Nest ferch Rhys-  The Helen of Wales

Nest and Henry in bed naked except for their crowns Photo Credit-
Nest and Henry in bed naked except for their crowns Photo Credit-

Born the only legitimate daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the last King of Deheubart around 1085, Nest ferch Rhys had an equally tumultuous life as her sister-in-law, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, whose story is told here:

Nest’s mother was a princess of Powys, another kingdom in western Wales.  When the Normans invaded in 1066, William I only pushed as far as Offa’s Dyke.  William made alliances with Welsh rulers, one of which was Nest’s father, and acknowledge the sovereignty of the Welsh princes.  This all changed when William died in 1087.  His successor, William Rufus, sent the Marcher Barons into Wales to take over.  The tentative peace was broken. At a battle outside Brecon in 1093, Nest’s father was killed.  Her younger brothers fled to Ireland, and she and her mother were taken hostage by the Normans.  

As the last daughter of a Welsh king, Nest was an important hostage and taken to the court of William Rufus.  There the fourteen year old beauty caught the eye of the king’s brother, Henry.  Henry was a notorious womanizer and went on to have twenty illegitimate children.  He charmed the young princess and they became lovers.  She continued as his mistress even after Henry’s ascension to the throne of England in 1100.  They had a son together, Henry FitzRoy in 1103.

Not long after the birth of their son, Henry had Nest married to the governor of one of his barons, Gerald de Windsor.  Gerald was put in charge of Pembroke Castle, and his Welsh wife gave him legitimacy in the eyes of his Welsh subjects.  Although Gerald was much older than Nest, it seemed to be a tranquil marriage and five children were born.  In 1109, Gerald built a new castle Cilgerran  and Nest and children went to live there.  Nest was now in her 20s and a renowned beauty.

The rest of Wales was rebelling against Norman rule, and one of the main leaders of the rebellion was Cadwgan, the Prince of Powys.  His son Owain had heard of the great beauty of the Norman lord’s wife and wanted to see it for himself.  The fact they were second cousins didn’t stop him.  Legend says that over Christmas of 1109, Owain attended a banquet and saw Nest for himself and was struck by her exquisite looks.  That night, he and his men broke into Cilgerran Castle.  Some stories say they scaled the walls, others say they dug a tunnel underneath them.  What is known is they got in.  The stories say Gerald escaped down a privy hole, but Nest and her sons were taken and the castle sacked.  There is a great question mark as to whether Nest went with Owain of her own accord or was raped and kidnapped.  Some stories say she was raped in front of her children, and others say she bore Owain two children during her time with him.  However, there are no mention of these children in the Welsh genealogical records.

Cilgerran Castle, the possible site of Nest's abduction Photo Credit- By William M. Connolley
Cilgerran Castle, the possible site of Nest’s abduction Photo Credit- By William M. Connolley

The Normans were outraged over her treatment.  Her old lover, Henry I, offered the kingdom of Powys to anyone who would rescue Nest and avenge Gerald.  Eventually, Owain released Nest’s children then Nest herself, but the damage was done.  Henry bribed the other Welsh nobles to attack Owain and his father Cadwgan, and a civil war began.  Owain eventually fled to Ireland.  Eventually, Owain was lured back by a royal pardon ostensibly to help with the civil war.  He was met with Gerald and a band of Flemish archers.  Whether this was a setup from Henry or just happenstance is unknown, but Gerald made sure Owain was a pincushion.  

Gerald died a year later leaving Nest a wealthy widow.  She married twice again and had at least three more children.  One of her sons from her later marriage was Robert Fitz-Stephen, who became one of the Norman conquerors of Ireland. Her grandson is the chronicler Gerald of Wales.   It is said half of Wales can claim descendancy from Nest.  She died in 1136.

Her story became popular in the 19th century and the Victorians called her the Helen of Wales.  She was accused of dallying with Owain and encouraging his attack. Her relationship with Henry I prior to her marriage was all the proof the Victorians needed.  Further story has cast doubt on the story she was abducted at all or if her dalliance with Owain was with her consent.  As with most stories we will never know.  However, this young woman left her mark on English and Welsh history.


