The aristocrat, the convicted sex offender and the increasingly urgent search for their missing baby
Constance “Toots” Marten, 35 — Leeds graduate, Tatler It-girl and, until this week, missing mother — stopped posting on her Instagram page in June 2016, the same year she is believed to have met her partner Mark Gordon. It is also when she became estranged from her family, one of England’s most prominent aristocratic households, which has links to the royals and formerly owned Crichel House in Dorset, a grand, 5,000-acre estate where Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 Emma adaptation was filmed.
The Marten family have long been the subject of intrigue and fascination. Her father’s extraordinary midlife ‘awakening’ was documented in national newspapers in 2013; her grandmother, Mary Anna Marten OBE, was a goddaughter of the late Queen Mother; and their sprawling estate has been called “one of Dorset’s grandest Georgian houses” and “an unusual and fascinatingly complex house” by the likes of Country Life.
But early this year, the family began making headlines for a different reason: their beloved Toots had gone missing with Gordon and a baby believed to be their newborn son. The couple had last been seen in east London on January 7, having abandoned their burning car on a motorway near Manchester two days before. Officers concerned for the baby’s welfare believed they may have been trying to leave the country on a ferry to the Netherlands, that they had enough cash “to live off-grid” and that they had been sleeping rough, possibly in a tent, in sub-zero temperatures for the 54 days since.
But on Monday night, more than seven weeks after the pair went missing, police announced that they had arrested Constance and her partner in a residential area of Brighton. The couple had reportedly been spotted outside a corner shop by members of the public who recognised their faces from the news. Officers reportedly swooped in six minutes, arresting the couple — described as “heavily clothed for outdoor activity” — as they walked up a nearby street. They have since been further arrested on suspicion of gross negligence manslaughter as police undergo an increasingly “urgent search” for their newborn child, who was not with them and has had no formal medical attention since birth in January. Investigators are currently scouring gardens, bushes and alleyways in the Brighton area, fearing the baby may have “come to harm” as the search enters its second day.
The update comes more than four weeks after detectives announced that they would be offering a £10,000 reward for the pair and their newborn, after shocking new details about Gordon’s past came to light: he is reportedly a convicted rapist who was deported from the US in 2010 after serving 20 years behind bars for kidnap and sexual battery. The revelation prompted a heartfelt public appeal from her father, Napier Marten, last month: “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,” he said in an emotional audio appeal, adding that he had known about Gordon’s criminal record for some time and that he and the family had lived in “great concern”.
“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. I want you to understand that you are much much loved whatever the circumstances,” he continued. “Only then can a process of healing and recovery begin, however long it may take, however difficult it may be. I would like you to understand that the family will do all that is needed for your wellbeing. And I also wish you to understand you are much, much loved, whatever the circumstances. We are deeply concerned for your and your baby’s welfare. 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.”
Napier has now released a new statement since his daughter’s arrest, speaking of his “immense relief” that she’s been found. “Whatever the weather, I love her dearly and will support her best I can,” he told The Independent, adding: “For whatever reasons she and her partner went on the run, the consequences of their actions have increased many fold. It would have been far better if they had handed themselves in earlier.” He and his family say they are concerned about Gordon’s past convictions, but Gordon’s own mother Sylvia, 83, has continued to defend him. After Napier’s original statement, she came out with her own theory about the disappearance: she believes her son is a “good boy” and that he and Constance “married in secret” and might have been “kidnapped”. “I am very concerned,” she told reporters last month. “I love my son. He is a good boy so I don’t know what this is all about. I am worried for all of them. I am thinking, I wonder if someone kidnapped them?”
Constance’s public Instagram profile — which has been unused since 2016 — offers a window into her life before she met Gordon. It is in many ways typical of the then-drama student: road trips through Italy; group dinners and holidays to Lisbon; arty snaps of cats, trees and exhibitions with dry, witty captions. Among the latest posts are three birthday tributes to her “bee” or “bezzie” Ruth Aymer, a London-based jewellery designer and — in Constance’s words — “one of the most positive, loyal, upbeat humans on this here earth”.
