Constance Marten: The runaway heiress, her convicted rapist partner and the painful rift at the heart of British aristocracy

Police are hunting for Constance Marten and Mark Gordon   (Supplied/Florida Department of Law Enforcement)
Police are hunting for Constance Marten and Mark Gordon (Supplied/Florida Department of Law Enforcement)

They abandoned their burning car on the hard shoulder of the M61 and fled – an aristocrat, a sex offender, and their baby, born just one or two days before. From the inferno near Bolton, thought to have destroyed all their belongings, they travelled first to Liverpool, then to Harwich in Essex, to Colchester and on to East Ham station in east London, over the course of two days.

That blurry CCTV footage from 7 January is the last confirmed sighting of 35-year-old Constance Marten, the heiress’s face wrapped in a red scarf, her baby swaddled inside her coat. Alongside her is 48-year-old convicted rapist Mark Gordon, his head covered and bowed away from the camera. Police, concerned for the health of the baby, have been searching for the couple, but they are thought to have with them a large amount of cash, allowing them to stay off the grid.

So just how did Marten, whose father was a page to Elizabeth II, go from gracing the pages of society bible Tatler to being on the run with a man who, after burgling and raping a woman as a teenager, spent 20 years imprisoned in Florida before being deported to Britain?

The last confirmed sighting of Constance Marten and Mark Gordon (Met Police)
The last confirmed sighting of Constance Marten and Mark Gordon (Met Police)

Marten’s father, Napier, points to an estrangement that began when his daughter met Gordon, tearing her away from family and friends to embark on an itinerant life. Making a heartfelt plea to Constance through The Independent, Napier – his voice wavering with emotion – told his daughter: “Darling Constance, even though we remain estranged at the moment, I stand by, as I have always done and as the family has always done, to do whatever is necessary for your safe return to us.

“The past eight years have been beyond painful for all the family as well as your friends, as they must have been for you. And to see you so vulnerable again is testing in the extreme.

“Please Constance, find the courage to present yourself to the police as soon as possible.”

Marten was born in 1987 to Napier and Virginie De Selliers. Napier’s mother, Mary Anna Marten – Constance’s grandmother – was a goddaughter to the late Queen Mother and a playmate of Princess Margaret.

The family had a home befitting their aristocratic pedigree. Constance and her younger brothers – Maximilian, now 34, and Tobias, 31 – were brought up at Crichel House, which sits at the heart of a 5,000 acres of Dorset parkland. One of the most magnificent Georgian mansions in England, the home was the setting of the 1996 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, starring Ewan McGregor and Gwyneth Paltrow.

She attended St Mary’s Shaftesbury, an independent Roman Catholic girls’ school whose alumnae include the novelist Sophie Kinsella; Laura Lopes, an art curator who is daughter of Queen Camilla and Andrew Parker Bowles; and Martha Fiennes, a film director, writer and producer whose brother is the actor Ralph Fiennes. By the time it closed in 2020, due to financial issues brought on by the pandemic, the school charged boarders more than £30,000 a year.

When she was nine, Constance’s father had what was described as an “awakening”. He later told how a voice in his head had told him to discard the £115m family fortune, shave his head and fly to Australia. Napier followed its bidding and, having duly shaved his head, had an out-of-body experience while standing on a cliff-top with a group of Aboriginal Australians. “Everything in my life materially was a completely empty shell,” he said. He lived in a lorry and training in head massage. Although he returned to the UK, later working as a tree surgeon, Napier passed Crichel to Max. In 2013, Max sold the house and 400 acres of surrounding land to Richard Chilton, an American hedge fund billionaire, for a reported £34m; it was initially offered for £98m. King Charles had been thought to be interested in buying the house as an estate for the then-Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Crichel House sits in 5,000 acres of Dorset parkland (Toby/Geograph)
Crichel House sits in 5,000 acres of Dorset parkland (Toby/Geograph)

Constance’s years growing up at Crichel, she would later recall, were full of “naked picnics, siestas amid [hay bales], and tractor scoops.” Toots, as she is known to friends and family, studied Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Leeds, starting in 2008. As a student, she was featured as Tatler’s “Babe of the Month”, describing cider as “one of my five-a-day” and outlining a plan to have a tortoise tattooed on her foot. She attended glittering parties, often at estates like the one she grew up in, and holidayed at upmarket ski resorts such as Verbier.

