Above is an artist’s impression of the Welsh fort at Carew that preceded the Norman stone castle occupying the site today. The sketch is based on findings from archaeology digs in the 1990s. The stone cross at the entrance to the site, inscribed with the name of the 11th century king Maredudd ap Edwin, is testament that Carew was an important centre for the royal family of the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth. My novel series, Conquest, is concerned with the surviving members of that royal family, after the Normans invaded and killed the last king, Rhys ap Tewdwr, in 1093, along with two of his sons. Initially, three of the king’s five sons survived but one of those soon died in a Norman prison. The youngest son was born in captivity in Carmarthen castle and was maimed to prevent any claim from him. Another son, Gruffudd ap Rhys, was hidden by his kin in Dublin and returned when he reached manhood to challenge the Normans for his lost kingdom. My novels centre on the king’s daughter, Nest ferch Rhys, whose colourful life led her to be dubbed Helen of Wales.
For the last few days I have been putting together maps to help readers envisage the action of my latest novel set in the 12th century, The Drowned Court. The characters travel from Dublin, to Wales, to England, and into northern France. Poring over old maps and, as far as possible, walking the terrain myself are essential parts of my writing process.
‘It’s actually treading the ground which makes a difference, which allows…you to inhabit other lives.’ (Jacqueline Yallop)*
Next week I will be treading the ground of my first novels, Almodis the Peaceweaver and The Viking Hostage, when I talk at the Charroux Literary Festival on landscapes inspiring fiction.
I love maps – I have shoeboxes full of them. The old map (above) showing the medieval French counties of La Marche, Perigord, and the Limousin, which I found in the British Library, was an important inspiration for my first two novels. The archivist at the Musee d’Augustins also gave me a copy of a map of 10th century Toulouse which helped me think about my characters moving around that city.
‘The landscape itself often suggests the stories that might be possible within it.’ (Deborah Lawrenson)*
Maps often inspire me to write new scenes and they are full of suggestive text too, which can be put to use. Maps and walks around the triple river estuary of Carmarthen Bay in Wales were the starting points for my latest Conquest trilogy. I’m fascinated by the uncertainty between land and water, by islands, coastlines, spits, and estuaries. I was interested to try to write as if the landscape/seascape was almost a character in the novels itself – rather like the gloomy, ominous heath in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native or the sinking sands of the saltmarsh in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.
‘The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon … even when a map is not all the plot … it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.’ Robert Louis Stevenson**
* From my article, ‘The Lure of Another Place & Time’ published in Historical Novels Review.
** From Peter Turchi (2004) Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press.
In yesterday’s post, I recounted the early story of the royal Welsh fort at Carew and the coming of the Normans, telling the story of Nest ferch Rhys, the daughter of the last Welsh king in south west Wales, and Gerald FitzWalter, the minor Norman lord who held Pembroke and Carew at the end of the 11th century.
King Henry I was gearing up to take Normandy from his brother Duke Robert and needed reliable men in Wales to hold onto the hard-won Norman territory. Around 1104 he began recolonising Wales with new Norman lords including Richard de Belmeis, Bishop of London who governed Shrewsbury and the former Montgommery lands; Henry, Earl of Warwick who was given the Gower; and Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who began building a castle at Kidwelly. King Henry recognised capable men and Gerald FitzWalter had proven himself to be that in the past. Despite falling into disgrace, along with the treasonous Montgommery family, Gerald finally won back favour with the King and was returned to the stewardship of Pembroke on Henry’s behalf. The King gave Gerald the Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, the King’s former mistress, as his wife. Carew may have been her dowry. Henry had a habit of providing husbands for his ex-mistresses and generally took care of them and all his illegitimate children. Marriage to Nest gave Gerald authority in the Pembroke area and from Henry’s perspective, he had the advantage of not being sufficiently noble to pose a threat to the King.
