Women Reading Silence in a Time of Social Fracture

In the thirteenth-century Roman de Silence, patriarchal inheritance laws of the land drive a young girl’s parents to make a choice: lose their lands and leave their daughter without an inheritance or raise her as a boy.[1] Thus, the child (aptly named Silence) grows up to become one of the greatest knights of the realm. In a society that values masculinity, the female characters in the story strive to assert their voices in a world dominated by men’s discourse. The story begins as a traditional chivalric romance, with Silence’s mother Eufemie (whose name means ‘use of good speech’ (cf. euphemism)) and father Cador struggling, in the passionate heat of their courtship, to say what they feel. When Silence reaches puberty, and Cador stresses the necessity of maintaining a masculine identity, Silence, whose body has become the locus for a battle between the personified forces of Nature and Nurture, is left with little choice but to acquiesce. Later, living quite successfully as a man and the most valued knight of King Evan’s (spelled, in various ways, Ebain in the original) court, Silence faces the unwanted sexual advances of King Evan’s wife, Eufeme (whose name means ‘alas! woman’), at which point, things begin to unravel. Unable to voice an essential, personal truth and trapped by the confines of traditional gender roles, Silence ultimately is left silent in a story that is both beautiful and devastating. In 2017, revisiting this story of a transgender protagonist, sexual harassment (and assault), that which is spoken, and those who are silenced, I knew that the time was ripe for introducing my students to Silence.

f. 203r of the Roman de Silence (ff. 188r-223r). Nottingham, University of Nottingham, MS WLC/LM/6. Reproduced by kind permission of Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham.[2]
At the Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas—an all-girls college preparatory school—my Upper School students are women who similarly are trying to find and use their voices in a time (both developmentally and historically) when they are confronting fractured messaging about women’s roles in the social and political spheres. I teach Arthurian stories in British and world literature courses and in a senior seminar on King Arthur. Whenever I teach Arthuriana in my classroom, these students, who are becoming well-versed in the language of feminism, race-theory, social dynamics, and identity, consistently impress me with their ability to discuss diversity with sensitivity and passion. This year, I decided to assemble a focused reading group outside of class for students, enthusiastic volunteers from all levels in the Upper School (freshmen through seniors), to study the Roman de Silence. Like Silence, the students in our group are women growing up and trying to assert their own voices in a world that often tries to silence them. They were so proud to make their voices heard through this project.

The course was structured informally as a reading group, meeting once a week over lunch in my classroom. We had about thirty students participating in one way or another throughout the semester with a core of about a dozen who attended regularly. I initially planned for about eight meetings. We read 1,000 lines a week of Sarah Roche-Mahdi’s facing-page translation, moving fairly slowly through the text.[3] While this pace allowed us to dive more deeply into Silence during our meetings, we decided that we wanted to continue the conversation outside of class through an online discussion board using our school’s learning management system. This included topics such as “Silence’s Birth and Youth,” “Silence, the Minstrels, and Eufeme,” and (because I teach teenage girls) the spirited catch-all, “Things That Have Us Shook.”

My goal with this reading group was, in part, to take young, pre-college students and turn them on to that undeniably electric attraction so many of us feel when we study the Middle Ages. In part, I also wanted them to get fired up about how little has changed since thirteenth-century France in conversations about identity and politics. It was serendipitous, then, that a month before our first meeting, TIME magazine named the “Silence Breakers” its “Person of the Year,” celebrating women for breaking their silence in the face of sexual harassment and assault. The weekend before our first meeting, celebrities in the film and television industries at the Golden Globe Awards coordinated the launch of the #TimesUp movement (building on the momentum of the #metoo movement, which had been gaining significant traction through the winter). Women who had been silenced by their abusers and the systems that protected them were speaking out—breaking their silence, just as our Silence could not. My students were incensed and energized—you have to work in a girls’ school to understand it—it was in the air and in many of the conversations they were having with each other and begging to have with me. Silence, then, was a fitting literary entrée into the conversation.

