This article was written by Lydia.
For a woman who helped change the course of European history, surprisingly little is known about Herleva of Falaise. Even her first name is open to interpretation. But one thing is certain about this mysterious and tantalising figure. Without her, the story of England would be very different indeed.
For Herleva was the mother of William the Conqueror. Long dead by the time her son won himself a crown at the Battle of Hastings, she went on to become an almost impossibly romantic part of the legend that grew up around the Conqueror. However, very little evidence exists to fill in the gaps in the life of this extraordinary woman.
Herleva was most likely born in Falaise, in Normandy, but from there, things get even vaguer. Her date of birth is put between 1003 and 1010, but with no official records kept at the time, it is impossible to pin down. She is usually called Herleva, but other names are used by different chroniclers including Arlette, Arlotte and Herlotte. Perhaps the most contentious area is her ancestry. Oderic Vitalis wrote, at the start of the 12th century, that her parentes (either parents or kinsfolk) worked with animal pelts and hides, stating that her son William inflicted harsh punishments on many in Alencon in France after they hung furs and skins around the town to mock him for his lowly ancestry. However, later historians argue that Herleva’s father may have been an embalmer of dead bodies. Whatever his real origins, it is certain that Fulbert (as he is often called) had no royal or even noble blood to call his own. It was his daughter who took the family to the top of the medieval social tree.
The legend around Herleva’s rise to power is filled with all the must-haves of a medieval romance. She is said to have caught the eye of Robert, Duke of Normandy as he patrolled the walls of his castle in Falaise. Herleva was far below, by the river, either washing clothes or helping dye leather. Duke Robert asked for her to be brought to him, which meant being hustled through a back door somewhere. Herleva refused and said she would only meet the duke if she rode in through the main castle entrance. Within days, they had begun a relationship that would result in the birth of William, around 1028 or 1029. From there, her life seemed to take a similar turn to that of many a noble mistress. There would be no ducal wedding, and instead, Herleva ended up married to a well to do lord called Herluin de Conteville with whom she had two sons. But then things got really interesting.
Robert, Duke of Normandy, died in 1035, and with no legitimate children, his title passed to William who was then about seven years old. With no real written records of Herleva, it is impossible to say how much influence she had from this point onwards. But considering that William was illegitimate and that titles, land and power didn’t always pass automatically from father to son at this time, it could well be that Herleva had a contribution to make in ensuring her child ended up ruling Normandy. Her other sons were regarded highly enough by William to become staunch allies after the Conquest of England with Odo, Bishop of Bayeux playing an important role as a royal minister for several years while Robert, Count of Mortain was trusted with the often rebellious lands of south-west England where he became a formidable landowner.
Herleva was most likely long dead by then, but again a lack of records makes it impossible to know when her extraordinary story actually came to an end. Her second husband was himself again remarried by 1050, meaning Herleva’s death occurred most probably around the end of the 1040s. She never saw her son become a king, but her place in history was already assured.
Herleva had no royal blood herself and didn’t marry regally either. But her genes are still sprinkled through many ruling houses today. Her descendants have worn crowns for almost a millennium, yet the matriarch of their line remains as elusive now as she was when her royal story began.