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Despenser, Constance, Lady Despenserlocked

(c. 1375–1416)
  • Rosemary Horrox

Despenser, Constance, Lady Despenser (c. 1375–1416), noblewoman, was the daughter of Edmund of Langley, first duke of York (1341–1402), and Isabella (d. 1392), daughter of Pedro the Cruel of Castile and his mistress Maria de Padilla. Her parents were married in July 1372 and Constance was their second child. On 16 April 1378 Edmund was granted the marriage of Thomas, Lord Despenser (1373–1400), who had married Constance by November 1379. Thomas, who became earl of Gloucester in 1397 but lost his new title following the deposition of Richard II, took part in the ‘Epiphany rising’ of 1400 against Henry IV and was executed at Bristol on 13 January. On 11 February Constance was granted specified goods of her dead husband to the value of £200, with various items of jewellery and plate which had been regarded as her own during his lifetime. Eight days later she was granted specified manors worth 1000 marks, and on 3 March she was granted custody of her son Richard. She received a further mark of favour in January 1404 when she sued for, and was granted, dower rights notwithstanding her dead husband's forfeiture.

In spite of these marks of favour, Constance conspired against the crown. On 15 February 1405 it became known that Constance had fled with the Mortimer children and was making for the Despenser lordship of Cardiff, presumably with the intention of joining Owain Glyn Dŵr. The pursuing royal forces caught up with them near Cheltenham, and Constance was brought before a great council at Westminster, where she denounced her brother Edward, duke of York, as instigator of the plot. When the duke denied his involvement she called for a champion, and an esquire, William Maidstone, challenged the duke to combat. York accepted, but at that point Thomas of Lancaster intervened and brother and sister were imprisoned, Constance at Kenilworth. On 12 March her lands and goods were seized. Partial restitution was made in January 1406, but the king took the precaution of keeping her Welsh lands in his own hands, and order was not given for their restoration until June 1407. Little is heard of Constance thereafter. She was among the landowners ordered to remain on their Welsh estates in May 1409 to resist the rebels. She died on 28 November 1416, and writs of diem clausit extremum were issued on the same day, which perhaps implies that she died in or near Westminster. She was buried before the high altar of Reading Abbey.

Constance had three children with Thomas Despenser: Richard, their heir, who was born on 30 November 1396 and had died by 16 April 1414; and two daughters, Elizabeth and Isabella. Both sisters were still alive in 1404, when they were in the care of the king's yeoman John Grove, but Elizabeth may have died soon after. She is said to have died young and to have been buried in St Mary's Church, Cardiff. Isabella, who was born on 26 July 1400, became heir to the Despenser lands after her brother died childless. She married, first, Richard Beauchamp, earl of Worcester (d. 1422), and, second, his cousin Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (d. 1439).

After Thomas Despenser's death Constance was the mistress of Edmund Holland, seventh earl of Kent (1383–1408), and had a daughter with him, Eleanor, who later married James Audley (d. 1459). Eleanor's later claim (which was rejected) that Constance had married Kent and that she was therefore the earl's heir dates the liaison to before Kent's marriage to Lucia Visconti in January 1407. On 10 January 1405 Kent had been granted royal licence to marry whom he pleased of the king's lieges. If the grant had been secured with Constance in mind her involvement in treason presumably rendered the alliance inexpedient.


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