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Welsh princess portrayed as ‘seductress of the English’ was a ‘victim of sexual abuse’ claims historian

24 Nov 2021 4 minute read
A medieval manuscript in the British Library shows Princess Nest and Henry I – she was only 14 at the time

A Welsh princess who bore at least nine children to five different men should be considered a victim of sexual abuse, according to a Welsh historian.

Nest ferch Rhys, nicknamed Helen of Wales, was abducted by the Normans aged 14 and has previously been known for her beauty and her ability to “fascinate men”. Among the books written about Nest is a book called Princess Nest of Wales: A Seductress of the English by Kari Maund.

But historian Dr. Elin Jones now argues that we need to reconsider her life with “fresh eyes” as one where she had little control and was used to “breed princes”.

Elin Jones has published a new book, History Grounded, that tells the story of Wales from neolithic times to the present day, with the role of those who don’t usually have a voice in history featured prominently.

The book features a page on Princess Nest, the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, who lived from around 1085 to 1136.

“I feel that she was the victim of the Norman’s serial sexual abuse,” Elin Jones told Golwg magazine. “She was used to breed princes.

“Nest belonged to a time when the invasion of Wales was unfulfilled. The Normans, like the Romans before them, had clearly seen that a way to win over the people they wanted to conquer was to bring up leaders who were half Norman and half Welsh. That’s what happened in the case of Nest.

“She had been used by the king, by his friends and followers. She is described as ‘Helen of Wales’ and that she was seducing men – that’s not right when she was a girl who was abducted as a child by her enemies and sexually exploited by them. That’s how I see Nest. ”

‘Victim of history’

Nest was taken hostage by the Normans after a battle in Brecon in 1093. Although only around 14 years old at the time, she was taken as a partner by Henry, William’s brother, who later became King Henry I. A medieval manuscript in the British Library (above) shows them in bed together.

After she gave birth to his son, Henry married Nest off to Gerald de Windsor, an Anglo-Norman baron – who ruled Nest’s father’s former kingdom from Pembroke Castle. It is believed that this was done in order to legitimise his rule in the eyes of the Welsh. Nest bore Gerald at least five more children.

She was then kidnapped by the son of Prince Cadwgan of Powys, Owain, whom it is speculated probably raped her without her consent. She was then returned to Gerald, who later killed Owain.

After Gerald’s death she was married to two other men, the Sheriff of Pembroke, William Hait with whom she had a child, and then Stephen, the constable of Cardigan, by whom she had at least one son.

Nest was the grandmother of Gerald of Wales, the medieval historian, who was one of the first to write her history.

“He takes pride in his lineage, and portrays his grandmother as a kind of seducer of men,” said Elin Jones. “But she had no choice!

“Men and churchmen in the Middle Ages told her story at a time when they literally hated women.

“If you want to, you can consider her a ‘seductress of the English’ or you can look at her as a ‘victim of history’.

“I may be influenced by my own feminist beliefs, but I always say that you should look at history with fresh eyes.”

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2 years ago

After sweeping the Angles and Saxon’s aside in the blink of an eye, the Normans, foreseeing a much harder struggle with the Cymry, used sex as weapon to gain the foothold their ancestors, the Vikings could never quite establish here. Another example of our previously air brushed history being examined through a new alternative and more truthful lens. Nest would be taken into care and given a new identity under the modern day slavery act if she were alive today. God only knows the suffering she knew. At least her name and her story have survived. Perhaps her life story… Read more »

2 years ago

Sex crime against women is still part of war and practised by all races. Was it ever thus for all women until emancipation here in the west. But in many parts of the world it is still culturally acceptable to enslave women, abuse them and force them to marry older men in their early teens .

Jack Bryn
Jack Bryn
2 years ago

Nest was treated appallingly, and should be widely commemorated as a Welsh heroine. Dr Elin Jones book is excellent, and a must read for all. “…used to breed princes” sums up the role of women in royal circles. Nothing has changed. A vile and despicable institution.

2 years ago

“Raped without her consent” – when do women consent to rape?

Einir Kirkwood
Einir Kirkwood
2 years ago

Men hated women in medieval times? I don’t think so! Wales was fervently Catholic and the Cult of Mary (mother of Jesus) protected wives and mothers. There were convents in Wales and women occupied administrative roles eg abbesses.

arthur owen
2 years ago
Reply to  Einir Kirkwood

It may well be that Nest was a serial victim but it does our self image more good to see her as a ‘seductress’.The Welsh and indeed the English may have been ‘fervently Catholic’ but not half as much as the Normans,and further more most of the history was written by the clergy.I suspect that men then did not hate women just used them just like now.

1 year ago

Nest is in my family tree. It was the same with other women in that age, not just her. I am directly descended from Madoc Ap Maredudd but not from Susanna of Gwynedd, from his concubine Efa of Llanrheadr-Ym-Mochnant. Dw i’n hapus, mae gas gen I gwynedd.

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