Nest ferch Rhys (Princess of Wales)
Nest ferch Rhys (b. c. 1085 - d. before 1136) was the only legitimate daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, last King of Deheubarth, by his wife, Gwladys ferch Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn of Powys. She is sometimes known, incorrectly, as "Nesta" or "Princess Nesta"
She was a king's daughter, another's hostage, and mistress of a third. Her beauty made men tremble at the mention of her name. She was seized from the Celts by the Normans, abducted from her husband's bed by an infatuated rebel, vanished into the hills with him, and plunged a nation into war. She loved conquerors and conquered alike and had at least seven children by four different men. She was Helen of Troy. But in the pantheon of female history she suffered one handicap. She was Welsh.
At last Princess Nest, daughter of King Rhys of Deheubarth, has been given her just deserts, albeit in an academic essay by Kari Maund (published by Tempus). The ancient bards and chroniclers did their best to jazz up her story, but are unreliable. Nest's clerical grandson, Gerald of Wales, hardly mentioned her, perhaps disapproving of her Norman liaisons. As a result, Maund's account of her life is mostly surmise. But Nest's ghost still flits through the castles where she lived, and Welsh girls are called Nesta (Welsh for Agnes) in her honour.
The Norman invasion of Britain ground to a halt in the rain-soaked hills and tribal feuds of Wales. William the Conqueror settled his barons along Offa's Dyke and cut deals with the rulers of Powys, Gwynedd and Deheubarth to the west. In the last, he formally acknowledged Rhys ap Tewdwr as king and made a pilgrimage to St Davids. William's death in 1087 was a catastrophe for the Welsh. The cruel and insecure William Rufus encouraged his barons to march forth into Wales and plunder the principalities with which his father had sought peace. Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, reached Cardigan Bay and turned south. Playing Welshman against Welshman, he wore down resistance until, in 1093, Rhys of Deheubarth was killed in battle outside Brecon. South Wales was overrun by Normans, and Nest, her mother and brothers were seized as hostages.
The princess was probably no more than 12 at the time. As the virgin daughter of the last reigning king of Wales, she was a valuable asset in the murky world of Anglo-Celtic politics. Accustomed to the ways of Wales and familiar only with Irish and Vikings over the seas, she must have been terrified by William's rough and ruthless barons. Yet she was lovely enough to be taken into William II's court and catch the eye of Henry, his shrewd but lustful brother.
A man whose womanising was noted even by medieval chroniclers, Henry was a dashing figure who had fathered some 20 illegitimate children by the time of his marriage and coronation as Henry I in 1100. His coupling with Nest, naked apart from their crowns, is the first depiction of such a relationship, in a medieval manuscript now in the British Library. The result was Henry Fitzhenry. The Welsh girl was clearly a fixture at the Norman court.
Not for long. Nest was insufficiently high-born to be queen and was duly "donated" to Gerald of Windsor, the king's governor in the strategically crucial province of Pembroke. It was a clever move. Maund points out that, as daughter of its former king, she would "lend to a Norman lord some aura of legitimacy in the eyes of the Welsh ... a voice of some kind close to the centre of power". Gerald built for her a new castle at Carew. Two of their children carried Norman names, William and Maurice, and two Welsh, David and Angharad.
Gerald knew no peace. The Welsh from the north were ever threatening, especially under the powerful prince of Powys, Cadwgan. Gerald built a new castle at what is now Cilgerran, on a spectacular bluff over the Teifi gorge. Here in 1109 he appears to have installed Nest, now in her late-20s and by all accounts a remarkable beauty. Cadwgan was raiding deep into the neighbouring country and held a great feast for his kinsmen, attended by his hot-blooded son, Owain. On hearing that Nest was nearby at Cilgerran, Owain and a band of friends fell on the castle, set fire to part of it and surrounded the chamber in which Gerald and Nest were asleep.
