Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:12 am
Once upon a whenever, Wales is said to have had more than 640 castles. We may have mentioned that before. Of those 640, at least 100 have survived. Some, such as Caernarfon or Conwy, are recognisably mighty fortresses; others are little more than remote ruined forts; and then there are the ones in between, like Cilgerran Castle, in Pembrokeshire. All have tales to tell, if only the stones and lumpy bits in the ground would talk.
Cilgerran is quite one of the friendliest villages I have ever visited. My opinion may be only slightly swayed by several visits to the Mason’s Arms, better known locally as the Ramp Inn. The Ramp Inn is a proper, unpretentious, welcoming pub that serves good beer. None of your faux traditional interiors and gastro-what-nots. Sadly, traditional community pubs like that are declining in Britain, to the detriment of us all. Cilgerran itself is an elongated kind of place, about three miles from Cardigan, comfortably settled along the south bank of the Teifi River, the boundary with Ceredigion. It is recognised for its historic slate quarries, salmon fishing and annual coracle races. Three annual fairs used to be held in the village – one each for horses, cattle and hiring. In the cemetery of the medieval church of St Llawddog is an Ogham stone, which dates from the 5th or 6th century and is inscribed ‘Here lies Trenegussus the son of Macutrenus’. There’s another tale.
But we are here to talk about Cilgerran Castle. It sits high on a rocky promontory, overlooking the Teifi Gorge, in a strategic position to control both a river crossing and sea-going shipping. Today’s visitor strolls off the High Street to reach the castle just beyond some cottages, eyes drawn to the slumbering power of two, formidable, stone towers. These were not part of the original fortification, which was probably a timber affair constructed by about 1108 by the Norman, Gerald of Windsor. More of him later. This first castle was captured by the Lord Rys of Wales in 1164, retaken by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, in 1204, recaptured by the Welsh during Llywelyn the Great’s campaigns in 1215, but back in Anglo-Norman hands by 1223 when William Marshal’s son, also a William, built the stone castle on the site. By 1405, Cilgerran Castle is believed to have been in a largely ruinous state, but it was wrecked even more during the 17th century Civil War, when local Parliamentarians attacked a Royalist force holding it.
The outer defences of the castle are now mainly buried beneath pretty houses and gardens. The visible ruins are of the inner ward, which includes those two fearsome towers, built in the 13th century and connected by a curtain wall. One of many interesting features is a sally port in the south side of the curtain wall, between the towers, apparently to enable defenders to sneak out behind any attackers who had managed to get that far. I wonder if it worked, because if the attackers spotted the door, you would imagine that would spoil the surprise, wouldn’t you? Perhaps the theory was that, having got through all the other defences, including a formidable rocky ditch in front of the inner gatehouse, the attackers were too exhausted to think straight. These days, the castle entrance is a handsome memorial gate commemorating Cilgerran’s war dead, with a fine wooden bridge to walk over into the inner ward.
I was introduced to Cilgerran and its castle by Son of Britain, who knows it well. Some Covid restrictions were still in place. He told me that, in normal times, it is possible to access the towers’ upper levels. Given the likelihood of ghostly Coronavirus carriers oozing out of the grim stone walls, I felt so much safer remaining on the slightly dank, claustrophobic, ground floor. I must say that I found the castle at Cilgerran a little depressing. Not a homely kind of place, but a miserable one where you imagine dark deeds occurring. In later years, I am told it was painted by the ubiquitous JMW Turner (and others). It seems reasonable to wonder why one of them didn’t brighten the place up a little. To lighten the atmosphere these days, the good folk of Cadw (who look after the castle) have installed some splendid, larger than life, friendly, wicker figures. The ones pictured seem to be of a king and queen, though it has been suggested they are intended to represent the Lord Rhys and Princess Nest. I don’t know about you, but I think he looks like he is giving the finger and she as though she’s about to strike up a jolly tune on the piano.
The story of the Princess Nest
Nest ferch Rhys was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the last King of Deheubarth (south west Wales) and his wife, Gwladys ferch Rhiwallon ap Cynfyn, Princess of Powys. Facts are as rare as hen’s teeth, but Nest – or Nesta, the Welsh form of Agnes – was born sometime in the 1080s. In 1093, her father was killed in battle against the invading Normans and she, little more than a child, was taken captive along with (probably) her mother and brothers. Two of her brothers may have been executed; the fate of her mother is unknown.
