In this post I'm going somewhat outside my usual blog parameters to write about a Spanish woman who was (to link her to the subject of the blog) Edward II's granddaughter-in-law, the second wife of his grandson John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. I'm writing about Constanza basically because I get sick of the way she's so often ignored in favour of the long-term extra-marital relationship between her husband and Katherine Swynford, and because she's a fascinating person who led a fascinating life. Constanza appears in Anya Seton's wildly popular 1950s novel Katherine as a smelly religious fanatic who makes John of Gaunt's skin crawl because she prays to her dead father and rarely washes. Yuck. Surely she deserves a lot better than that. Constanza was, after all, a person and a very important one, a heck of a lot more than the barely even one-dimensional cardboard cut-out who brought Gaunt a claim to a kingdom and who eventually did the decent thing by conveniently dying so that Gaunt and Swynford could fulfil their fabulously romantic destiny and get married, as she so often appears.
Constanza of Castile was probably born in 1354, and was the elder surviving daughter of Pedro 'the Cruel' (also known as 'the Just'), then the reigning king of Castile, and was the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Edward II's grandfather Fernando III. The Castilian royal family of her era had connections to the English one: Constanza's father Pedro would have married Edward III's second daughter Joan in 1348 had she not died of the plague in the south of France on her way to Castile, and Pedro's father Alfonso XI was betrothed to Edward II's daughter Eleanor of Woodstock in 1324, a marriage which failed to go ahead after Edward's forced abdication in early 1327 changed the political situation. In addition, Edward of Windsor, the future Edward III, was betrothed to Alfonso XI's sister Leonor at the same time.
Pedro 'the Cruel' was born on 30 August 1334 as the only son of Alfonso XI, then twenty-three, and his queen Maria of Portugal. Alfonso and Maria were first cousins on both sides - his father Fernando IV of Castile and her mother Beatriz of Castile were siblings, his mother Constanca of Portugal and her father Afonso IV of Portugal were siblings - which means that they had all four grandparents in common and that their son Pedro had only four great-grandparents instead of the usual eight. Alfonso and Maria's marriage was not a success, and he had a mistress Leonor Guzman, with whom he had ten children. Alfonso XI died in March 1350 at the age of only thirty-eight, and was succeeded by his only legitimate son Pedro. One of the fifteen-year-old new king of Castile's first acts was to have his father's mistress Leonor Guzman killed, an act which a few years later was to have profound implications for Pedro himself and for his daughter Constanza.
Joan of England having died on her way to marry him, Pedro of Castile instead married the French noblewoman Blanche de Bourbon, whose mother was a half-sister of Philip VI of France and whose sister Jeanne de Bourbon married Charles V of France and was the mother of Charles VI. Blanche, however, was not Constanza of Castile's mother: her new husband Pedro imprisoned her days after their wedding, and kept her in prison for eight years until 1361, when she died, either by murder or of natural causes is not certain. (The people who love to moan endlessly about what a horribly bad and neglectful husband Edward II was to Isabella of France might like to think about what this other royal woman had to suffer in marriage in comparison.) Pedro went off with his mistress Maria de Padilla, the mother of Constanza and her younger sister Isabel (born c. 1355). The two girls were declared legitimate by the Cortes of Castile in 1362, after the unfortunate Queen Blanche's death, on the grounds that Pedro had secretly married Maria before he went through a wedding ceremony with Blanche. Constanza and Isabel had a younger brother Alfonso, who would have been Pedro's heir but died in infancy. Constanza as the elder daughter was thus their father's heir. Quite honestly, given how inter-bred Pedro's family was, bringing in the blood of a woman entirely unrelated as their mother surely wasn't a bad thing for his daughters.
The eldest surviving son of King Pedro's ten illegitimate half-siblings, his father's children with the murdered Leonor Guzman, was Enrique of Trastamara, also sometimes known as the Bastard of Trastamara or the Bastard of Castile. Enrique was only seven months older than his legitimate half-brother, born in January 1334. Understandably furious at Pedro's murder of his mother, Enrique fled to France, and to cut a very long story short, with the aid of Charles V of France and Pedro's enemy Pedro IV of Aragon, defeated Pedro at the battle of Montiel in March 1369. A few days later Enrique of Trastamara personally stabbed his half-brother to death. Two years before, Pedro had defeated Enrique at the battle of Najera with the help of Edward III's sons Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales and Aquitaine, and John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. In September 1371 near Mont-de-Marsan in the south of France, John of Gaunt married Pedro's seventeen-year-old elder daughter and heir Constanza, and at some point not long afterwards, his younger brother Edmund of Langley married Constanza's sister Isabel. Gaunt proclaimed himself king of Castile and Leon, though his title was in name only: he never managed to shift Enrique of Trastamara, now King Enrique II of Castile, from the throne.
Constanza and Isabel had been raised at the court of Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales and Aquitaine, since 1366, though had spent their early years in their father's kingdom, probably mostly in Seville, where Pedro built a great palace (the Alcazar). Their mother Maria de Padilla died in Seville in July 1361; she was a noblewoman, and was described in a contemporary chronicle as very beautiful and intelligent, small and slender. King Pedro himself was described as about six feet tall and muscular, with very light blond hair, pale skin and blue eyes. This gives us some idea of what his daughter Constanza might have looked like. (Not six feet tall and muscular, obviously.)
Constanza arrived in England with her new husband John of Gaunt in November 1371. It is easy to imagine that damp chilly England in early winter came as something of a shock to a teenage girl used to the climate of Spain and the south of France. The royal couple sent Constanza's father-in-law Edward III valuable Christmas gifts (W. Mark Ormrod, Edward III, p. 532) and at some point Constanza must have met her stepchildren, John's children with the late Blanche of Lancaster: Philippa, future queen of Portugal, born in 1360; Elizabeth, future countess of Pembroke and duchess of Exeter, born in 1364; and Henry, future king of England, born in 1367.
Constanza and John's only surviving child, Katherine or Catalina of Lancaster, was born sometime before 31 March 1373, when the girl's grandfather Edward III paid twenty marks to the person who had brought him news of her birth, Interestingly, this person was none other than Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt's long-term mistress, whose eldest son with Gaunt, John Beaufort, was born in roughly the same time period as his half-sister Catalina. It's also very interesting that Catalina may even have been named after Katherine Swynford, unless Constanza revered Saint Katherine, or her daughter was born on or around Saint Katherine's feast day, 25 November. Katherine was an unusual name in the English royal family, and had previously only been used for Henry III and Eleanor of Provence's youngest child, who was born on 25 November (i.e. St Katherine's day) in 1253, and her niece, the eldest daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. Both these girls died young, so the name was hardly propitious. At any rate, Constanza sending her husband's mistress to the king with news of her child's birth, knowing that the king would generously reward Katherine for it, hardly hints at any conflict between the two women; quite the opposite. On the other hand, Katherine Swynford continued to bear John's children, the Beauforts, throughout the 1370s, whereas Constanza had no more surviving children.