Also known variously as Herleve, Harlette, or Arlette
Born c 1010 Died c1055

The Mother of the Norman Conquest of England

The sons of Herleva

Herleva was a tanner's daughter from the town of Falaise in the district of Calvados in Normandy born just at the beginning of the eleventh century. We can only assume that, despite her humble origins, Herleva must have been a striking woman of some considerable charm as she attracted the attention of one Gilbert, Count of Brionne who one of the most a powerful and significant of Norman landholders at the time.

She became his mistress and at the age of sixteen she bore him a son, who became known as Richard Fitz Gilbert. Soon afterwards she was sharing a bed with the Duke of Normandy himself, the wonderfully named Robert the Devil, (although quite when and in what circumstances this transfer of affections took place we do not know) and around the year 1028 Herleva bore this Robert a son, who was named William. Robert seems to have been disinclined to marry Herleva (presumably her humble origins made this out of the question) but similarly displayed no interest in making the standard sort of dynastic marriage to anyone else that would normally have been expected of him.

Eventually Herleva was married off to one Herluin of Conteville and produced two further sons who became known as Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain as well as two daughters Emma and Muriel.

It seems that a matter of debate as to whether Odo and Robert were born before or after the death of Robert the Devil and when exactly, she married Herluin. Hence although Herluin is formally recognised as the father of both Odo and Robert, there remains the distinct possibility that Robert the Devil was their real father and that Herluin merely assumed paternity as a matter of convenience.

As far as William was concerned, despite being the son of the reigning Duke of Normandy, and indeed the only recognised son of the duke, he was illegitimate and therefore technically unable to inherit either his land or his title. However, when the duke Robert decided to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, before departing he insisted that the Norman nobility swear allegiance to his son. As fate would have it, Robert died in 1035 in Nicea in Bythnia (in modern Turkey) at the age of 35.

William was only seven years old at the time, and although he became Duke of Normandy (and was known as William the Bastard for fairly obvious reasons) many of many of the Normans, despite their previous oaths, disputed his right to succeed. The actual government of Normandy was entrusted to a number of leading nobles acting as William's guardians, prominent amongst whom was 'uncle' Gilbert of Brionne, who in fact died in 1040 defending William from an attempted assassination.

The conquest of England

It was not until the year 1054, when he was around twenty six years old, that William finally emerged as the undisputed Duke of Normandy, but by the time Edward the Confessor the reigning king of England died in 1066, William the Bastard had become recognised as one of the most powerful rulers in continental Europe.

Despite this, William's decision to contest the throne of England did not enjoy unanimous support from amongst the Norman nobility. The church in the form of Pope Alexander II helped, by declaring William's mission a quasi-crusade against the 'errors' of the English Church, but William largely relied on the support of his family, in particular his half-brothers Odo of Bayeux, Robert of Mortain and Richard Fitz Gilbert as well as Hugh of Avranches, son of his half-sister Emma.

After William's victory at Senlac Hill all these gentlemen received their reward:

Thus did the sons of Herleva end up owning and running England.

Herleva herself died some time after 1050 (the exact date is not known) but certainly well before 1066 and therefore never lived to see her sons lording it over England. She was buried at Grestain Abbey which had earlier been founded by her husband Herluin of Conteville.


David C Douglas The Normans (Folio, 2002)

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