Nest pleaded with her husband to hide for his life in the latrine tower. According to the chronicles, the infatuated Owain, "at the instigation of the Devil and moved by passion and love", entered the room and seized Nest, her children and the castle's treasure before making his escape. Her degree of compliance in this operation has long been a source of delighted Welsh conjecture, enhanced today by a walk along Cilgerran's massive walls and under its fragmentary chambers, where the mist rises from the Teifi below. Maund rather spoils the fun by claiming no evidence that Nest colluded in this romantic abduction, though her instinct for survival suggests at least a temporary compromise with her virtue.
Owain's exploit was anything but wise. A proud Norman had lost his family and been incarcerated in his own loo. Carried off into the wilds of Ceredigion, Nest pleaded with Owain to release her children to Gerald, but he was a wanted man. Henry I, her old lover, was no fool. He summoned Cadwgan's many Welsh rivals and offered them all of Powys if they could rescue Nest and avenge Gerald. Somehow Nest found her way back to Pembroke, but Owain fled to Ireland, even his outraged father denying him protection.
Nest's errant brothers now entered the picture, rising in rebellion against the Normans. Her loyalties must have been torn as her husband, brothers and cousins fought battle upon battle, often pitting Welshman against Welshman. Owain recklessly returned from Ireland to plunge into the general feuding, at one point carelessly finding himself fighting with Gerald's Normans against the marauding armies of Gwynedd. For Gerald the opportunity was too good to miss. He turned his Flemish archers on Owain and felled him in a hail of arrows.
Gerald died some time in the 1120s, and the widowed Nest appears to have accepted the comfort of the sheriff of Pembroke, a Flemish settler named William Hait. She delivered him a son, also William. But she was soon married to the Norman constable of Cardigan, Stephen, with yet another son, Robert Fitzstephen, and possibly two, born when she must have been in her 40s. Half of Wales must have Nest's genes in their blood.
Wars continued to swirl round her, sons fighting cousins in tragic rivalry and vendetta. We do not know when she died but she left Norman dynasties based on the Fitzstephens, lords of Cork in Ireland, Fitzgeralds, Fitzowens and Fitzhenrys. Meanwhile, her grandson by her daughter, Angharad, was a Welsh nationalist and the first British topographer, Gerald of Wales. Her son by Henry I gave his own son the charming name of Meilyr and others used such names as Gwladys and Hywel.
The remarkable feature of the Norman conquest was that, unlike most such imperial ventures, it was a true marriage of peoples, a mingling of Norman, Celt and Saxon blood. They fought each other for centuries, but whatever quality is meant by Britishness was the outcome. No one more vividly initiated that melting pot than the exquisite Nest ap Rhys,The Princess of Wales.
Nasta daughter Angharad, who married William Fitz Odo de Barry (William de Barry), by whom she was the mother of Philip de Barry, founder of Ballybeg Abbey at Buttevant in Ireland Robert de Barry Edmond de Barry Gerald of Wales Nest is the maternal progenitor of the Fitzgerald and Barry dynasty, two of the most celebrated families of Ireland and Great Britain.
Princess Nesta was a very remarkable woman. She is sometimes referred to as the "mother of the Irish invasion" since her sons, by various fathers, and her grandsons were the leaders of the invasion. She had, in the course of her eventful life, two lovers, two husbands, and many sons and daughters. Her father is quoted as saying that she had 10 children as a result of her matrimonial escapades, eight sons and two daughters, among them William fitzGerald de Windsor. One of her lovers was King Henry I of England. Some years before she married Gerald, her father, the fierce old Prince of South Wales, was fighting the English under Henry, (then the Prince and later King). Henry succeeded in taking the lovely Nesta as hostage. By this royal lover, she had two sons; Meyler fitzHenry and the celebrated Robert of Gloucester. It would seem that Gerald, busily engaged in military business, could have had no peace about his wife, since she was clever as well as beautiful, and every warrior seems to have fallen in love with her. In 1095, Gerald led an expedition against the Welsh on the borders of what is now Pembrokeshire. In 1100, he went to Ireland to secure for his lord, Arnulf Montgomery, the hand of the daughter of King Murrough in marriage. He was the first of the Geraldines to set foot in Ireland, where they were later to rule like kings. Later, Arnulf joined in a rebellion against the King, was deprived of his estates and exiled in 1102. Then the King granted custody of Pembroke Castle to Gerald. Later, he was appointed president of the County of Pembrokeshire.
