Helen of Wales

Shortly after Christmas, 1106,* the Norman steward of Pembroke Castle in Wales, Gerald FitzWalter, and his wife, the Welsh noblewoman Nest ferch Rhys, were invited to feast with Gerald’s bitter enemies King Cadwagn and his son Prince Owain. Cadwagn gave lip service to the Norman king but Owain was one of the lead rebels harrassing the Norman occupiers.

Gerald FitzWalter was a Norman warrior holding the kingdom of Deheubarth in south west Wales for the Norman king, Henry I. The kingdom was previously ruled by Nest’s father, King Rhys ap Tewdwr who was killed in battle by the Normans. Nest had been betrothed to marry Prince Owain, but King Henry made her his mistress and then gave her in marriage to Gerald. 

That Christmas, Gerald had just completed work on a new castle at Cilgerran, close to the border of Cadwagn and Owain’s kingdom of Ceredigion. Given the geopolitics of the time and the history of Nest’s previous betrothal to Owain, the feast must have been a tense occasion but it passed off without incident. Several nights later, however, Owain made a surprise attack on the castle where Gerald and Nest were staying with their young children (Henry – the son of the king, William, Maurice, David and Angharad). It is likely that the family were celebrating Christmas at the new castle of Cilgerran.** Owain’s Welsh troops slaughtered the small Norman garrison and the household servants and kidnapped Nest and her children. Gerald escaped the carnage by slipping down the toilet chute to the moat.

Owain soon returned the children to their father. Since Nest’s eldest son was a royal bastard (one of very many), it would not have been wise for Owain to harm or keep the boys and their sister. However, he kept Nest hostage for a couple of years and only released her back to her husband through the intervention of King Henry. Some sources claim that Owain abducted and raped Nest against her will (which seems likely given that she had been married to Gerald for several years and had a family of five young children). Others claim that she supported the Welsh resistance against the Normans and colluded in the kidnap. 

The story of Nest’s kidnap is told in the Brut y Twysogion (The Chronicle of the Princes), and also by Nest’s grandson, the writer, Gerald of Wales. She was likened to Helen of Troy since she was supposedly kidnapped because of her great beauty.

My Conquest trilogy based on the turbulent life of Nest ferch Rhys is published in a new edition this year with the first book, Daughter of the Last King, out on Saint David’s Day, 1 March 2023. You can preorder the ebook now and will be able to preorder the print books (hardback and paperback) very soon.

To celebrate the launch of my new publishing imprint, Meanda Books, I am running a free  book promotion with the first editions of some of my books. 

*Some sources say 1109.

** Some sources argue that this event took place at Carew Castle.

The title image shows Cilgerran Castle in Wales.

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