Sources available on request


Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd

12928270_246362005705889_2743514677159880732_nKnown as the “female Braveheart” and the “Welsh Maid Marion”, Gwenllian ferch Gryffydd is a certifiable bad ass.  She was born on Ynys Mon, the youngest child of Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, and his wife Angharad.  Gwenllian grew into a strikingly beautiful young woman, and was also very intelligent and highly educated.  The eleventh century was a turbulent time.  Conflict between the Welsh princes spilled over into the Welsh Marches, or border lands between Wales and England.  Also, there were incursions from the newly crowned Norman kings of England.  When Gwenllian was 16, a delegation of princes from the south came to parley with her father.  The beautiful princess caught the eye of all the princes, but only one caught her eye, Gruffydd ap Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth.  One thing led to another, and the strong willed princess eloped with the man of her choice.  Gwenllian then joined her new husband at his family seat of Dinefwr in Deheubarth.  Over the course of their marriage, they had eight children.

Deheubarth was in the south and was struggling against incursions from England and one of the most contested kingdoms.  Being trained in the arts of war, Gwenllian led men with her husband in the field even while pregnant or taking care of their small children.  Gwenllian and Gruffydd attacked Norman, English and Flemish settlements in Deheubarth in a guerilla style campaign and took both goods and money.  These were redistributed to their own Welsh followers, giving them a Robin Hood and Maid Marion reputation.  In fact, there are theories that Gwenllian was the inspiration for Maid Marion as well as Guinevere in the Arthurian legend and Eówyn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  The scholar Dr Andrew Breeze has also argued that Gwenllian was the author of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, upon which the Arthurian legends draw inspiration from.

The political situation in England was deteriorating after Henry I died in 1135, and a full scale war broke out between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois over the throne.  The Welsh princes took the opportunity to evict the Norman invaders from their kingdom and regain territory lost to the Marcher Lords.  The Great Revolt began in 1137 as Hywel ap Maredudd, Lord of Brycheiniog (Brecknockshire) marched to Gower and defeated the Norman and English settlers at the Battle of Llwchwr.  The defeated settlers lead by Maurice of London retreated back to Kidwelly Castle, then owned by Bishop Roger of Salisbury.

Gruffydd hastened North to enlist Gwenllian’s father in the rebellion in hopes they could rid Wales of the Normans forever.  While he was gone, the smarting Maurice decided to lead his remaining forces south to attack Deheubarth.  Gwenllian mustered an army for her country’s defense and rode out bravely,  but she was outnumbered.  She tried to arrange one of the guerilla style raids she and her husband were known for, but was betrayed by one of her countrymen.  Gruffudd ap Llewellyn ratted out Gwenllian to the Normans and lead a surprise attack against her.  Her forces were caught between the traitor’s army on one side and the Norman army on the other.  She watched in helpless horror as her eldest son, Maelgwn, was cut down trying to defend his mother.

Gwenllian was captured and as both nobility and a woman, she should have been treated well by her captors.  However, Maurice was not one for the laws of chivalry.  She was brought before him with her hands tied behind her back, but the proud princess was not about to bow her head before the Norman scum.  Maurice wanted quick revenge on Gruffydd and Gwenllian so he ordered her execution.  Woman were normally burned at the stake, but since she fought bravely Maurice allowed Gwenllian to be beheaded.  What a guy.  She was pushed face first onto a log and her head lopped off while her grieving son Morgan watched being restrained.  They raised it overhead and pronounced her a traitor.  It is not known whether Morgan, Maelgwn and Gwenllian were buried together, but the Welsh dead were thrown into a mass grave.  The battlefield was named Maes Gwenllian, or the field of Gwenllian, and it is said a spring welled up on the spot she was beheaded.  The Normans had no time for such nonsense and probably thought that was that.  They did not know the spark they had put to the tender.

News of Gwenllian’s death ran through Wales like wildfire.  Iowerth ab Owain led the welsh of Gwent in a patriotic revolt and ambushed and slew Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, the Norman lord who controlled Ceredigion.  Gwenllian’s brother’s rose up and took three cities in Ceredigion.  Her husband and father joined forces and began a fresh offensive against the Normans.  Both died in 1137, and it is said Gruffydd died of a broken heart.  How could he get over the loss of such a woman?

They say the headless ghost of Gwenllian haunts the town of Kidwelly and the battlefield searching for her infant son, Lord Rhys, whom she was parted from too soon.  That or her head, which was displayed on a pike on the old castle walls.  The son her ghost is said to be searching for, Rhys, became an influential prince of Deheubarth.  He captured Kidwelly Castle and held it for many years against the Normans.  For generations after her death, the rallying cry for Welsmen going into battle was Ddail Achos Gwenllian! or Revenge for Gwenllian.  I think she would have liked that.


