Why isn’t the fascinating Welsh Princess Nest, daughter of the last King of Deheubarth, (probably) a lover of Henry I and ancestress of the Irish Fitzgerald dynasty, better known? There seems to have been some interest in her in Victorian times, when she was known as “the Welsh Helen” due to her abduction by a rival lord (which doesn’t actually come into this book, although it’s the first of a trilogy so presumably it’s covered in one of the later books), but she’s rarely mentioned now.
It’s a great shame. She had a fascinating life, at a fascinating time in history. In this book, we see Nest captured as a young girl as her father’s kingdom’s taken over by the Normans, caught up in the political entanglements as William Rufus, Robert Curthose and the future Henry I vie for the English throne, become the mistress of Henry I and bear one of his illegitimate children (which probably happened, although it’s not 100% certain), and then be married off to Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor, a Norman knight who was made constable of Pembroke Castle.
It’s an overlooked period of history generally. Everyone knows about the Battle of Hastings, but the decades which followed tend to be neglected. Having said which, we “did” do the Normans in the first year of secondary school, but most of it was about motte and bailey castles and the daily lives of medieval monks, which, let’s say, are not the most fascinating aspects of medieval history for a class of 11-year-old girls. Family feuds and court gossip would have been far more interesting!
This is a really enjoyable book, and, unlike certain other authors, Tracey Warr explains where she’s changed the facts slightly for the sake of the story, or where she’s filled in things which aren’t known for definite.
We see Nest, after her father’s killed and she becomes a hostage, enter the household of one of the influential Montgomery family. That doesn’t seem to be a matter of record, and most sources suggest that Nest was taken immediately to the court of William Rufus; but certainly Nest’s time at the court of Henry I, which the book does show, is a matter of fact. The book suggests that Henry only married Nest to Gerald to give her the position of a married woman before making her his mistress, which probably isn’t quite what happened, but it does seem likely that she was Henry’s mistress, and certainly she did marry Gerald. And it’s all portrayed in a very readable way – Nest, Gerald, Henry and Queen Matilda are very well-characterised.
I’m definitely going to try to get hold of the second and third books, and I gather that, as with Mary Queen of Scots and Bothwell, and, indeed, as with Helen and Paris, there’s a lot of debate about whether Nest was abducted or whether she ran off with Owen ap Cadogan of her own accord … sadly, it sounds to me as if she was forced, but there seems to have been a lot of debate about it at one time. And now there isn’t: Nest has been largely forgotten.
Anyway, this is a very good book about an intriguing woman who really does deserve to be better known than she is … and it’s fairly cheap on Kindle. Recommended!