Nest ferch Rhys (c. 1085 – before 1136) (popularly called Nesta or "Princess Nesta") was the only legitimate daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, last king of Deheubarth in Wales, by his wife, Gwladys ferch Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn of Powys. Her family is of the House of Dinefwr. Nest was the wife of Gerald de Windsor (c. 1075 – 1135), constable of Windsor Castle in Berkshire, by whom she was the ancestress of the FitzGerald dynasty and of the prominent Carew family, of Moulsford in Berkshire, Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire (in the Kingdom of Deheubarth) and of Mohuns Ottery in Devon (see Baron Carew, Earl of Totnes and Carew baronets).
Nest had two younger brothers, Gruffydd ap Rhys and Hywel, and, possibly, an older sister named Marared, as well as several older illegitimate half-brothers and half-sisters. After their father's death in battle in 1093, "the kingdom of the Britons fell" and was overrun by Normans. Nest's younger brother Gruffydd was spirited into Ireland for safety; their brother Hywel may have been captured by Arnulf de Montgomery, along with their mother, unless, as appears likelier, their mother was captured with Nest; their fate is unknown. Two older brothers, illegitimate sons of Rhys, one of them named Goronwy, were captured and executed.
Nest was brought as a prized hostage to the court of William Rufus, where she came to the attention of his younger brother Henry Beauclerc (the future King Henry I), to whom she bore one of his numerous illegitimate children, Henry FitzHenry (c. 1103–1158).
Some time after the rebellions of Robert of Normandy and Robert of Belesme, head of the powerful Montgomery family of Normandy and England, the king married Nest to Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor, Arnulf de Montgomery's former lieutenant and constable for Pembroke Castle. In 1102, for siding with the Montgomerys against the king, Gerald had been removed from control of Pembroke, and one Saher, a knight loyal to Henry, installed in his place. When Saher proved untenable in his new position, the king restored Gerald to Pembroke in 1105, along with Nest as his wife. By Gerald, Nest is the maternal progenitor of the FitzGerald dynasty, one of the most celebrated families of Ireland and Great Britain. They are referred to as Cambro-Normans or Hiberno-Normans, and have been peers of Ireland since 1316, when Edward II created the earldom of Kildare for John FitzGerald.
Nest bore Gerald at least five children, three sons and two daughters. Through her children by Gerald, Nest is an ancestress of the de Bohun Family, the Tudor monarchs of England, and, through the Tudors, of the Stuarts, as well as of President John F. Kennedy, and Diana, Princess of Wales.
After Gerald's death, Nest's sons married her to Stephen, her husband's constable of Cardigan, by whom she had another son, possibly two; the eldest was Robert Fitz-Stephen (d. 1182), one of the Norman conquerors of Ireland; the second son, if such there were, may have been named Hywel. Some sources say that Robert was a bastard. This is unlikely to be the case as Robert's heirs were the Carew (Carey) family, the representatives of his eldest half-brother, William de Carew. According to Rev. Barry, they "...should not have gone to them, but to the Crown, if Robert FitzStephen were illegitimate". With Nest's son Maurice FitzGerald, his half-brother, Robert laid siege to the town of Wexford in 1169. With Maurice, he was granted joint custody of the town.
The details of this most famous episode of Nest's life are obscure and vary, depending on who is relating it. Either Nest and Gerald were present at an eisteddfod given, during a truce, by Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, prince of Powys; or they were not present, and Nest and her husband were "visited" by her second cousin Owain ap Cadwgan, one of Cadwgan's sons, or they were not visited by Owain, merely attacked by Owain and his men. The usual tale is that Owain hears at the eisteddfod that Gerald is in the neighbourhood, that Gerald's wife is very beautiful, and so he goes to visit her "as his kinswoman", but this is unlikely. The earliest account, that of Caradoc of Llancarfan, relates that "At the instigation of the Devil, he [Owain] was moved by passion and love for the woman, and with a small company with him...he made for the castle by night." The castle was called Cenarth Bychan (possibly modern Cilgerran Castle); Carew Castle is also mentioned, but is unlikely.
Tradition has it that, during Owain's firing of some of the outbuildings, Nest persuaded her husband and his men to escape via a lavatory chute, rather than face Owain, outnumbered, but this, too, is unlikely. Owain and his men burst into the castle, searched frantically for Gerald, but failed to find him. Nest allegedly told them, "He whom you seek is not here. He has escaped." An infuriated Owain then raped Nest in front of her children — either her two sons and daughter and Gerald's son by a concubine; or Gerald's two sons by a concubine and Nest's two sons; or any other variant — following which Owain abducted Nest and her children, and took them to a hunting lodge by the Eglwyseg Rocks north of the Vale of Llangollen.
The rape of Nest aroused the wrath of the Normans, as well as of the Welsh who had been victimised by Owain and his followers. The truce was broken. The Norman lords, the Justiciar of Salop, and at least one bishop, bribed Owain's Welsh enemies to attack him and his father, which they promptly did. Owain's father tried to persuade him to return Nest, but to no avail. According to Caradoc, Nest told Owain, "If you would have me stay with you and be faithful to you, then send my children home to their father." She secured the return of the children. Owain and his father were driven to seek exile in Ireland. Nest was returned to her husband.
In recent years, Nest has been given two specious children by her rapist, Llywelyn and Einion. In fact, Owain had a brother, but not a son, named Einion, and Welsh genealogies do not name the mother of Owain's son Llywelyn. The omission of the name of a mother with the highborn status of Nest is startling, if it were true.
In the 19th century, this "abduction", as well as the fighting which followed, earned Nest the nickname "Helen of Wales". She was depicted at having connived with Owain at her rape and abduction, given more children than she had borne, along with more lovers than she had had.
In 1112, her brother Gruffydd returned from Ireland, spending most of his time with Gerald and Nest. When he was denied his inheritance from his father, and accused to the king of conspiring against him, he allied with the prince of Gwynedd, and war broke out. Owain ap Cadwgan had, by now, been pardoned by the king, and was prince of Powys; in 1111, his father had been assassinated by Owain's cousin and former comrade-in-arms, Madog ap Rhiryd, whom Owain captured, castrated, and blinded. Being then on the king's good side, Owain was ordered to rendezvous with a Norman force to proceed against Gruffydd. En route, he and his force chanced to run into none other than Gerald FitzWalter. Despite Owain being a royal ally, Gerald chose to avenge his wife's rape, and killed Owain.
Some historians have recently cast doubts on the account, suggesting it may have been revised or rewritten at a later date, by an author who had a motive to both demean Gerald and enhance the reputation of Owain. Thus,"we should hesitate to take it at full face value".
|Ancestors of Nest ferch Rhys|