Aymer had started dating Constance’s younger brother Maximillian (Max), 34, a Bryanston-educated real estate manager, the previous year. The couple married six years later in an opulent ceremony at St. Giles House in Dorset, the home of his great-grandmother, Lady Mary Sibell Ashley-Cooper. A feature in Vogue last year showed Constance’s mother, psychotherapist Virginie de Selliers, 63, and brothers Tobias (Toby) and Freddie (Fred) smiling for a group shot with the bride and groom in August 2021. Max’s father Napier and sister Constance — previously a so-called “bezzie” of the bride — do not appear in any of the photographs.
Crichel House Chapel https://t.co/Hc2d8GT4J4 pic.twitter.com/oheXTbs1RS
— Guy Corbet (@GuyCorbet) July 24, 2022
Constance and Gordon, who is 13 years her senior, are believed to have been living in a rundown flat on Greenwich’s Coldharbour Estate at the time. This is one of several addresses in and around the capital that they’d frequented in recent years. They were repeatedly evicted by landlords, in some cases at least for not paying rent — despite her continuing to have access to a multimillion-pound trust fund at the UK’s oldest private bank, C. Hoare & Co.
Neighbours said the couple lived reclusively and seemed “mysterious”, rarely speaking to people — details that painted a picture of a life in stark contrast to Constance’s vivacious past of champagne parties, ski holidays and “naked picnics, siestas amid [hay bales], and tractor scoops” at her childhood home, which she once reminisced about on Facebook.
Little more than 18 months later and Constance and Gordon became the subject of an international missing persons investigation after a string of seemingly brazen attempts to slip under the radar of authorities. Until this week, they had last been seen at East Ham Tube station in Newham, east London, on January 7, a newborn baby in Constance’s arms under a red shawl. Information released by the Met, alongside a series of new CCTV images of the couple, shows they purchased a tent in an Argos in Whitechapel, east London that same day – just two days after abandoning their broken-down car, bought just six days prior, on the hard shoulder of the M61 near Manchester. They travelled south, paying for taxis in cash and using fake names in hotels.
Greater Manchester Police later issued a plea for the couple to return, believing that Constance had “very recently given birth to a baby boy and neither her nor the baby have been assessed by medical professionals”. The force then passed the case on to the Met in London, whose officers say they simply want to make sure the newborn baby is alive and well but fear the couple may remain on the run, given their access to Constance’s great family wealth. So why had the family not cut her off? Is Gordon behind Constance’s efforts to distance herself from her background, as they suspect? And what — or who — were the couple seemingly on the run from?
Some clues, if there are any, might lie in the story of Constance’s father, Napier Marten, 63 — a former page to the late Queen and heir to the family’s £115 million fortune — who performed a disappearing act of his own almost two decades ago. According to Napier, it was in 1996 — when Constance was just nine years old — that he had his supposed awakening and suddenly felt “everything in my life materially was a completely empty shell”.
A voice in his head reportedly told him to leave his inheritance, shave his head and fly to Australia — which is exactly what he did, abandoning his small children and adopting a life of whale-watching, spiritual discovery as a tree surgery Down Under. “I do recall having a recognition of myself that I was exhibiting some sort of courage, but of course, in many other people’s minds I was exhibiting some sort of cowardice,” Napier later told Josephine Sellers, a psychotherapist who lives on the Crichel estate and whom he believes he first met four centuries ago in Dorset in a previous incarnation.
The interview, posted on a new-age YouTube channel called Awakening TV but since deleted, involved Napier recounting several life-changing moments from the trip. These included the time he had an out-of-body experience while joining a group of Aborigines on a cliff top, and an encounter with whales that reportedly made him cry “almost nonstop” for seven days. “I found myself looking down at my sleeping body,” he said of his out-of-body experience. “The next thing I know, I’m flying out into the ocean into the dark waters and swimming with the whales. I’m being pulled along by them and there is this conversation going on... It was a complete clearing out, a transmission of energy. These days of expansion unfortunately can’t be repeated, but when one’s in it, it is the most exciting part of your life.”
