It is easy to assume that the role of women in medieval Wales, indeed in medieval Britain, was that of a political pawn through marriage which was almost always orchestrated by men. Evidence of women’s roles in politics and government in medieval Wales is slight, almost non existent, from what survives today. But what about their influence in family and dynastic groups? The surviving evidence of the life of Nest ferch Rhys can be telling in the argument that women perhaps had a little more influence than we would assume.
Nest ferch Rhys, born c1085, was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr and Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn. She was a king’s daughter, also known as Princess Nest, and was therefore a more desirable partner for marriage than other women of the period. She married the Norman, Gerald of Windsor (constable of Pembroke), in c1103. Norman-Welsh marriages were, as a last resort, a way of both parties asserting influence on the other, extending territorial authority, and cementing political partnerships. Nest’s great grandson Gerald of Wales noted that the marriage was of benefit to Gerald of Windsor, to make ‘deeper roots for himself and his dependents in those parts’ (Jenkins, 2007, p. 75).
Nest was also renowned for her beauty, and her romantic abduction by Owain ap Cadwgan in 1109 has earned her the nickname ‘the Welsh Helen of Troy’ (Maund, 2012, p. 191). She had a colourful love life; Nest bore children to at least three men other than her husband, one of those being King Henry I. It is likely she first caught Henry’s eye when she was taken hostage at William II’s court, after he had sent his Marcher lords into Wales to plunder the lands of the Britons. During a battle against the Normans outside Brecon in 1093, Nest’s father was killed and South Wales was overrun by the Normans. Nest’s family was split up, with some like Nest held hostage. Nest was a valuable asset, being the daughter of the last king of South Wales. The affair may also have started during Henry I’s campaign against Powys in 1114. Either way, the subsequent love affair between Henry and Nest is thought to be depicted in a medieval manuscript, which pictures them in bed together, naked except for their crowns. She bore him a child, Henry FitzHenry, who was brought up in the household of the aforementioned Gerald of Windsor. She bore Gerald five children, which has led to the argument that although this marriage was arranged, it was relatively happy.
In 1109, when Nest and Gerald were living at Cilgerran Castle, her cousin Owain ap Cadwgan broke into the castle and abducted Nest after apparently becoming infatuated with her beauty. Owain’s father Cadwgan, Welsh prince of Powys, was one of the leading Welsh rebels, who Gerald had built the castle to defend his family against. The abduction of Nest incensed Henry I and the Norman Marcher lords, and subsequently led to a minor civil war within Wales, pitting Welsh prince against Welsh prince as Owain’s Welsh enemies were bribed to fight against him. Owain and his father fled to Ireland, but this was not the end of the unrest: the Welsh then began a rebellion against the Normans (Johnson, 2008, p.1). It has been said that Nest was a willing accomplice in the abduction, and if true then it goes a long way to prove that a strong woman could indeed influence a “testosterone-fueled” society such as this one (Jenkins, 2007 p.75).
By virtue of the marriage, Nest’s brother Gruffudd was able to take refuge with Gerald at Pembroke between 1115 and 1117, during his campaign to recover the kingship of Deheubarth, which indicates that Nest maintained an ascendancy over her husband (Crouch, ODNB, 2008). Nest bore another child with Stephen, constable of Cardigan, which may have been after Gerald’s death. Nest also had a son with the Fleming sheriff, Hait, and at this point it almost seems as though sleeping with Nest was a routine requirement among the barons of Pembrokeshire in the early twelfth century.
This unique position of a woman in medieval Wales, and the vast relationships she embarked in, proves she was certainly a woman of character and independence.
Fun Nest fact: Due to Nest’s wealth of children and grandchildren, her descendants are far reaching, and include Diana, Princess of Wales and John F. Kennedy, to name a few.
Internet Archive. 2017. The itinerary through Wales: and the description of Wales: Giraldus, Cambrensis, 1146?-1223? : Internet Archive. [ONLINE]
Davies, J., 1993. A History of Wales. Penguin Books.
Pryce, H. 2011, The Acts of Welsh Rulers, 1120-1283, p. 351. University of Wales Press
Jenkins, G., 2007, A Concise History of Wales, Cambridge University Press