Linked by shared kinship to the Welsh Princess Nest, they clambered from virtual obscurity on the war-torn frontier of Wales to become the first invaders of Ireland in 1169. The arrival of King Henry II and the might of the crown of England in 1171 robbed them of their hard-won domain, but they were not to be defeated. Through a mixture of intrigue and skill in war they managed to claw back position and power before establishing themselves as the preeminent family in the country right up to the end of the 19th century.
In my new book, Lord of the Sea Castle, published by Accent Press on June 1st, I chart the early career of one member of this clan, Raymond de Carew, during his own adventures in Ireland, but I am delighted to appear on the Norman Descendants website to talk about the great Cambro-Norman House from which he springs.
The Norman invasion of Wales commenced very soon after the Conquest of England in 1066. Initially William the Conqueror’s efforts were merely to prevent attacks by the Welsh and their allies upon the western extremes of his new kingdom. As a response to these incursions William set up three earldoms at Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. Independent of the rest of England and the king’s writ, the Marcher lordships were from their very beginning a haven for Norman fortune hunters willing to cross into Wales and carve domains for themselves at the point of a sword. By 1075, Norman adventurers had conquered most of the kingdom of Gwent. Powys fell to the Earl of Shrewsbury, Roger de Montgomery, in 1086 and Morgannwg followed soon after under Robert FitzHamon.
The most significant incursion came in 1088 when a little-known knight called Bernard de Neufmarché invaded the petty-kingdom of Brycheiniog. Five years later Bernard was building a castle at Brecon when he became embroiled in a battle with King Rhys of Deheubarth (whose lands roughly equate to modern Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire). Rhys’ death, on top of a heavy Welsh defeat in the battle, led to a power vacuum in his homeland. Into this fissure poured Norman knights and freebooters led by Arnulf de Montgomery, a younger son of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Soon after his first incursion, Arnulf built his principle castle, a wooden motte and bailey, at Pembroke and it was from there that he began a process of conquest of Deheubarth over the next six years. His most trusted knight, Gerald de Windsor, was given control of the frontier Barony of Emlyn while also being named Constable of Pembroke Castle during Arnulf’s absences in England.
By 1100, the Montgomery family – now led by Arnulf’s elder brother – was the most powerful in England, second only to the childless King William Rufus. Their support would be vital to deciding where the succession to the throne of England would reside if the king died as expected without issue. On August 2nd that year the death of the king while hunting in the New Forest threw England into turmoil when both the king’s brothers, Robert Curthose and Henry Beauclerc, claimed the throne. In 1101, Robert invaded England from Normandy to force the issue. Arnulf and his brother, the Earl of Shrewsbury, declared their support for Robert and readied for war. But they were betrayed. Robert, rather than face Henry in battle, was bribed into renouncing his claim allowing his brother to take the throne as King Henry I. Having lost their key ally, the three Montgomery brothers prepared for a campaign against the new king. Arnulf sent the aforementioned Gerald de Windsor, his most trusted follower, to Ireland with the objective of obtaining military assistance from Murtagh O’Brien (Muircheartach Ua Briain) who was the powerful King of Munster. In return for the promise of soldiers Gerald negotiated marriage between Arnulf and Murtagh’s daughter, Lafracoth.
It did no good. In 1102, King Henry drove the brothers from Britain and into exile in Normandy. Their extensive English and Welsh lands were declared forfeit to the crown.
His master’s insurrection left Gerald de Windsor in a very sticky situation. At best he would’ve expected to be dismissed from his position of Constable of Pembroke, although he almost certainly would’ve thought that he would lose his Barony of Emlyn. Gerald might even have thought that he would be made prisoner by King Henry or been forced to pay a mammoth fine. Yet, in the end, he was not punished. Rather he was given the hand of a princess in marriage, awarded lands in Berkshire, and made stepfather to the king’s own son.
To discover why Gerald de Windsor had not been punished for his lord’s rebellion against the throne we need to look more closely at his background. Family legend has it that their roots aren’t actually Norman but Italian, arising from the noble Gherardini family of Tuscany. Their arrival, according to this tradition, is that their ancestor was already in England as part of Edward the Confessor’s retinue before 1066. Nonetheless, we do know that Walter FitzOtho, Gerald’s father, was given lands in Berkshire, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire shortly after Hastings and was subsequently made first Constable of Windsor Castle. Windsor was by 1086 a newly created motte and bailey castle owned by the king on a strategic point on the River Thames. It is from this association that Walter’s sons derived their surname. Gerald’s mother’s identity is somewhat more difficult to determine but it is believed that she was a Welsh noblewoman named Gwladys and possibly a princess from Gwynedd.
As a younger son, Gerald de Windsor would’ve had very little chance of inheriting any land, but his family connections would’ve assured him a place in the household of a rich nobleman and he seems to have joined the household of the Earls of Shrewsbury. Later, as we have heard, he was in Wales by 1094, one of the knights and freebooters in the company of Arnulf de Montgomery as he conquered Deheubarth. While his duties as Constable of Pembroke Castle no doubt monopolised his time, Gerald also held lands in Emlyn, the barony abutting the Welsh Kingdom of Ceredigion across the River Teifi, but little is known of his time there under Arnulf’s rule. What we can be sure of is that Gerald had become an important and well-connected man on the Welsh March.
