Princess Nest? You’ve probably never heard of her. So it’s a bold claim to label her one of our forgotten mothers (aren’t they all eventually?) As well as being bold, it probably doesn’t make much sense. How can a woman be mother to a nation? I’m not saying that she was the only one. But I do claim that her influence was quite direct and formative in the development of Ireland, through her lineage; how her sons and grandsons changed Ireland during their lifetimes, and how their descendants played critical roles in our history.
So let me explain and if you stick with this, you’ll have earned a little bit of esoterica which might come in useful next year. Why? Because next year is the 850th anniversary of the arrival of the Normans in Ireland. And if you’re persuaded, then it won’t be esoterica but an important element in our national story.
When William the Bastard defeated Harold II at the battle of Hastings in 1066, Anglo-Saxon England came to an end as William seized the crown and became William the Conqueror. His Norman knights swept the old order aside and imposed themselves as feudal overlords of England. Harold’s sons fled to Wexford, bringing with them their father’s battle standard as a gift to their host.
For the Normans, holding land was the basis for their feudal way of life – the manner in which it was held, parcelled out, organised, and inherited. Each estate was a building block in a hierarchy whose summit was the crown, itself held by men (mostly) who combined in their physical person the actual and symbolic divine right to rule. Normans coveted land as the sole basis of their social standing. When they could not inherit it, they used their martial prowess to seize it. After victory in battle, they quickly threw up a temporary fortification (the mote and bailey). They would then build more permanent fortresses and manors, organising the land, enfeoffing it with supporters, building villages and markets, and generally creating an aristocratic lifestyle and a recognisably medieval way of life. Their non-inheriting sons would in turn be compelled to find new lands to conquer and repeat the pattern.
So it was that after the conquest of England, Norman lords pushed into Wales where they encountered the Celtic Welsh kings. The last independent Welsh king, Rhys ap Tewdwr, of Deheubarth (south Wales, including that long peninsula that reaches toward Ireland), was killed around 1090 in battle by Bernard de Neufmarche – a marcher (frontier) lord from Normandy. Deheubarth was then open to the Normans and the lordship of Pembrokeshire was created by the crown. Rhys’s son, Gruffydd, fled to Ireland where he spent some of his youthful years. He would eventually return to Wales and regain a small foothold in Cantref Mawr, tradition seat of the clan. His son, the Lord Rhys, would emerge as a powerful Welsh leader and put such pressure on the Normans that one Earl of Strigoil would look across the sea to Ireland for fresh lands to seize – he is known to us as Strongbow.
Nest, Rhys’s daughter, probably about 15 years of age at the time, found herself as a prize in the court of William “Rufus” II, William the Conqueror’s heir. There, Princess Nest’s beauty caught the eye of his younger brother Henry, renowned Lothario and later Henry I. In about 1103, she bore him a son, Henry FitzHenry aka Henry FitzRoy. As princes do with women of no political use, Henry then married her off to Gerald FitzWalter, Constable of Pembroke Castle. She bore him three sons and two daughters, Angharad and Gwladys.
At this time, surnames as we know them were forming and her sons were to be known as sons of Gerald – FitzGerald. Her son, Maurice, would team up with another son of Nest by a subsequent relationship, Robert FitzStephen. The half-brothers would lead the vanguard of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 after Dermot MacMurrough, the ousted King of Leinster, solicited the help of Henry II and Strongbow in regaining his kingdom. In fact, by agreeing to go to Ireland, Robert was released from the captivity of the Lord Rhys, the nephew of Nest – Wales was nothing if not a small world! Maurice was about 60 at the time, Robert much younger, but both were bereft of opportunities at home.
Promised Wexford and its surrounding lands by Dermot (in contempt of Brehon law), Robert FitzStephen led the first arrivals, landing at Bannow Bay with the clear intention of taking Wexford not only as a prize but as a key beachhead. With him was Robert de Barry, a grandson of Nest, son of Angharad, Robert FitzStephen’s half-sister. Mark the arrival of the first Barry in Ireland – his brother Philip de Barry would come some years later. FitzStephen’s main lieutenant was Maurice de Prendergast and both were reinforced by the arrival of Dermot MacMurrough with a force of 500 Irish from his seat at Ferns. Possibly persuaded to do so by their bishops, the people of Wexford surrendered to Dermot MacMurrough and renewed their vows of allegiance to him.
Alerted to these alarming developments, Rory O’Connor, the High King of Ireland, came to agreement with Dermot that Dermot would reign again as King of Leinster so long as his foreign allies left Ireland. Shortly thereafter, Maurice FitzGerald arrived with reinforcements but Rory stayed his hand.
