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13th-century façade of the ancient Abbey of Grestain in Normandy, which was founded in 1050 by Herluin of Conteville and Herleva, the mother of William, Duke of Normandy and King of England
The three sons of Herleva of Falaise: William, Duke of Normandy, in the centre, Odo, the bishop of Bayeux, on the left and Robert, Count of Mortain, on the right (Bayeux Tapestry, 1070s)

Herleva[a] (c. 1003 – c. 1050) was an 11th century Norman woman known for having been mother of William the Conqueror, born to an extramarital relationship with Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and also of William's prominent half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, born to Herleva's marriage to Herluin de Conteville.


Herleva's background and the circumstances of William's birth are shrouded in mystery. The written evidence dates from a generation or two later, and is not entirely consistent, but of all the Norman chroniclers only the Tours chronicler and William of Malmesbury, the latter thought to have simply copied the Tours source, assert that William's parents were subsequently joined in marriage.[6][b] According to Edward Augustus Freeman, the Tours chronicler's version cannot be true, because if Herleva married the Duke, then William's birth would have been legitimized, and thus he would not have been known as William the Bastard[c] by his contemporaries.[6]

The most commonly accepted version says that she was the daughter of a tanner named Fulbert from the town of Falaise, in Normandy. The meaning of filia pelletarii burgensis[8] is somewhat uncertain, and Fulbert may instead have been a furrier, embalmer, apothecary, or a person who laid out corpses for burial.[9]

Statue of Arlette in Huy, Belgium where the mother of William the Conqueror is considered a child of the country; [10]

Some argue that Herleva's father was not a tanner but rather a member of the burgher class.[11] The idea is supported by the appearance of her brothers in a later document as attestors for an under-age William. Also, the Count of Flanders later accepted Herleva as a proper guardian for his own daughter. Both of these would have been nearly impossible if Herleva's father had been a tanner, which would place his standing little above that of a peasant.

Orderic Vitalis described Herleva's father Fulbert as the Duke's Chamberlain (cubicularii ducis).[9][12]

According to one legend,[13] it all started when Robert, the young Duke of Normandy, saw Herleva from the roof of his castle tower. The walkway on the roof still looks down on the dyeing trenches cut into stone in the courtyard below, which can be seen to this day from the tower ramparts above. The traditional way of dyeing leather or garments was to trample barefoot on the garments which were awash in the liquid dye in these trenches. Herleva, legend goes, seeing the Duke on his ramparts above, raised her skirts perhaps a bit more than necessary in order to attract the Duke's eye. The latter was immediately smitten and ordered her brought in (as was customary for any woman that caught the Duke's eye) through the back door. Herleva refused, saying she would only enter the Duke's castle on horseback through the front gate, and not as an ordinary commoner. The Duke, filled with lust, could only agree. In a few days, Herleva, dressed in the finest her father could provide, and sitting on a white horse, rode proudly through the front gate, her head held high. This gave Herleva a semi-official status as the Duke's concubine.[14] She later gave birth to his son, William, in 1027 or 1028.[15]

Marriage to Herluin de Conteville[edit]

Herleva later married Herluin de Conteville in 1031. Some accounts maintain that Robert always loved her, but the gap in their social status made marriage impossible, so, to give her a good life, he married her off to one of his favourite noblemen.[16]

From her marriage to Herluin she had two sons: Odo, who later became Bishop of Bayeux, and Robert, who became Count of Mortain. Both became prominent during William's reign. They also had at least two daughters: Emma, who married Richard le Goz, Viscount of Avranches, and a daughter of unknown name who married William, lord of la Ferté-Macé.[17]


According to Robert of Torigni, Herleva was buried at the abbey of Grestain, which was founded by Herluin and their son Robert around 1050. This would put Herleva in her forties around the time of her death.[d]


