The Norman Conquest


1066 is the date imprinted in all our memories as the year in which William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson and established himself as king, tyrannically crushing all resistance.

Norman soldier

Not so here in Pembrokeshire – William was never to conquer Wales. What is now Pembroke was under the control of the Welsh king of Deheubarth, Rhys ap Tewdwr who successfully kept the Normans at bay.

1093 and not 1066 is the pivotal date in Welsh history, because it is when Rhys was killed by a Norman force under the command of Arnulf de Montgomery. Arnulph sailed up the Haven to where Pembroke now stands and threw up an earthwork which he surrounded with a palisade.



The conquest of Wales proved difficult for the Normans. In fact for over 200 years Pembrokeshire was to be the scene of civil war and insurrection – not an enviable place in which to live. In 1094 under the command of Gerald de Windsor Pembroke was strong enough to withstand a seige by the Welsh. Following the seige the surrounding area of South Pembrokeshire gradually fell under Norman control.

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 and given the hand in marriage of Princess Nest, whose father Rhys ap Tewdwr had previously ruled the land. Nest's reputed beauty earned her the name "Helen of Wales". Taken hostage, she became the lover of Henry I and bore him two children.

Henry I also granted Pembroke its first charter, bestowing upon it special privileges. This was so that settlers who were now encouraged to arrive would in turn provide a ready supply of soldiers to defend this newly-won territory. Pembroke became firmly established as the administrative and military centre of south west Wales. The Welsh were driven out of South Pembrokeshire, and their lands colonized by the English and Flemings, so making the area culturally English and earning it the name “Little England Beyond Wales”; a monicker which still persists today.

The 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 in an attempt 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."



A contemporary portrayal of Nest and Henry I



Nest was married to Gerald in 1105 who thereby regained control of Pembroke Castle and obtaining a truce with the Welsh princes. This truce safeguarded Pembroke during an uprising led by Gruffyd ap Rhys, the brother of Princess Nest, in 1136.

Princess Nest, the 'Helen of Wales', led a colourful life. To read more about her click here.