Gerald FitzWalter brought his new wife, Nest, home to Carew. She may have spent more of her time there than at Pembroke Castle which was perhaps more of a military garrison. We cannot see much of Gerald and Nest’s 12th century castle today at Carew but we can imagine it. In the enclosed courtyard there would have been a number of separate timber buildings with thatched roofs: the great hall, stables, a pigsty, a brewhouse, a bakehouse, a mews for the hawks and falcons, and a kitchen separated from the other buildings because of the risk of fire. The castle would have been a busy place, with servants bustling across the courtyard fetching water from the well; children playing; chickens, ducks, pigs, and goats wandering around. A maid might be beating dust from a tapestry. Dogs would be barking, horses clopping in and out of the stables as people went hunting or hawking. Soldiers and boys would be training with swords and other weapons. At certain times of the year tenants would come to pay rents and fines. People would be wearing richly-coloured clothes in reds, yellows and blues, some trimmed with fur. Servants probably did the laundry down on the riverbank, spreading clothes and linen on the rocks to dry in fine weather.
People did not travel in the winter when the roads were turned to mires and the rivers and seas were turbulent. Wolf packs still roamed the Welsh forests. But at other times of the year, travelling pilgrims, monks, pedlars, and bards might arrive at the castle and would be important sources of news. Any visitors would have to leave their weapons at the entrance to the hall or at the gatehouse.
Nest might have sat at a table in the great hall before the fire working on embroidery or weaving with her maids. There would have been herbs scattered on the floor and tapestries on the walls to keep out the draughts. There was no glass in the windows but wooden shutters that could be closed at night. People rose with the sun and went to bed at sundown, since after dark their only light came from candles or small ceramic lamps with wicks dipped in oil or fat . In a timber-built castle, with thatched buildings, all risks of fire had to be carefully guarded against.
If any inhabitants of the castle were ill they were likely to have recourse to the herbal cures of a local wise woman. There is a 9th century book of Anglo-Saxon medicine in the British Library called The Leechbook of Bald which recommends ointment made from a wolf’s right eye to cure insomnia, feverfew for migraine, dill for stomach complaints, woad and butter for a burn.
Nest and Gerald soon had a family of small children: Nest’s son by the king, Henry, and then William, Maurice and Angharad. The children’s games included blindfolded chase, catching butterflies in a net or fish in a jar, following the leader, skipping, hopscotch, spinning tops, telling riddles, blowing soap bubbles in a pipe, hide and seek, and wrestling matches. And adults might play dice, chess, or tables, and listen to the songs and tales of bards.
King Henry was busy governing England and keeping control of his new conquest of Normandy, which he had wrested from his older brother, Robert. Despite frequent absences in Normandy, Henry did not neglect Wales and sent more new Norman lords. Richard FitzBaldwin rebuilt the castle at Rhydygors. Gilbert FitzRichard de Clare established a castle at Cardigan. The King ordered the fortification of Carmarthen Castle under Walter of Gloucester. And the King organised the settlement of a group of Flemish settlers in the Rhos district, around the Cleddau estuary, the hinterland of Pembroke Castle. Many of them were former mercenaries who had fought for the King and were fiercely loyal to him.
Soon after Christmas 1109, King Cadwgan’s son Owain attacked Gerald’s castle of Cenarth Bychan which may or may not have been Carew – I will come back to that below. Prince Owain set the castle on fire and kidnapped Gerald’s wife Nest and their small children. We are told that Gerald escaped, at the suggestion of his wife, down the castle’s toilet chute. That story, no doubt told over and over again by the Welsh bards singing in the halls of the Welsh princes and kings, placed Gerald in a ridiculous light and enhanced Owain’s prestige. Gerald lost face with his Norman peers, because of the loss of his wife and his ignominious escape from his castle.
The Chronicle of the Princes, the main source of the story, tells us that,
‘Owain, son of Cadwgan saw Nest, daughter of Rhys, son of Tewdwr, the wife of Gerald, the steward of the castle of Pembroke, and loved her greatly for the beauty of her aspect and form and the gentle bearing of her manners and in a short space of time he collected companions and by their assistance he laboured until he obtained admission into the castle and carried off Nest by violence and against her will, to Powys and kept her there notwithstanding all his father and King Henry could do to persuade him to restore his wife to Gerald. The King, incited the chieftains of Powys against Owain, who expelled him from the country and likewise expelled Cadwgan until he was obliged, with his son Owain to flee to Ireland.’
