Friday, 20 June 2014

THE ANTIQUARIAN: Princess Nest, the Powerful Beauty

Nest, princess of South Wales, married twice; firstly, to Gerald of Windsor and, secondly, to Stephen, constable of Cardigan; before and during her marriages, she entertained many lovers, King Henry I of England foremost among them.  She is believed to have had twelve children by six different men, her first at the age of 15 and her last at the age of forty-five.  Of her famed allure, Gwen Meredith states, “Her beauty encouraged men to seek her bed, her favours, and her love” (20).

At the age of six, in 1081, Princess Nest was required to act as guarantor to a peace treaty formed between her father, Rhys ap Tewdwr, prince of South Wales, and William the Conqueror, King of England; as part of this arrangement, Nest left Wales to become a member of the royal household in England.  Consequently, it was both as political hostage and as a kind of ward that Nest came to know the future King, prince Henry, and it was through this intimate and familial proximity that the two became lovers.

By the age of 15, Nest had her first child by Prince Henry, a son, the famed Robert of Gloucester; a few years later, she had her first legitimate son, William fitz Gerald, by Gerald, constable of Windsor.  Three more sons followed: By her husband, David and Maurice, and through her continued affair with Henry (now King of England), Henry fitz Henry.

The notoriety of the relationship between Nest and Henry I is illustrated in contemporary records.  The writings of William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis, suggest that the young king was under pressure to give up his “lasciviousness” and “meretricious pleasures,” by consenting to marry another princess, Matilda, the daughter of Malcolm III, King of Scotland.  This marriage occurred in the same year as the illegitimate birth of Henry’s second son, by Nest, Henry fitz Henry (Meredith, 16).

The chroniclers record that the King of England “ardently desired” the high-born Scottish maiden; however, his ardour for her did not seem to stem his lust for Nest; their child was conceived at either the time the marriage to Matilda was being negotiated, or after its completion and, most astonishingly, while the former Welsh princess was visiting Henry at his place of residence.  As Meredith states, “the records for 1100 do not indicate that Henry traveled into Wales where Nest resided at Pembroke with her husband” (16).

The incident demonstrates the independence of Nest, who was able to “keep lovers and husband separate, contented, and on mutually friendly terms” (Meredith, 16).  As Meredith explains, she “had to leave her husband’s bed, visit Henry, have relations with him, return home, give birth to the king’s child, and not worry about earning either her husband’s or the Church’s displeasure”(16).  Where it concerned the king, then, it appears that Nest must have had an arrangement with her husband and that, along with physical motivations, the affair was part of a stratagem meant to secure a formidable power base for her own household and that of her longtime lover.

In fact, contemporary documents illustrate that both the legitimate and illegitimate offspring of Henry I and Nest supported each other throughout their lives, and that these relationships were fostered and encouraged by all concerned.  According to Meredith, there is ample proof that Queen Matilda received her husband’s illegitimate children at court and encouraged their association with her own children (22).

The practical benefit of this endeavour is most famously demonstrated through Robert of Gloucester, the illegitimate son of Nest, by Henry, who championed the royal cause of his half-sister, Matilda; ultimately, this led to the ascension to the throne by Matilda’s son, Henry II, whom Robert accompanied on his first crossing to England (Meredith, 22).  Likewise, a generation later, it was the son of Robert and grandson of Nest, William, who “interceded with Henry II” on behalf of Robert fitz Stephen, Nest’s son by her second husband, Stephen of Cardigan (Meredith, 19).  In return, when the castle of this same William was being attacked by the Welsh, it was the family of William fitz Gerald, son of Nest by Gerald of Windsor, who came to his aid (Meredith, 23).

That this powerful network of families was principally formed and supported by the women involved is suggested by the fact that even Nest’s illegitimate children by her cousin, Owain (who, in a fit of lust, abducted her from the Pembroke home of Gerald, her husband), were also welcomed into the politically active extended family that Nest had produced (Meredith, 23).  This is best illustrated through Owain’s son by Nest, Einion, who became the steward of his half-brother, by Henry I, Robert of Gloucester.

The cord that linked these families together was strengthened by the fact that all involved were of noble birth.  This allowed for advantageous marriages that solidified and maximized the effectiveness of the network for many generations to come.

The annals of time have testified to the quality of Nest, the woman, and the offspring she produced.  Through her descendants, Princess Nest not only changed the face of the Angevin empire, but also laid the foundation for Great Britain and its future empire.  The offspring of Nest helped establish a line of English kings that would survive into the Tudor period; they helped secure Wales for England, and became the progenitors of the great houses of Ireland, forging that nation through its invasion, in 1169, to modern times.  Her descendants continue to thrive, noble and commoner alike, till the present day. 

The cause and date of death of this remarkable woman is unknown.  What is certain, however, is that she was a princess, wife, mother, and lover who, through her beauty, strength, independence, and foresight, created the foundation for many of the great nations of the modern age.

"Princess Nest will see you now...Welsh Marcher Lords to the left and all regular Anglo-Norman Barons to the right, please!"

Meredith, Gwenn. “Henry I’s Concubines.”  Essays in Medieval Studies, Vol. 19,
            (2002), pp. 14-28. West Virginia University Press. JSTOR. Web. 23 Jun. 2013.

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