Princess Nest, a Welsh legend and a true survivor in a man's world
Born a Welsh Princess
Nest, or Nesta, was the daughter of the powerful Welsh King Rhys ap Tewdwr and his wife Gwladus - a princess in her own right who was the daughter of Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn – a King from Powys in the north.
Who was Nest, or Nesta?
Princess Nest was a survivor in a male-dominated world, and a remarkable woman. She lived in two worlds - Welsh and Norman - and her descendants became the founders of Ireland as we know it today.
It is not known when Nest was born, but the year would probably have been during the brief time of peace following Rhys' victory of 1081 at the Battle of Mynedd Carn, when he became King of virtually all of South Wales. The most likely date of her birth, therefore, would have been between 1081 and 1085, and it is known that she had at least two brothers, Hywel and Gruffudd. Hywel was mutilated by a Norman Knight and only brief details are known of his later life, while Gruffudd lived a roving, varied and turbulent life then went on to marry another remarkable woman called Gwenllian. Their youngest son Rhys become the Great Lord Rhys who ruled Dehaubarth and founded the first stone castle at Dynefwr by Llandeilo.
Nest herself was taken hostage by the Normans, married a Norman Knight but lived in Welsh lands, and was then kidnapped by her Welsh Cousin Owain ap Cadwgan. She later returned to her husband Gerald (trusted Keeper of Pembroke Castle) - she was a true survivor rather than the 'used and abused' woman she is sometimes portrayed as being.
Nest's Early Life and Family
For twelve years Rhys ap Tewdwr ruled the land of Deheubarth, which covered most of south Wales and which was later described by Gerald Cambrensis - Gerald of Wales - as "A region rich in wheat, with fish from the sea and plenty of wine for sale ...... beautiful and productive". Gerald was born in Manorbier Castle, and was Nest's grandson.
Nest was a member of a privileged family. Author Kari Maund tells us that Welsh Kings were expected to be effective military leaders who led a semi-nomadic life. The King's court was known as a 'llys', and as a member of a Royal household Nest and her siblings would have known a life of comfort where there was always an abundance of supplies. Welsh values put great emphasis on hospitality, and Nest would have witnessed gatherings and feasts, and all that they entailed. Her diet would have been varied and plentiful, her living quarters clean, and family values strong.
It is also highly likely that Nest, as a young girl, would have seen her father (Rhys ap Tewdwr) trading with Viking, Irish, English and French traders. She would have heard many languages spoken, known the value of expensive commodities such as silks, spices and earthenware from far off lands, and learned of the importance of good negotiating skills.
It is known that William the Conquerer came to West Wales and met with Rhys at St Davids. A pact was made between them that ensured Rhys's Kingdom was safe from Norman invasion. This must have been a remarkable meeting between two remarkable men who spoke very different languages (Normans were originally Vikings - 'North Men' - and Rhys was the last 'King' of Wales). The pact held, and a time of relative peace ensued broken only by Rhys' death.
Taken Captive by the Normans in 1093
When Rhys was killed in 1093 in battle near Brecon, Nest was taken by enemy Norman Marcher lords, and held hostage for several years. When still young she caught the eye of Prince Henry - soon to become Henry I. She became one of his many mistresses, and gave birth to a child by him named Henry fitz Henry.
Welsh-speaking Nest would have had to learn the Norman language and Norman ways. There are no records to say where she was held, but it would have been far from Dehaubarth (south west Wales) and everything and everyone she had known. Norman soldiers were renowned for their fighting skills, and would have been dirty, rough and smelly. A Norman Court would have been vastly different to the Welsh ways she had been brought up with, and it may be that she was kept within a religious community.
When William II (William Rufus) died in 1100 under suspicious circumstances while hunting in the New Forest, his younger brother Henry - who had been present at the death - quickly seized the crown, then later that year made a good political marriage to Matilda (formerly known as Edith) the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland. However, he also made good provision for several of his 'favourite' mistresses and their children, including it would seem, Nest.
Nest then appears to be the subject of an arranged marriage. In the early 1100s she was sent back to West Wales where she was married to Gerald de Windsor. Gerald had become keeper of Pembroke Castle for Henry I after Henry seized it from the absent Arnulf de Montgomery, son of Roger de Montgomery who had built the first wooden fortification there just a few years before.
