King Henry II arranged a second marriage for Constance, this time to Ranulf de Blundeville, Earl of Chester. The marriage was a disaster which led to Constance’s imprisonment – either by her husband’s design or at the behest of King Richard I, who succeeded Henry II as King of England. Historical opinion is divided with some arguing that the imprisonment was the result of marital issues and others arguing that it was orchestrated by Richard to appear that way so that he had the opportunity to achieve his own aims in the duchy. Regardless of the reasoning the imprisonment sparked massive rebellion in Brittany which led to her eventual release in 1198. Upon her return to Brittany Constance had her marriage to Ranulf annulled.
In 1199 Constance married for a third time, to Guy de Thouars. Like her first marriage this appeared to be a happy union and she gave birth to three daughters in quick succession. With Richard I’s unexpected death the same year it seemed Brittany might finally be free of English rule but his brother John quickly seized the throne and it was clear he expected to continue England’s hold over the region.
On 5 September 1201 Constance passed away, having never seen resolution to the battle for Brittany that was still waging between King John and her son Arthur, who had tremendous public support.
Like many aspects of her life there is debate over Constance’s cause of death. It is possible both that she died from leprosy and that her end was brought on by difficulties with her final pregnancies, which came within the space of two years. She is buried at Villeneuve Abbey in Nantes, France.
An impressive figure, Constance was immortalised in Shakespeare’s play, King John, in which she’s portrayed as the original strong, independent woman and has several very eloquent speeches on grief and death.