OWAIN ap CADWGAN and NEST ferch RHYS - AN HISTORIC FICTION?
By Darrell Wolcott
Most casual students of
Welsh history are familiar with the story of Owain and Nest, where a young nobleman's infatuation for a beautiful married
woman led to his kidnapping the lady to have her for himself. But how much of the tale is actually true?
We should begin our analysis
by identifying the principals involved and placing it within its contemporary environment in the early 12th century.
Cadwgan ap Bleddyn
ap Cynfyn was, in 1109, the oldest of the sons of Bleddyn then alive. As such, he held the "kingship" of Powys which
Bleddyn had ruled until he was killed in 1075. Born c. 1055, he had been too young to succeed his father, but when the
interim Powys king Trahaearn ap Caradog was slain in 1081, the brothers Cadwgan, Madog and Rhiryd ap Bleddyn appear to
have divided Powys among themselves. But in 1088, Madog and Rhiryd were killed when the three brothers attempted to
wrest Deheubarth from Rhys ap Tewdwr. Thus, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn emerged as the head of Bleddyn's family entitled to rule
About 1083, Cadwgan had
married Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd ap Cynan ap Idwal (i.e. Gruffudd nephew of Iago); she was the niece of Maredudd ap Cynan,
a man trained as a cleric under Sulien the Wise at Meifod and chosen by Cadwgan as his household priest or offeiriad. She
was born in Ireland about 1070 and may have joined her uncle in Powys after her father went missing soon after 1081. The
first child of this marriage was a son named Owain, born c. 1085.
Owain ap Cadwgan is first
mentioned in the Brut in 1106, when he killed two sons of Trahaearn ap Caradog. It is not known if his father sent him
on that mission, but since the slain men were both noblemen of Powys and distant kinfolks we should doubt the young man acted
without Cadwgan's consent. Perhaps those men, Meurig and Gruffudd ap Trahaearn, sought some claim to Powys as their
birthright since Trahaearn had been king before Cadwgan, and it was young Owain earning his spurs as a warrior by being sent
to suppress that threat. But it is the second mention of Owain in 1109 where we find the "love story" about Nest ferch
Rhys ap Tewdwr.
Rhys ap Tewdwr was
a direct descendant of Hywel Dda, and he assumed his birthright as king of Deheubarth in 1079. About 1080,
he married Gwladys ferch Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn, a niece of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn and first-cousin of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn.
Among their children was a daughter, Nest, born c. 1085. The following chart shows the relationship of Owain and Nest:
1024 Rhiwallon Tewdwr 1015
1055 Cadwgan 1060
In 1093, Rhys ap Tewdwr died
on the battlefield in Brycheiniog assisting its king, Bleddyn ap Maenyrch, against the invasion of the Norman marcher
knight Bernard Newmarch. Then a child under 10 years old, Nest was eventually removed from her home by the English
and found herself at the court of King William Rufus as a young lady about 14. There she was seduced by the king's
brother, Henry, soon to be king himself. After bearing a son to Henry I, Nest was later given to the king's man in Dyfed...Gerald
of Windsor...as his wife. Merely a loyal employee of the king and not a landed baron, Gerald was happy
to receive the beautiful girl even though she was not a virgin. In 1108, he built his own castle at Cenarth just across
the Teifi River which separated Dyfed from the lands of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn in Ceredigion, in which he housed his wife and
This brings us to
the year 1109 and the story of Owain and Nest. In the words of one chronicler:
"Cadwgan ap Bleddyn prepared
a royal feast for the leading men of his land (here read Ceredigion). And he invited Owain his son from Powys to the
feast...and when the feast was ended, Owain heard that Nest, daughter of the lord Rhys ap Tewdwr, wife of Gerald the officer,
was in the said castle (Cenarth). And when he heard, he went....to visit her as though she were a kinswoman--and so
she was...And after that, at the instigation of the Devil, he was moved by passion and love for the woman, and with...about
14 men, he made for the castle by night. And unknown to the watchers, he came into the castle over the wall and the
ditch surrounding the building where Gerald and Nest, his wife, were sleeping. And he raised a shout around the building
and set fire to the (other) buildings"
The account continues with the
manner in which Nest helped her husband escape "via the privy hole" and then admitted Owain and his men to her chamber, telling
them Gerald was not there. It continues:
"And then they came inside
and searched for him everywhere. And when they did not find him, they seized Nest and her two sons, and the third son whom
Gerald had by a concubine, and a daughter. And they utterly pillaged the castle and burned it. And he violated
Nest and lay with her and then returned home...And when Cadwgan heard that story, he was grieved and was frightened for two
reasons: because of the violation of the lady, and because of fear of King Henry on account of the injury to his officer....He
sought in every way to restore the woman and the spoil, but he was not allowed. And Owain, because the woman was forever
saying unto him 'if thou wilt have me true and keep me for thyself, release my sons to their father'--and in infatuation for
the woman, he released the two sons and the daughter."
Another version of the
Brut recites much the same story of Owain's raid, but initially says he "had intercourse with her and returned to
his land" omitting any mention of an abduction of Nest or the children. But later, when relating the reaction of Cadwgan,
repeats almost word-for word the story of Owain agreeing to release the children at Nest's request.
The Brenhinedd y Saesson
cites a parallel account of the raid, but ends by saying Owain and his men plundered the castle then seized Nest and the children
and went to Powys with the spoil. There is no mention of sex with Nest.