Nest was a beauty, even as a young teenager. Eventually, she ended up at the court of the King of England, William II, better known as William Rufus. Here, she caught the eye of the king’s salacious younger brother, Henry – the future Henry I. It is unlikely Nest had much say in her fate; but we simply do not know. There is an image in circulation, purporting to show them in bed together, naked except for their crowns. I can’t help thinking a crown may have been somewhat of a hindrance in the circumstances. It might even have fallen off at an awkward moment. Perhaps the sight of it was some kind of aphrodisiac. Or maybe it was just worn for the medieval equivalent of a photo opportunity, and then removed when things got steamy. Actually, it turns out that this image, from the British Library (Royal 14 E III f. 32), probably depicts characters from the Grail legends, Mordrain and Giseult – but it’s a great image, so I’ve included it anyway. Moving on, the result of Nest and Henry’s liaison was a son, Henry Fitzhenry, to add to an already long list of illegitimate offspring fathered by the promiscuous prince.
The young princess was not destined to be a royal wife, however, because Henry married her off to Gerald of Windsor, governor of Pembroke Castle, ruler of Nest’s father’s former kingdom on behalf of the King – and builder of Cilgerran and Carew castles. The union may have been a smart move for the Normans, Nest’s native pedigree bringing a degree of legitimacy to their authority. Whatever Nest (or indeed Gerald) thought about it, the couple went on to have four or five children, some with Norman names, others with Welsh. They founded the FitzGerald line and their daughter, Angharad, was the mother of the clerical traveller, Gerald of Wales.
Anyway, it seems that Gerald and Nest decided to make the nice new Cilgerran Castle a family home.
Now comes the Big Event. Details vary, but it seems that in the year 1109 Owain, son of Cadwgan, Prince of neighbouring Powys, got to hear about Nest’s arresting beauty. Cadwgan and Nest’s mother were cousins, so Owain had a legitimate reason to visit his relative and some accounts say he paid her a social call. Some accounts suggest they met at a banquet. In any event, the story goes that Owain (who may have been a shallow sort of chap) broke into Cilgerran Castle one night with a band of followers, set fire to it, and made his way to Nest and Gerald’s family quarters. Hearing the commotion and thinking that the attackers were coming for Gerald, Nest talked her husband into escaping through the privy (latrine). Owain then burst into Nest’s bedroom where, according to some accounts, he raped her before kidnapping her, along with her children. Other accounts suggest that the assault came later, or even that Nest was complicit in her own abduction.
It is from this tale that Nest is sometimes referred to as the ‘Helen of Wales’. All hell broke loose. As you can imagine, if there had been a fan handy, things from the privy would have hit it. The affair was an insult to Gerald, who had lost his wife, children and some of his dignity down the toilet. His Norman contemporaries were outraged. Cadwgan was not best pleased either, because he didn’t want to upset Henry I over this kind of thing. Meanwhile, Nest persuaded Owain to release her children, which he did. Some say she had more children with Owain. Meanwhile, Norman pressure was brought to bear on Cadwgan’s Welsh enemies to find Nest, rescue her, and sort out Owain. With everyone, even his own father, against him, Owain fled to Ireland, leaving Nest behind. Somehow, she returned to Gerald – willingly or not, no one knows. The couple did have at least one more child together, though.
Wind the clock forward a few years. Owain had returned from Ireland and found himself on the side of the Normans fighting rebellious Welshmen. The story goes that Gerald and his troops came upon Owain by chance and the Norman told his archers to do their worst. Exit Owain (drum roll, please).
It is said that Nest married twice more after Gerald died, having more children each time. One article I read said that “Half of Wales must have Nest’s genes in their blood.” However, as is often the case, nothing seems certain and some sources on the Web put Gerald and Nest’s deaths at a similar time – which might rule out her marrying after he had died. Whatever – the point is that Nest, a young woman in a hard, man’s, world has made her mark on history. We don’t know whether she was entirely a victim, used her assets to advantage (and who could blame her if she did?) – but her story is worth telling and, for all the gaps and uncertainties, has lasted down the years. Even if she had limited choice, she comes across as resilient, a survivor. Her children were both Welsh and Norman, which perhaps helped forge links between peoples. As a nice footnote, Patricia Taylor of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, points out that the FitzGerald dynasty, founded by Nest and Gerald, includes the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy among its distinguished sons.