The chronicle reports that Cadwgan eventually came back from Ireland and made peace with King Henry who nevertheless kept him in London, whilst Gilbert FitzRichard de Clare started to take control of Cadwgan and Owain’s lands around Cardigan. Meanwhile, Owain, with his cousin Madog, carried out raids. Nest’s children were returned soon after the abduction but Nest herself remained with the Welsh prince for two more years before Richard de Belmeis, negotiating on behalf of King Henry, secured her release and return to her husband Gerald.
Historians disagree about which castle Nest was abducted from by Prince Owain. The garderobe at Carew is seen as possible evidence that this was Cenarth Bychan castle, where Nest was abducted, but it is not yet established whether this structure is early or late Norman.
Other historians have suggested that Cenarth Bychan was Cilgerran Castle, close to the border of Powys. Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, King of Powys, dominated mid-Wales and was the leader of the Welsh resistance against the Normans for 30 years. Both the imported Flemish community and Cenarth Bychan, if it was Cilgerran, may have been intended by Gerald as provocations to King Cadwgan or defences against him. If it was Carew that Prince Owain attacked he was risking a very daring raid deep into Norman territory with the garrisons at Pembroke and Carmarthen castles not far away. On balance, I think it is more likely that Owain attacked Cilgerran.
Both Owain and Nest’s motivations in the abduction are also disputed. The Chronicle of the Princes records that Owain was infatuated with the beautiful princess. The chronicle was likely written by an Owain sympathiser, intending to create a story of romantic Welsh resistance against the Normans. It differs from the rest of the chronicle in being more literary, more story-like in form. It may well be based on a bard’s tale, on an oral source. There are three versions of the chronicle with subtle differences in language. Two suggest that Nest was raped and taken violently against her will and one suggests that she may have gone with Owain willingly. It seems to me likely that Owain’s primary motivation was political – to make the Normans, and Gerald FitzWalter in particular, look ridiculous and to enhance his own power. It also seems to me most likely that Nest did not collude in her kidnap, much as that might be an appealing Welsh romance. I think, rather, that she simply acted to safeguard her husband and her children. She may have sympathised with the Welsh cause but she had been living with the Normans for 16 years and her children considered themselves to be Norman.
Although Prince Owain’s reputation was briefly enhanced by the abduction, in the long run it was disastrous for the Welsh cause. Owain’s uncle, Iorwerth ap Bleddyn, and then his father, King Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, were killed by Owain’s cousin, Madog. It was the excuse needed to enable Gilbert FitzRichard de Clare to strengthen the Norman hold on Cardigan. Owain became King of Powys but was forced in 1114 to make peace with the Norman king.
After Nest was returned to her husband they had another son, David, but things did not return to peace and quiet for Gerald and Nest. Soon after Nest returned, her brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys, now grown up and the rightful Welsh king of Deheubarth, arrived from Ireland. He had no power base or resources. Surprisingly, since he was certainly planning to try to wrest his kingdom back from the Normans, he stayed with Nest and Gerald for a while. Perhaps Gerald decided it was best to have Gruffudd where he could keep a watchful eye on him.
Gruffudd eventually began a series of attacks on the Norman castles in the region and young Welsh warriors flocked to his banner. His brother Hywel (who had been maimed by the Normans) escaped from Carmarthen Castle and joined him. After a series of successes, Gruffudd was defeated near Aberystwyth and he fled to the northern kingdom of Gwynedd where he met the king’s daughter, Gwenllian, and married her (and therein lies another tale for another day).
In 1116 Prince Owain and Gerald accidentally met near Carmarthen and Gerald took the opportunity to take revenge for the kidnap of his wife. Owain was killed in the skirmish and Gerald may have taken a mortal wound.
