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Love by abduction: Princess Nesta of Deheubarth and Owain ap Cadwgan.

A story of true love?

Strictly speaking this may, or may not, be a love story. It is certainly famous but perhaps only in Wales. It is the true tale of the abduction of a beautiful woman in the 12th century, a sort of British equivalent of the story of Helen of Troy. From this distance in time and lacking any sort of credible documentary evidence, we will never know for certain whether or not love was involved at all, or whether the events were simply fuelled by lust. But although there is little concrete evidence of love, I believe it is possible that this event could have been the earliest known example of Stockholm Syndrome and that Nest came to love her abductor, Owain ap Cadwgan.

The Princess Nest: a woman of outstanding beauty.

Nest (sometimes called Nesta) was born a princess of one of the many petty kingdoms of Wales in 1080. Her father, Prince Rhys ap Tewdwr, ruled Deheubarth in South Wales, an area which has since become part of modern day Pembrokeshire. After her father's death fighting against his Norman would-be overlords in 1093, Nest was taken as a hostage by the king, William Ⅱ, known as William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror. As a royal hostage she would have been well treated and she grew to adulthood in the English court. So it was only a matter of time until her developing beauty brought her to the attention of the King's younger brother, Henry, who took her as his mistress.

There are no images of Princess Nest ... but she may have been this beautiful.

There are no images of Princess Nest ... but she may have been this beautiful.

A husband for Nest.

Of course such a liaison could not last. With the untimely, and suspicious, death of his brother William, Henry became King Henry Ⅰ of England and, although he generously acknowledged the son he had sired on Nest, he really needed to make a dynastic marriage. So he married Nest off to one of his trusted followers, Gerald de Windsor, the Constable of Pembroke. To modern women this act seems outrageous, that Nest was deemed to be a mere chattel to be so 'disposed' off in this way and it is unlikely that her own feelings were taken into account. But it must be pointed out that in those days it would have been a very advantageous match for her, especially as she was now no longer 'entire', as it were.

An unforgettable beauty.

On the face of it it would seem that Gerald and Nest were content with their lot. Nest was reputed to be clever and spirited as well as beautiful and, as a Welsh princess and the king's ex-lover, she could be considered quite a prize for Gerald. They went on to have at least five children who all became important people in their own right and one of Nest's grandchildren became the famous Welsh historian, Gerald of Wales (Latin: Giraldus Cambrensis). But their apparent domestic bliss ended abruptly during Christmas 1109 when they were visited by Nest's cousin, the wild Owain ap Cadwgan. It is entirely possible, of course, that Owain, having heard the bards singing of Nest's phenomenal beauty, used the excuse of kinship to check it out for himself. Whatever the true reason for his visit, it was a visit that was to end in mayhem.

Love ... or lust?

It is rumoured that Gerald had got used to his warriors falling in love with his wife but at least he could keep them under control. The tempestuous Owain was obviously another thing altogether; he saw Nest and instantly wanted her. It seems entirely possible that Nest might have suspected Owain would try something, and, whether it was female intuition or some incident that had happened between her and Owain in some dimly lit passageway of Cilgerran castle, her subsequent quick thinking saved her husband's life.


It is unclear whether or not Owain was staying in the castle overnight or whether he and his henchmen broke in under cover of darkness. Setting fire to an area of the castle near Nest and Gerald's bedchamber, they raised the alarm and Gerald got up to see what all the furore was about. Nest, obviously suspicious of treachery, implored him not to go out of the room. Instead she prevailed upon him to make his escape down the garderobe, the toilet shute that opened straight from their bedroom down the castle side into the woodland below. Some sources say he climbed down a rope and as Cilgerran castle sits high on the top of a perpendicular rocky crag above a river, it would seem a necessary item to have handy to achieve an escape. Unsavoury though this means of escape would be it most certainly saved Gerald's life. The one fact that tantalises historians is whether or not Nest was complicit in her own abduction. If it is true that Gerald did climb down a rope to freedom, it seems an unlikely thing to keep conveniently to hand in a bedchamber, unless someone was expecting such a thing as an attack.

A love story ... or a living hell?

So Owain carried Nest off into the night and apparently took some of her children as well, though these were later returned to Gerald at Nest's request. One intriguing reference quotes Nest as telling Owain that if he wanted to keep her faithful to him he had to send the children back to their father. Whether that was to keep them safe from the volatile Owain or to have them out of the way of this new love affair is unknown.

Nest was to spend several years with Owain as his mistress, during which time she bore him two children, Llywelyn and Einion. And although it is not known for certain whether or not she loved him, I like to believe that he, at least, loved her during those years. He did not seem to have tired of her as was often the way of the powerful men of the time. And perhaps, despite the highly unconventional start to their relationship, Nest did come to love her wild Welshman.

The consequences of the abduction.

