Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

Historical Notes on the reign of King John


Constance of Brittany

31Constance (1161-1201) was the heiress of Conan IV, duke of the Bretons. For dynastic reasons, she was secured as a bride for Geoffrey Plantagenet while they were both children; her father arranged the marriage in order to secure connections with Henry II, who claimed to be overlord of Brittany, and to obtain his help in controlling rebellious vassals. Constance and Geoffrey had two children: a daughter, Eleanor, and a son, Arthur, who was born after his father's death. Shakespeare's report of Constance's death was created for dramatic effect, since she later married twice: first to Ranulf of Chester, with whom she quarreled (the marriage was anulled); secondly to Guy of Thouars. Following the death of Richard I on 6 April 1199, Constance was active in trying to secure the English crown for Arthur. Their rival John was visiting them when he heard of Richard's death, whereupon he left hurriedly, possibly more out of fear of Constance and her barons than of her twelve-year-old son. Accompanied by a Breton army, Arthur and Constance seized Angers and assembled a host of barons from Anjou, Touraine, and Maine who were willing to accept Arthur as successor. They were soon joined by Philip Augustus of France, to whom Arthur did homage. Meanwhile, William Marshal, Hubert Walter, and Geoffrey Fitzpeter convinced the English barons to swear an oath of fealty to John, who was then crowned on 26 May. In August 1201, she died, apparently fully reconciled to John, who oversaw the execution of her will.See Holinshed's account of Constance's marriages.

Blanche of Castile

32Blanche (1188-1252) was the daughter of John's older sister Eleanor (not his mother Eleanor) and Alphonso VIII of Spain; thus she had indirect claims to the monarchies of both England and Spain. Married young to Lois in order to confirm the treaty of Le Goulet in 1200, Blanche was as vigorous in politics and the bearing of children as her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine. When Louis invaded England, she did her best to summon the assistance that her father-in-law, Philip Augustus, was unwilling to provide. She traveled to Calais, where she raised two fleets and an army under Robert of Courtenay; but most of the aid failed to arrive. With Lois, she reigned as queen of France from Louis's ascent in 1223 to his death three years later; his will left her in charge of government and the kingdom while their eldest surviving son was in his minority. She took immediate steps to crown Louis XI at the young age of twelve and acted as regent until he was old enough to reign alone. She also acted as regent during Louis IX's crusades, caring for his three children, successfully increasing the territories of France, and negotiating tirelessly to create alliances, often by marriages similar to her own with Louis VIII.

33Blanche ensured that her children were well educated and pious. Two of them in fact went on to become saints. Her daughter Isabelle founded a Franciscan house for young women in Longchamp (associated with the Sisters of Saint Clare, to whom Isabel in Measure for Measure is to become dedicated at the beginning of the play); she also endowed a convent, of which she became the Abbess. Her son, Louis IX was also canonized for his life of commitment to the crusades.