After Gerald’s death, King Henry could not leave Nest unmarried. As her abduction by Prince Owain had demonstrated, she was too powerful a symbol for any Welsh prince or any Norman lord who wanted to challenge the power of the King in south west Wales. Again Henry’s strategy was to marry Nest to a minor Norman, this time, Stephen de Marais, the constable of Cardigan Castle. She and Stephen had at least one son, Robert FitzStephen, who went on to become one of the leaders of the Norman invasion of Ireland. Her daughter Angharad, married the lord of Manorbier castle, William de Barry and they were the parents of the writer, Gerald of Wales. Nest and Gerald’s son, William FitzGerald, became the new lord of Carew and the castle stayed in the family for many generations. He began using the surname de Carew and extended the stone buildings at the castle. Nest’s brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys, was involved in an effective battle against the Normans in 1136, and in the next generation, his sons succeeded in winning back parts of the kingdom of Deheubarth. The later Tudor royal dynasty of England and Wales were the direct descendants of Gruffudd ap Rhys and his wife, Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd ap Cynan. Gradually, a mixed Cambro-Norman culture began to emerge in Wales.
Last week I was at Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire, Wales giving a talk on the first inhabitants of the castle: Nest ferch Rhys and Gerald FitzWalter. At the front of the castle site a large, decorated stone cross bears the name of Maredudd ap Edwin, one of the 11th century rulers of the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth. The cross and a series of ditches and ramparts discovered by archaeologists in the 1990s, indicate that Carew was an important royal fort for many centuries.
The Welsh kings were peripatetic, moving between forts, taking tribute in food and gifts, maintaining control across their territories. The fort at Carew was one of several royal sites, including Pembroke, Dinefwr and Llansteffan.
In the spring of 1093, Rhys ap Tewdwr had been king of Deheubarth for 16 years. His daughter, Nest was around eight years old. She had four brothers and her mother was pregnant with another child. There were rumours that the aggressive Norman, Bernard de Neufmarche, who had invaded lands to the north of King Rhys’s kingdom, was building a castle close to the border. The King went to investigate accompanied by his two eldest sons and his band of warriors. While the King was away, Nest, her mother, and younger brothers remained at one of the royal forts.
At first, the Normans who invaded England in 1066 left Wales more or less alone. William the Conqueror was more interested in protecting his English border against the Welsh than in trying to invade Wales. He established marcher or frontier earls at Shrewsbury, Chester and Hereford, and Robert FitzHamon established a Norman outpost at Cardiff castle. In 1081 William the Conqueror came on ‘pilgrimage’ to St Davids Cathedral on the Pembrokeshire coast. He came to see with his own eyes the state of things in Wales. Gruffudd ap Cynan had recently come from Dublin, fought a battle with other Welsh princes, and taken the kingdom of Gwynedd in the north. The Norman king, William, did not want too many strong kings in Wales. Gruffudd ap Cynan was captured by the Normans and put in prison. William the Conqueror met with King Rhys ap Tewdwr and made a peace treaty that held for 12 years.
Norman expansionism into Wales did not begin in earnest until 1087, after the death of William I and the succession of his son William Rufus, King William II. He encouraged the Norman lords to begin making inroads into Wales. William FitzBaldwin, crossed the Bristol Channel from Devon and established Rhydygors castle near Carmarthen. Bernard de Neufmarche began making inroads into the Brecknock area. A little later, Robert FitzMartin also crossed from Devon. Most of the first Norman strongholds built in Wales were simple timber and earthwork structures, motte and bailey castles.
In April 1093 Bernard de Neufmarche killed King Rhys ap Tewdwr and his eldest son, Cynan. The other son was taken prisoner and later died in prison. The Earl of Shrewsbury, Roger de Montgommery, swiftly took advantage of the power vacuum in south west Wales created by Rhys’s death. He sent his youngest son, Arnulf de Montgommery, to the important Welsh fort at Pembroke. Arnulf captured Pembroke, and also the dead King’s pregnant wife Gwladys and her daughter Nest. One of Nest’s brothers, Goronwy, was beheaded. The Normans were aiming to wipe out the royal dynasty of Deheubarth but Nest’s youngest brother, Gruffudd, a very small child, escaped the massacre and was safely hidden in Ireland, probably taken there by his uncle, Rhydderch. Queen Gwladys gave birth to another son, Hywel, who was kept in captivity in Carmarthen Castle.
We do not know what happened to Nest at this point but I have speculated in my novel that Arnulf intended to marry her and sent her to his sister, Sybil de Montgommery at Cardiff Castle to be educated. To marry a native princess was standard practice for invading Normans. It was a way of shoring up their authority in the appropriated territories. The granddaughter of the former Welsh King Gruffudd ap Llewellyn, for instance, was married to Bernard de Neufmarche.