Sources available on request


12745755_225553081120115_2043814433028342509_nA Banshee (“woman of the barrows”) is a female spirit in Irish mythology. Traditionally when a person died a woman would wail a lament at the funeral. These women are referred to as “keeners” and legend has it that for great Gaelic families the lament would be sung by a fairy woman; having foresight, she would sing it when a family member died, even if the person had died far away and news of their death had not yet come, so that the wailing of the banshee was the first warning the household had of the death. In later versions, the banshee might appear before the death and warn the family by wailing. When several banshees appeared at once, it indicated the death of someone great or holy. The tales sometimes recounted that the woman, though called a fairy, was a ghost, often of a specific murdered woman, or a mother who died in childbirth.

She is often described as wearing white or grey, usually with long, pale hair brushed with a silver comb. This comb detail is also related to the centuries-old traditional romantic Irish story that, if you ever see a comb lying on the ground in Ireland, you must never pick it up, or the banshee, having placed it there to lure unsuspecting humans, will spirit such gullible humans away.

In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In Kerry her keen is experienced as a “low, pleasant singing”; in Tyrone in the north, as “the sound of two boards being struck together”; and, on Rathlin Island, as “a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl”. In Scottish folklore, a similar creature is known as the bean nighe or ban nigheachain (little washerwoman) or nigheag na h-àth (little washer at the ford) and is seen washing the bloodstained clothes or armour of those who are about to die. In Welsh folklore, she is called the Hag of the mist.


Boxing Day

12369210_195752657433491_3463042776930100830_nIt falls on the day after Christmas, when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts, known as a “Christmas box”, from their bosses or employers. It seems to have started around the 1830s.

In Britain, it was a custom for tradespeople to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This custom is linked to an older English tradition: since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food.

The European tradition, which has long included giving money and other gifts to those who were needy and in service positions, has been dated to the Middle Ages. It is believed to be in reference to the Alms Box placed in areas of worship to collect donations to the poor. Also, it may come from a custom in the late Roman/early Christian era, wherein metal boxes placed outside churches were used to collect special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen, which in the Western Church falls on the same day as Boxing Day.


The Mabinogion

12227817_182676538741103_1144083296587615368_nThe tales in the Mabinogion were actually a series of stories that were passed down over the centuries from storytellers until someone decided to put them all together around the twelfth century. Its contents draw upon the myths, legends, and history of Celtic Britain: four branches of a storyline set largely within the confines of Wales and the otherworld.

Compiled from texts found in two late-medieval manuscripts – the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch – this collection was initially edited and translated by antiquarians William Pughe and Lady Charlotte Guest in the early nineteenth century. The tales comprise an ensemble of parts, the first four “Pwyll”, “Branwen”, “Manawydan”, and “Math” comprising the Four Branches of the Mabinogion.

Lady Charlotte came up with the title Mabinogion. Each of the Four Branches ends with the term ‘So ends this Branch of the Mabinogi.’ The Welsh word ‘mab’ means ‘son’. Lady Charlotte concluded that ‘mabinogi’ was a noun meaning ‘a story for children’ and that the word ‘mabinogion’ was its plural.

Most versions of the book consist of eleven tales: four connected narratives called The Four Branches of the Mabinogion, The Four Native Tales, and The Three Romances.Hanes Taliesin (“The Tale of Taliesin”) is a later survival, not present in the Red or White Books, and is omitted from recent translations. In chronological order, the texts are as follows:

Culhwch and Olwen (c.1100) (Native tale)

The Four Branches of the Mabinogion (c.1190)
Pwyll Prince of Dyfed
Branwen Daughter of Llyr
Manawydan Son of Llyr
Math Son of Mathonwy

The Four Branches are the most mythological of the tales.

Lludd and Llyfelys (c.1200-1250) (Native tale)

The Three Romances(c.1200-1250)
The Lady of the Fountain
Peredur son of Efrawg
Geraint son of Erbin

The Three Romance tales are Welsh versions of Arthurian tales that also appear in the work of Chrétien de Troyes. Scholars have long debated whether the Three Romances are based on Chrétien’s poems or if they derive from a shared original. The Welsh stories are not direct translations and include material not found in Chrétien’s work.

Natives Tales:
The Dream of Macsen Wledig (c.1200-1250)
The Dream of Rhonabwy (c. 1300-1350)

The Mabinogion is generally recognised to be one of the oldest and most complete repositories of British Celtic Myth, as well as a masterpiece of medieval story-telling in its own right.