People love a good story. And when real life seems to mirror tales of old, then we can get caught up in it all and conflate them into our own romanticised version. One woman who this certainly applies to is Princess Nest ferch Rhys who, since the 19th century, has been known as “Helen of Wales” for her supposed similarity to the legendary Helen of Troy. Both women were said to have been so beautiful that they inspired their own abductions and created civil war. But is this comparison reductionist and sexist, and does it hide Nest’s real story? (Content note: discussions of rape)
As with many women of the past, even high-status ones, Nest’s date of birth is unknown, but it is thought she was born around 1085. Her mother was Gwladys ferch Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn of Powys, a Welsh princess herself being the daughter of the King of Gwynedd and Powys. Nest’s father was King Rhys ap Tewdwr who ruled the region of Deheubarth in the south of Wales. Nest had royal blood from across Wales and this would go on to shape her future.
Nest’s father Rhys was a ruler at a dangerous time. The Normans had invaded England in 1066 and claimed the throne for themselves, and they were keen to expand this influence into the Welsh kingdoms. In 1081 Rhys was forced to seek sanctuary in St David’s Cathedral after a rival invaded his kingdom. Although he managed to make alliances and kill his rival, his position was tenuous when William the Conqueror made a visit to his kingdom the same year. Rhys, who was still recovering from the challenge to his power, paid homage to the powerful visiting king and agreed to pay him an annual fee in exchange for William’s recognition of his kingship. Whilst this alliance meant that Rhys and William remained on friendly terms, when William died in 1087 the tides turned. Relations soured, and Rhys was killed in battle fighting the Normans in 1093.
Nest had now lost her father whilst likely under 10 years old, and without his protection her family were vulnerable. After the battle her brother Gruffydd was evacuated to Ireland, but two of her older half-brothers were captured and executed by the Normans. Nest and her mother, meanwhile, were taken across the border to England as prized hostages. William the Conqueror’s son, William II, was now king and he delighted in having a Welsh queen and princess under his control to further his conquest.
At court alongside William was his younger brother Henry who was likely around 17 years older than Nest. Despite this age difference, Henry took an interest in the young girl. He was to become notorious for his mistresses throughout his life, with at least 5 known mistresses and fathering at least 24 illegitimate children. A vulnerable young girl held hostage at a foreign court, Nest would have had little choice when it came to Henry’s advances and she fell pregnant whilst in her early teens. At some point before 1100 she bore him a son, named Henry FitzHenry after his father.
Despite Henry’s interest in Nest, he had larger dynastic ambitions and did not wish to take her as his wife. In the summer of 1100 he became king after his brother died in a hunting accident and in November Henry married a Scottish princess, Matilda. Not only did Matilda have a powerful father, but her ancestors included renowned West Saxon kings and thus helped to give legitimacy to Henry’s position.
Nest may have already been removed from the English court after her relationship with Henry, but if not then Henry took the opportunity to hide her away from his new bride. Around this time, Nest – who was still likely only in her mid-to-late teens – was married off to a man named Gerald FitzWalter. Gerald was the son of a Norman baron, around 10 years her senior, and had been making a name for himself on the Welsh frontier. A marriage to a Welsh princess greatly increased his own status, whilst at the same time the marriage allowed Nest to return to her homeland; the couple were given the manor of Carew as part of Nest’s dowry, and in 1105 Gerald was given control of Pembroke Castle.
What Nest thought of the marriage can only be guessed at, but the couple soon had 2 sons and a daughter and settled down to life in Wales. In 1106, though, their lives were about to change. That Christmas a prince from Powys, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn (who, incidentally, had attacked Nest’s father several decades prior) decided to hold a feast for the various rulers of Wales. Cadwgan’s son Owain was naturally invited to the feast, but as the celebrations came to an end Owain heard that his second cousin, Nest, was in the nearby Little Cenarth Castle. He decided to gather a small group of men to go and visit his cousin, but upon seeing her he was beguiled.
Owain was then “instigated by the devil” to take Nest for his own. He returned to Nest’s castle one night under the cover of darkness with 14 of his men, and having dug underneath the castle walls they found their way into the fortification. There, they set fire to the houses within the walls and created a great commotion. Nest and her husband Gerald woke to the noise and believed they were under attack. Gerald was at a loss with what to do, and so Nest took charge: she knew the enemy would be waiting outside their door, so she took him to the privy and helped him escape that way.
Once her husband was safe, Nest called out to the attackers to tell them that Gerald had escaped. The men entered her chamber to search for him, and finding him indeed gone they took Nest and her 3 children and looted the castle, burning it in their wake. In the proceedings, it appears that Owain raped Nest.