The Roman de Silence explores some challenging topics, including sexual harassment, consent, gender dynamics (including transgender issues and the politics of gender), Nature vs. Nurture, and a problematic narrator. Because I was working with students of a wide range of ages (the kids in my group ranged from ages 14-18), I wanted to be sensitive to that dynamic. We decided it was necessary to establish a common language, most important to the students, agreeing on what gender pronouns to use in reference to Silence, the main protagonist, and Heldris, the ostensible author and narrator.[4] One of the biggest (and coolest) challenges with the Roman de Silence is the dexterity with which Heldris moves back and forth between genders in reference to Silence, sometimes even within the same sentence. Heldris, too, is ambiguous in gender, so how were we to refer to our author/narrator? In the end, the students decided together that they would use the gender neutral “they” in reference to both, which provided a sometimes stumbling, but always insightful frame for our discussions. It matters, they learned, which pronouns we choose when referring to Silence and to Heldris.

Silence Dressed as a Young Boy. Nottingham, University of Nottingham, MS WLC/LM/6, f. 203r. Reproduced by kind permission of Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham.

Early in the story, Heldris establishes their authority by claiming that they will write the story in French based on their reading of a “Latin version” of unclear origin:

I’m not saying there isn’t
a good deal of fiction mingled with truth,
in order to improve the tale,
but if I am any judge of things,
I’m not putting in anything that will spoil the work,
nor will there be any less truth in it,
for truth should not be silenced. (1663-8)

So, very quickly, my students had to figure out how to hold these two things in tension: how can truth and fiction coexist? First, we have an author who is grounding themselves in textual authority (Latin, no less!). On the other hand, that author freely admits that, just as one might a bland soup, they have spiced up the tale by mixing in fiction “in order to improve” it, but in a way that will not spoil the work or make it less truthful. This metaphor of cooking (which seems to lie just below the surface of Heldris’s words) helped my students, but it also sowed the seeds of doubt for some—how reliable was this narrator? Whose side were they on?

Choosing to use the singular “they” in reference to Heldris throughout our discussions ended up highlighting (sometimes rather strikingly) the author’s problematic position of authority. When divorced from gender identifiers, assumptions students might otherwise have made about Heldris’s opinions or positions suddenly unraveled, making them much more complex (and perhaps for my students, more frustrating). One minute, Heldris seems so intimately conversant in the effects of sexual harassment on a female victim. The next, they’re condemning women wholesale for their tendency to manipulate men with their tears. When we removed our essentialist biases about how women write or men write (and where their sympathies lie as writers), we found ourselves so much less sure about how to understand Heldris’s position.

Here’s an example from the online discussion board “Things That Have Us Shook.” We had been reading about Silence’s prowess at tournaments and on the battlefield. Heldris describes Silence as “a second Alexander,” running through a heroic catalogue of their clothes and especially helmet (like the shield of Achilles). Eufeme, who at this point already has attempted to sexually assault Silence once, will soon begin plotting to do so again, despite Silence’s revulsion of her:

Student A: What does it suggest about sexuality if Silence has been raised as male for all intents and purposes and yet is not attracted to women? It seems like an extremely progressive idea that even today older generations seem to have trouble grasping.

Student A later explained in our meeting that she was trying to think through the idea that a male-presenting person, raised with all the trappings and cultural baggage of a man, might be, if not attracted to women, presumably attracted to men. For this student, this allowed for fluidity among gender and sexuality that really struck her and made her feel like Heldris was pushing some boundaries in exciting ways. Then, her peer responded thus:

Student B: I actually didn’t read it as a progressive idea, as the phrasing of the encounter between Eufeme and Silence seemed to imply that Silence was not attracted to Eufeme because they (Silence) were biologically female. In this context, the book could be interpreted as hetero-normative, because despite Silence being raised as male, their “true nature” as female means Silence cannot be attracted to women. I guess it really depends on what Heldris thinks Silence identifies as (I personally think Silence is bi-gender, but Heldris seems to be on the side of Nature).

