Pembroke story history



1093 and all that ....

The Normans invade by sea The Normans conquer The Normans build castles

1066 is the date imprinted in all our memories as the year in which William the Conqueror defeated Harold and established himself as king and tyrant crushing all resistance under the Norman sword.

Not so here – William was never to conquer Pembroke.  What is now Pembroke was under the control of the Welsh king of Deuheubarth, Rhys ap Tewdwr, who successfully kept the Normans at bay.  1093 not 1066 is the pivotal date in our history when Rhys was killed and a Norman force under Arnulf de Montgomery sailed up the Haven to a fortified camp, which in all probability was there, defeated the local Welsh and according to Gerald de Cambrensis “threw up a slender fortress of stakes and turf”.

Arnulf de Montgomery -

Devil's Son


He was the son of Roger the great Earl of Shrewsbury, right hand man of the Conqueror entrusted with ruling Normandy while he sought to conquer and subject England. He was perhaps the most influential and turbulent baron in Europe and he and his sons were brutal even by mediaeval. Henry of Huntingdon wrote that their sins were enough to frighten the devils themselves. Gens ipsis doemonibus horrenda

Into his hands fell the children of the defeated Rhys:  Hywel was mutilated and Nest given captive to the English court under William(Rufus)II



The Conquest of Wales proved difficult.  In fact for over 200 years this land we occupy was the scene of civil war and insurrection – not an enviable place in which to live. It was strong enough to withstand a seige by the Welsh in 1094 under the command of Gerald de Windsor. By 1098,  the Normans were secure enough to found Monkton Priory.  Pembroke was to become a Norman powerbase and the surrounding area of South Pembrokeshire gradually fell under their control.

The Founding of Monkton Priory

Pembroke is a classic example of Norman settlement : Castle, Borough and Priory.  The Church of St Nicholas was built on  the site of a church and monastic buildings dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era and he  made a gift of it to the Benedictine Abbey of Seez in NormandyThe Priory as a parish church became the focus of the settlement of Monkton and gave it its name “tun of the monks”. 

The north side of the nave of the present church is the original wall of the ancient church.  The only remains of the Priory buildings, other than what was incorporated into the Priory Church, are limited to some freestanding arches and a gable wall.   No archaeological work has been done in the area although aerial photographs and ground forms indicate that extensive foundations remain.

The Welsh weren’t exactly a pushover.  In fact for over 200 years this land we occupy was the scene of civil war and insurrection – not an enviable place in which to live.   Don’t let the tales of men in tights and Merrie Englande fool you.  The Middle Ages was a time of great barbarity when life was cheap and people were treated horribly - mutilations, eye gouging and castrations if you found yourself on the wrong side and fell into the wrong hands! 

Henry I

When Henry I succeeded to the throne in 1100, Arnulph plotted against him and lost Pembroke. Although intially dismissed, Gerald de Windsor was made Castellan of Pembroke Castle along with the hand in marriage of the Princess Nest, whose father Rhys ap Twdwr had previously ruled the land and whose beauty earned her the name "Helen of Wales".  Taken hostage, she became the lover of Henry and bore him 2 children.

Portrait of Nest by Dan Holloway A contemporary painting of Nest in bed with Henry I Henry I

Nest - The Helen of Wales

 These were dark times but into them shines Nest, a figure of romance who remains something of a legend.  She was the most beautiful woman of her time but an enigma – we do not actually know a great deal about her other than her liaisons with her many lovers and it is her legacy that makes her historically important, the children resulting from those affairs.


Whatever she was, she must have been a remarkable woman, a woman who used her considerable sex appeal to survive.  Imagine if you can a young girl of only 11 years of age taken hostage by the callous Arnulph de Mongomery, her brother mutilated, and then sent to the English Court.  A hostage’s life was precarious: age and sex were no protection.  But she came to the notice of the womanising Henry Beauclerc, later to become Henry I, and entered into a liaison which was to result in at least one child. One contemporary portrait (above) actually portrays Henry and Nest in bed together!


In time, Henry decided to wed and wisely wed Mabel, daughter of the Saxon royal line. Nest had to go and was married to Gerald, Castellan of Pembroke.   So it was that Nest returned to her home land and became first lady of Pembroke. Nest was married to Gerald in 1105.  Nest brought with her the site of Carew Castle as a dowry and here they built the first castle on the site which was most probably the family home rather than Pembroke.  There were three sons from the marriage and a daughter Angharad, who became the mother of Gerald of Wales Through Nest, Gerald obtained a truce with the Welsh princes which safeguarded Pembroke during the uprising of Gruffyd ap Rhys


Many tales are told of her – the best known perhaps her abduction by Owain ap Cadwgan .  Did she go willingly or did she not? – we’ll never know. 

