Princess Nest - The Helen of Wales

By Terry John Pembroke Castle

Princess Nest, Helen of Wales; king’s daughter, king’s mistress, kidnap victim, wife to a Norman conqueror, mother of a large brood of children, pawn in a power struggle, survivor. You may never have heard of her, but her story is as romantic and dramatic as anything created by a novelist.

Nest’s date of birth is uncertain, but she was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth in south-west Wales. Deheubarth was one of the four principal kingdoms of Wales, the others being Gwynedd in the north-west, Powys in the north-east and Morgannwg in the south-east. The royal dynasty of Deheubarth was long established, although the kingship did not always descend from father to son and succession to the throne was frequently challenged.

Rhys was declared king in 1079, but he wasn’t left in peace for long. In 1081, Deheubarth was invaded by a combined force led by Caradog ap Gruffudd, King of Morgannwg and Trahaearn of Gwynedd and Trahaearn’s kinsman, Meilyr ap Rhiwallon. Rhys must have been delighted to receive help from Gruffudd ap Cynon, who was itching to get his hands on the throne of Gwynedd. Gruffudd, his life in danger, had taken refuge in Ireland and he now arrived in St Davids with a fleet manned largely by Vikings. A fierce battle took place at a location known as Mynydd Carn, which may have been somewhere on the Preseli Hills. By the end of the fighting, Trahaearn and his two allies lay dead.
St Davids Aerial View

In the same year, 1081, another event of enormous significance took place. William the Conqueror visited St Davids on a pilgrimage. This is the first known visit by a king of England to St Davids and may have been made to remind the victors of Mynydd Carn of the power of the Norman kings. It was probably shortly after this time that Rhys married Gwladus, the sister of the Meilyr who had been killed at Mynydd Carn. She is almost certainly the mother of Nest and of Rhys’ sons Gruffudd and Hywel.

Nest was born not later than 1093, when her father was killed. As Welsh girls were brought up at home, she probably spent much of her childhood with the royal court.

How well Nest was educated is anybody’s guess; she might have been able to read and write, but she was also likely to have been taught how to sew and embroider and maybe to spin and weave and she would have learned how to conduct herself in social situations. Her childhood however was not secure.

Following the death of William the Conqueror in 1087 and the accession of William II, Deheubarth suffered a period of chaos. Rhys was driven from his kingdom by rival claimants and fled to Ireland, returning soon afterwards with a mercenary fleet to defeat his enemies. Then, in 1093, Rhys faced a further threat. The Normans had invaded what is now Breconshire, annexing parts of the old Welsh kingdom of Brycheiniog. Rhys may have felt that his own lands would be next and decided to check a possible advance. He marched to Brecon and was killed there by the Normans. Within a matter of months, Deheubarth had been completely overrun.

It seems that Nest was taken prisoner at this time. Although according to Welsh custom, she could not inherit the kingdom of Deheubarth, or pass on a claim to the throne, she was nevertheless valuable as a hostage. She was probably quickly taken out of Wales so that she could not become a focus for rebellion, but exactly where she was kept and for how long is unknown. At some point she became a royal ward. She was most likely placed in charge of a female chaperone, but during her time at the English court she met William II’s younger brother, Henry. In 1100 Henry succeeded to the throne and by this time she had become his mistress and had given birth to his son.

There were continuing rebellions in Wales, as the Welsh tried to regain their ancestral lands. The Norman barons were also quite happy to fight amongst themselves in order to grab chunks of Welsh territory and were even prepared to rebel against their own sovereign. The Montgomery family did so and was forced into exile, leaving behind their stronghold of Pembroke Castle. King Henry quickly seized their landholdings and in 1105 offered the stewardship of Pembroke to Gerald of Windsor. It was a surprising choice. Gerald had been the most important of the Montgomerys’ officials in Wales, but he seems to have won the confidence of the king because, in addition to the stewardship, he was also given Nest to be his wife.

We don’t know what Nest thought of this. She probably realised that, as a hostage, she had no other choice than to agree. The Normans were very good at arranging marriages between the families of the conquering knights and the children of the Welsh noble families. It gave both sides a stake in preserving an uneasy peace in the conquered areas whilst validating the Norman claims to overlordship… but the strategy didn’t always work.