This sparked a lively group discussion about Heldris’s “allegiances,” as the students called them. Silence is the best at combat—as a woman, they can do everything men can do (and better!), but Heldris still will make snide comments about women and point back to the Nature vs. Nurture debate. Then again, Heldris so carefully plays with Silence’s pronouns in a way that seems to suggest, in Student A’s words, “maybe Heldris chose to switch pronouns when Silence felt more in tune with one gender over the other.” This seems so sensitive and gentle that when at other points Heldris makes blanket statements about the failings of women, such statements felt particularly brutal to my students. While the students loved the debate between Nature and Nurture—so dramatic, so steeped in stereotypical gender norms, and so very relevant to cultural discussions we’re having today—they had difficulty figuring out just where Heldris fell on the debate.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the threats and execution of both sexual and deadly violence on women’s bodies. It took us a full meeting, for example, to begin to unknot King Evan’s dismissal of Eufeme’s accusations of sexual assault against Silence (fabricated as they were). When the king says to his wife, “So let’s pretend it didn’t happen. Just think of it all as a dream, sweetheart. / Nothing happened, nothing’s wrong, nothing should come of it” (4245-7), we couldn’t help but think about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and so many others, and the many men who worked behind the scenes to enable their predation. When Heldris says of women who are trying to avenge the wrongs done to them: “When she is told to keep quiet, / she tries all the harder to make noise” (4270), we couldn’t help but hear the “Silence Breakers.” When King Evan has Silence stripped of all their clothes in front of the court, exposing King Evan’s limited understanding of truth and forcing Silence, in quiet dignity, to speak their own and then fall silent, my students mourned the loss of Silence’s ability to own and live their identity. In the end, Nature’s victory rung so terrifying (in all its objectification of Silence) that we were reminded of the recent horror film Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele (as though Silence had been sent to the “sunken place” and were watching their life, silently, from afar). This is part of what inspired my students to want to dramatize the story in film.

I said previously that I had planned for this group to last about eight weeks. Most of these meetings focused on close, textual analysis and consideration of other primary and secondary texts. During one meeting, I brought in a .pdf of a working draft of Regina Psaki (University of Oregon) and Bonnie Wheeler’s (Southern Methodist University) new prose translation of the Roman de Silence. Wheeler said of the translation: “Gina and I originally conceived of this project as one that would be in print but have now decided to make it open-access on-line so that it can be used in classrooms without adding to student book costs. Thus we don’t want it included in course packets, etc., for which students are charged.” They asked a few colleagues (including myself) who teach at different levels to do beta testing, and their goal is to produce a parallel text/translation, including links to important essays on the poem. If all goes well (and they find a great tech-helper), we should expect to see it available by spring 2019. In the meantime, my students were delighted to engage with (and even provide suggestions for) this fantastic translation-in-progress.

About six weeks in, my students decided that they wanted to produce a film trailer for a movie about Silence (it was a group filled with budding actors, costume designers, creative writers, and film makers) and began making plans in a Google doc for a culminating project. They spent about four weeks on this and developed a draft for a script. What was most interesting was how they thought through the rhetoric, purpose, and audience of a film trailer and struggled with what scenes to preview and how best to problematize Heldris (who would provide the extradiagetic voiceover). In the end, they ran out of time (with graduation looming on the horizon), but during our final meeting (lucky number 15), they were determined to come up with some kind of project nevertheless. Therefore, they created a Twitter handle, which this year’s students will now run. So feel free to check out @heldriscornwall on Twitter for some fun memes, surveys, retweets, and recommended reading![5]

Jennifer Boulanger, Ph.D.
The Hockaday School

 

[1] Our only copy of the text is in University of Nottingham, MS Mi.LM.6, which now has a new shelf mark as part of the Wollaton Library Collection: MS WLC/LM/6. A catalogue record can be viewed here: http://mss-cat.nottingham.ac.uk/DServe/record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=wlc%2flm%2f6. Further manuscript bibliography can be found here: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/collectionsindepth/medievalliterarymanuscripts/wollatonlibrarycollection/wlclm6.aspx. The manuscript was unknown until 1911 when it was discovered at the Elizabethan manor house of Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire in a crate labeled “unimportant documents.” See pp. 221-36 of the Report on the Manuscripts of Lord Middleton Preserved at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, compiled by W. H. Stevenson for the Historical Manuscript Commission (London, 1911).

[2] Images can also be viewed here: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/heritage-digitisation/gallery.aspx.

[3] See Heldris de Cornuälle, Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance, ed. and trans. Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1992).

