Herleva was the mother of William the Conqueror, the daughter of a tanner and mistress to William’s father Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy. Her name is often spelt many different ways Herleva, Herleve, Arlette, Arletta, Arlotte and Harlette.
She was born c.1003 in Falaise, Normandy and her father was Fulbert the tanner. It is written that Fulbert may have been an embalmer or an apothecary, some even say he may have belonged to the burgher class.
In one tradition it is said that Robert, William’s father saw Herlvea from the roof of the castle tower. It is said that Herleva was in the trenches at the edge of the courtyard used for dyeing clothes. Upon seeing Robert she is said to have hitched her skirt, maybe just a little too high as she begun to trample barefoot on the garments that were being dyed. The Duke then became smitten and ordered that Herleva was brought before him as tradition demanded through a back door of the castle. Herleva refused saying she would only enter the castle on horseback through the front door. The Duke taken by her boldness agreed and a few days later Herleva entered the castle on the back of a white horse.
In another tradition it said on the night that Herleva fell pregnant with William she had a dream where in the dream a tree erupted from within her stomach and grew so big and so tall that it covered all of Normandy, but it did not stop growing there. The tree is said to then grow and cover the English Channel and continue until it covered all of the kingdom of England. Some say the story may have been invented later to give William’s claim even more legitimacy. One thing for sure that night was that the growth of an important figure in the history of North West Europe was beginning.
In 1027/1028 she bore fruit of the relationship with Robert and William was born.
Later in about 1031 she married Herluin de Conteville. Some historians say that this marriage was set up by Robert to give Herleva as best a life as he could because as their social status was too far apart he could never marry her. Some say that she did not marry Herluin till after Robert’s death.
From the marriage with Herluin she produced two further sons. Odo who later became the Bishop of Bayeux who commission the Bayeux tapestry which tells the story of William’s conquer of England. Her other son was Robert who became Count of Mortain. Both of William’s half-brothers became important figures and trusted allies during the conquest of England.
According to Robert of Torigni, Herleva was buried at the abbey in Grestain which was founded by her husband and son Robert in about 1050. This would place Herleva somewhere in her forties upon her death.