The story of Nesta of Deheubarth takes place against a backdrop of war between Norman England and the kingdoms of South Wales. Born the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth, Nesta is brought to England after her royal father is killed in battle against William Rufus in 1093. She is made a royal ward and raised at Romsey Abbey alongside the orphaned Scottish princesses, Mary and Maud, who through their mother, Margaret, are the last links to England's old Saxon bloodline. While there, Nesta falls in love with the king's younger brother, Henry of Coutances, though William Rufus has other plans for her: he unites her in marriage to Gerald of Windsor, who is made castellan of the important Norman fortress at Pembroke as a way of cementing England's ties to South Wales.
Nesta and Henry still have unfinished business, though their liaison doesn't take place until after she has borne Gerald several children. In a particularly poignant moment, she agrees to testify that Princess Maud, a silent and religious-minded young woman, never took vows at Romsey. This permits Maud's marriage to Henry, who has recently become King Henry I. And that's just the beginning of Nesta's vibrant, event-filled life. Over the years, she has relationships -- some willing, others not -- with several other men, though her life always circles back to Henry's. Despite their connection to one another, she comes to see him as a hard, uncompromising man who puts his ambition above all else.
This novel qualifies for the royal mistress challenge, although unlike most women in this position, Nesta has royal blood herself. She commands the loyalty and affection of the people of her native land, even though it's her husband who's technically their governor. Fairburn presents her as almost larger than life, though she's too intelligent to be a Mary Sue. (Don't hate her because she's beautiful!) Her life story is an example of truth being stranger than fiction. For instance, her cousin Owain was supposedly so taken with her beauty that he kidnapped her from her husband's castle, beginning a minor civil war.
Fairburn's portrait of Nesta is romanticized and wistful in parts, as if she is recounting an ancient legend. (Nesta's initial meeting with Henry is of the "love at first sight" type, too much so for realism's sake.) At the same time, the tone feels appropriate for the time and place, and for a woman who led such a dramatic, out-of-the-ordinary life. In her introduction, Fairburn writes: "This book is a weaving together of fact, probability, possibility, and fiction," which feels about right. A while back, I reviewed an even more obscure book about her, Anne Bell's Daughter of the Dragon. The Golden Hive is the better novel.
After picking this book for the letter E in the Alphabet Challenge, I realized it could have fit equally well with F and G, as well as D. Copies used to be more plentiful than they are now. Unless you want to pay upwards of $30, interlibrary loan may be your best bet.
The Golden Hive was published in 1966 by Heinemann & Co, London (long out of print).