Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Tracey Warr, Author of Daughter of the Last King (Conquest Book 1)

12 March 2023

Special Guest Post by Tracey Warr, Author of Daughter of the Last King (Conquest Book 1)

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1093. An invasion and a curse. The three sons of William the Conqueror fight with each other for control of the Anglo-Norman kingdom created by their father’s conquest. The Norman Marcher lords are let loose to consolidate the conquest of Wales, pushing across the English border to the east and invading from the sea to the south. Nest ferch Rhys is the daughter of the king of south-west Wales. Captured during the Norman assault on her father’s lands, she is raised by her captors,
the powerful Montgomery family.

A Turbulent Life 

If you are an inhabitant, a visitor, or an armchair traveller to southwest Wales you may know and revel in its medieval castles and spectacular coastline. You may, too, have come across the story of Nest ferch Rhys. I lived in Pembrokeshire for several years and was gripped by Nest’s story in the chronicles and entranced by those castles and wide, bright estuaries.

Daughter of the Last King is the first book in my Conquest trilogy, which has just been reissued with a new cover. Book 2, The Drowned Court, is out in April and Book 3, The Anarchy, is published in May. The novels were very much inspired by the beauty and history of this wild Welsh landscape.

The novels focus on the turbulent life of the Welsh noblewoman, Nest ferch Rhys, and the reign of the Norman king, Henry I. Nest was the daughter of the last independent Welsh king, Rhys of Deheubarth. Her father was killed in battle in 1093 by the Norman, Bernard de Neufmarche. Her father’s kingdom was annexed by another Norman, Arnulf de Montgomery. Her eldest brother died alongside her father. A second brother was captured and killed, a third died after a decade in prison, and a fourth brother was maimed at birth by the captors of Nest’s mother. One of her brothers escaped the massacre and was hidden in Ireland during his childhood. 

Nest became one of the many mistresses of King Henry and the mother of one of the king’s illegitimate sons. She was also married to the Norman steward of Pembroke Castle, Gerald FitzWalter and kidnapped and held for a couple of years by the Welsh prince Owain ap Cadwagn. After the death of Gerald, she was married to the Norman constable of Cardigan Castle, Stephen de Marais, and finally (perhaps) she was married to the Flemish sheriff of Pembroke Castle, Hayt. She was a symbol of ownership of the territory for this series of men.

Nest’s surviving brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys, the rightful heir to Deheubarth, returned from Ireland in 1116 and set about trying to reclaim his kingdom. He achieved some success in the Battle of Crug Mawr in 1136 when he, along with the princes of Gwynedd, defeated the Normans near Cardigan. However, Gruffudd’s wife Gwenllian and two of his sons were killed as they tried to attack Kidwelly Castle, and Gruffudd died soon after the victory at Crug Mawr.  

In addition to her son with the king, Nest had at least five other sons and a daughter. She is the grandmother of the writer Gerald of Wales and the ancestor of the FitzGeralds in Wales and Ireland. Hers must have been a turbulent life, to say the least! 

I was living near Narberth when I began writing the novels. I studied for an MA in Creative Writing at University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s (then in Carmarthen). I was awarded a Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary, which helped give me time to research and write Nest’s story. Llansteffan Castle and the triple river estuary at Carmarthen Bay were significant inspirations for me and are central in the novels. 

Llansteffan Castle at sunset with mist rolling in. Photo: Ken Day, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nest’s other homes at Carew Castle, Pembroke Castle, Cilgerran Castle, and Cardigan Castle are also important for the story, along with King Henry’s courts at Westminster, Woodstock and Winchester where Nest must have spent time. Other places that feature in the story that can be visited today include Dinefwr Castle, the Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey, Saint David’s Cathedral and the Roman Goldmine at Dolaucothi. Being able to walk the headland at Llansteffan and wander around the ruined palace at Lamphey fed my imagination.

Carew Castle by Gordon Hatton, CC BY-SA 2.0
<>, via Wikimedia Commons.

After the death of Nest’s father, fighting continued between the Normans and the Welsh for many years. I didn’t intend to create a polarised 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 often found herself with loved ones on both sides of the conflict. I aimed to think and feel—through fiction—how she coped with the dramatic events of her life.

In the course of writing the novel, I found myself equally fascinated by King Henry I. His was a long reign of 35 years. Despite ably managing a complex kingdom spanning Wales, England and Normandy, he had numerous mistresses and over 23 illegitimate children, whom he acknowledged and educated. After the death of his only legitimate son in the tragic sinking of The White Ship in the Channel, he tried to make his daughter, Maud, his heir. I was fascinated to imagine his character and throughly enjoyed myself with Henry, and with other figures in the novels, such as a Welsh bard and a runaway nun who are both tasked as spies.

Henry I and Nest ferch Rhys in bed. 
Illustration in Matthew Paris’ illuminated manuscript in the British Library, 13th century.

See my posts for more information on aspects of Nest’s story: Helen of Wales, King and LoverThe White Ship and  A Norman Frontiersman in Wales (on Gerald FitzWalter) 

Tracey Warr

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About the Author

Tracey Warr was born in London, lived in southwest Wales and now lives in southern France. The castles and landscapes of Wales and France inspire her historical fiction. She is the author of five historical novels set in medieval Europe and centred on strong female leads. She draws on old maps, chronicles, poems and objects to create fictional worlds for readers to step into. Her writing awards include an Author’s Foundation Award, a Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary, and a Santander Research Award. Before becoming a full-time writer she worked as a contemporary art curator and art history academic. She continues to teach on MA Poetics of Imagination at Dartington Arts School in Devon. Tracey is part of the group organising author launch interviews for the Historical Novel Society website. She is also part of the team organising the next Historical Novel Society UK conference at Dartington Hall in Devon 6–8 September 2024. Find out more at tracey's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @TraceyWarr1

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