His master’s fall initially made Gerald’s hold over Pembroke untenable. As Arnulf’s closest conspirator, he was rightly seen as untrustworthy by King Henry I, principally because of the Palatine nature (utterly independent other than in the question of loyalty to the crown) of the Marcher Lordships. His replacement as Royal Constable of Pembroke, however, proved unable to maintain control and in 1105 the king was forced to reconsider his decision of three years before. Planning an invasion of Normandy, he could not afford to have Deheubarth embroiled in fighting. The most likely scenario is that it was Gerald who was responsible for causing the disorder that so impacted the new constable’s rule. The answer was, of course, to return Gerald to his former position, but the question remained if King Henry could trust him. His answer was to tie Gerald so closely to his own house that he could not betray him again.
Twelve years before, as we have heard, in 1093, King Rhys of Deheubarth had died in battle against the Normans, opening up his kingdom to invasion. While two of his sons were executed, another was forced to flee to Ireland, and his wife disappeared, his daughter Nest was captured and, one can assume, remained in the custody of Arnulf de Montgomery in Pembroke. She was probably about eight years old. Arnulf’s uprising and subsequent exile in 1102 put the beautiful seventeen-year-old Welsh princess into the hands of King Henry I, a man who put the word ‘affairs’ into the phrase ‘affairs of state’. In 1103, Nest gave birth to an illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, one of twenty such children born to the king by a string of mistresses. Two years later and upon his reappointment as Constable of Pembroke, Gerald de Windsor was married to Princess Nest and awarded the Welsh Carew Castle as well as the Manor of Moulsford near Wallingford Castle. The king had created a link between his own house and that of the former rebel, Gerald. He had bought stability with his mistress’ hand.
The couple had three children over the next few years: William (c.1104-1176), Maurice (c.1106-1176) and a daughter, Angharad. His sons adopted the Norman patronymic style, taking the surname of FitzGerald which would become so widespread and famous in Ireland.
By 1109, Nest and Gerald seemed to have settled into the life of a frontier noble family.
However, at Christmas that year all was to change as one of the most fascinating events in medieval Welsh history took place. Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, who was King over part of Powys and Ceredigion, held a great feast (possibly an eisteddfod) where the beauty of Princess Nest was told. Owain, Cadwgan’s son, hearing these words, fell passionately in love with Nest, we are told, and launched a Christmas raid on Gerald’s castle at Cilgerran. He and fifteen companions are said to have dug their way under the gates while the castle slept and begun firing the buildings. Gerald, fearing for his life, is believed to have survived by fleeing through a garderobe before making his escape to friendly territory. Given the winter conditions it would’ve been madness for Nest to take their three baby children into the wild and so they stayed behind and were abducted by Owain. Creeping back across the Teifi into Ceredigion, Owain is believed to have made for his home near the Vale of Llangollen.
While Gerald was no doubt furious, Owain had perhaps unwittingly raised the ire of King Henry I and he held Cadwgan just as responsible as his son for the outrage. Henry raised a vast army from amongst Cadwgan’s Welsh rivals and invaded Ceredigion forcing Owain to flee to Ireland. It is for this reason, emulating Homer’s great epic of the Siege of Troy, that Nest is nicknamed ‘The Helen of Wales’ – the face that launched a thousand spears. Owain’s father was permitted to retain some of his lands upon payment of a fine, but the Kingdom of Ceredigion was given to the Norman nobleman Gilbert de Clare who put his man, Stephen, in place as Constable of Aberteifi Castle (modern Cardigan). Nest returned to her husband’s side and would go on to have at least two more children, David (c.1110-1176) and Gwladys.
However, the insult done to Gerald by Owain could not be forgiven though he had to wait some time for his revenge. During a campaign against the King of Gwynedd in 1114, King Henry had been convinced to forgive Owain’s transgressions, allowing him to retain control of Powys, and had even knighted him. Two years later when Nest’s brother, Gruffydd, returned from Ireland with the aim of retaking his kingdom of Deheubarth, Owain gave his support to King Henry and was ordered to rendezvous with the other forces marching against Gruffydd. Nest’s brother had, amongst other activities, attacked Narberth, Llandovery, Swansea and Carmarthen. On his way to give battle to Gruffydd he had a chance encounter with another baron on the same business: Gerald de Windsor. According to tradition, Gerald only had fifty men, mostly Flemings armed with crossbows, but their desire for vengeance on Owain burned hotly. Despite their being about the king’s business, Gerald cut down Owain and his men. Nest’s abduction was finally avenged.
What King Henry made of it all is difficult to discern. He quickly came to an understanding with Nest’s brother Gruffydd who was given back a small portion of his father’s realm based on Dinefwr Castle and for a time that kept him quiet. It may be that Gerald died soon after Owain for his further activities are not recorded by any source. Certainly by 1120, Nest had remarried again to Stephen the Constable of Aberteifi Castle and had another son, Robert FitzStephen (of who there is more at www.normandescendants.org/robertfitzstephen).
It would fall to Nest’s sons and grandsons, the Geraldines, to defend the Norman colony in Deheubarth when it came under attack. It would be from amongst their descendants that the conquerors of Ireland would come.
Author: Edward Ruadh Butler is the author of the acclaimed Swordland (Accent Press, 2015), a historical fiction based on the events of the Norman Invasion of Ireland in 1169. The second part of the story, Lord of the Sea Castle (Accent Press, 2017), will be published next year. Butler’s Anglo-Norman ancestor, Theobald Walter, arrived in Ireland during another Norman campaign in 1185 and was named Chief Butler to the Lord of Ireland, a court position from which his descendants derive their surname.