I’m working on a novel that, while contemporary, deals with a lot of Welsh history. So I’ve been working back through my old blog posts reading about some about the Welsh castles in particular. In doing this I’ve come across one of the most fascinating Welsh women from early 12th century. I’ve written a bit about her before when writing about her grandson Gerald of Wales, and Pembroke Castle which her husband was custodian of. Her name is Nest Ferch Rhys, and I thought she deserved a post of her own.
As usual with Historical Ragbag I’m not trying to break new ground. Nest has been written about before, but women so often inhabit the shadows, I’ll take any chance to bring them out into the light. Besides, Nest’s is just such a good story.
Any woman who is remembered as more than a name from this period is usually someone who steps outside the box, intentionally or otherwise, and Nest is no exception.
Born in around 1085 Nest found herself at the heart of the Welsh /Anglo-Norman conflict for much of her life. It is arguable on a number of occasions whether she was a pawn or an instigator or somewhere in between.
Nest was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdr King of Deheubarth, a kingdom in the south of Wales. You can see it roughly on the map below.
Unfortunately for Rhys, he came into his kingdom in c.1078 in a period of intense conflict. William I’s victory at Hastings in 1066 had brought the Normans to the island and having claimed the Kingdom of England they turned their eyes to Wales. The Welsh Princes admittedly didn’t help by fighting amongst themselves rather than uniting against the new threat, but when William crossed Rhys’ lands heading for St David’s in 1081 Rhys was forced to do homage to him as William I. Norman incursions only increased under William’s son William II, known as William Rufus, and it wasn’t long before Norman castles were popping up on Welsh land. The new Anglo-Norman barons claimed significant sections of Welsh territory, which would eventually come to form that liminal border land known as the Welsh Marches. The Anglo-Normans quickly began fortifying their positions by marrying into the Welsh nobility, a practice that would shape all of Nest’s life, but I’ll return to her in a moment. Rhys got caught up in these wars when Bernard de Neufmarche (an Anglo-Norman baron who was married to a daughter of a Princess of Gwynedd) began overrunning Brycheiniog a small Welsh kingdom to the east of Deheubarth (you can see it on the map above). The Anglo-Norman’s were a real threat to Deheubarth so in 1093 Rhys rode to Brycheiniog to attempt to fend them off. The Welsh Chronicle the Brut y Tywysogyon eloquently describes the result.
Rhys, son of Tewdwr, king of South Wales, was killed by the French [Anglo-Normans], who inhabited Brecheiniog; and then fell the kingdom of the Britons. And then Cadwgan, son of Bleddyn, despoiled Dyved on the second of May. And then, two months after that, about the Calends on July, the French came into Dyved and Cereddigion, which they have still retained and fortified the castles, and seized upon all the lands of the Britons.
It says it all really. This was the first real death blow for an independent Wales as all Welsh Princes to come after would have to temper their authority to the rule of their Anglo-Norman neighbours. Additionally much of Rhys’ kingdom was lost permanently, as Anglo-Normans claimed lands and built castles including the origins of Pembroke Castle, the early stages of which you can see in the model below. Pembroke would go on to play an important role in Nest’s life.
But where did this all leave Nest? She was still a child. A child who have lived in the privileged but itinerant Welsh royal household. Women in Wales held a slightly different position to their Anglo-Norman sisters, but their lives were still very much circumscribed by the authority of men (either husband, brother or father).With the death of her father Nest was taken hostage along with her mother and her brothers. In the medieval period hostage didn’t have the same connotations that it does today. However, she would have been a valuable commodity as the daughter of a King of Wales. Through Welsh law women didn’t inherit lands, but by Anglo-Norman law/convention they could and more importantly they conveyed the rights of those lands to their husbands (they were never intended to rule them in their own right). At the very least marriage to Nest would lend legitimacy to any Anglo-Norman lord looking to claim territory in her father’s former kingdom.