It is not known exactly when, but together Gerald and Nest had four children – William, Maurice, David and Angharad, the latter of whom went on to marry William de Barri who lived in nearby Manorbier Castle. It appears that three of Gerald and Nest's children were born by 1109; and Gerald also had a son by a prior relationship who probably lived with them, as would have Nest's son by Henry I.
Nest had come to Pembroke with dowry lands at Carew (through her mother Gwladus) and Gerald quickly built a castle for her 5 miles from Pembroke by the shores of the Carew river. A Welsh ‘Llys’ may have already existed there, though we have no evidence of this. We do know, however, that it had been the site of an iron-age fort, and Roman artifacts have also been found there.
Most of what we know about Nest today, and the reason she has become a Welsh legend - the 'Helen of Wales' - is because of what happened next.
Kidnapped by her Welsh Cousin Owain
In 1109, according to the Welsh Chronicles, Nest, Gerald and some of their children were visiting one of the castles on the river Teifi – most probably Cilgerran - where Nest’s notorious outlawed Welsh cousin Owain ap Cadwgan saw her and was smitten. He returned to the castle during the night with a small band of men, torched the castle (which was wooden in those days) and kidnapped and reputedly ravished Nest. Gerald escaped, allegedly with Nest’s help, down a garderobe. Somehow Nest also managedto organise the return of her children to Gerald in Pembroke. She went on the run with Owain, though it is uncertain whether she was captive or went somewhat willingly, and some Welsh legends tell that she had two further children, Llewellyn and Einion, both by Owain. It is highly likely that Owain and Nest would have known of each other during childhood, and perhaps even met. They may even have been betrothed by their parents to make a good political union between two great Welsh families. We shall never know.
Owain's blatant attack on Norman troops and their property caused serious repercussions between Owain, his rebel father Cwdwgan and King Henry. Owain fled to Ireland and Cwdwgan’s lands were confiscated. Owain returned the following year to south Wales to carry out widespread attacks on a violent scale against the Norman people he so hated, but Gerald eventually got his revenge in 1116 when he and a band of Flemish soldiers fought Owain’s army and Owain was killed. It appears that earlier Nest had returned to Gerald and south Pembrokeshire, though it is not known how or exactly when. Gerald does not appear after 1116 in either the 'Annals of Cambria' nor in the 'Chronicles of the Princes', both later chronicles of the time, so it is likely that he may have died around this time.
Nest's brothers, and life after Gerald's death
Records do tell us that in 1115 Nest's once exiled brother Gruffudd raised an army against the Normans (and Flemish settlers). Nest’s brother Hywel, captive since childhood, also joined in the campaign, though this is one of the few facts we have about him. Nest’s loyalties must have again been torn, with her Norman husband having to go into battle against her Welsh brothers and kinsmen.
After Gerald’s death Nest had a brief dalliance with a Fleming settler called Hait, who had become the new castle constable. He would have offered her security and position, and she bore him a son named William. Nest then married another Norman lord – Stephen - the constable of Cardigan Castle. She would have known Stephen for many years, and although now in her late 30s had his child - a boy whom they named Robert. Robert fought against the Welsh in further rebel skirmishes. then later joined other sons of Nest, including her son by Henry I, to lead the first Norman invasion of Ireland. As well as the seven children already mentioned (Henry, Maurice, William, David, Angharad, William fitzHait and Steven), Nest possibly had at least one more liaison and several more children. Her grandson Gerald - Gerald Cambrensis, Bishop of St Davids and a great chronicler of those times, wrote that she had ten children, and names the extra children as Hywel, Walter and Gwladus. These may have been children who died young.
Nest must have been a remarkable woman. Born a Welsh speaking princess, she was taken hostage by the French and removed from all she would have known. She would have been forced to learn Norman French, and made to become part of the completely new culture of Norman life now being established in England and Wales. She was probably about ten years of age at this time, but as the daughter of the wily Rhys ap Tewdwr could already have learned skills that made her 'valuable' to the Normans, and enabled her to mediate between Welsh and Normans in a way that ensured that her children, grandchildren and many of their descendants became great in their own right. Nest founded the dynasty known as the Geraldines, and President John F Kennedy, Diana Princes of Wales and Charles Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth can all trace roots back to Nest ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr.