[4] The name Heldris de Cornuälle translates to Heldris of Cornwall, but it could also be Heldris of Cornouaille, the medieval name for a region in south-west Brittany, the southern part of the modern-day département of Finistère. It is probably an Arthurian-sounding nom de plume of sorts. We know nothing about the author. The language in the manuscript is a mix of Francien and Picard dialects of Old French, meaning that the manuscript was likely brought from France to Nottingham, possibly during the Hundred Years’ War (Roche-Mahdi xxiii).

[5] For further reading, Arthuriana has dedicated two full volumes to the Roman de Silence (7.2 and 12.1). More recently, see: Katie Keene, “‘Cherchez Eufeme’: The Evil Queen in Le Roman de Silence,” Arthuriana 14.3 (Fall 2004): 3-22; Heather Tanner, “Lords, Wives, and Vassals in the Roman de Silence,” Journal of Women’s History 24.1 (Spring 2012): 138-159; Jane Tolmie, “Silence in the Sewing Chamber: Le Roman de Silence,” French Studies 63.1 (January 2009): 14-26.

‘The Helen of Wales’: Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, a Shaper of History (Part 2)

First, be sure to catch up on Part 1 of Nest's story here...

Owain broke through to the sleeping area and took Nest and her children, burning the castle as he left.[23] Gerald of Wales tells us, however, that Owain raped Nest and then returned home, making no mention of Owain taking Nest with him, so there are somewhat conflicting accounts.[24] As told in the Brut y Tywysogion, though, Owain’s father Cadwgan urged Owain to return Nest to her husband, but he refused. Nest then pleaded with Owain on behalf of her children, saying: ‘If thou will have me faithful to thee, and remain with thee, send my children to their father’.[25]

It is generally considered that Owain did abduct Nest. But whether she was party to the attack as suggested by Lloyd, who states that the whole affair was a tale of passion and intrigue, or she was an unwilling victim cannot be substantiated.[26] That this was an act of rebellion against Norman incursions is a more feasible argument.

Although stories abound as to where Nest and Owain went after her abduction, no reliable evidence exists to confirm them. Susan M. Johns relies on Henry Morton’s 1932 volume In Search of Wales, which suggests that they ‘ran to Powys’ and stayed at a hunting lodge called Plas Uchaf in Eglwyseg.[27] Gwen Meredith suggests that Nest stayed with Owain for three years and that they had two sons, Llewellyn and Einion.[28] However, I would suggest that Nest was quickly returned to Gerald, possibly at the same time as her children. King Henry was rightly furious and was quick to act; taking the king’s mistress was one thing, kidnapping his son quite another. Henry brought the wrath of God down on Wales in his search for Owain by sending his man Richard de Belamais, the Bishop of London, to track Owain down. Owain escaped to Ireland, but while on the run, it would make sense that he would not have wished to be encumbered with Nest.

Nevertheless, Nest’s abduction set Wales ablaze, Normans against Welsh and Welsh against their own in a civil war. On behalf of Henry, Bishop Richard offered Owain’s cousins Ithel and Madog ab Rhiryd vast tracts of land to turn over Owain. These two invaded Ceredigion, scattering the inhabitants to any place of safety they could find and brutalising the population as they went, but they never did find Owain. It appears that later Madog changed his allegiance. Once Owain had returned from Ireland, he and Madog burned Meirionydd, killing many and slaughtering their cattle. Owain continued to be a thorn in Henry’s side and continued to avoid capture. He returned to Ceredigion, once again on the rampage, killing and terrorising as he went. In 1111, Madog ap Rhiryd killed Owain’s father, why we do not know. Owain sought revenge and caught up with Madog and blinded him.[29]

After years of constant revolt against King Henry, Owain was finally forgiven by the king and knighted in 1114.[30] A curious act by Henry, did he believe Owain could be useful to him? Owain’s meteoric rise in Henry’s favour is intriguing, especially given the statement in the Brut y Tywysogion saying that Gerald was ‘Henry’s particular friend’.[31] At this point, we may consider the vague possibility that Nest was again with Owain and was returned as a part of the bargain.[32]

In 1113, Gruffydd ap Rhys, Nest’s brother, returned from exile in Ireland determined to retake his father’s kingdom. Records show he stayed from time to time with Nest and Gerald at Pembroke Castle.[33] Young Welshmen flocked to Gruffydd’s cause as he left a trail of destruction throughout the South.[34] Henry, angered at Gruffydd’s actions, ordered Owain and Gerald to find him. Nest’s feelings regarding Gruffydd’s actions are unknown. However, that Henry would use Owain and Gerald to bring Gruffydd to heel must have felt like the ultimate betrayal.