Despite her value Nest’s reality must have been difficult to say the least. Her father was dead, one brother had been taken to Ireland, another was probably the captive of Arnulf de Montgomery probably at Pembroke. Nest though, was most likely removed from Wales. She may have been placed in a convent, or with a foster family, she may even have been sent to the royal court of William Rufus, we simply don’t know. We also don’t know if her mother would have stayed with her or if they were separated. Regardless of the circumstances, Nest would have found herself in an unfamiliar household, where she didn’t speak the language or know the customs. As an important hostage she probably wouldn’t have been mistreated, but it would still have been a terrifying new world.
It is likely that even if she didn’t start there, she did eventually end up at the court of William Rufus because we know she met his younger brother Henry, who would go on to become Henry I. We know this because Nest is one of his documented mistresses. This might seem like a time jump, young scared Welsh girl in a totally alien world to mistress to the King. So a little background. The earliest she could have met Henry is 1094, at William Rufus’ Christmas court, but it was probably later around 1097. Henry would have been in his early 30s and Nest at most fifteen, which to the modern ear sounds very young but wasn’t an unusual age for marriage in the medieval period. Nest would have been a tempting marriage prize for many of Anglo-Norman barons who were trying establish footholds in Welsh territory, but marriage would not have been Henry’s aim. Henry is known at have had at least twenty illegitimate children, with any number of mistresses (they aren’t all documented) and Nest was said to be very beautiful. What beauty meant in the medieval context is debatable, but she was probably fair in colouring. The courtship may not have been one sided, Nest’s position was precarious and she may have seen being the mistress of the brother of the King and possibly the mother of his children as a position of more certainty (Henry was known to provide for his children). She may have been looking for a protector. She may also have not been given a choice, there is simply no way of knowing.
Whichever of them instigated the relationship, we do know that Nest was definitely Henry’s mistress and the she bore him at least one son, Henry, before 1105. We even, incredibly, have a picture of the two of them both crowned (Henry became King in 1100) from Matthew Paris’ illuminated manuscript held in the British Library and dating from the 13th century.
Nest did not end her career as Henry’s mistress. The next development in her story, actually takes her back to Wales. And again it is, as usual, arguable how much say she had in it. She was married to Gerald de Windsor the custodian of Pembroke Castle. This was a marriage sanctioned by Henry, she was no longer his mistress at this point. Henry had put down rebellions by Arnulf de Montgomery and his family and wanted the lands in a safe pair of hands. Gerald had held Pembroke for Arnulf, but had gone over to Henry’s side. Therefore he had invaluable experience in dealing with the Welsh- he was described by his and Nest’s grandson Gerald of Wales as a “stalwart and cunning man”. Whatever his pedigree, he was sensible enough to see the honour of marriage to Nest, especially in the legitimacy her birth would grant him, and knowledgeable enough about Welsh customs to know that the Welsh would not see her as an heir to her father’s lands so she wouldn’t be a focus for Welsh rebellion. That Nest was young and beautiful certainly wouldn’t have made it an unpalatable decision. Marriages on both sides of the border, however, took pragmatic considerations into account well above any personal connection. What Nest thought of the arrangement, as usual we do not know. But she may have seen it as a chance to return to the lands of her birth, or at the very least the chance to have a position and status of her own. They were married by 1105 at the latest and local tradition has it that Gerald built the near by Carew Castle for her you can see it below (though little remains of the original medieval structure).
They had four children at least; with a good mix of Welsh and Anglo-Norman names, reflecting their dual heritage: William, Maurice, David and Angharad. Whether the relationship was one of affection or not, we can’t really know but it did bring Nest back into the complex world of early 12th century Welsh and Anglo-Norman politics. This is period of time that the Welsh Marches were really developing and the rules of life between the two different people were being established. As custodian of Pembroke, Anglo-Norman held land with Welsh land around it, Gerald and thus Nest were very much at the heart of it. Especially because after 1109 Henry I was often on the continent, leaving Gerald with somewhat of a free reign. You can see Pembroke castle in the photo below, though the stone defences were mainly built after Gerald and Nest’s time.
Pembroke occupied, in fact it still does, a rocky outcrop jutting out into the Cleddau Estuary- commanding the peninsula
Soon after Gerald and Nest were married, along with Carew, Gerald most likely had Cilgerran Castle built to help control the land around Cardigan. So it is possible that Gerald had some administrative control over the Cardigan region as well.
