Ranulf de Blundeville (or Blondeville), sixth earl of Chester, was born in 1170 during the reign of Henry II, the oldest son of Hugh, earl of Chester, and Bertrada de Montfort, a cousin of the king. When Ranulf’s father died in 1181, the young heir became a royal ward of Henry II. With his mother and four sisters, he was sent to the king’s court in Normandy. Little is known of Ranulf’s early life, but he became one of England’s most powerful and wealthy magnates who served four kings: Henry II, his sons Richard I and John, and John’s son, Henry III. The Chester family’s extensive holdings stretched from England and across the channel. Ranulf later became Earl of Lincoln and of Leicester. He was hereditary Viscount of the Bessin in central and western Normandy, encompassing the Viscounties of Bayeux and of Avranches; he was also Viscount of St Sauveur-le-Vicomte, Viscount of the Val de Vire and Baron of St Sever. At the time of his death, he had 138 manors. He had it all, or so one would think.
Ranulf was four years younger than King Henry’s son John. They may have been companions at court, but Ranulf avoided entanglement in the bitter battles between the king and his sons in the 1180s likely due to his age. Interestingly, his own father Hugh had sided with the young Angevins in the rebellion a decade earlier. Hugh had been imprisoned and eventually was restored his lands when he gave his allegiance to Henry. But Ranulf is not mentioned in the contemporary chronicles during his teenage years, until he reached his majority and was knighted by King Henry II in 1188 (some records say 1189) and assumed control of his estates.
The nineteen year old was thrust into the limelight when, in that same year, Henry arranged for his marriage to Constance, duchess of Brittany. She and her Breton lords had been fond of Geoffrey, her first husband - son of Henry II — but they disliked the Plantagenets and their interference in Brittany and often leaned toward supporting the French king as Geoffrey had. Henry and Richard saw the union between Ranulf and Constance as a way to keep Brittany aligned with the Angevins, which was critical to maintaining the open sea lanes between England and the continent. And in negotiations in 1190 with King Tancred of Sicily, Richard had acknowledged Constance’s three-year-old son Arthur as his heir in a marriage arrangement with Tancred’s daughter.
|Constance of Brittany|
|Nottingham Castle, 2010|
King Richard turned his attention to the French incursion against his continental lands and left for Normandy in May 1194. Ranulf followed, but unlike the king, he would set foot in England again.
Ranulf should have had a joyful reunion with his wife after months apart. Surely they should be getting about the whole purpose of marriage – siring an heir or two. And Ranulf’s position as a strong supporter of King Richard implied that as Duke of Brittany he would influence Breton solidarity against King Philip of France. But Ranulf’s role as Duke was in name only. Ranulf hardly appears in Breton records and his wife Constance continued to rule, as she had since Geoffrey’s death. Was this due to Ranulf’s young age and inexperience? Apparently, this marriage was not a match made in heaven. Ranulf’s biographer Soden claims the couple loathed each other. He spent virtually no time in Brittany and supposedly was run out of the duchy by Constance’s supporters.
In ten years of marriage the couple had no children together, but by virtue of the marriage Ranulf was stepfather to Constance’s children by Geoffrey. There is no evidence that he was ever close to Eleanor (born 1184) or Arthur (born 1186) not that he was given much opportunity to be a father to them. Constance might have missed an opportunity to have her husband influence King Richard in her favor. Her arranged marriage was not the only chain* tying Brittany to the Angevins: Richard also held Constance’s daughter as a royal hostage to ensure Breton loyalty while he was on crusade. Constance saw very little of her daughter during this time and nine-year-old Eleanor became a political pawn. Richard’s ransom included terms stipulating that Eleanor marry the son of his enemy, Leopold, Duke of Austria. She was on route to Austria in 1194 when word arrived that the duke had died. Eleanor returned to Richard’s custody. Known as the ‘pearl of Brittany’, Eleanor holds a royal record: when her brother was captured by King John, she was held in captivity for 39 years until her death in 1241.