In time, Nest bore Gerald four children - William, Maurice, David and Angharad. The family made its home at Pembroke Castle and at Carew. Gerald also built a new castle at Cenarth Bychan, usually identified as Cilgerran. Nest would also have been aware of the arrival of the first settlers from Flanders, brought into Wales by the authority of Henry I. They were given some of the best agricultural lands to hold from the Norman lords, as well as special privileges.
Carew Castle

Then, in 1109, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, the ruler of Powys held a feast for his nobles at a place close to Cenarth Bychan. Cadwgan’s son Owain, hearing that Nest was at Cenarth, decided to pay her a visit. As they were related this seems a perfectly normal thing to do, but their meeting was to cause an almighty upheaval in West Wales. Owain was spellbound by Nest’s beauty and was determined to seize her for himself.

He returned at night with some followers and managed to gain entry to the castle. His men then set fire to the buildings and in the confusion surrounded the room in which Gerald and Nest were sleeping. Nest, realising that her husband would be killed if he fell into the hands of the attackers, persuaded Gerald to escape down a privy shute and she and her children were then taken prisoner and carried off.

This story, romantic as it sounds, may not be the whole truth. Cadwgan ap Bleddyn had actively opposed Norman expansion into West Wales and the attack on Cenarth Bychan was possibly the first move in a planned rising, with the abduction of Nest as a political act intended to undermine the honour and reputation of one of the most important Norman lords in west Wales, as well as delivering a valuable hostage into Welsh hands.

The Normans reacted to the raid with not only with fire and sword but with cunning. Those Welsh nobles were thought to be enemies of Owain, or who might be sympathetic to the Normans, were offered the lands of Owain and Cadwgan, if they could take them. Within a short time, Owain was forced to flee to Ireland. His father remained in Wales and by the end of the year had been restored to his lands on payment of a fine and having sworn an oath not to give any aid to his son.

The chronicles make no mention of Nest, or of what happened to her. At some point she and her children were returned to Gerald. It is known that after 1109 she bore Gerald another son and that he later welcomed her brother Gruffudd as a guest at Pembroke Castle. Gruffudd had been sent to Ireland as a child in 1093, after the death of their father Rhys and had remained there ever since. Not long afterwards, Owain also returned from Ireland and began a campaign of raiding and plundering Norman lands. In 1114, King Henry brought an army into Wales to put an end to the chaos. Owain eventually came to terms with the king and was given back his hereditary lands.

Nest may have been hoping for some peace and quiet after such a turbulent time, but further shocks awaited her. Her brother Gruffudd was now accused of plotting rebellion against King Henry. He wasted no time in explanations, but joined forces with other rebels and began attacking Norman and Flemish settlements.

Nest found herself in the middle of not only a national uprising, but a vicious family quarrel. Gerald set about defending the Norman lands against his brother-in-law, marching in 1116 towards Carmarthen with an army of Flemish settlers. Somewhere near the town he came face to face with Owain ap Cadwgan. Despite the fact that Owain was also now fighting against the rebels, conflict broke out between the two groups. The Welsh chroniclers tell us what happened next.

…the Flemings were fired with the old hate that formerly existed between them and Owain; for many a time had Owain done them hurt. Instigated also by Gerald, the man from whom Owain had carried off his wife…they thought to pursue Owain…and with shooting on either side, Owain was wounded until he was slain.

By 1136, Gerald of Windsor too had died. Nothing is known about his end, but Nest was faced with a stark choice - remarriage or entry into a convent. As a potential heiress, the Normans would not have allowed her to remain single. It seems that Nest entered into marriage with Hait, sheriff of Pembroke. According to Gerald of Wales, her grandson, she bore Hait at least one son. This marriage appears to have been short-lived, for at some point she married Stephen, constable of Cardigan Castle. She had another son, Robert, who seems to have grown up in close connection to his half-brothers, Nest’s other sons. Gerald of Wales knew him well and described him in admiring terms.

In the years that followed, there were further rebellions by the Welsh against the Normans. In many of them, Nest’s sons were amongst the leaders and soldiers of the Norman armies. In 1136 her brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys was involved, with his wife Gwenllian, in a huge and ultimately futile, uprising. Gwenllian and her son Morgan were beheaded and a year later Gruffudd died.

The date and place of Nest’s own death is unknown, as is the location of her burial. Her sons, the FitzGeralds and the FitzStephens, all formed part of the new and influential Norman-Welsh dynasties that were to become prominent in Wales and eventually Ireland and beyond. Although we know so little about the detail of her life, Nest, ‘Helen of Wales’ has never been forgotten in her native land. 

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire

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