Hidden historical heroines (#02: Nest ferch Rhys)


Nest ferch Rhys (c. 1085 – c. 1136) – or Agnes, daughter of Rhys – was a Welsh princess from the High Middle Ages.


She was the eldest legitimate child of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the last King of Deheubarth, by his wife, Gwladys ferch Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn, herself a princess of Powys. Both Deheubarth and Powys were minor kingdoms (or principalities) in Western Wales. Deheubarth was founded around 920 BC and flourished until Rhys ap Tewdwr’s demise in 1093.


The Normans had arrived in Britain in 1066; William II, Duke of Normandy was crowned William I of England on Christmas Day and proceeded to march west and conquer the British Isles. The inclement weather and tribal feuds of Dark Ages Wales proved too much of a hassle for William however, who only pushed as far as Offa’s Dyke and formally acknowledged the sovereignty of the Welsh princes, including Rhys ap Tewdwr.


When William I died in 1087 his son, William Rufus (“the red”) took the throne as William II. William II was not content to have his kingdom end at Offa’s Dyke as his father had been, and he had his barons invade Wales, leading to a decade of war. In 1093 Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed in battle and Nest and her mother were seized as hostages by the victorious Normans.


Although Nest would only have been around twelve or thirteen at this point, by all accounts she was already a beauty. A virgin Welsh princess of twice-royal parentage was a valuable pawn indeed, so it is not surprising that she was taken into William’s court, where she immediately caught the eye of his famously lascivious brother, Henry. Above is a contemporary image of Henry and Nest in bed together, naked but for their crowns!


The future Henry I – Henry “Beauclerc” – is famous for a record twenty illegitimate children. Despite his obvious potency, Henry ended up with no legitimate male heir when his son, William, was drowned in a shipwreck in 1120. He made his barons swear fealty to his only surviving legitimate child, a daughter, Matilda, although when he died they crowned her cousin instead, Stephen of Blois. Matilda and Stephen engaged in civil war for almost twenty years, each controlling different parts of England at different times. This struggle, known as ‘The Anarchy’, only came to peace when Matilda’s eldest son was named Stephen’s heir after the death of his own; Matilda’s son went on to become the famous Henry II (husband of the glorious historical-fiction favourite, Eleanor of Aquitaine).


Nest had a son with Henry, one Henry FitzRoy (c. 1103–1158), one of Matilda’s numerous half-brothers, at some point after which she was married off to William II’s governor in the strategically crucial province of Pembroke, one Gerald de Windsor, giving this Norman overseer legitimacy in the eyes of the fiercely patriotic Welsh. Gerald and Nest seemed to have a quietly contented marriage which resulted in four children; two of their children carried Norman names, William and Maurice, and two Welsh, David and Angharad.


In 1109 Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, Prince of Powys, gave a feast at his court in Ceredigion. At this feast, legend holds, Cadwgan’s son Owain was told of the great beauty of Nest, who was staying in her husband’s castle of Cenarth Bychan (possibly modern Cilgerran Castle, below), relatively nearby. One night during Christmas 1109, Owain and his companions and men-at-arms dug a tunnel underneath the gate of Cenarth Bychan in their fervour to get at Nest.


Fearful for her husband’s life, Nest begged Gerald and his men to escape down one of the lavatory shafts cut in the walls of the castle from their bedroom’s garderobe. Owain broke through to the bedroom only seconds later. He raped Nest in front of her children before setting fire to the castle and abducting them all.


This barbaric treatment of Nest invoked the rage of the Normans, especially that of Nest’s old lover, now Henry I. He summoned Cadwgan’s many rivals and offered them all of Powys if they could rescue Nest and avenge Gerald. With all this pressure on him, Owain first released Nest’s children and then finally Nest herself, before fleeing to Ireland, with even his father denying him protection. Legend has Nest bearing two sons by her rapist during the time he held her captive, although these individuals do not appear in Welsh genealogies.


Nest’s younger brothers – who had been spirited away for their protection after the death of their father – now returned from overseas, rising in rebellion against the Normans. It was a Welsh civil war as well as one between the Welsh and the Normans. Eventually Owain recklessly returned from Ireland to get involved, eventually earning Henry I’s pardon for his crimes. Owain was ordered to rendezvous with the rest of the Norman force to proceed against one of the strongest Welsh rebel princes. En route, he and his force happened upon Gerald de Windsor and his men. Despite Owain being a royal ally, Gerald must have thought God was smiling upon him. He chose to avenge his wife’s rape, and immediately turned his archers on Owain, killing him with a shower of arrows.


Gerald died in the 1120s, and the widowed Nest – still not too old for childbearing – was married off by her sons to the Norman constable of Cardigan, with whom she had another two children whilst in her 40s. With all these offspring, it’s not hard to see how half of Wales can claim descendancy from Nest.


The story of Nest became popular in the 19th century, with her abduction and the civil war that followed earning Nest the appellation the “Helen of Wales”. She was accused of having connived with Owain and going with him willingly. Her pre-marital relationship with Henry Beauclerc was magnified into her having dallied with half of the Norman court. She’s also credited with more illegitimate children than could be physically possible!




Books about Nest:

Lion Rampant by Bernard Knight
The Royal Mistress by Margaret Orford
Daughter of the Dragon by Anne Bell



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