It must have been a terrible time for Nest, ripped from her family, thrust into a Norman household where she was unable to speak French. Gradually, however, she learned the language and learned the etiquette of the Norman court such as not to turn your back on a social superior; not to sit down until a superior gave permission; not to wriggle her shoulders, or allow her hands to be touched by a man who was not her kin. Nest was now an heiress at the king’s disposal.
Arnulf de Montgommery also had lands in England, and he left the captured fort at Pembroke in the stewardship of his right-hand man, Gerald FitzWalter, who set about building new fortifications. Gerald’s orders were to hold Pembroke and expand Norman control in the surrounding lands. Gerald was a younger son of the forester of Windsor. He had no lands and titles except what he could win by his wits. The Norman hold on south west Wales at this point was precarious. The early Norman settlers were far from the Norman centres of power in England; they were vulnerable and dependent on their own resources. The Welsh, led by Cadwgan, the King of Powys, fought back successfully against the invaders. They sacked Montgommery castle, seized Carmarthen, defeated the Normans in Brecknock. William FitzBaldwin died and his followers abandoned Rhydygors castle, leaving Gerald FitzWalter as the only Norman clinging on in south west Wales. In 1095, King William Rufus conducted a military campaign into Wales but achieved little, defeated by the weather, the terrain, and the effective guerrilla tactics of the Welsh warriors.
According to his grandson, Gerald of Wales, Gerald FitzWalter was a wily, ingenious man. The first Norman castle at Pembroke was merely a stockade of wooden stakes and turfs with a small garrison. During a prolonged siege by Welsh warriors in around 1096, things were getting desperate, supplies were running short, and fifteen of Gerald’s knights deserted.
Beneath Pembroke Castle there is a rock cavern called The Wogan, which lets out into the millstream. This is probably the way the knights deserted from the besieged castle. Gerald ordered the last four pigs to be cooked and had his starving men throw some of the meat over the walls, suggesting to the Welsh besiegers that supplies were plentiful. He then put together a letter with his seal to Arnulf de Montgommery saying that he would not need reinforcements for at least four more months. Someone – perhaps Gerald himself – slipped in and out of the castle under the besiegers noses from The Wogan and left the fake letter on the ground outside the Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey, as if it had been accidentally dropped. The letter was discovered by the Welsh attackers, who believed Gerald’s ruses and called off their siege.
In 1097, King William Rufus campaigned in Wales again but yet again, he was not especially successful. Arnulf de Montgommery had perhaps petitioned the King for permission to marry Nest ferch Rhys by this time but the King stalled and did not give an answer because he was concerned about the enormous power wielded by the rebellious and arrogant Montgommery family. Nest was an important symbol of the kingdom of Deheubarth and its royal bloodline. Any man in possession of her could use her as an effective lever in his own bid for power – both in terms of her status in the eyes of the local Welsh population and in terms of the inheritance laws that the Normans adhered to. In Welsh law daughters rarely inherited, although there are a few instances of that happening, but the Normans saw girls as heiresses to lands and titles if there were no male contenders.
In 1100, King William Rufus died in a hunting accident in the New Forest and his younger brother, Henry, took the throne. Henry was an energetic and successful king who ruled for 35 years. He had many mistresses and at least 22 illegitimate children.
Nest became one of King Henry’s mistresses and bore him a son, also named Henry, who later became the lord of Narberth castle. Making Nest his mistress, was a way for the King to reduce her symbolic power for any Welsh prince or Norman noble who might try to use her to gain control of Deheubarth.
At the beginning of the 12th century, Gerald FitzWalter, began building the first Norman castle at Carew. It was a good strategic position, above the tidal estuary of the river Carew, which connected with other waterways. Rivers and coastal sea routes were the main roads of the early Middle Ages. Carew is half-way between Carmarthen and Pembroke castles, less than a day’s ride.
Gerald demolished the Welsh fort, filled in the ditches and constructed a stone tower and timber buildings within a fortified timber enclosure.