But it was Nesta that occupied the center of their stage during their marriage. Her beauty continued to excite wonder and desire throughout Wales. At Christmas in 1108, Cadwgan, Prince of Cardigan, invited the native chieftains to a feast at Dyvet (St. David's). Nesta's beauty was a subject of conversation. She excited the curiosity of Owen, the son of Prince Cadwgan, who resolved to see her. She was his cousin, so that the pretense of a friendly visit was easy. He successfully obtained admission with his attendants into Pembroke Castle. Her beauty -- it was even greater than he expected -- excited his lust. He determined to carry her off! In the middle of the night, he set fire to the castle, and his followers surrounded the room where Gerald and Nesta were sleeping. Gerald was awakened by the noise and about to discover the cause, but Nesta, suspecting some /treason, persuaded him to make his escape. She pulled up a board and let her husband escape down a drain by a rope. Then Owen broke open the door, seized Nesta and two of her sons, and carried them off to Powys, leaving the castle in flames. Owen had his way with Nesta, (historians say that one of her ten children was his), though whether she yielded from desire or force was uncertain. But at her request, Owen hastened to send back the two sons to Gerald. When King Henry heard of Nesta's abduction, he was furious. He regarded it as an injury almost personal, since Gerald was not only his steward, but his particular friend. The abduction of Nesta led to a war, which resulted in her return to her husband, and Owen fled to Ireland. Gerald took a conspicuous role in the fighting. In 1116, Henry ordered Owen, who had returned to Wales, to apprehend Gruffuyd, son of Rhys ap Tewdyr. As he passed through a wood on his march to join up with the royal forces, Owen seized some cattle. The owners of the cattle, as they fled, met Gerald, Constable of Pembroke. Gerald was also on his way to join the royal forces. When the cattle owners requested his assistance, he was only too delighted to have the opportunity for revenge for the insult to his honor done by Owen's abduction of Nesta. He lost no time in pursuing Owen, found him, and a skirmish followed. Owen was slain, an arrow piercing his heart, and Gerald's honor was avenged.
Gerald died about 1135, leaving three sons and a daughter by Nesta. They were: Maurice, one of the principal leaders of the Irish invasion in 1169; William, ancestor of the families of Carew, Grace, Fitzmaurice, Gerald, and the Keatings of Ireland; David, who became bishop of St. David's; and Angareth, wife of William de Bari, and mother of the historian, Gerald Cambrensis. Nesta married again. Her second husband was Stephen, Constable of Cardigan, by whom she had one son, Robert fitzStephen. Nesta's children and their descendants constituted a menace to the English rule of Wales. Royal Welsh blood mingled with the blood of the nobles of Normandy in all the half-brothers, sons of Gerald of Windsor and Stephen of Cardigan. Bastard or legitimate, they were turbulent princes in a /troubled land. Now fighting the Welsh natives, now allying themselves with their cousin, Nesta's brother Gruffuyd, the unconquered Prince of Wales, on whose head Henry had set "a mountain of gold", they remained a constant source of /trouble to the King, an ever-present threat to his security.
It was thus that the Norman invasion of Ireland came about, and the Geraldines and de Barry's arrived in 1169.
Philip de Barry, founder of Ballybeg Abbey at Buttevant in Ireland
Robert de Barry
Edmond de Barry
Gerald of Wales
Nest is the maternal progenitor of the Fitzgerald and Barry dynasty, two of the most celebrated families of Ireland and Great Britain.
- Album: Ancient