Owain returned home with Nest and her children, but his father was absent at the time. As soon as Cadwgan found out what his son had done he was furious at his personal actions against Nest, but also he was struck with fear that King Henry I of England – father of Nest’s first child, and overlord of her husband – would bring retribution upon them. He tried to persuade Owain to return Nest to her husband, but he refused. Now Nest took matters into her own hands and tried to at least save her children. She told Owain that if he wanted her to be faithful to him and stay with him, then he should send her children back to Gerald.
In the meantime, Nest and Gerald’s English allies had indeed been infuriated by the events, and the Bishop of London approached some of Owain’s Welsh enemies and convinced them to attack Owain and his father in return for promised favour with King Henry. The attack was successful, and Owain and Cadwgan were forced to flee to Ireland. Nest was freed and returned to Gerald and her children.
This is the story as told by a contemporary Welsh chronicle, the Brut y Tywysogion, or, The Chronicle of the Princes. The story survives in a few versions which are largely similar, with slight variations on the way Gerald escaped (whether down a latrine or not) and whether Nest was raped. Although some versions do explicitly state she was raped, some others say instead more neutrally that they simply had sex, whilst others just talk about her seizure in vague terms.
As the tale of Nest’s abduction passed into legend and was revived with interest by 19th-century historians and folklorists, the interpretation of the story became romanticised and conflated with the Greek story of Helen of Troy. Although the chronicles do not particularly mention Owain’s motivations for abducting Nest, beyond being motivated by either the Devil or by God, later writers decided that he must have been captivated by her beauty. Nest took on the role of a beautiful princess who inspired lust in those around her and made men want her.
Nest’s history with men only stoked these romantic notions. Not only had she had an illegitimate child with Prince Henry, married Gerald and had several children, and was abducted by Owain, but she also went on to marry at least once more. One of her grandsons from her marriage with Gerald was Gerald of Wales, a famous priest and historian. In Gerald’s Itinerarium Cambriae (The Itinerary Through Wales) he mentions another child of Nest’s, a man named Robert FitzStephen. He has been identified as the son of Stephen, Constable of Cardigan.
That Nest was associated with at least 4 men, having children with at least 3 of them, only fed into this narrative that she must have been irresistible. More recent versions of the story had Nest also giving birth to 2 children with her abductor, Owain, but this does not seem to be based in fact. In some versions, Nest even becomes a willing participant in her own abduction.
It is true that some cases of abductions of women in the medieval period are known to have been undertaken with the knowledge and consent of the woman involved, but looking at contemporary accounts this does not seem to be the case for Nest. The story told by the Brut y Tywysogion makes it clear that Nest did not know what was happening when Owain attacked their castle and that she thought that the men were there for her husband. Later on in the story she also employs persuasion to save her children and send them back to her husband. If she didn’t think she or they were in danger, and instead had plotted the whole thing to be with her lover, then she wouldn’t have a need or desire to send her children away.
The modern portrayal of Nest as Helen of Wales betrays our complicated relationship with the past and how we view women who were at the centre of events. Whilst Nest may well have been beautiful, she was just as appealing for her royal blood, and she may well have simply had a very attractive personality. The assumption that she was a great beauty whose looks turned men mad is quite a sexist one, and it implicitly puts blame on Nest for the actions taken against her whilst removing responsibility from adult men who were perfectly capable of making rational decisions. This is seen even in the way historians talk about Nest as being Prince Henry’s lover or mistress; Nest was a young girl held hostage in a foreign land and was extremely vulnerable. Henry was over twice her age and a fully-grown adult man with a lot of power. Even if we accept that Nest ‘consented’ to her relationship with Henry, rather than him forcing himself upon her, her age and her conditions mean any ‘consent’ would be meaningless anyway.
After Nest was returned to Gerald, not much more is known about her. Several years after the event, during some fighting amongst the Welsh, Gerald took the opportunity to avenge his wife and himself when he came across Owain with a small force of men and he killed him. It is thought that Nest and Gerald had 2 more children together after her abduction, before Gerald died in 1135. Nest’s end is as murky as her beginning, but it is thought that she died within a few years of her husband.
Nest ferch Rhys lived almost 1,000 years ago at a time of immense political change and violence in her country. Being a woman of royal blood, she was caught up in the conflicts and became a pawn for English, Norman and Welsh alike. Tiny glimpses we have of her show that she was strong, clever and cunning, finding a way to save her husband and her children at times of great danger. But despite this, she has been romanticised as a beautiful heroine who was a prize for any man who could take her and who caused great wars. She suffered violence at the hands of men but showed great resilience. So much about her is left unknown, but it is important for us to remember that she was a real person who deserves a more nuanced approach, and not a woman of myth.
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Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages – Google Books
Nesta – Irish Biography (libraryireland.com)
Brut y tywysogion : or, The chronicle of the princes : Caradoc, of Llancarvan, d. 1147? : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
The journey through Wales, and, The description of Wales : Giraldus, Cambrensis, 1146?-1223? : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
Princess Nest (historic-uk.com)
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