The Drowned Court by Tracey Warr

This is the second of a trilogy of novels telling the story of the Welsh princess Nest ferch Rhys. I read the first book, Daughter of the Last King, in 2017 and enjoyed learning about this little-known historical figure, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time I picked up the next volume and continued Nest’s story.

In Daughter of the Last King, Nest’s father – the king of Deheubarth – is killed in battle and the twelve-year-old Nest is taken captive. The novel goes on to describe her years of captivity in the household of the powerful Montgommery family and the eventual downfall of that family, her time as mistress to King Henry I and her marriage to Gerald Fitzwalter, the Norman castellan of Pembroke Castle.

Book two, The Drowned Court, begins in the year 1107 and we see that Nest has been settling into married life with Gerald. Although he is not the husband she would have chosen, Nest is growing fond of Gerald and the couple already have several half-Norman/half-Welsh children. However, Nest still can’t stop thinking about Owain ap Cadwgan, the Welsh prince of Powys to whom she had once been betrothed. It seems that Owain has not forgotten her either, but the time for him to come to her rescue has long passed; if he enters her life again now it can only cause trouble for Nest and her family. Meanwhile, her brother Gruffudd ap Rhys, is gathering support in an attempt to reclaim his kingdom, putting further strain on Nest’s loyalties as she becomes torn between her Welsh past and her Norman present.

As in the first book, Nest’s story alternates with the story of Sister Benedicta, a nun at Almenêches in Normandy whose brother, the Flemish knight Haith, is in the service of Nest and Gerald. Benedicta is a fictitious character and played a fairly minor role in the previous book; she is much more prominent in this one as her skills as a scribe earn her a place in a network of spies run by Henry I’s sister, Adela of Blois. Writing part of the novel from Benedicta’s point of view allows Tracey Warr to explore some of the political developments taking place in Europe which would have been out of the range of Nest’s own experience, but I have to admit that I never felt fully engaged with these sections of the book and was always glad to get back to Nest’s more personal story.

I knew nothing at all about Nest ferch Rhys before reading these books and I have resisted looking up the details of her life, so I never had any idea what was going to happen next and could just enjoy watching her story unfold and knowing that I was learning something new along the way. However, this also means that I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy. All I can say is that the book does feel as though it has been well researched, but as very little is known about Nest anyway, a lot of imagination has obviously had to be used to fill in the gaps between the historical facts.

The final book in the trilogy is not available yet but it will be called The Anarchy. I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing how Nest’s story concludes.

Conquest: Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr

One of the things I love about historical fiction is having the opportunity to read about historical figures I previously knew nothing at all about. Nest ferch Rhys, daughter of the last king of Deheubarth in Wales, certainly falls into that category, so when I was offered review copies of the first two books in Tracey Warr’s Conquest trilogy, of course I said yes!

Daughter of the Last King opens in 1093. The twelve-year-old Nest is playing on the beach with her brother when she is captured by Norman invaders who inform her that her father has been killed in battle at Aberhonddu. Taken by her captors to Cardiff Castle, Nest is placed in the household of Sybil de Montgommery, a member of a powerful Norman family who have been granted lands and titles in Wales. Although Nest has every reason to despise the Montgommery family and all they stand for, she quickly finds herself warming towards Sybil, who has been given the job of overseeing her education and training. The plan is that Nest will one day marry Sybil’s brother, Arnulf de Montgommery – but what about her existing betrothal to the Welsh prince, Owain?

Nest’s story takes place during a troubled and eventful time in the histories of England, Wales and Normandy. William the Conqueror has died and his lands have been divided, with his eldest son, Robert Curthose, inheriting Normandy and the throne of England going to a younger son, William Rufus. The two are rivals and the nobility, particularly those with land in both England and Normandy, are forced to choose between them. Sybil’s husband and her Montgommery brothers have each decided where their loyalties lie, but will they have made the right choice?

Although I have read quite a few novels set just before and during the Norman Conquest of 1066, I have read very little about the period following this – the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Tracey Warr goes into a lot of detail regarding the politics of the period, the rebellions, the shifting loyalties and betrayals, so that by the time I finished the book I felt that I had learned a lot. There is some overlap with the knowledge I gained from another recent read, Alison Weir’s Queens of the Conquest, but otherwise most of this was new to me. In particular, I found the focus on Welsh history interesting, especially the contrast between the Normans’ relatively quick and successful conquest of England and their attempts to conquer Wales.

Due to my unfamiliarity with so much of the history covered in this novel, I was relieved to see that the author had included some very useful material at the front of the book: genealogies for the Welsh royal families, Anglo-Norman royal family and Montgommerys; maps of eleventh century Wales, England and Normandy; and a plan of Cardiff Castle. I resisted the temptation to look anything up online because, with my complete lack of knowledge of Nest ferch Rhys and her story, I didn’t want to find out too much in advance. There was some suspense involved in waiting to see who – and whether – she would eventually marry, and I didn’t want to spoil the surprise for myself.

The one aspect of the book I’m not sure I liked was the inclusion of journal entries and letters written by a fictitious nun, Sister Benedicta, and her brother, a knight called Haith. These characters do serve a purpose in the novel, providing us with information on events which are unknown to Nest, but personally I found them a bit distracting and would have preferred to focus solely on Nest. She is such an interesting character and, although Tracey Warr points out in her author’s note that there is a limit to how much we know for certain about the real Nest, I did enjoy getting to know her. I’m looking forward to finding out how the story continues in the second part of the trilogy, The Drowned Court.

Thanks to Impress Books for providing a copy of this novel for review.

~

I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back soon with my books of the year, my December Commonplace Book and maybe another review or two before New Year.