In May 1170, Dermot and his Norman allies were joined by another force led by a grandson of Nest, Raymond FitzGerald, known as Raymond le Gros for his stocky build. Raymond was a son of William FitzGerald (Maurice’s brother); to note, William’s daughter forged the Carew lineage. Raymond was a young knight in the service of Strongbow and acting as the advance guard of the main force being assembled in Pembroke.
Raymond landed at Baginbun in May 1170 and quickly proved himself a supreme battlefield commander, defeating a local Irish-Norse army sent to expel him from the headland of Baginbun. Greatly outnumbered, he won a stunning victory, killing about 500 and capturing 70. Raymond wanted to spare the prisoners but Strongbow’s uncle, Montmorency (evidently along to look after Strongbow’s interests), said clemency was a luxury they couldn’t afford. All 70 died a brutal death and their bodies were flung into the sea.
By now, the Norman invasion was inexorable and Strongbow landed with his main force at Passage in August 1170, quickly overwhelming Waterford (who had resisted in fear after the massacre at Baginbun), slaughtering a good many, and taking Aoife, daughter of Dermot, as his wife. Thereby, Strongbow established his claim to the Lordship of Leinster after Dermot either died or became king of Ireland (another promise made ultra vires, as neither feudalism nor English law existed in Ireland).
Milo de Cogan, who arrived with Strongbow, was another grandson of Nest, son of her daughter Gwladys. In September, Milo and Raymond seized Dublin by rudely interrupting the mediation by Archbishop O’Toole between the besieging Strongbow and the Danish King of Dublin, Haskulf. Milo also saved the Norman occupation of Dublin the following spring with a timely sally against a force of mercenary Norse supporting Haskulf’s attempt to retake Dublin. Haskulf was captured and, in response to his defiant insults to his Norman captors, the Normans cut off his head there and then. The Danes, or Ostmen, of Dublin were expelled beyond the walls to the north side of the river, hence Oxmantown. Thus ended Dublin’s Viking connection.
We know quite a lot about the Norman invasion thanks to another grandson of Nest, Gerald de Barry, son of her daughter Angharad and her husband William FitzOdo de Barry. Gerald, as a cleric and historian, would famously chronicle the Norman invasion of Ireland and record his impressions of Ireland and the Irish.
Altogether, Nest’s offspring would therefore include the Fitzgeralds, Fitzmaurices, de Barrys, de Cogans, and Carews. The FitzGeralds would create two dynasties in Ireland (earls of Desmond and Kildare) and effectively rule Ireland, technically on behalf of the English crown, until they were deposed by the New English under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.
So it was that Edmund Curtis in his history of Ireland referred to Nest as the “queen bee of the Welsh-Norman swarm.” It is interesting that this is the only treatment that Nest receives from Curtis. Nor does she feature much in any of the histories. This treatment at the hands of almost exclusively male historians is too dismissive and here’s why.
Nest’s sons and grandsons were the key agents in the Norman invasion of Ireland. They were the first to cross the sea and establish the critical beachhead of Wexford and then Baginbun. They battled against ferocious odds to hold on until Strongbow arrived with his main force, almost a year and a half after Maurice. Strongbow, out of favour with Henry II and very probably against the King’s instruction, was necessarily crafty and patient as his position depended on the success of this audacious adventure. Had Maurice and Robert faltered, or had the High King mustered effectively against the Normans, Strongbow would in all likelihood not have risked crossing the channel. He was gambling with his reputation and remaining resources in Ireland; he was gambling just about everything.
Taking ‘medieval’ to describe a particular type of European culture rather than a chronological period, medieval Ireland was a creation of the Normans. They took the towns of Wexford, Waterford, and Dublin from the Ostmen and developed them through city charters, the emergent English common law, and investment. The Normans built castles and sponsored a new wave of abbey building. They established manors and new forms of agriculture, introduced taxation (King John’s Tower in Dublin was built as a treasury) and bureaucratic government. They created permanent villages, developed markets and improved ports. The Normans ended the Irish slave trade and replaced it with new trade through improved links with towns like Bristol and Chester.
Gaelic Ireland stayed wedded to its pastoral, raiding ways and regnal wars, eschewing primogeniture and urban living, all the while adhering to their Irish language, Brehon laws, customs, and culture. It was clearly an attractive life and Normans were quickly Hibernicised, such that by the fourteenth century, the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed to try to save the English colony from complete Gaelicisation.
The source of political power of the FitzGeralds was their ability to negotiate between the two societies within Ireland, the Norman and the Gaelic, and between the English crown and the many sources of contending power within Ireland. They applied Brehon or English law, depending on which was most advantageous to their interests. This capacity was pretty much in their blood, from the marriage of Nest and Gerald de Windsor. Like the Normans who intermarried in Wales, they forged an affinity with the society within which they had seized lands, the better to hold those lands and pass them on securely. The story of Nest and her intermarriage with the Normans prefigured what would happen a century later in Ireland.