Edward Laws recounts the story thus, in his History of Little England Beyond Wales


“During the Christmas holidays of 1108 Cadwgan ap Blethyn, Prince of Powys, held an eisteddfod in Cardigan.  To this entertainment every man of position throughout Wales was invited.  Bards sang their songs, the mead passed round, the revelry was fast and furious;then one of these wandering minstrels told of Nesta, the fairest of the fair, old Rhys’s daughter, royal Gryfudd’s sister; told how she had enslaved the English king, and now was wife to the robber chief Gerald of Winsor, he who had seized on the Kymro’s land and had perched like a foul bird on Penvro Crag.  Fired by this song Owain, Blethyn’s son, determined to wrest the Kymric Helen from her foreign lord.  When the feast was over Owain collected a number of his friends together and sallied forth to Pembrokeshire.  Claiming kinship with Nesta, he was well received by her husband Gerald, and left the castle lust mad.  That night he returned with a considerable following, and having in some way obtained an entrance, laid siege to the room in which Nesta and her husband lay.  The latter finding resistance hopeless was persuaded by his wife to escape through a garderobe, she herself letting him down with a rope and thus saving his life.  Meanwhile the ruffian Owain burst in the door, seized Nesta, her two boys, and two other children (the illegitimate offspring of her husband), fired the castle, and carried off his prisoners into Powys.”


The children were returned to their father but Nest remained (willingly or unwillingly?). Eventually after several years, during which she gave birth to two children, Nesta returned to Gerald.  Meanwhile Nest’s brother, Grufudd ap Rhys, returned from exile to reclaim the southern principality.  During these troubles Gerald rode with a force against Owain (who was fighting for the King) and killed him in battle. Thus it seems probable that there was an understanding between Gerald and Gruffud, his brother in law, for South Pembrokeshire was spared the Welsh raids subjected on Cardigan, Carmarthen, Gowerland and Cemaes.  Henry certainly distrusted Gerald about whom we hear no more.


Princess Nest's Legacy

We don't actually know a great deal about Nest other than her many liasons - it is her offspring that makes her historically important, For from her liasons sprang a dynasty - the Fitzgeralds, the Fitzhenrys and the Carews - who led the campaigns against Ireland.  President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is supposed to be descended from her.


Little England Beyond Wales

Henry granted Pembroke its first charter bestowing on it special privileges so as to encourage settlers who would in turn provide a ready supply of men to defend this newly won territory.  Pembroke grew into one of the earliest towns in Wales and would have consisted of a cluster of cruck houses or clom cottages outside the Castle gates. The castle, still a wooden structure, would have been a refuge in times of trouble - there was always the threat from the Welsh, who were not subdued as easily as the English had been.

About the year 1107 part of the Flemish coast was overwhelmed.  The survivors of the disaster emigrated to England where previously considerable numbers had settled through the favours of the Conqueror’s Queen, Matilda of Flanders.   

Henry transferred them to Wales.  It was claimed that England contained so many of these Flemings who had come over in his father’s time, that the country was overburdened with them. These newcomers soon mastered the English language for their own tongue was very similar and they settled in villages to which they gave English names.


And so, in an act of ethnic cleansing, the Welsh were turned off their lands and  replaced by this new colony of English and Flemings with Pembroke as its governmental centre.  The Welsh language was displaced completely and South Pembrokeshire was dubbed “Little England Beyond Wales”, a name which persists to this day.


Gruffydd ap Rhys and the tragic story of Gwenllian

 On Henry’s death lakes and reservoirs in mid-Wales burst their banks and this was regarded as  a sign of the coming rising of the Welsh.  The Flemings sold their lands and cattle so as to save what they could from the dreaded flood of invasion.


Son of Rhys ap Tewdwr and Prince, by right, over Deheubarth, Gruffydd ap Rhys spent his youth in exile in Ireland having escaped the clutches of Arnulf.  He was to marry Gwenllian.  If Nest was the Helen of Wales then Gwenllian, her sister in law was its Boudica, valiantly leading her army against the Norman foe at Kidwelly.  She was defeated and executed on the field of battle, a field which to this day bears her name “Maes Gwenllian”.


Rhys went on to score a great triumph over the Normans in 1136, defeating them in Cardigan.  Apparently the whole foreign population had gathered in Cardigan for safety but the town was set on fire and in the frenzied escape across the river, the bridge broke, and the river was so choked with the carcasses of men and horses that one could pass over dry footed.  The Norman power in South Wales was for the time utterly broken.  Only Pembroke held firm.


Creation of the Earldom

This new Norman colony was frequently under attack from the Welsh who did not relinquish their land easily. This led King Stephen to create the Earldom of Pembroke in 1138 to secure control of Pembroke. The first Earl, Gilbert de  Clare was granted palatinate powers

 “Neither had the king of England, as king only, anything to deal or meddle within the said county, but the Earls were free and absolute princes within themselves


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Through the Ages




Round House
Iron and Rome


Celtic pattern
Dark Ages




Earldom of Pembroke


Medieval Pembroke


Tudor Rose
Wars of the Roses


Henry VII


Religious and political change


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18th Century


Pembroke-Tenby Railway
19th Century


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