While looking for Gruffydd, Gerald marched with his army to the forests of Ystrad-Tywi. There, Gerald came across settlers that complained to him of the brutal treatment received at the hands of Owain. Gerald decided the time was ripe to take his revenge against Owain. Believing that Gerald had come to assist in bringing down Gruffydd, Owain was instead attacked by Gerald’s forces with a volley of arrows.[35] Owain died from an arrow to his heart, which, given his passion for Nest, seems quite fated.

No mention is made in the chronicle evidence of what happened to Gerald at this point. Had he died alongside Owain, it would have been recorded along with Owain’s death. Was Gerald injured in the skirmish and died later from his wounds? History does not tell us. Plausible is the idea that Henry’s actions towards Owain were considered by Gerald a betrayal. It could also be that Gerald was tired of sharing his wife with so many men, the king included, and took his frustration out on Owain and left court.[36] His options would have been few if he wished to keep his family safe and secure. It is possible that he took up the cross and travelled to the Holy Land, but we simply do not know.

D. Walker tells us that Gerald died in 1136.[37] However, William Hait became the constable of Pembroke in 1130,[38] which suggests that Gerald was not in residence at the time. This strengthens the argument that Gerald had either fled, died, or was suffering a prolonged illness that took him out of the record books.

Of Nest’s potentially fourteen children, history does not give reliable dates of their births or their deaths. That she had four children by Gerald is documented by various sources; that she had ten further children is less easy to confirm. She bore Hait, the Constable of Pembroke, a son, William Lord of St. Clears. She also had a son, Robert Fitz Stephen, by Stephen, the Constable of Cardigan, whom she had married after Gerald’s death. While their birth dates may not be reliably documented, they feature prominently in history. There were four further children by fathers unknown, plus the possibility that Nest also had two sons by Owain.

It would be easy to label Nest as promiscuous, given the number of children she had by various men, but the fact that we have no firm evidence of the dates they were born does allow for us to be a little more lenient towards her. I have often considered her unfairly treated in the scholarship. She was forced into situations that were beyond her control, as was the case for many women in the Middle Ages, and that she used the beauty and charms she possessed to make a comfortable and safe life for herself and her children would have been very reasonable, given her circumstances. We must also consider that it would have been prudent for the king to see his mistress married successively to two Norman lords (Gerald and then Stephen), thus keeping her and her children under his influence. Being a daughter of the King of Deheubarth made her a target for those who would use her as leverage against the Normans.

We have no reliable evidence for the date of her death, nor do we know where she is buried. What we do know is that she left a legacy that has survived through time by means of her children and grandchildren. If Nest herself is not remembered well by the historians, her children by the various men in her life have been. They were born with a mixture of both Welsh and Norman blood in their veins and went on to lay the foundations for some of the major houses in both Wales and Ireland. Nest and Gerald’s daughter Angharad married William Fitz Odo de Barry, and their son, Gerald de Barry, is better known to us as the prolific writer and priest Gerald of Wales. Robert Fitz Stephen and his half-brother, Maurice Fitz Gerald, ensured a long line of Fitz Geralds in Ireland by successfully gaining vast tracts of land through either battle or reward. They built castles and established a lasting Fitz Gerald dynasty, which includes the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Patricia Taylor, M.A.
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

 

Footnotes

[23] Annales Cambriae, p.76.

[24] Giraldus Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica: The Conquest of Ireland, edited and translated by A. B. Scott and F. X. Martin (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978), pp.229-30.

[25] Brut y Tywysogion, p.87.

[26] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.417-48.