As Richard began his campaign to restore lands King Philip had conquered, Ranulf may have been directly involved in sieges, assaults, and skirmishes. He obviously had other things on his mind: an awful marriage, being thrown out of Brittany, no power to rule as duke. Ranulf’s ego must have been badly bruised. So what’s a young man to do? Kidnap and imprison your wife of course!
Constance had been commanded to meet with King Richard in Normandy. As she crossed the River Couësnon from Brittany into Normandy, Ranulf and his knights waylaid her ducal train. She was ‘escorted’ to St. James de Beuvron, one of Ranulf’s castles east of the Breton border town Pontorson.
Some of the histories claim the scheme to kidnap Constance in March 1196 was hatched between King Richard and Ranulf. Even the Bretons believed this, and we can be assured French propaganda exploited the idea.
|Arthur of Brittany|
Was King Richard the instigator? If the Bretons had been so inclined to exchange Arthur for Constance's release, the scheme might have worked. The Bretons responded by swearing fealty to Arthur and allying themselves with France. They hid Arthur until he could be stealthily whisked to King Philip’s court in Paris. In April 1196, Richard attacked Brittany, “not even pausing for Good Friday” per chronicler William the Breton. According to De Hoveden, Richard, “collecting a large army, entered Brittany in a hostile manner, and laid it waste.” In negotiations, Richard agreed to Constance’s release in August 1196, but Ranulf would not comply. The Bretons attacked Richard’s forces in Normandy, and counterattacks in Brittany furthered devastated their forces.
Constance’s two year imprisonment did nothing to endear her to Ranulf. If he had concocted the plot on his own, surely it was the impetuous act of a young, spurned man who wanted to assert his control as her husband and as Duke of Brittany. Was that his intention? Did he want to raise his stature by securing Arthur for King Richard?
Richard recognized the critical importance of having Brittany in his camp in the war against France. He received concessions and allegiance from Brittany in a negotiated peace, but he did not get Arthur.
And Ranulf? Was he merely an agent of King Richard? There appeared to be no repercussions against the young duke. The records for 1196-1198 place him at Château Gaillard, Richard’s massive castle building project on the River Seine. Soden notes that Ranulf provided protection for men and materials being moved upstream for the project.
Constance eventually was released by Ranulf, but the circumstances are vague. She returned to Brittany and ruled as Arthur’s regent. When King Richard died as a result of a crossbow wound at Chalus in April 1199, Constance turned to France to support her son’s claim to the English crown. King Philip turned the tables on Brittany and recognized John as king. Ranulf joined a council of nobles that August and swore fealty to John.
Constance apparently had sought a divorce from Ranulf on the grounds of consanguinity. At least once source claims that though the Pope had not ruled, she remarried in October 1199 without the king’s permission. (There are some who argue Ranulf had sought the annulment.) Ranulf also remarried in the Fall of 1200. His career and life took serious twists and turns during John’s reign as he fell in and out of favor with the king, but that is a story for another day.
*Arthur’s betrothal to King Tancred’s daughter was a moot point after Sicily was conquered by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI (Richard’s gaoler) in 1194.
De Hoveden, R. (1853). The Annals of Roger de Hoveden, comprising the history of England and of other countries of Europe from A. D. 732 to A. D. 1201. (Henry T. Riley, Trans.). London: H. G. Bohn. (Original work published 1201?)
Eales, R. "Ranulf (III) , sixth earl of Chester and first earl of Lincoln (1170–1232)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2716]
Everhard, J.A. (2000). Brittany and the Angevins: Province and Empire, 1158-1203. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gillingham, J. (2002). Richard I. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Soden, I. (2013). Ranulf de Blondeville: the First English Hero. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing.
Images are in the public domain unless otherwise noted.
Nottingham Castle gatehouse, which dates back to 1250, not Ranulf's time. Photo taken by the Author in 2010, CC BY-SA.
Château-Gaillard by Urban 2005 CC BY-SA 3.0.
Find Char on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.