You can see Cilgerran below, again it would have been largely wooden in their time.
Cilgerran, is important for a couple of reasons (beyond it being an expression of Gerald expanding his authority). The Brut y Tywysogyon records that at Cilgerran Gerald;
Settled; and there he deposited all his riches, his wife and his heirs, and all that was dear to him; and he fortified it with a ditch and a wall and a gateway with a lock on it.”
So Nest re-enters her own story. Cilgerran was not a major castle like Pembroke, and it’s a little odd that Gerald moved his wife and children closer to Cardigan which is part of Ceredigion, the over lordship of which was disputed with Powys (another Welsh kingdom). An act that conceivably placed them in danger. It is likely that he was concerned about assault from Powys, but was hoping that Nest’s lineage would be able to help with negotiations with Cadwgan, the then leader of Powys, as they were related. The leaders of Powys spent a lot of time murdering eachother in this period (Welsh infighting was many times as much a problem as the Anglo-Normans), with brothers and cousins turning on each other, and often in fact siding with the Anglo-Normans when expedient. But in 1109 when Nest really enters the history books (literally) Cadwgan was nominally in charge. The idea of a wife from the other side of the border as a negotiator isn’t as alien as it sounds. It’s the role that Joan (daughter of King John and wife of Llewelyn Prince of North Wales) played for most of her marriage in the late 12th and early 13th century. You can read more about Joan here. In this case though, we will never know how Nest might have filled this role. 1109 is when she gained her reputation as the ‘Helen of Wales’. The incident was related in full in the Brut y Tywysogyon so I will let it speak for itself, but I want to start by saying firstly that this is one translation from the 1800s hence the formal language and secondly we have no way of knowing whether Nest was a willing participant or an unwilling hostage. It has been spun both ways.
And when the feast ended Owain [Cadwgan’s son] hearing that Nest, daughter of Rhys, son of Tewdwr, and wife of Gerald the Steward, was in the castle above mentioned [Cilgerran], went accompanied by a small retinue, to visit her as his kinswoman, and so she was; for Cadwgan, son of Bleddyn and Gwladus, daughter of Rhilwallon and mother of Nest were cousins; as Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, sons of Cynvyn, were brothers, from Angharad, daughter of the king Maredudd. After that, instigated by the devil, he came on a certain night to the castle, having with him a small number, about fourteen persons; and having privately excavated under the threshold of the castle, they got over the wall and the ditch, unawares into the castle, where Gerald and Nest were sleeping; and they set up a shout about the castle, and kindled a fire in the surrounding houses to burn them. Gerald awoke on hearing the shout not knowing what to do; and then Nest said to him ‘go not to the door, for there thy enemies wait for thee, but come and follow me’. And that he did, and she conducted him to a privy, adjoining the castle whence it is said he escaped. And when Nest knew that he had escaped she cried and said to the men outside ‘why call ye out in vain? he is not here, whom you seek; he surely has escaped.’ And when they entered they searched for him everywhere and not having found him, they took Nest, with her two sons and daughter, and also another son that he had by a concubine; and spoiled and laid waste to the castle. And after burning the castle and having connexion with Nest, Owain returned to his country.
So essentially Owain met Nest, and then later ‘instigated by the devil’ possibly at the thought of her broke into the castle, Gerald escaped down the toilet and Nest was kidnapped and raped. The question that hangs over the whole incident is was Nest a willing escapee/participant? The chronicles characterise the incident as ultimately an act of love on behalf of Owain. Cadwgan was not happy with his son because of the violation committed upon Nest but also because he didn’t want to upset Henry I. He ordered Owain to send Nest and her children back to Gerald. He was not successful but the Brut y Tywysogyon continues with Nest’s entreaty to Owain
‘If thou would have me faithful to thee, and remain with thee, send my children to their father.’ He then, from an excess of love towards the wife, suffered the children to be returned to the steward.