[27] Johns, Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages, pp.196-198. Henry Morton was a travel writer who took pleasure in portraying Wales as a place of romance and legends to entertain his readers. However, there is an Elizabethan manor house in Eglwyseg known as Plas Uchaf built on the foundations of a hunting lodge which once belonged to the princes of Powys. An inscription can be seen over the door telling how the lodge was inherited by the princes of Powys in 1073.

[28] G. Meredith, ‘Henry I’s Concubines’, Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002): p.17. Available: http://muse.jhu.edu/article/39657. Access provided by University of Wales Trinity Saint David. <accessed 4th July 2016>.

[29] Annales Cambriae, p.76.

[30] Brut y Tywysogion, p.119.

[31] Brut y Tywysogion, p.87.

[32] P. A. Taylor, Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, p.33.

[33] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.433.

[34] Brut y Tywysogion, p.123.

[35] Rev. W. Warrington, The History of Wales in Nine Books, vol.1, Bk. V (Brecon: Williams, 1823), p.432.

[36] Johns, Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages, p.22.

[37] D. Walker, ‘Gerald of Windsor (d. 1116×36)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) [online]. Available: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/45551. <accessed 23rd November 2016>.

[38] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.424.

‘The Helen of Wales’: Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, a Shaper of History (Part 1)

Nest (b.c.1085) was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth, and the lover of the future King of England. She had three further lovers, two husbands, and potentially fourteen children. Her beauty allegedly inspired such a passion in the men in her life that it sparked a scandal that rocked the world of medieval Wales to its foundations.

Nest was born into a troubled and often violent time, less than twenty years after the invasion by William the Conqueror and the coming of the Normans. Nest’s father died at the Battle of Brecon (1093). Left to the mercies of her Norman captors, she was possibly given to a family in the pay of King William Rufus.[1] Windsor Castle was a Royal Court Castle and a favourite haunt of Prince Henry.[2] Her later affair with Henry, the king’s brother, and her subsequent marriage to Gerald of Windsor, the son of Walter Fitz Otho, the castellan of Windsor Castle, suggest Windsor as her destination.[3]

Nest was a Welsh princess and therefore highly regarded by the Welsh people. She would thus have been a very valuable asset to the English crown, which adds fuel to the argument that she would have been taken out of Wales as quickly as possible. That being said, no attempt to rescue or to barter for her has survived in the historical record.

Some have thought Nest to be promiscuous, and indeed, historian Timothy Venning portrays her as a woman of great beauty and little virtue.[4]  However, Nest was a woman of her times. With her father dead, her mother having disappeared from all reliable records, and her brothers either incarcerated or having fled to Ireland, she was thrown alone into a Norman world after the battle for Brycheiniog. That she used her beauty to charm her captors would not be unexpected; it would have been her only weapon to ensure her own comfort. Being taken to Windsor Castle would have given her ample opportunity to meet Prince Henry, a man known for his many love affairs and numerous illegitimate children.[5] Nest would have been aware that being the mistress of such a figure could have its advantages, and Henry was known to be good to his mistresses and did not refuse to recognize his bastards. An affair with Henry could offer Nest a certain security. Her life in Wales was gone, and making the kind of marriage that would once have been available to her was also gone.

With the death of William Rufus in 1100, his brother became King Henry I. During this time, the Norman lord, Gerald of Windsor, was a rising star in King Henry’s court. Being no doubt aware of the benefits of marrying a mistress of a king, Gerald did so, wedding Nest with Henry’s permission and support. Gerald had already been installed as steward of Pembroke Castle by Arnulf de Montgomery, a man who took up arms against Henry in 1102 and lost all his lands for his pains. Eventually, Henry made Gerald constable of Pembroke Castle, which brought Nest back into Wales once again.

Figure 1. Pembroke Castle. Arnulf de Montgomery first established an earth and timber castle with a small inner bailey c.1093, which may later have been built of stone. The castle as we now know it was re-built by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, c.1189-1220. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.

After his marriage to Nest, Gerald went on to build castles at Cenarth Bychan (Cilgerran) and Carew, a particularly important site in the history of the kings of Deheubarth.

Figure 2. Carew Castle as it is today. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.
Figure 3. Carew Castle was gradually built in the 13th and 14th centuries by Sir Nicholas Carew. In Nest’s day, the castle would have been one of earth and timber, and the only stone structure attributed to Gerald of Windsor can be seen here between the square tower and the polygonal tower. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.
Figure 4. The rear of Carew Castle viewed from the tidal Carew River. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.