And in the Welsh Annals
report, there is not even a mention of Nest or Gerald being present at their residence when Owain torched it. We
are merely told that Owain ap Cadwgan burnt the castle at Cenarth Bychan and as a result chose to leave home for Ireland:
"Castellum Chenarth Wechan ab
Owino filio Cadugaun combustum est; pro quo facto ipse Owinus ad Hiberniam pulsus rediit"
In her 2007 biography of Princess Nest of Wales, the Welsh historian Kari Maund makes this observation about the
Owain story in the Bruts:
"It is an exciting story, but
we should hesitate to take it at full face value. In the first place....this section of the vernacular Welsh Chronicles
shows signs of having been revised or rewritten at some later period to enhance the political standing of the dynasty of Powys....the
account of the abduction of Nest, and the entries for several years on either side, are unusually detailed, including direct
speech, giving them the form almost more of a prose tale than a record of events"
Today, we would call that an
"historical novel", not really meant to be true but what could have happened, and told as if an eyewitness had been
there to tell what he observed and heard. And it was penned by an author who had a motive to both demean Gerald and
enhance the warrior reputation of Owain; he had Gerald escape through his privy hole while the hero of the story bedded his
wife. Seems bad enough to envision a man crawling through feces to escape, but what sort of man would simply run away
and leave his wife to be ravished?
In the Brut entries for
the 2/3 year period following Owain's raid on Castell Cenarth, we find both Owain and his father hiding out in Ireland to
escape the English repercussions. Then Cadwgan is readmitted to the king's favor by paying a fine and promising not
to give Owain any aid nor permit him on his lands. The scribe has Owain returning to Powys hopeful of reconciliation
with Henry I, but unable to find anyone who would agree to intercede for him. Owain next assembles a band of rebels
and conducts looting and burning raids on various Norman manors in Wales, hiding in the mountains whenever being actively
hunted down. Later, he camped on part of his father's lands in Ceredigion to launch raids against the Flemish into Dyfed
and to store the livestock and spoils his band took.
This got his father in trouble
with King Henry, who took Ceredigion away from Cadwgan on the stated grounds "if you can't keep Owain off your lands, I'll
give them to someone who can." Owain again took shelter in Ireland without waiting to see who the king would next install
in Ceredigion. In 1111, Cadwgan was killed by a nephew seeking his realm of Powys; this Madog ap Rhiryd ap Bleddyn had
also killed another uncle, Iorwerth ap Bleddyn, that same year. At this point, we are told that Owain went to the king
and obtained Powys by giving hostages and promising much money. Thus, we are to believe that all of Owain's reputed
transgressions against the king's subjects were forgotten.
In 1114, the chronicler
tells us that Owain was again in trouble, accused of thefts in the lands of Gilbert fitz Richard, the man whom the king had
installed in Ceredigion. Henry I moved an army against the men of Powys and Gwynedd (where it's lord was also accused
of crimes against the king). Maredudd ap Bleddyn, the youngest uncle of Owain, went over to the king's side while Owain
hid out in Snowdonia. But shortly afterwards, Maredudd persuaded his nephew to return to the king's peace. According
to the Brut author, the king received Owain joyfully, did him honor and praised him. And raised him highest among his
kin, took him on a royal trip to Normandy and made him a knight.
One must now ask how much
of this is history and how much is mere aggrandization of the Powys dynasty. The chronicles for these years still read
like a novel, including many direct quotations. The truth might well be surrounded with much fiction about Owain's activities
from 1109 to 1114.
We would see him as a
Welsh nationalist, intent upon expelling the Normans from his homeland. But a man receiving little or no support from
his father; Cadwgan was then in his 50's and his passion for challenging Henry I had ebbed. Suppose we posit that Owain,
together with a few of his cousins, were not bandits and thieves at all but operating as a roving warband against the Norman
men which had been installed in Wales. Not numerous nor strong enough to meet the Normans in pitched battle, they merely
engaged in a hit-and-run campaign chosing sparsely defended targets. Whenever the English mounted serious campaigns
to find him, Owain slipped away to Ireland until the organized efforts to locate him ceased.
For his part, Henry may have
viewed him as a rebel but not as a thief or abductor of women. Merely as a proud man whose birthright had been stolen
by Henry's men and didn't intend to accept that fate willingly. Thus, when Owain finally elected to come to the king's peace,
he was treated as a man of noble birth who had honorably fought to regain what had been his own lands.
Nothing told about the activities
of Owain following his 1109 raid on Gerald's castle at Cenarth Bychan is compatable with his having Nest, or any woman or
small children, in tow. He was a warrior without a safe home in which to house a family, constantly on the move to strike
his targets of choice and then find a place to hide until the dust settled. It would have been difficult for him to
secure safe lodging with most of his elders as they feared losing their lands to the king if they sheltered his little warband.
It must be left an open
question, then, whether or not Owain ever had a love affair with Nest. Certainly if he had abducted her at all, he had
little means to keep her with him for any length of time. We do know that she had at least one more child by her husband Gerald
after 1109 and that after his death, married in succession two other Norman officers. As for Owain, he
was reportedly killed in 1116, while on a military mission for King Henry, by a band of Flemish men led by Gerald of Wales.
Thus, the chronicler would have us believe that the same man Owain offended in 1109 was the eventual instrument of his death.
One might suspect this report was a dramatic way to end the whole Owain/Nest saga which had been related in words more akin
to the novelist than the historian.