This was most clearly so in the case of Aoife, Dermot MacMurrough’s daughter. Her marriage to Strongbow in Waterford, in the days following its capture, was a revolutionary event. It audaciously declared that Strongbow would become Lord of Leinster and holds its lands under feudal norms. It defied the norms of Gaelic society, both in terms of how power and land were held as well as passed on.
The Normans formed an embryonic Irish government under the Crown. Their state council would form the nucleus of what would become the Irish parliament. Their house of Lords developed over the intervening centuries a distinctive Irish identity that was often in conflict with the Crown in Ireland, particularly on the issue of who had the right to initiate legislation, which in turn was emblematic of the deeper issue of whether Ireland’s interests or the rights of the Crown were predominant in Ireland. Their influence in the House of Lords survived even as the chamber absorbed the parvenus of the New English and Cromwellian settlers in the seventeenth century. Norman identification with Ireland and distinctly Irish interests formed the seed bed for the ideas expressed by Grattan and more radically by Lord Edward Fitzgerald.
There is a strange echo too in the stories of Nest and Dermot McMurrough. Nest captivated Owain ap Cadwgan, a Welsh princeling, who raided and kidnapped her and her children. Her husband and a few companions escaped, apparently using the toilet chute. Owain eventually returned Nest to her husband, Gerald, and, not for the first time, fled to Ireland. In the topsy-turvy world of Welsh-Norman intrigue and war, Owain was eventually knighted by Henry I, Nest’s former lover, and agreed to support him in suppressing the revolt by Nest’s brother, Gruffyd. Gerald was also supporting the King’s campaign, but killed Owain upon their encounter.
There was more consequence to the parallel story in Ireland. In 1152, Dermot MacMurrough kidnapped Derbforgaill, the wife of the king of Breffni, Tieran O’Rourke, and the daughter of the king of Meath. Neither Dermot nor Derbforgaill were spring-chickens so it is as likely they had their own agendas. Derbforgaill may not have been an unwilling victim as it is said she took most of her furniture with her. Certainly Dermot might have seen her as a route to the kingship of Meath, a strategically critical area in the swaying balance of regnal wars in Ireland. Like Nest, Derbforgaill eventually returned to her husband. The Brehons decreed that Dermot pay O’Rourke compensation in gold. He didn’t and thus continued the bitter feud between them. When the balance of power swung in O’Rourke’s favour in 1166, he settled his feud by exiling Dermot. This in turn led to Dermot’s solicitation of help from Henry II, and the Norman invasion of Ireland.
While neither might have launched a thousand ships, both Nest and Derbforgaill were to be known as the ‘Helens’ of their homelands for these colourful episodes in their lives.
Princess Nest clearly had many qualities that helped her survive tumultuous times as her society was turned upside-down by Norman invasion. History as it was written then – or indeed ever – was not kind to women, even when they occupied positions of power and influence. So we know little of Nest. We do know that her immediate descendants took great pride in her and their lineage to her. Gerald de Barry writes his history of the invasion such that the FitzGeralds and other relatives predominate, even at the expense of Strongbow (and particularly Montmorency).
Through the strength of the familial lines to which she gave rise, Nest was one of the great influencers in the development of Ireland’s history and indeed that of the British-Irish archipelago. The Tudors trace their line to her. And through the FitzGeralds, so too could the Kennedys, giving Nest a reach to the US and the twentieth century.
Yet it is in Ireland that Nest’s influence was most direct and formative. It is impossible to reconstruct the Norman invasion of Ireland without the critical leadership and influence of her sons and grandsons. Without FitzStephen and FitzGerald, it’s unlikely that Strongbow himself would have taken the fateful steps that led him to Ireland. There might well not have been a Norman invasion at all. And it is impossible to imagine Ireland’s historical narrative without the Normans. Try to imagine Ireland without the FitzGeralds, or all the other Norman cognomens that abound in Ireland past and present. This is not a value judgement as to whether that is a bad or a good thing. It is to say that our history would have been very different. However, I would hazard that Ireland would eventually have been invaded by the Tudors simply because they regarded Ireland as an exposed flank likely to be exploited by their arch-rivals, the Spanish, as indeed it was.
Have I persuaded you that Ireland is unimaginable without Princess Nest? That, if she was not the mother of us all, then mother of quite a few and through them an elemental ingredient in our history? I may not have persuaded you that Princess Nest is a lost mother of Ireland but perhaps you’ll grant that she deserves to be better known here. In knowing about her, we know more about ourselves.