As usual there is no happy ending for such flagrant criminality. Henry Ⅰ, King of England, Nest's ex-lover and Gerald's friend and sponsor, became enraged when he heard of the abduction. So much so that in fact a minor civil war ensued, and for that reason Nest has become known as the Welsh Helen, after the war that was caused by the abduction of Helen of Troy. Eventually things got a little too uncomfortable for Owain and he had to leave Nest and flee into exile in Ireland. Nest, with her two sons by Owain, was duly returned to Gerald. But Gerald never forgot or forgave Owain; this was not an age that forgave such public and humiliating slights.

When Owain returned to Wales sometime later on the orders of King Henry, ostensibly to help him arrest some other Welsh miscreant, Gerald was somehow informed of Owain's whereabouts and setting an ambush for him, Gerald killed him. What such revenge meant to Nest we can only guess.

The end of the story.

Gerald died around 1116 and Nest went on to either live with or marry (records vary) Stephen, the Castellan of Cardigan, with whom she produced yet another child, Robert FitzStephen. As keeping historical records was far from an exact science in those days, and of course many records will have been inadvertently lost or destroyed over time, we are not entirely sure how many children Nest actually did produce during her lifetime. Some sources believe she could have had as many as eleven children to the four different men with whom she lived. Many of her sons became Welsh princes in their own right and as such continued to menace the English crown. Some invaded Ireland and carved out new kingdoms for themselves there.

All that is known of Nest after her marriage or co-habitation with Stephen is that she died sometime after 1136. She had been a great beauty and a much-desired woman ... we can only hope that she was also truly loved.

For more detailed information on Nest and her progeny see: http://www.pembrokestory.org.uk/princessnest.html

For photographs of the beautiful Cilgerran Castle see: http://www.castlewales.com/cliger.html

Although we will never know what the Princess Nest looked like, I would like you to choose a face from the video below that most equates to how you picture this remarkable woman.


Jennifer Christensen on February 10, 2020:

I just discovered she is a great grandmother of mine, too. I am through Gerald de Windsor as well.

mary on May 28, 2019:


Steve Lord on August 13, 2015:

Hello. Doing some family research, it appears as though Nest is my 25-great maternal grandmother by Gerald de Winsor through their son, Maurice Fitz Gerald. What an amazing story she has! Thank you for posting this.

jacqueline mcellin on October 27, 2014:

she was my grt grt grt grt grandmother :) xxxx

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on June 04, 2014:

Oh how wonderful Ryan!!! I feel so honoured to 'meet ‘ you ... What an amazing lineage to be be able to call your own.

No doubt any wealth - usually in land, castles and livestock - will have been long squandered by us plundering overlords at this side of the border. My apologies!

Ryan ApRhys on June 02, 2014:

Thank you, I am a surviving descendant of her Father KING Rhys ApTewdwr. We did call ourselves Kings and Queens, while our Norman overlords called us princes to demean our heritage. Deheubarth was the seat of the great council of Kings and Rhys was King over all! Now? I ama teacher, I can draw a line to Rhys, through Nest, but not a penny!

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on March 27, 2014:

Thank you, I appreciate you taking the time to leave this comment.

I am sure there are many total inaccuracies in the story and we are all aware of how time changes so many details - even in our modern age.

Chinese whispers is still a playground game that amuses many ... sadly in those days brutality was an added component and it is always useful to make folk think around yet another curve.

D Thomas on March 26, 2014:

Why on earth people would suppose that the rape and forcible abduction is some kind of "romance" is mystifying. If romance, or love, were involved, there would have been no public abduction; in the atmosphere of the times, that was one man hitting out at another, in a horrible way.

Incidentally, her name was NEST, not NESTA. She was a daughter of the last King of South Wales; that didn't make her a "princess", a title which wouldn't be in use for another four centuries. If she had any children by her "abductor", they're not mentioned in history. Nest ferch Rhys had one child by Henry I; five by her first husband; and one or two by her second husband. Sorry to burst the 19th century "romantic" bubble, but blaming the victim is not romance. Given her lineage and status, she could have been ugly as a dog, but legend is bound to have made her a beauty.

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on November 20, 2013:

Oh, lucky you, Nesta!

Thanks for taking the time to tell me people still use the princess’s name ... and therefore know this amazing story.

nesta on November 19, 2013:

my name is nesta and im named after the princess.

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on December 09, 2012:

Oh well done! How lovely … and lucky.

I would like to think that love was involved too. She was with him quite a long time so perhaps that indicates love. Surely she could have escaped had she really wanted to otherwise?

Jesslbr on December 08, 2012:

My family has also traced back are family tree and it shows direct relations to Nesta and Einion.. so for that sake I hope it was a tale of love.

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on October 02, 2012:

Thanks LA, makes our lives look a bit tame, don’t it?

Not too sure I could cope with being carried off on horseback though … Owain sounds like a bit of a handful … lol!

And as you say … plenty of blanks to fill in.