  1. ^ Also known as Herleve,[1] Arlette,[2] Arletta[3] Arlotte,[4] and Harlette.[5] Herleve is from the Old Danish / Old Norse names Herlef / Hærlæif. The forms in -ette, -otte are French pet names[citation needed]
  2. ^ Tours chronicle: "Dux Robertus, nato dicto Guillelmo, in isto eodem anno matrem pueri, quam defloraverat, duxit in uxorem." (When the said William had been born, in that same year Duke Robert took as his wife the boy's mother, whom he had deflowered.)[6]
  3. ^ He was regularly described as bastardus (bastard) in non-Norman contemporary sources.[7]
  4. ^ David C. Douglas suggests that Herleva probably died before Herluin founded the abbey because her name does not appear on the list of benefactors, whereas the name of Herluin's second wife, Fredesendis, does.[18]


  1. ^ Douglas, William the Conqueror, p. 15
  2. ^ Freeman, Edward A. The history of the Norman conquest of England, its causes and its result . Volume I. p. 530
  3. ^ Palgrave, Sir Francis. The History of Normandy and of England (1864), p. 145
  4. ^ Abbott, Jacob. William the Conqueror (1903), p. 41
  5. ^ Trapnell. The Norman Conquest. p. 2
  6. ^ a b c Edward Augustus Freeman,The History of the Norman Conquest of England: II 2nd Ed. The reign of Eadward the Confessor. Note U: The Birth of William 1, p. 615.
  7. ^ Bates,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 20 August 2018.
  8. ^ Chronicle of St-Maxentius quoted in Freeman. The History of the Norman Conquest of England: II. 2nd Ed. p. 611.
  9. ^ a b van Houts, The Origins of Herleva, pp. 399–404
  10. ^ Freddy Van Daele-Arlette daughter of Huy ED. by Alfred Van Daele / Hosdent-on-Mehaigne / 2004
  11. ^ McLynn, Frank. 1066: The Year of the Three Battles. pp. 21–23 (1999) ISBN 0-7126-6672-9
  12. ^ Crouch, David 'The Normans- The History of a Dynasty' Hambledon 2002 at pp 52–53 and p58
  13. ^ Hirschman; Yates. The Early Jews and Muslims of England and Wales: p. 62
  14. ^ Harper-Bill. Anglo-Norman Studies: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1998. pp. 24-25
  15. ^ Bates.William the Conqueror. p. 33.
  16. ^ Tracy Borman. Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror. p. 22
  17. ^ Douglas, William the Conqueror, p. 381
  18. ^ Douglas, William the Conqueror, p. 382


  • Bates, David (2004). "William I (known as William the Conqueror)" ((subscription or UK public library membership required)). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29448. Retrieved 20 August 2018. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • Bates, David (2001). William the Conqueror. Stroud, UK: Tempus. ISBN 0-7524-1980-3.
  • Borman, Tracy (2011). Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-0995-4913-1.
  • Douglas, David C. (1964). William the Conqueror. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Damian-Grint, Damian (1999). "EN NUL LEU NEL TRUIS ESCRIT: RESEARCH AND INVENTION IN BENOIT DE SAINT MAURE'S CHRONIQUE DES DUCS DE NORMANDIE". In Harper-Bill, Christopher (ed.). Anglo-Norman Studies: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1998. 21. Woodbridge,Suffolk: Boydell Press. ISBN 0-8511-5745-9.
  • Freeman, Edward August (1867). The History of the Norman Conquest of England: its cause and results. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 499740947.
  • Freeman, Edward August (1870). The History of the Norman Conquest of England: The reign of Eadward the Confessor. Revised. II (2 ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 971506352.
  • Hirschman, Elizabeth Caldwell; Yates, Donald N. (2013). The Early Jews and Muslims of England and Wales: A Genetic and Genealogical History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-7684-8.
  • van Houts, Elisabeth M. C. (1986). "The Origins of Herleva, Mother of William the Conqueror". English Historical Review. 101: 399–404.
  • Trapnell, Deverell W. (1870). "The Norman conquest ; or the land question regarded from an historical standpoint". London: Hodder and Stoughton. JSTOR 60247374. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)

External links[edit]

  • Life of Harlette, or Herleva, mother of William the Conqueror (with images)