Herleva or Arlette?
It is unclear exactly what the mother of William the Conqueror’s name was – several have been attributed to her, most of them variations of Herleva or Arlette.
For the purposes of Three Bloody Pieces, I decided to split the names, and have them as two separate people – one of them the wife of Fulbert, the other the daughter. It is certainly clear that Fulbert’s daughter was the mother of William, but there is no real record of his wife.
The background of Arlette 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. The most commonly accepted version says that she was the daughter of a tanner named Fulbert from the town of Falaise, in Normandy, but he may instead have been a furrier, embalmer, apothecary, or a person who laid out corpses for burial. I have elected that he is a tanner, and that his wife did the embalming.
Arlette was little more than a peasant, but this all changed when Robert 1, Duke of Normany set eyes on her. According to one legend, it all started when Robert saw Arlette from the roof of his castle tower at Falaise. 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 was to trample barefoot on the hides, which were awash in the liquid dye in these trenches. Arlette, 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 through the back door.
Arlette 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, Arlette, 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 Arlette a semi-official status as the duke’s concubine. She later gave birth to his son, William, in 1027 or 1028.
Arlette 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.
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.
It is said that Arlette was buried at the abbey of Grestain, which was founded by Herluin and their son Robert around 1050, and this would put Herleva in her forties around the time of her death.
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