The date of Nest’s marriage to Gerald is open to conjecture; although, it has been suggested that she married in 1100, as proffered by John Edward Lloyd.[6] However, Gwenn Meredith suggests Nest’s first child, William fitz Gerald, was born in 1096, indicating that they were married earlier than 1100.[7] That she had one child (Henry fitz Henry, c.1105 to 1114) by King Henry I is documented; that she was the mother of Robert of Gloucester is still open for debate.[8]

Nest’s marriage to Gerald seems on the surface to have been a success. The Brut y Tywysogion, a Welsh chronicle that picks up where Geoffrey of Monmouth left off, tells us that she and Gerald had at least one son and a daughter in the nursery, along with King Henry’s son, Henry, and another son by a concubine of Gerald’s.[9] She was the wife of a now powerful lord who held Pembroke Castle, Carew Castle, and Cenarth Bychan Castle. By 1109, however, life for Nest would take a very dramatic turn with repercussions for all of Wales.

Figure 5. The Celtic cross at Carew Castle reads ‘Margiteut Rex Etg(uin) Filius’, meaning King Maredudd, son of Edwin. Maredudd ap Edwin ruled jointly with his brother Hywel but died c.1035. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.
Figure 6. Plaque situated at the base of the Celtic cross. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.

Although there was a heavy Norman influence in South Wales, many areas were still ruled as fiercely independent kingdoms warring constantly with each other. The Welsh system of partible inheritance aggravated this situation.[10] Owain ap Cadwgan, a cousin of Nest’s, was the son of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, King of Powys. Owain’s history and that of Powys in general, as we shall see, reinforces the image of warring kingdoms and indiscriminate slaughter, which left Powys a somewhat ineffectual kingdom.[11] Cadwgan ap Bleddyn held a great feast on his lands in Ceredigion during Christmas 1109.[12] These feasts were not just Christmas celebrations, but an opportunity for princes such as Cadwgan to gauge the loyalty of their barons. Often these gatherings were used to rally support for war and were known hotbeds for political machinations and posturing.[13]

Where Gerald and Nest were at the time of Cadwgan’s feast has long been a point of discussion. R. R. Davies maintains that they and their children were at Cenarth Bychan in Ceredigion.[14]

Figure 7. Cenarth Bychan (Cilgerran) as it is today.[15] Gerald of Windsor’s castle would have been a ‘ringwork castle’ of earth and wood.[16] The present castle is considered to have been built by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke in c.1223. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.
Owain had heard of Nest’s beauty and was determined to see her. Knowing that she was close by, he took some of his men and paid her a courtesy call. He was so overwhelmed with her beauty, it is said, that he became fired with lust for her and was so determined to have her by any means available to him that he took his men back to his father’s feast and devised a plan to capture her.[17] The Brut y Tywysogion states that Owain was ‘instigated by the devil’.[18]

Owain and his men returned at night and dug under the castle’s foundations, scaled walls and ditches, and set buildings alight.[19] Nest, realising that Gerald would be killed if he retaliated, persuaded him not to leave the bedchamber, but to go with her to the garderobe, saying: ‘go not out the door, for there thy enemies wait for thee, but come, follow me’.[20] Once there, they pulled up the floor, and she helped him to escape down the midden chute.[21] With Gerald safely out of the way, she called out to the attackers that Gerald had gone, saying: ‘Why call out in vain? He is not here, whom you seek; surely he has escaped’.[22]

Stay tuned next week to find out what happens to Nest and her lovers...

Patricia Taylor, M.A.
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

 

Primary Sources

Annales Cambriae: A Translation of Harleian 3859: PRO E.164/1: Cottonian Domitian, A1: Exeter Cathedral Library MS. 3514 and MS Exchequer DB Neath, PRO E.164/1, translated by Paul Martin Remfry (United Kingdom: Castle Studies Research and Publishing, 2007).

Brut y Tywysogion; or, The Chronicle of the Princes, edited by Rev. John Williams ab Ithel, M.A. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860).