But what of Nest her self? You can see how she is characterised as Helen here, the desired woman, the wife of another man, kidnapped, possibly willingly. It is also possible that this story is somewhat allegorical as it was being told retrospectively, and hits many of the same beats as traditional Welsh epic poetry and stories from the period. The one facet of Nest’s personality that comes through is her practicality. It’s her idea for Gerald to escape and it is her who persuades Owain to send her children back to their father (where they would be safer). It’s perfectly possibly that there was no romance at all, but an opportunistic abduction as part of a larger raid. Taking hostages was not un-common, in fact if you remember Nest became a hostage after her father’s death. It was not an act that went unpunished either. Bishop Richard of London who was Henry I’s representative at Shrewsbury sent Owain’s cousins in, offering them Cadwgan’s lands if they could take them. This was to become one of the key strategies for the Anglo-Normans in dealing with the Welsh. Sending aggrieved family members against each-other. This time it was successful and Owain fled to Ireland.
But where does this leave Nest? The Brut y Tywysogyon conveniently forgets to mention what happened to her. It’s very unlikely that Owain took her to Ireland, she would have been a hindrance. She most likely remained in Wales and either willingly or unwillingly returned to Gerald. They definitely had at least one more child and her brother stayed with Gerald at Pembroke in c.1114 something that was unlikely to happen without Nest’s presence. Pembroke would be at the centre of the remainder of her life. Nothing really remains of the castle she would have lived in. But, there is an extraordinary cave under Pembroke Castle, which would not have changed much since Nest’s time. It’s known as Wogan’s Cavern. I like the idea that there is one extant space that Nest may have spent some time in.
Her brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys, stayed at Pembroke for some time. But he went on to cause all sorts of trouble, rebelling against the Anglo-Normans with their other brother Hwyel (who escaped from Anglo-Norman captivity). In the ensuing rebellion Gerald had the chance to face Owain (Nest’s abductor) in battle and Owain was killed. Gruffudd lost the rebellion and spent the rest of his life as a minor landholder, possibly supported by his sister.
So that brings us back to Nest again, like many medieval women it’s very easy for her to get lost even in her own story. We don’t know exactly when Gerald died but it was before1136. Nest was left in a precarious position. Widowhood was one of the few times in a medieval woman’s life that she had some authority over her own life, but Nest lived in the complex world of Anglo-Norman and Welsh alliances. She would have been seen as possibly both a threat and again a valuable marriage prize. She would still have been of childbearing age, and was known to be beautiful. It has been implied that she had a number of illegitimate children after Gerald’s death, but it is more likely that she married again, possibly twice. Both Anglo-Norman lords of Welsh lands. By this time she would have been a familiar figure in the Anglo and Welsh landscape, having grown up in both worlds and in many ways representing both. A Welsh Anglo-Norman lady living in Wales. We do not know when she died but it would have been around the mid 12th century. We do know that she passed on her sense of Welshness to her children, with her grandson Gerald of Wales celebrating his Welsh roots and other grand children being given Welsh names. Her children and grand children went on to impact both the Welsh, Anglo-Norman and Irish worlds significantly.
A real picture of Nest can be hard to discern through the competing stories, and because she is often drowned out by the complexity and the in-fighting in South Wales throughout her lifetime. The flickering images that do come through are of a practical woman, a beauty who was buffeted by fate, but used what little control she had to survive, to raise children and a dynasty in a world that was being made anew. She was not the last woman to find herself caught between the Welsh and Anglo-Norman world, but her legacy paved the way for those who came after. She is deserving of being remembered in her own right, not just as an allegorical ‘Helen of Wales’. Local legend has it that she haunts Carew, the castle Gerald possibly built for her. If I believed in ghosts, I think that’d be a pretty good place to haunt.
Brut y Tywysogion: https://archive.org/details/brutytywysogiono00cara_0/page/54/mode/2up?q=rhys
Gerald of Wales: The journey through Wales and The Description of Wales translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin 2004.
Princess Nest of Wales: Seductress of the English by Kari Maud.
The Kings and Queens of Wales by Timothy Venning.
Map: By Owj20 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Jordi Roqué using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4481368
Nest and Henry image: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofWales/Princess-Nest/
All the photos are mine.
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