Napier claims he does not know how long his trip lasted. He eventually returned to the UK — but not to his old life at Crichel House. He reportedly lived in a lorry, worked as a chef and then trained in a form of head massage called craniosacral therapy. He passed his estate on to his eldest son Max, who was studying environmental science and geography at Oxford Brookes University at the time.
In 2013, Max sold the house and 400 acres of its land to American hedge fund billionaire Richard Chilton for a reported £34 million. The rest of the property was divided among other heirs to the family fortune, including Napier’s five sisters. Napier and his wife Virginie are believed to have divorced, him moving to a home a few miles from the Crichel estate and her reportedly re-marrying a man named Guy de Selliers. Adrian de Selliers, believed to be her son or stepson, attended Max’s wedding two years ago and was named in Vogue as a “brother” of the groom.
Virginie currently works as a psychotherapist specialising in trauma, family therapy and grief, with private practices in Shaftesbury and Notting Hill. Her ex-husband Napier’s last-known occupation was running a tree-care firm, Dryad, with his younger son Tobias, who now runs a confectionary company, according to LinkedIn. Napier was also understood to still be practising craniosacral therapy until several years ago. Could that longing for a more simple, less privileged life be in the family blood?
Certainly, like her father’s, Constance’s life had been one of great privilege. The 18th-century Georgian masterpiece that was Crichel House had been in the family for more than 400 years. It was once described by a historian as “so immensely enlarged that it has the appearance of a mansion of a prince, more than that of a country gentleman”, with 50 cottages, four villages, a cricket club and an ornamental lake among its 5,000 acres of parkland. Hollywood icon Gwyneth Paltrow visited in the early 1990s, while filming an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.
The Marten family was a landed one with many a royal link. Constance’s paternal grandmother, Mary Anna Marten, was a goddaughter of the late Queen Mother and played with Princess Margaret as a child. Her grandfather, Toby Marten, was a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy. Her great-grandfather was Captain Napier Sturt, the third and final Baron Alington, and her aunt Charlotte Mosley — sister of her father Napier — was married to Oswald Alexander Mosley, son of the leader of the British Union of Fascists and Diana Mitford.
Constance, known by friends as “Toots”, went to school at St Mary’s, an independent Roman Catholic boarding school for girls in nearby Shaftesbury. This counts Ralph Fiennes’ director sister Martha among its alumni and charged boarders more than £30,000 a year before it closed in 2020. She went on to Leeds University to study Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, during which time she spent a year in Cairo and was featured as Tatler magazine’s “Babe of the Month”. “The theme was the Feast of Bacchus,” she told Tatler of the best party she’d ever been to, at the home of Viscount Cranborne in Dorset. “There was a gambling tent and bunches of grapes hanging from the walls. It was like a debauched feast from Ancient Greece.”
Even then, Constance always had a somewhat wild, hippier side. She told Tatler that cider was “one of [her] five-a-day” and that she wanted to get a tortoise tattoo on the bottom of her foot. She said her favourite place in the world was the top of the Matterhorn mountain in the Alps, she had volunteered with street children in Nepal and was in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising in 2011.
After university, she moved to London like the majority of her fellow graduates. She worked as a researcher for Arabic TV network Al Jazeera and gained an NCTJ qualification in journalism before enrolling on an acting course at East 15 drama school in Essex. Classmates say she paid for the course via her trust fund and was popular among her peers. “She was just beautiful, full of life, full of kindness... and she was very, very talented,” says one former classmate. “Just a stunning person inside and out. I was kind of bowled over by her really.” Another wrote a play called Toots inspired by Constance, about a well-spoken woman living in Mayfair.
