Far from being ugly or ill-favoured, Constanza of Castile evidently was a very attractive woman: in 1371 at the time of her wedding to John of Gaunt, the author of the Anonimalle chronicle called her 'a very beautiful young lady' (une tresbele damosel). [Anonimalle Chronicle 1333 to 1381, ed. Galbraith, p. 69] The Spanish chronicler Pedro Lopez de Ayala called her mother Maria de Padilla very beautiful and intelligent, and stated that her father Pedro the Cruel was tall and muscular, with very fair hair and skin and blue eyes. So no, Anya Seton, Constanza wasn't some unattractive 'skinny, black-haired' smelly religious fanatic to be contrasted unfavourably to the amazing and fragrant beauty of her husband's mistress Katherine Swynford. (I find that quite revolting, and simply a blatant attempt to manipulate reader sympathy in Swynford's favour.) Judging by the descriptions of Constanza of Castile's father and her daughter Catalina of Lancaster, queen of Castile - Catalina was said to be extremely tall for a woman, and to be 'pink, white and blonde' - it is highly likely that Constanza was blonde-haired, fair-skinned and tall. Henry VIII's first wife Katherine of Aragon was the great-granddaughter of Constanza's daughter Catalina (and was named after her), and also had fair hair. It is often assumed that Queen Katherine must have inherited her fairness from her English ancestors, but as we see here, this is not necessarily the case.
On 9 February 1372, a few weeks after Constanza's arrival in England, her brother-in-law Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales and Aquitaine, duke of Cornwall and earl of Chester, Edward III's eldest son, hosted a ceremony to mark her official entry into London as queen of Castile. The Anonimalle chronicle says that numerous people attended, keen to 'see the beauty of the young lady.' The procession ended at the Savoy, the great London palace which Constanza's husband John of Gaunt had inherited from his first father-in-law Duke Henry, and where Constanza would now make her home, or rather one of her many homes. A few days before this ceremony, Gaunt had officially proclaimed himself king of Castile and Leon, and thereafter was known as monseignour d'Espaigne, 'my lord of Spain' or more accurately, 'my lord of Castile'. As the elder surviving child of King Pedro of Castile, Constanza was the rightful heir to the throne. Her father had been stabbed to death by his illegitimate half-brother Enrique of Trastamara in March 1369 when he was only thirty-four, and Trastamara now sat on the Castilian throne as King Enrique II, supported by Charles V of France. King Pedro is known to history as 'the Cruel', and although it is beyond all doubt that he was indeed capable of cruelty, not least in his appalling treatment of his unfortunate young wife Blanche of Bourbon, he wasn't as black as he was painted by the propaganda of his supplanters. One of Pedro's more attractive traits, to the modern mind if not to the fourteenth-century one, was his religious tolerance: he called himself king of the three faiths, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, had Muslim and Jewish soldiers in his armies, and hired Muslim craftsmen to design and build his great palace in Seville, the Alcazar. The facade of Pedro's building at the Alcazar declaring 'Only Allah is victorious' in Arabic can be seen to this day.
|Pedro's building at the Alcazar in Seville (my photo)
John of Gaunt and Constanza of Castile had only one surviving child together: Catalina, born sometime before 31 March 1373, when her grandfather Edward III paid the messenger (none other than Katherine Swynford; see the first part of this post) who brought him news of her birth. Constanza also bore a son who died in infancy, and may have had miscarriages and stillbirths we don't know about. Catalina had three older half-siblings from her father's first marriage to Blanche of Lancaster: Philippa, queen of Portugal; Elizabeth, duchess of Exeter and countess of Huntingdon; and Henry, King Henry IV of England. Extant letters in John of Gaunt's Registers show that he referred to Catalina as nostre tres chere et tres ame file Kateryne, 'our very dear and beloved daughter Kateryne'. Constanza of Castile's younger sister Isabel married Gaunt's brother Edmund of Langley, earl of Cambridge and later duke of York, in 1372, and had three children, who shared all four grandparents with Catalina of Lancaster: Edward, duke of York, killed at Agincourt in 1415; Constance, named after her aunt (and godmother?) Constanza, who married Thomas Despenser, great-grandson of Hugh the Younger; and Richard, father of Richard, duke of York and grandfather of Edward IV and Richard III. If Isabel of Castile was tall and blonde like her father King Pedro and her niece Catalina of Lancaster, as seems entirely probable, this raises an interesting point about the appearance of her great-grandson the very tall Edward IV and from whom he inherited his height and assumed fairness, as Brian Wainwright points out. There is a possibility that Isabel's youngest child Richard was not the son of her husband Edmund of Langley but of Richard II's half-brother John Holland (who was married to Catalina of Lancaster's half-sister Elizabeth), but that's getting beyond the scope of this post, so I'll leave others to discuss it.
|Also in the Alcazar, the baths of Constanza's mother Maria de Padilla.
|The baths of Maria de Padilla.
Constanza lived through the Great Uprising of 1381, when a London mob destroyed her and Gaunt's home of the Savoy; Gaunt was deeply unpopular. By good fortune Gaunt was not in London at the time, or his head would surely have ended up at the end of a pike, but his fourteen-year-old son Henry was in the Tower of London and only evaded capture when the mob invaded the Tower because a quick-thinking servant hid him in a cupboard.
John of Gaunt never managed to dislodge Enrique of Trastamara or claim the kingdom of Castile in anything more than name, and finally gave up. Instead, a marriage was arranged between his and Constanza's daughter Catalina and the house of Trastamara, which united the two branches of the Castilian royal family. Enrique of Trastamara, King Enrique II, Constanza's half-uncle who had murdered her father Pedro in March 1369, died on 29 May 1379 and was succeeded by his son Juan I. Juan died at the age of only thirty-two on 9 October 1390, leaving his eleven-year-old son Enrique III as king. Enrique had married Catalina of Lancaster, who was five or six years his senior, a little over two years before. Catalina and Enrique's son King Juan II was the father of the great Isabel, queen of Castile in her own right, who married Ferdinand, king of Aragon, and the grandfather of Henry VIII's first wife Catherine of Aragon.
Constanza of Castile was married to John of Gaunt for twenty-two and a half years. For sure she wasn't the love of his life - he chose to be buried next to his first wife Blanche of Lancaster and married his third wife Katherine Swynford in 1396 after she had been his mistress for many years - but that doesn't necessarily mean that they were unhappy together or that Gaunt (or Swynford for that matter) despised his second wife. Constanza knew how things worked; she herself was born illegitimately to her father's mistress while his wife languished in the prison he had put her in, and wouldn't have expected a love marriage or her husband to be faithful to her. She died on 24 March 1394, aged forty or almost, and was buried at the Collegiate Church of the Annunciation of Our Lady in the Newarke at Leicester, which her husband's first father-in-law Duke Henry had founded and where he (Henry) was buried. The year 1394 took a heavy toll on the women of the English royal family: as well as Constanza, Richard II's queen Anne of Bohemia died at the age of only twenty-eight, and so did Mary de Bohun, wife of Constanza's stepson the future Henry IV and mother of Henry V, who was even younger. Personally, I think Constanza of Castile should be remembered as a heck of a lot more than merely the obstacle standing in the way of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford's Amazing Love Affair, who finally does the decent thing and removes herself from the path of True Love by dying and allowing them to finally fulfil their romantic destiny. She was the daughter, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law of kings, queen of Castile in her own right (even if she never sat on the throne because her uncle murdered her father) and was the great-great-great-grandmother of Mary I Tudor, queen of England, and the great-grandmother of the great Isabel la Catolica, also queen of Castile in her own right and one of the most powerful women of the European Middle Ages.