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Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002) 14-28

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Henry I's Concubines

Gwenn Meredith
University of the Ozarks


"Nor are [women] ever wanting in efforts to establish their power over the men in a variety of ways." 1 This statement by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) expresses a view of women common in the high Middle Ages. Giraldus had both a professional and personal interest in criticizing women and men whose behavior failed to meet rigorous moral standards set by the Church. A vigorous polemicist, Giraldus was outspoken against the sexual abuses practiced by clerics and the laity, a preoccupation that may owe something to his grandmother, a woman notorious in her time for sexual exploits.

It is his grandmother Nest who played a principal role in establishing a network of supporters for Henry I of England, one that well illustrates what Giraldus calls women's "efforts to establish their a variety of ways." Gerald and other ecclesiastics considered Nest a degenerate woman because of her notorious behavior with many men including Henry himself. But her exploits and those of Henry's other intimate women intertwine to suggest the existence of a supportive family network in early twelfth century England. This network reached its apex of dominance during Henry's reign, but it began many years before his accession to the throne. During the last decade of the eleventh century, Henry was embroiled in many political disputes between his two brothers, William Rufus and Robert of Normandy. In addition to his political adventures, Henry began fathering more illegitimate children than any other English monarch, the number ranging between twenty-four and twenty-six children.

In 1100, immediately after William Rufus's untimely and suspicious death, prince Henry of England took firm control of his destiny and the crown. Henry's statecraft displayed itself as he surrounded himself with a circle of new men. J C Holt suggests that these new men were necessary for a stable transition of [End Page 14] government. Far less attention has been given to the political role of the women with whom he had personal relationships and who bore him his bevy of illegitimate children. Holt proposed the idea that Henry had no need of these women or his children as stablilizers to his reign; Henry's circle of new men composed a sufficient buffer for any dissidents or rival claimants to the throne. 2 However, in the background a strong, independent group of women used their sexual and reproductive prowess to shore up the political system of the king while at the same time furthering the interests of self and family.

This essay lays the groundwork for a picture of marriage and sexual relationships of medieval women very much at odds with the accepted notion that women were passive, chattel-like possessions at the disposal of fathers and uncles for barter and alliance-forming. With the interesting situation created by Henry I and his concubines and their large extended family, a picture emerges of mothers, daughters and female wards initiating or assuming a major role in marital and family alliances. A study of two concubines of the king argues for a revision of previous notions of female political impotence.

The two women are Nest ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr 3 and Sybil Corbet. Nest was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, prince of South Wales during the later eleventh century, and, as just noted, the grandmother of Giraldus Cambrensis. Sybil Corbet was the daughter of a minor baron given a small estate by the Conqueror for faithful service to the Norman regime. 4 I start with the elder of the two, Nest. Much of the history regarding her and her progeny comes from accounts of her grandson Giraldus.

Three singular features were demonstrated in the person of Nest. First, she was the only one of Henry's women who came from a family with any pretensions to royalty. Second, it is probable that Nest's acquaintance with Henry began when she was a young girl. Third, Nest bore her eleven (possibly twelve) children to five different men...