New newsletter and books giveaway

urinal Cluny
Urinal used for medical diagnosis, from the Cluny Museum, Paris

My latest newsletter has just been published. It includes news on my novel in progress, The Anarchy, depicting the continuing conflict between the Welsh and the Normans in the 12th century in the aftermath of the sinking of The White Ship, when King Henry I lost his heir.

The newsletter also includes items on my recent talks with writers and readers, my visual inspirations for writing from the Cluny Museum and news on two new guest blogposts coming up.

And finally there is a competition to win a free book by answering a simple question about Henry I.

If you don’t already subscribe to my newsletter you can sign up here.

Palaces and bishops

Thank you to Pembroke Dock Library for such an enjoyable event last week when I presented my new novel, The Drowned Court, and talked with the audience about medieval life and the process of writing historical fiction. And thanks too, to Bob, my ‘muse’, for driving me around Pembrokeshire again, so that we were able to tread in the 12th century footsteps of Nest ferch Rhys and her husband Gerald FitzWalter.


St Davids Bishops Palace cropped
Bishop’s Palace, St Davids

We visited the splendid Bishop’s Palace at St Davids where Nest’s son was bishop, and the vast Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey (after a very fine lunch at Lamphey Hall).

Lamphey Bishops Palace
Bishop’s Palace, Lamphey
Lamphey Bishops Palace drawing
Artist’s impression of the 13th century Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey

The massive corn barn at Lamphey Palace stored a huge amount of grain which the Norman overlords took in taxes from the Welsh tenant farmers. The palace’s dovecote, deer park and four ponds supplied the bishop with meat and fish, and three orchards provided apples, and cabbages and leeks for his potage.

The Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey was where Nest’s wily husband Gerald FitzWalter left a faked letter tricking the Welsh attackers of Pembroke Castle into believing that he had plenty of troops and supplies to defend the castle when, in fact, most of his men had deserted and he had no food at all. The ruse worked and he was the only Norman lord who managed to hang on to his toehold in south west Wales during that round of attacks by the Welsh.

The date of my illustrated talk at Downham Market Library has been changed to Monday 11 December, 2-3pm. Booking essential on 01366 383073. (Tickets £3, includes refreshments.)


As the drawbridge came down; I ventured in

The Drowned Court




Publication Day for my new historical novel, The Drowned Court, is approaching. The novel continues the story of Nest ferch Rhys and King Henry I in 12th century Wales, England and Normandy.





A review of the first book in the trilogy, Daughter of the Last King:

‘As the drawbridge came down, I ventured in. In fact I remember nothing of what happened in my every day life until I came out at the end.

The level of detail and care and attention which has gone into this novel is spellbinding but it never gets in the way of the plot at all. It strengthens and improves it explaining how life must have been, how daily tasks were carried out to how the ward of a king must behave. The story of Nest is complex and multilayered but reads like a charm. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this book will be heavy going given the subject matter, it’s not – it’s a brilliantly woven tapestry of historical intrigue where I felt as if I’d been part of the novel, and part of Nest’s life and I missed her for a while afterwards.’

Flying Far and Wide Through Words

Fontevraud Abbey, Anjou. A hotbed of 12th century intrigue.

‘I had looked out upon the wide kingdoms of the Earth as if I were caught up in ecstasy, flying far and wide through words …. Now, however, I will return exhausted to my black-clad life,’ declared the monk historian, Orderic Vitalis, who lived and worked in a Norman monastery in the 12th century.

The Drowned Court is my new novel, published by Impress Books in October, and the second in my Conquest trilogy, focussed on the Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, and the Welsh struggle against the Normans in the early 12th century. Nest had a very eventful life. As a mistress of the Norman king, Henry I, and the sister of Prince Gruffudd ap Rhys, who attempted to take his lost kingdom back from the invaders, she was unavoidably enmeshed in the conflict, and became a potent symbol for both sides.

Parallel to Nest’s story, which is based on fact, the novel recounts the activities of a Flemish nun named Benedicta (who is fictitious). Benedicta was given to the church as a child, grew up in a Norman convent and is a friend to Orderic Vitalis. King Henry, who is also Duke of Normandy, and his sister, Countess Adela of Blois, have an extensive network of spies operating in Normandy, and Benedicta is drafted into their ranks. They send her to Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, where she finds one of the largest female monastic communities in Europe. Fontevraud is ruled by women, and is a hotbed of intrigue relating to the enemies of King Henry. The abbey’s founder, Robert d’Arbrissel, has been seen by some historians as an early feminist. He was rumoured to practice ‘syneisaktism’: sleeping with the nuns as a form of mortification of the flesh. Three of the count of Anjou’s rejected wives are at the convent, including the notorious former Queen of France, Bertrade de Montfort. Count Fulk IV of Anjou was ‘a man with many reprehensible, even scandalous, habits’, according to Orderic Vitalis. The wives of the Duke of Brittany and the Duke of Aquitaine, also find their ways to Fontevraud, disappointed by the behaviour of their errant husbands. Sister Benedicta’s scribing skills come in handy as a cover for her spying for King Henry amongst these illustrious and repudiated women.

I will be giving talks on my historical fiction in November:

Wednesday 8 November 1pm at Gaywood Library in Kings Lynn
Monday 13 November 11am at Pembroke Dock Library, close to Pembroke Castle where Nest lived
Monday 27 November 2pm at Downham Market Library.

Bertrade de Montfort shown with King Philip I of France (known as ‘the Amorous’) in the centre, and with her previous husband, Fulk IV Count of Anjou, on the right. On the left, King Philip’s former wife, Bertha of Hollande, is shown in prison. From the Chroniques de Saint-Denis in the British Library.

Medieval Wales

2 Welsh fortAbove 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.

tracey banner

I will be at Narberth Book Fair in the Queen’s Hall, Narberth in Pembrokeshire

on Saturday 23 September 10am-4pm,

along with 34 other authors and tons of books.

There will be talks, readings, workshops, children’s corner.

Entry and all events are free.

My new book, The Drowned Court, is set in the 12th century, and will be published by Impress Books on 30 October.

Into the Map

Limousin Map

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.

My talk on landscapes inspiring fiction at the Charroux Literary Festival in France is on Saturday 26 August at 9.30am.

Other authors at the festival include Barbara Erskine, Andrew Lownie, and Alison Morton. I am also contributing to the festival’s panel discussion on historical fiction on Friday 25 August at 9am.


Posts from a Castle – Carew (Part 2)

early Norman castle
Artist’s impression of the early Norman castle at Carew built by Gerald FitzWalter at the beginning of the 12th century

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. 

Looking up the garderobe chute at Carew Castle

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.

Cilgerran Castle

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.



Conquest I: Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr (Impress, 2016) is available now and Conquest II: The Drowned Court will be published in October.





Sources – Part 2 (and see Part 1 post)

(681-1282) Brut y Tywysogion (The Chronicle of the Princes).

Babcock, Robert S. (1992) ‘Imbeciles and Normans: The Ynfydion of Gruffudd ap Rhys Reconsidered’, Haskins Society Journal, vol. 4, pp. 1-9.

Maund, Kari (1999) ‘Owain ap Cadwgan: A Rebel Revisited’, Haskins Society Journal, vol. 13, pp. 65-74.

Mortimer, Ian (2009) The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, London: Vintage.