Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Tracey Warr, Author of The Anarchy (Conquest, Book 3)

22 June 2021

Special Guest Post by Tracey Warr, Author of The Anarchy (Conquest, Book 3)

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Unhappily married to Stephen de Marais, the Welsh princess, Nest, becomes increasingly embroiled in her countrymen’s resistance to the Norman occupation of her family lands. She plans to visit King Henry in the hope of securing a life away from her unwanted husband, but grieving for the loss of his son, the King is obsessed with relics and prophecies.

Writing with Place

The inspiration behind The Anarchy was place—the landscapes of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, and Cardiganshire in southwest Wales. I was living in Pembrokeshire when I started writing the Conquest series and I was working in Oxford as an art history lecturer. I travelled weekly between Narberth and Oxford and was intrigued by the view from the train window of Carmarthen Bay with its triple river estuary and the ruin of Llansteffan Castle up on the headland. 

Llansteffan Castle at Sunset (Wikimedia Commons)

At first I intended to write a timeslip novel set around the estuary with a woman in the future and the medieval noblewoman Nest ferch Rhys from the past. I was awarded a Literature Wales Writers Bursary to work on the project. I went and stayed in Llansteffan, visiting the castle, walking the landscape, getting up close with what I’d seen from the train window.

I eventually disentangled the medieval narrative from the future narrative and wrote the two as separate books. (My novella set in the future was published as ‘Meanda’ in The Water Age and Other Fictions, Meanda Books, 2018). I drew my fictional portrait of Nest, her physical appearance, from a young Welsh woman I saw on that Oxford to Narberth train one day. Llansteffan Castle only played a small part in what is known of the real history of Nest ferch Rhys, but I made it the beginning and end and the heart of the three novels I wrote about her.

Norman and Welsh castles are scattered all over southwest Wales and are a visible reminder of the two-hundred-year struggle between the invading Normans and the Welsh resistance in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Welsh took advantage of their knowledge of the difficult terrain and weather of their homeland to harry their enemy. They won some notable victories, including the battle of Crug Mawr, near Cardigan, where one of the leaders of the Welsh force was Nest’s brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys.

Nest ferch Rhys was associated with Pembroke, Cardigan, Cilgerran, and Carew castles. Her Norman husband Gerald FitzWalter also had a fascinating connection with the Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey, which was very close to where I was living. [

Bishop’s Palace, Lamphey (Wikimedia Commons)

Gerald was enduring a protracted and increasingly hopeless siege by the Welsh forces at Pembroke Castle. His ran out of food, he was outnumbered, and his knights deserted. He smuggled a letter out of the castle and had it placed in the road outside the bishop’s palace where the Welsh fighters would find it. The letter was addressed to his overlord, Arnulf de Montgommery, and said that he did not need reinforcements and he had enough food for a further four months of siege. 

The Welsh believed the letter and lifted the siege. Walking around the palace ruin at Lamphey fed my imagination. Another fascinating feature of the landscape that I drew on in my story was the Roman goldmine at Dolaucothi, which was on the land belonging to Nest’s brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys. In my fiction, I made the mine a critical part of Nest and Gruffudd’s struggle to regain the kingdom that had belonged to their father.

My novels are based on real medieval women who receive very brief mentions in the chronicles, and I fill in the gaps. Nest has been described as Helen of Wales because she was kidnapped from her husband, Gerald, by the Welsh prince, Owain ap Cadwgan. She has been referred to as the most famous medieval Welsh woman, yet the historical record of her is slight. The story of her kidnap is briefly recounted in the Brut y Tywysogion (The Chronicle of the Princes). I’ve noticed that all the women I’ve written novels about have been kidnapped. Almodis de La Marche in my first novel (Almodis the Peaceweaver, Impress, 2011) was kidnapped by her third husband the Count of Barcelona from her second husband the Count of Toulouse, although she may have been complicit in the kidnap. 

Emma of Segur, the viscountess of Limoges (who is one of the real women my characters were based on in my second novel, The Viking Hostage, Impress, 2014) was kidnapped by vikings from a monastery on the French coast and later returned to her husband after he paid a huge ransom. Then, Nest ferch Rhys was kidnapped by Prince Owain from her husband, Gerald. During Owain’s attack on the castle, which was probably Cilgerran, Nest reportedly advised Gerald to escape down the castle’s toilet chute. (You can read more about the wily Gerald in my blogpost here: I hadn’t consciously looked for kidnapped women when planning to write my novels, but I suppose my imagination was attracted by the abrupt shifts in fortune for these women. 

Relatively invisible women of the early medieval period are the territory of my fiction. I look for the agency of the women. Nest’s sister-in-law, Gwenllian, who led a small Welsh force against the Normans at Kidwelly Castle was also a fascinating part of history that I rolled into my story.

The Anarchy is the final book in a trilogy about Nest and Haith so I had loose threads to resolve including Nest’s love affair (true) with the Norman king, Henry I, and the story of Haith’s sister, Benedicta/Ida (fictional) who is a runaway nun. Reading biographies of King Henry by Judith Green and Warren Hollister, and historical accounts of the conflict between Empress Maud and her cousin King Stephen helped further develop my novel. I also drew on Susan Johns and Kari Maund’s critical and biographical accounts of Nest.

I didn’t want to tell a black and white story with the Normans as the baddies and the Welsh as the good underdogs. Lived history is more complex than that. Some Welsh collaborated and colluded with the Normans. Others were disinherited and oppressed by them and resisted the slow Norman invasion in Wales. Women were often at the forefront of integration through forced marriage and, of course, their children were both Welsh and Norman. Nest, who was the mistress of the Norman king and married consecutively to two Norman noblemen, stands for all those women, and I wanted to think—through fiction—about how she coped with the events of her turbulent life.

Nest’s youngest nephew, Rhys ap Gruffudd regained most of the kingdom of Deheubarth and Ceredigion from the Normans and was one of the most successful and powerful Welsh princes in the late twelfth century. Early in his career he took Llansteffan Castle from the Normans. 

View of the Sea from Llansteffan Castle Window (Wikimedia Commons)

It is not known where Nest ferch Rhys is buried, but the spectacular ruin of Llansteffan Castle on the headland overlooking the triple river estuary of Carmarthen Bay, which first inspired me to write the Conquest novels, seems a fitting memorial to her extraordinary life.

Tracey Warr

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About the Author

Tracey Warr’s novels are set in early medieval Europe. Her first novel Almodis was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and the Rome Film Festival Book Initiative. It is based on the life of Countess Almodis de La Marche, who was described by William of Malmesbury as being ‘afflicted with a Godless female itch’. Her second novel, The Viking Hostage, recounts the true story of a French noblewoman kidnapped by Vikings. Warr’s trilogy Conquest follows the tumultuous life of the medieval Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys. It was supported by a Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary. Warr’s next project, Three Female Lords, has received an Author’s Foundation Award and is a biography of three sisters who lived in 11th century southern France and Catalonia. She is Head of Research at The Dartington Trust and teaches on MA Poetics of Imagination at Dartington Arts School. Find out more at Tracey's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter at @TraceyWarr1

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