In the undercroft of the Old Tower on the ground floor, barrels full of salted and smoked food, wine and ale would have been stored. A stone tower at this time was quite an innovation and Gerald FitzWalter was clearly in touch with the latest technologies, despite being far from the Norman capital. The rectangular tower had four storeys with a first floor entrance via an exterior staircase. There was no access from the ground floor. To reach the store room in the ground floor you went down a ladder and there were also ladders up to the 2nd and 3rd floors. If the tower was attacked, the ladders could be pulled up to make things difficult for the attackers.
The powerful Montgommery family had been implicated in several rebellions and King Henry determined to deal with them. In 1102, he accused the three brothers, Robert, the Earl of Shrewsbury; Roger; and Arnulf, of treason and banished them. Arnulf holed up at Pembroke and sent Gerald FitzWalter to Ireland to negotiate on his behalf with the Irish king Muirchertach ua Briain who gave Arnulf soldiers, ships and his daughter Lafracoth in marriage. Arnulf escaped to Ireland to evade King Henry’s anger, but Gerald did not go with him. After the fall of the Montgommerys, Henry at first sought to control south Wales through Welsh allies. Gerald FitzWalter, as Arnulf’s man, could not be trusted and despite his years of valiantly defending Pembroke he was obliged to hand over that castle, and probably Carew as well, to a Norman knight named Saer who became steward for a few years. Gerald had lost everything he had fought for.
The story of Nest and Gerald continues tomorrow in Part 2.
Nest ferch Rhys, the 12th century Welsh princess, is the heroine of my fiction trilogy, Conquest. Nest was wife or mistress to a Norman king, a Welsh prince, and the Norman constables of Pembroke and Cardigan castles. Interpretations of the few facts known about Nest ferch Rhys vary greatly. In my novels I am attempting to imagine and tell her complex story from her perspective. I will be talking with bookshop visitors and signing copies of my books on Friday 28 July 11am at Victoria Bookshop, Haverfordwest.
And on Sunday 30 July at 1pm, I am giving a guided walk around Carew Castle, which was one of Nest’s main residences, built by her first husband, Gerald FitzWalter, the Norman steward of Pembroke Castle. I will be talking about the historical facts behind my fiction. Taffire Theatre Company are also presenting an outdoor performance on Nest’s life on the same day at 11am and 3pm.
‘The only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires’ wrote William Fitz Stephen in his account of the city in the 12th century.
On a recent trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts I came across a little book called Norman London in a second-hand bookshop. The book contained Fitz Stephen’s account of London written sometime before 1183, together with an essay by Frank Stenton and map research on 12th century London by Marjorie B. Honeybourne. The book was a silvermine for my research as a historical novelist and it is ironic that I travelled to a second-hand bookshop in Massachusetts (the wonderful Raven Books) to find it.
Last year my novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, was published by Impress Books. It is the first in the trilogy charting the life of Nest ferch Rhys who was a potent symbol in the struggles between the Normans and the Welsh. The second book in the trilogy, Conquest: The Drowned Court, will be published this autumn. Nest was one of the many mistresses of the Norman king Henry I and parts of the novels are set in London.
The complicated business of the great 12th century city was conducted by the aldermen of London in the Husting which met in the Guildhall every Monday. Husting is a Scandinavian word and it is likely that this city institution had its origin during the Scandinavian occupation of London in the time of King Alfred. The Husting was the court of civil business hearing pleas on debts, land disputes, land gifts, regulating foreign merchants, controlling weights and measures.
Stepping into Medieval Worlds is an illustrated talk on Norman London that I will be presenting at The Guildhall Library on 8 June. It will address the literary sources for my fiction, including Fitz Stephen’s account. It is exciting to be speaking on this topic at the site of the 12th century Husting in the Guildhall which is on a street, Aldermanbury, named after those aldermen in Norman London. I will talk about the range of medieval literary sources I employ to construct the fictional worlds of my novels including Orderic Vitalis’ chronicle of the ‘extremely unrestrained’ Normans, viking poems, recipe books, maps, and medical manuals from the Middle Ages, the songs of the female troubadours, and the lascivious writings of medieval archbishops and dukes.