And what of Nest's children: –
Henry fitzHenry (son of Henry I)
Nest's son Henry is thought to have been born in Narberth, and he died in the Battle in Anglesey in 1157. The name of his wife is not known, but they had at least four children and it is interesting to note that one of their sons was given the name Meilyr - a Welsh name - reflecting the importance of their Welsh heritage. In 1169 Meilyr went to Ireland with his uncle Fitzstephen of Cardigan, and took part in the first Norman invasion of that island. He eventually became the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.
Maurice married and went on to became Lord of Llansteffan. When the deposed King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murcheda, sought Cambro-Norman assistance it was Maurice and his men who crossed to Ireland (at first to help) and went on to lead the invasion and settlement of Ireland in 1169. He was born around 1100, had seven children, and died in 1176.
William succeeded his father Gerald in becaming Castellan of Pembroke. He was created Lord of Carew and Emlyn, and also Baron of Windsor. Carew, which had been part of his mother Nest's dowry through her mother, became the family seat and the descendants of these Careys, or de Windsors as they were known, became hugely influential in the Norman settlement of Ireland. William married and had several sons and daughters who went on to settle in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Ireland. He later crossed to Ireland in 1171 with Strongbow, but died back in Pembrokeshire in 1173.
David is known to have had several children and his acknowledged son, Miles, was also part of the invading force of Ireland along with uncles, brothers and cousins - together they became known as the Geraldines. David would have been born at Carew, went into the church, and was made an Archdeacon in Cardigan, before going on to became Bishop of St David's in 1148. He is known to have mediated with the great Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd in trying to gain the release of his older half brother Robert fitz Stephen from imprisonment, and met Henry II when Henry made his pilgrimage to St Davids in 1171. Bishop David died in 1176 after a somewhat controversial 'career', which included being summoned to London to answer 27 charges (possibly connected with favouring his family in the allocation of land) put before him by a deputation of Canons.
Angharad ferch Gerald, and her son Gerald, later known as Gerald of Wales Angharad married William fitz Odo de Barri who lived at nearby Manorbier, and together they founded the deBarri dynasty of Ireland. They had at least six children, and Angharad died in 1176.
Their son Gerald de Barri had hoped to become Bishop of St David's but despite many attempts he was not successful. He did, however, make several visits to Rome, worked in England, and travelled the length and breadth of Wales and Ireland writing about his experiances during these journeys. He died in 1223 and would not have known his grandmother Nest, who died around the time he was born. Nor, sadly, did he give us a description of his Welsh and French speaking grandmother - simply refering to her as being "highborn and noble." Gerald of Wales (Cambrensis) is well-known even today. He could be called the original travel writer and his books are still popular and in print. They contain a wealth of information, at times rather fanciful, about the countryside around 800 years ago; and he rather fondly called his Castle home of Manorbier "The pleasantest spot in Wales".
After Gerald's death Nest had married the Norman Lord Stephen of Cardigan Castle. This marriage would have offered her protection - the alternative being to become part of a religious establishment. Nest's son Robert was born in Cardigan and as a young man in 1136 he is described as leading Norman troops against Welsh attack. Robert was later part of the invading Norman force who landed on the south coast of Leinster in Ireland in 1169 with 40 knights, 60 men-at-arms, and several hundred archers. He died around 1182, and according to his nephew Gerald of Wales he had no surviving children.
William Hay is probably the son of Nest’s liaison with Hait, one of the many Flemings brought into the area to keep the Welsh at bay, and who became Sheriff of Pembroke after Gerald’s death.
Nest's later life
In those times women needed the protection of marriage to ensure survival, and several of Nest's children would still have been young. She was a reputed beauty and known as the Helen of Wales, and so to marry again was prudent in these turbulent times.
The Welsh Chronicles talk of Nest having had two children with Owain ap Cadwgan, and stories have been handed down that talk of as many as twenty children. Sadly nothing is known about Nest's later life, nor is it known when or where she died. Her children went on to have remarkable careers in their own right, her grandson's books are still in print, her brother's wife Gwenllian rode into battle at Kidwelly and was killed, and Nest herself survived in the most difficult of times and circumstances. She was a remarkable woman who deserves greater recognition.