The book is an account of noblewomen in Wales in the high middle ages, focusing on one particular case-study, Nest of Deheubarth. Object of one of the most notorious and portentous abductions of the middle ages, this ‘Helen of Wales’ was both mistress of Henry I and ancestress of a dynasty which dominated the Anglo-Norman conquests of Ireland. The book fills a significant gap in the historiography - while women’s power has been one of the most vibrant areas of historical scholarship for thirty years, Welsh medieval studies has not yet responded. It develops understandings of the interactions of gender with conquest, imperialism, and with the social and cultural transformations of the middle ages, from a new perspective. Many studies have recently appeared reconsidering these relationships, but few if any have women and gender as a core theme. Gender, Nation and Conquest will therefore be of interest to all researching, teaching and studying the high middle ages in Britain and Ireland, and to a wider audience for which medieval women’s history women is a growing fascination. Hitherto Nest has been seen as the pawn of powerful men. A more general discussion of ideals concerning beauty, love, sex and marriage and an analysis of the interconnecting identities of Nest throws light on her role as wife/concubine/mistress. A unique feature of the book is its examination of the story of Nest in its many forms over succeeding centuries, during which it has formed part of significant narratives of gender and nation.
This is a study of noblewomen in twelfth-century England and Normandy, and of the ways in which they exercised power. It draws on a mix of evidence to offer a reconceptualization of women's role in aristocratic society, and in doing so suggests new ways of looking at lordship and the ruling elite in the high Middle Ages. The book considers a wide range of literary sources—such as chronicles, charters, seals and governmental records—to draw out a detailed picture of noblewomen in the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman realm. It asserts the importance of the life-cycle in determining the power of these aristocratic women, thereby demonstrating that the influence of gender on lordship was profound, complex and varied.
This chapter examines the early sources for Nest’s life, in particular her ‘abduction’ by Owain ap Cadwgan, placing these sources and the events they describe in the context of politics and gender relations in Wales in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This entails, in particular, examination of Brut, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and medieval Welsh lawcodes.
This chapter considers Gerald of Wales’s portrayal of Nest in more detail in order to consider the specific contexts in which she appears in Gerald’s narrative. This takes account of Gerald’s view of women more generally as well as focussing on specific portrayals of women in order to consider how his views about gender, conquest and war were shaped by his attitude to women.
This chapter considers charter evidence as a guide to women’s power in twelfth-century Wales, in order to place the analysis of Nest in a broader analytical framework. Building on the previous chapter’s observations about the portrayal of women within chronicles and the significance of kin structures within the political elite of Wales, this chapter argues that powerful women of the high elite were involved in Welsh politics during this period, and that internal and external factors were promoting this even further, in war, domestic policy, and the formation and dissolution of political alliances. A close and contextualised reading of charter evidence, sensitive to nuances of gender constructions, allows a very detailed picture to be built up as a counterweight to the misogynist assumptions of chroniclers and writers of legal texts.
This chapter explores the way that Nest was remembered in the early modern period, a process that has much to tell us about the way that Welsh writers conceptualized the past. It will consider how the critical early years of Norman incursions into Wales were portrayed by later writers. This will be achieved through a discussion of the writings of Welsh gentlemen with antiquarian interests, George Owen of Henllys, Rice Merrick, Edward Stradling, Humphrey Llwyd, David Powel and Sir John Price. These authorities turned their attention to the Welsh past as part of a project to promote their own positions and generate propaganda for nascent Welsh Protestant patriotism.
This chapter considers the historiography of Nest and women in medieval Wales, broadly understood, from the early eighteenth century to the emergence of formal academic historiography. It assesses the Welsh historiography, both formal and as expressed in other genres, especially travel writing, showing divergent tendencies to view Nest either with horror or embarrassment, or to make her a heroine; and this will be related to the ways in which she is made to relate to the English, and also to conceptions of the proper behaviour of a medieval princess. Comparison will be made with the developing historiography of contemporary Welsh princes.
This chapter provides an opportunity to look at role of medieval Welsh women in formal and less formal presentations of history: in the academic historiography, and also in more populist writings, at heritage sites, in museums (for example, the major celebrations of Gerald ‘of Wales’ of the past thirty years), and in historical novels. It does so by focusing upon a few case studies to analyse ways that individual women have been portrayed and consider what this can tell us about conceptions of the roles of women in the past. The analysis considers the place that Nest occupies in late-twentieth- and twenty-first-century portrayals of the Welsh medieval past and suggests ways that the significance of this for our understanding of the imagined past of twentieth-century and contemporary Wales can be discussed.
Nest’s beauty is a central motif in interpretations of her and is key to the construction of her as the ‘Welsh Helen of Troy’. Her beauty is particularly emphasized in genres such as modern popular interpretations of her in creative fiction. Her inscription as a great beauty is a result of interpretations of the Brut, and her beauty authorizes the actions of Owain ap Cadwgan’s abduction. The chapter consider the importance of beauty in selected texts to consider how it was portrayed; the analysis examines beauty’s meanings and how it was used by authors to authorize agency and power.