LA Elsen from Chicago, IL on October 02, 2012:

And I thought my life was full of drama. I love reading historic stories that still have some unknown elements to them. The reader or researcher can fill in the blanks as you have done so well. Thanks for such an interesting read.

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on February 24, 2012:

Hi Kathleen ... thanks for your comment.

The history of Nest's family seems to have been definitely continued over in Ireland by her descendants but the name of Walsh does not seem to be amongst them. See the Wiki link at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nest_ferch_Rhys

History from so far past can lack records ... I'm afraid you would need more expert advice than I can give you to trace that far back. You would have to start by tracing your family tree from the recent past and see how far back you can get. There are many sites on the web that can help with this i.e. Ancestry.co.uk

Good luck!

kathleen walsh on February 23, 2012:

I was told that Nesta was the grandmother of two Irish invaders named Philip and David Walsh, which is my last name. They were direct descendants from her third marriage.

I would love to find out more about this.....got any ideas of where I should look ?

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on January 20, 2012:

Sorry I couldn't be more helpful, Debbie.

I am sure that her story is not legend though as it has passed down through the years it may seem like one. These things actually happened to Nest ... what you can never know is how she actually felt about and reacted to these events. That's why novelists try to supply the information from imagination.

Debbie Barnhart on January 20, 2012:

Yeah, I'm beginning to realize finding anything remotely serious about her may be a hard thing to find. I wish there was a way to find out for sure if all the stuff surrounding her was all real or just a legend. I guess we'll never know, for sure. Maybe its a mix of both.

Thank you, again.

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on January 20, 2012:

Hi Debbie ... thank you for taking the time to comment. And how exciting to be related to Nest!!!

She had long been a heroine of mine but over the years I too have found very little in the way of anything but bare information. This is because women were usually only chattels at that time. As you can see she was a discarded mistress of the king and married off when he tired of her. (There are some men who treat women like that today too!)

That she was beautiful enough to inspire first a king and then a nobleman to abduct her at great risk to himself must be a fact. And as her story is one of such adventure it is obvious that she is tailor-made for romantic faction (fact interwoven with fiction). She may have been meek, she may have been feisty, we will never know for sure. We can only make a best guess at her temperament.

I think the bottom line is that she will always be a fascinating enigma.

Debbie Barnhart on January 19, 2012:

Hi. Thank you for this little bit on Nesta’s life. It was wonderful to read.

My Great Uncle had done research and and found ancestry roots as far back as the mid 900’s. Apparently it took him his whole life. I guess it was an obsession for him. I knew about the tree going that far back but until recently, just didn’t know much more then that. When an elderly relative passed away several years ago, my mother inherited some family heirlooms as well as the family tree. A few months ago I looked at this family tree and saw a name near the beginning of it, Nest verch Rhys. I later found out she went be many names and one was “Helen of Wales” which caught my attention. Sadly, on my journey to find any serious writings about her, I have yet to find other literature that doesn’t have her as a romance novel heroin or a young adventurer. I am wondering if you would be about to point me to the right books.

Thank you.

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on August 08, 2011:

Gordon Bennett! That's a right mixture ... shouldn't you be called Siobahn Blodwen Papadopoulis?

Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on August 08, 2011:

Exotic?!?! :) :) :) LOL

I've got some Greek, too!

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on August 08, 2011:

Hi again, Trish!! Nest has always been a favourite of mine too ... must have been some gal, eh?

I am quite jealous that you may even have a chance at some connection ... I've got a little Irish blood myself but nothing quite as glamourous as Irish and Welsh ... :) You are very exotic ...

Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on August 07, 2011:

Hi :)

I have found Nest quite intriguing, ever since I first 'discovered' her.

With Welsh and Irish ancestry ~ including some which may or may not be connected to her ~ I look out for anything in her history, which might ~ just possibly ~ be connected to my family. You never know :)

Very good!

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on July 04, 2011:

Many thanks for your kind comment.

smcopywrite from all over the web on July 04, 2011:

great story. i am partial to reading stories during this particular time period and your translation of the work was wonderful. thank you for a nice and powerful hub.

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on July 04, 2011:

Hi Nell and truthfornow - many thanks for commenting.

I would love to know what they really felt, how it all happened ... I just find this sort of stuff fascinating. I think the lack of information actually helps in some way ... stimulates the imagination.

Marie Hurt from New Orleans, LA on July 04, 2011:

Neat to hear a tale from somewhere else. What a life!

Nell Rose from England on July 04, 2011:

Hi, fascinating story! I must admit I hadn't heard of her, or her many husbands, women in those days had absolutely no say in what happened to them, but I do believe that Nest and owain did fall in love, lovely story thanks, nell

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on July 04, 2011:

Hi Charlotte! Thanks for your kind comment ... you are obviously a romantic like me ...


Charlotte B Plum on July 04, 2011:

Wow you had me from the first word. How interesting! Thank you for sharing this!

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