Giraldus Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica: The Conquest of Ireland, edited and translated by A. B. Scott and F. X. Martin (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978).

Footnotes

[1] When a woman was widowed and left with young children and their father was of noble birth, or had Crown lands, then the ‘wardship of the heir or heiress became a Royal reward.’ The children would be given to another house to be raised under their guardianship. This guardianship could be given to a royal servant. These children would live with their guardian as a part of their household, and their lands and assets would be administered by their guardians. Anne Crawford, ed., Letters of Medieval Women (Stroud: Sutton Publishers Ltd., 2002), p.108.

[2] Royal Collection Trust. press@royalcollection.org.

[3] Davies suggests that Gerald chose his wife so that “he [might] sink his roots and those of his family more deeply in those parts.’ It was not uncommon for Norman Marcher Lords to marry into the Welsh nobility in order to build their holdings within Wales. R. R. Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change: Wales 1063-1415 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p.106. P. A. Taylor, Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, as final fulfillment for the degree of Master of Arts, Celtic Studies (Lampeter: University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 2017), p.23.

[4] T. Venning, The Kings and Queens of Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2015), p.123.

[5] Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis, The Royal Bastards of Medieval England (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), pp.60-73.

[6] John Edward Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii (London: Longman Green and Company, 1911), p.417.

[7] S. M. Johns, Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages: Nest of Deheubarth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p.10.

[8] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.499.Yorke states that Nest was ‘the beautiful mistress of Henry who brought him his eminent son Robert of Gloucester.’ P. Yorke, Esq. of Erthig (1799) and D. Williams (2016), The Royal Tribes of Wales (Hardpress Publishing, 2013), p.33. D. Crouch, ‘Nest (born before 1092, died c.1130)’, ‘Robert of Gloucester’s Mother and Sexual Politics in Norman Oxfordshire’, Historical Research vol.72. no.179 (October 1999): pp.323-333. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  (2004) [online]. Available: http://www/oxforddnb.com/view/article/19905. <accessed 10th September 2016>. [site no longer working]

[9] Brut y Tywysogion; or, The Chronicle of the Princes, edited by Rev. John Williams ab Ithel, M.A. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860), p.85.

[10] Lynn H. Nelson, The Normans in South Wales 1070-1171 (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1966), p.110. Partible inheritance is the system where all the sons of the deceased, and in some cases, the daughters, would receive a share of the estate. This system differs from primogeniture where only the eldest son is entitled to inherit. See the entry for ‘primogeniture’: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/primogeniture. <accessed 14th October 2016>.

[11] D. Walker, Medieval Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p.38.

[12] The Brut y Tywysogion states that the event took place at Christmas 1106 (p.83). Scholars such as Lloyd (History of Wales, Volume ii, p.417) and Davies (Conquest, Coexistence, and Change, p.86) offer 1109. The Annales Cambriae state that in 1109 Owain burned Cenarth Bychan and was expelled to Ireland and makes no mention at all of Nest. Annales Cambriae: A Translation of Harleian 3859: PRO E.164/1: Cottonian Domitian, A1: Exeter Cathedral Library MS. 3514 and MS Exchequer DB Neath, PRO E.164/1, translated by Paul Martin Remfry (United Kingdom: Castle Studies Research and Publishing, 2007), p.76. Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.418.

[13] T. M. Charles-Edwards, Morfydd E. Owens, and Paul Russell, eds., The Welsh King and His Court (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000), p.343.

[14] Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change, p.86.

[15] Cenarth Bychan Castle is now known as Cilgerran Castle.

[16]  Ringwork castles are similar to motte-and-bailey castles but are encircled by lower earth walls and a ditch to enclose them which would be finished with a timber palisade. See Marvin Hull, ‘Ringwork Castles’ [online]. Available: https://www.castles-of-britain.com/ringworkcastles.htm.1995-2011. <accessed 2nd July 2018>. [site now defunct.]

[17] Brut y Tywysogion, p.105.

[18] ibid., p.105.

[19] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.418.

[20] ibid., p.85.

[21] P. A. Taylor, Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, p.30. Pembroke Castle and Carew Castle both hold claim to the abduction of Nest in their tourist guides. Research considers these claims as highly unlikely.

[22] Brut y Tywysogion, p.85.