Friends say the young aristocrat was a “very good actress” and could have gone far, but it was during this time that she started to change. She lost interest in acting and dropped out of the course after a run-in with a course tutor. Around that same time, she began a supposedly turbulent relationship with a man they never met, believed to be Gordon, and started living with him in Ilford, east London.
Much less is known about Gordon’s life in comparison. Birmingham-born, he is believed to have moved to Florida with his mother and half-siblings when he was young, before returning to the UK in 2010. Reports published since the pair went missing show that he spent the majority of his time in the US behind bars: he was jailed in the late 1980s in the state of Florida, after raping and assaulting a neighbour in her early 20s when he was just 14 years old. He was convicted at 16 and served a 20-year sentence before being deported to the UK in 2010.
Back in the UK, Gordon lived in a rundown terraced house in Enfield, north London, opposite an off-licence and a nail bar, and it was around six years later, in 2016, that he somehow met Constance. They moved in together in Ilford before being evicted and where they went next is not known, but by August 2020 they were living on the Coldharbour Estate with a tenancy believed to be under her name. Neighbours say they rarely spoke, but shouting was sometimes heard and they often returned to the flat with lots of bags after long periods of time away.
Even to those who knew her well, Constance’s new life with Gordon clearly became a secretive one. “Toooots where in the world are you? I’ve missed your beautiful spirit in my life!” a friend commented on a Facebook profile picture in 2020 — her first in four years — showing Constance smiling with a baby believed to be hers. Around the same time, she uploaded an entire Facebook album of baby photos, captioned “my love sprogs”, suggesting she might have had more than one child.
Drama school friends say she never replied to them on Facebook or by phone after their East 15 days, and clearly they weren’t the only ones. “I miss you so much!! Reply my messages because it’s been ages I haven’t heard from you,” another friend wrote on Facebook in 2020, under a new cover photo of Constance and her child. “Me too missing my god daughter,” wrote Sara Studd, an artist living near Bath and believed to be Constance’s godmother.
Constance and Gordon were evicted from their Coldharbour residence in August last year, after reportedly not paying rent and leaving thousands of pounds of damage including a partially collapsed ceiling and smoke damage. Where they lived for the second half of 2022 remains a mystery: their next known sighting was near junction 4 on the M61 on January 5 this year, when they broke down in a car they’d bought only six days before.
#APPEAL | Detectives are urgently appealing to the public to help them find a baby who they believe has been sleeping in a tent in sub-zero weather
A team of officers is working around the clock to trace the family
Click here for details & new images https://t.co/qfsxBfpnRi
— Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk) January 24, 2023
Two days later, they were spotted near Harwich Port in Essex and police believed they might have been attempting to get a ferry to the Netherlands. However, Constance was then seen on several occasions in Colchester, 20 miles away, and later in London. Police believe the couple took a taxi all the way to Newham in east London, 70 miles away, where they were seen on CCTV between 11.45am and 12.30pm on January 7.
The Met later released CCTV pictures of the couple and says its officers believe the family has been sleeping outside in a tent in sub-zero temperatures after purchasing a tent in an Argos in Whitechapel, east London on January 7. “Mark went in alone and bought two big bags full of items, paying in cash, including a blue two-man tent, two sleeping bags and two pillows. He left the store at 6:40pm on 7 January,” a Met spokesperson said. “They then spent slightly more than three hours walking around the Whitechapel Road area. They tried to flag down three black cabs, but were refused.”
The couple are then believed to have left the area on foot – they were seen walking along Brick Lane towards Bethnal Green Road at 10.01pm on 7 January. Constance is not believed to have had any contact with her family since.
Until Napier’s emotional statement last month, the family had remained tight-lipped about the disappearance, asking extended family and friends not to speak to the press about it. Napier eventually spoke out after his own vanishing act a decade ago. He recounted his extraordinary story in a national newspaper and explained how he’d had the “agreement of his family” to take his chosen path. Perhaps that is where his and his daughter’s stories differ.