She also ventured off the beaten It-girl path. During the year abroad that was mandated by her university course, she was in Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo, during the 2011 Arab Spring. Marten graduated with a 2.1 in 2012.

Just beautiful, full of life, full of kindness… and she was very, very talented

She then became a researcher at the London office of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-owned, English-language news channel. This job, according to Marten’s LinkedIn profile, lasted eleven months. Afterwards, Marten worked briefly as a project manager at Rich Mix theatre, in east London, and as a freelance photographer. Marten showed talent; her LinkedIn page records her winning three photography awards, including one for a picture she took at Tahrir Square during the revolution. In 2014, she became professionally qualified as a journalist, and spent a day interning at the Daily Mail.

Apparently supported by a trust fund, Marten then enrolled in an acting course at East 15 drama school in Essex. A classmate told The Sunday Times that Marten was “just beautiful, full of life, full of kindness… and she was very, very talented”.

Marten dropped out of her drama course in 2016 (Supplied)
Marten dropped out of her drama course in 2016 (Supplied)

But Marten dropped out of the course in 2016, they said. She had changed, and was in an erratic relationship with a man the coursemate had never met.

Who was the man? It seems to have been Mark Gordon. Thirteen years her senior, Gordon was born in Birmingham, moving with his mother and half-siblings to Florida when he was young. In 1990, when he was 15, Gordon was found guilty of kidnap and sexual battery, and he spent 20 years in jail. He was recorded as deported in 2010.

The pair have travelled more than 200 miles across England (The Independent)
The pair have travelled more than 200 miles across England (The Independent)

It is unclear how he and Marten met, but it is reported that they moved into a small, terraced house in Ilford, East London. The couple were “mysterious”, a neighbour told The Sunday Times. Marten was apparently estranged from her family by this point, and she does not appear in the Vogue photoshoot that marked the 2021 wedding of her brother, Max, to the jewellery designer Ruth Aymer.

Marten’s publicly accessible social media output dried up from 2016. Holiday pictures were replaced with silence, and occasional plaintive well-wishes from friends and relations wondering where “Toots” had gone.

Mark Gordon spent 20 years in a US jail (Metropolitan Police)
Mark Gordon spent 20 years in a US jail (Metropolitan Police)

He and Marten were reportedly evicted from their home in Ilford. Where they went next is unclear, though by August 2020 they were living on the Coldharbour Estate in Greenwich. Neighbours told the Evening Standard that shouting was sometimes heard from the flat and that Marten and Gordon would spend long periods of time elsewhere. The tenancy agreement was in Marten’s name, but the couple were not paying rent. They were evicted in August 2022, and are reported to have left smoke damage and a partially collapsed ceiling, with the damage amounting to thousands of pounds’ worth of repairs.

Where they then went remains unclear. Gordon’s mother Sylvia, who lives in Florida, told the Daily Mail she believed the pair had secretly married “some time ago”.

There are now more than 200 officers searching for the couple, but they are moving furtively, hiding from cameras, paying in cash and believed to be booking hotels under pseudonyms. It is thought their trip to Harwich Port was in the hope of taking a ferry to the continent. Detective Superintendent Lewis Basford, who is leading the investigation, said: “There is nothing to suggest that any of them have come to any sort of intentional harm – we just need to ensure they are okay, especially the baby, and do not require any medical assistance for any underlying issues.”

The car fire on the M61 near Bolton (Met Police)
The car fire on the M61 near Bolton (Met Police)

De Selliers, now a psychotherapist and divorced from Napier, has not spoken publicly about their daughter’s disappearance. Napier, now a film and music producer, said the family had known about Gordon’s past for some time, causing them great concern. Now he hopes his runaway daughter will return and the rift that has torn this stately heiress from her family can be repaired. In his appeal, he told Constance: “I beseech you to find a way to turn yourself and your wee one in to the police as soon as possible, so you and he or she can be protected. Only then can a process of healing and recovery begin, however long it may take, however difficult it may be.”

Anyone who has information on the family’s whereabouts should call the incident room on 020 7175 0785.

Alternatively, information can be reported 100 per cent anonymously to the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. They never ask for personal details and they do not trace your device.