Legends states the young Duke Robert I of Normandy was on the walkway of his castle at Falaise looking down at the river and discovered a beautiful young girl washing clothes. He asked to see her and she became his mistress. She would become the mother of William the Conqueror.
Details of the life of Herleva are few and far between. The chroniclers are contradictory and leave out important information. Even her name could be spelled in many different ways. We have Arletta, Arlette, Arlotta, Arlotte, Erleve, Harlena, Harlette, Herlette, Herleva, Herleve, and Herlotte. To keep it simple she will be called Herleva.
The best guess is Herleva was born c. 1003-1010 in Falaise, Normandy in France. Later chroniclers have her father named as Fulbert and it’s been said he was a tanner. Falaise was well known at that time for its industry of tanning or converting animal skin or hide into leather. Recent historians have examined the chronicles and Fulbert is called a “polinctores”. This term in classical Latin means a person who prepares bodies for burial. This could further be interpreted as an embalmer or undertaker.
Robert had become Duke of Normandy in 1027 so they must have met during this time and Herleva became his mistress. We don’t know the exact date of William’s birth but some historians guess from the chronicle evidence that he was born sometime between September of 1028 and September of 1029. William may have spent his early years in the home of his mother. We know William had a sister named Adelaide who married three men. She might have been born by another mistress of Robert’s but she most likely is William’s full sister. Adelaide was married to Enguerrand, count of Pontieu, Lambert of Lens and Odo, count of Champagne.
Sometime after the birth of William, Herleva’s father Fulbert appears to have become a chamberlain to Duke Robert. Herleva had two brothers, Walter and Osbern. Their names appear in charters from this time so they must have benefited from their sister’s relationship to Robert. Walter emerges as a guardian to the young Duke William during the perilous years after his father died. Walter is said to have saved William’s life at one point by grabbing William from his bed and carrying him to safety in the home of some poor people, avoiding assassination. Walter had at least two daughters named Clara and Matilda. Clara became a nun at Montivilliers and Matilda married Ralph Tesson. Tesson came from a substantial medieval Norman family.
At one point after the birth of William, Robert married Herleva off to Herluin, Vicomte of Conteville. She was to have three children with Herluin. Odo was probably born c. 1030. He would become Bishop of Bayeux either when he was fourteen or nineteen. He is best known as a warrior and statesman and accompanied William to England. He was at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 either fighting or urging on the troops in his capacity as a churchman. He may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry to hang in the Cathedral there.
In 1067, Odo was made Earl of Kent and became the largest landholder in England barring the King himself. Odo was to get into trouble by inspiring rebellion against William and later backed William’s wayward son Robert Curthose. At one point Odo was imprisoned. William was persuaded to release Odo on his deathbed. He continued to stir up trouble until he joined the First Crusade and died on the way at Palermo in early 1097.
Herleva’s other son by Herluin was Robert, count of Mortain, born c. 1031. Robert was to be one of the Conqueror’s biggest supporters, participating in the invasion of England, providing ships and fighting at Hastings. William gave him large landholdings in England. He mostly lived in Normandy until he died in 1090. Herleva also had at least one daughter with Herluin who remains unnamed but the records show she married William, lord of the La Ferté-Macé.
It is known that Herluin married another woman named Fredesendis. Herluin founded a monastery at Grestain c. 1050 and his second wife’s name appears in the list of benefactors. We can therefore deduce that Herleva died c. 1050. Her legacy lived on in her sons who helped change the course of English and French history. She was an extraordinary woman.
Sources: “William the Conqueror” by David C. Douglas, “The Origins of Herleva, mother of William the Conqueror” by Elizabeth M.C. Van Houts from “English Historical Review” CI (CCCXCIX), p. 399-404, April 1986