William the Conqueror’s Parents: The Story of Robert the Bonk-erer and Herleva
What would you say if the mom of one of the most notorious kings of the Middle Ages was actually an embalmer’s daughter? Well, such an idea is actually not that far-fetched, especially because even if monarchs had to marry elite, they could still have many regular mistresses. And due to the fact that medieval illegitimacy wasn’t that clear cut a thing, the results of their affairs gave opportunities to the not-so-secret love children of the time, especially William the Conqueror. This is the story of William the Conqueror’s parents.
Some History on William the Conqueror’s Parents
Descendants of a Scandinavian colonizer-turned-nobleman called Rollo, the rulers of Normandy were a contentious bunch, taking after their Viking ancestors. When Richard III took power in 1026, he immediately got some backlash from his little brother, Robert, who revolted right away. Despite his best efforts, Robert couldn’t oust Richard from the ducal throne; Richard even got a one-up on his sibling by creating a royal alliance for the ages: a marriage to Adela, daughter of King Robert II of France.
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Luckily for Robert of Normandy, later dubbed both “the Devil” and “the Magnificent,” his big brother died about a year into his reign. Medieval chronicles claimed a jealous Robert poisoned Richard, but as is so common with such allegations, we’ll likely never know whether it had any veracity. Robert might have married Astrid, princess of Denmark, but he eventually turned his favors from her. Indeed, he turned his attentions to a maiden of his own duchy: a lady named Herleva.
Robert the Magnificent as part of the Six Dukes of Normandy statue in the Falaise town square. (Michael Shea/CC BY SA 2.5)
Herleva wasn’t a princess; instead, she was the daughter of a common tradesman named Fulbert. According to William of Malmesbury, Robert fell in love of Herleva when he saw her dancing and became “so smitten” that he took her as a concubine; he reportedly remained faithful to her as if she were his wife. Other accounts tell that Robert came across Herleva near the town of Falaise, washing clothes in the river. He fell head over heels for her at first sight.
The Mother of William the Conqueror had a Dream
When Herleva was about to give birth in the late 1020s, she dreamed “her intestines were stretched out, and extended over the whole Normandy and England.” When she gave birth to the baby, he grabbed the floor rushes to indicate he would grasp all that she’d dreamt of. Malmesbury claimed the midwife proclaimed the new baby would be a pretty epic king.
King William I ('The Conqueror'). (Public Domain) Did William the Conqueror’s parents guess he would be such an important historical figure?
The exact nature of Fulbert’s profession varies depending on the account, but it wasn’t particularly glamorous: He was either a tanner or an embalmer. The chronicler Ordericus Vitalis recalled that, when William later besieged the town of Alençon, those inside the walls taunted him by waving around animal skins, referring to his family members, who were polinctores. The exact meaning of the word polinctor is ambiguous; medieval chroniclers have speculated it could refer to tanned hides or a job as an undertaker or embalmer.
Despite Robert’s devotion to Herleva and their son—as well as his illegitimate daughter, Adeliza—he never married Herleva. Instead, Robert actually married off Herleva to one of his subjects, a Norman nobleman called Herluin of Conteville, a few years after she gave birth to William, an arguable honor for all parties. Herleva and Herluin had several kids—including Robert, count of Mortain, and Odo, bishop of Bayeux and earl of Kent—who supported William’s bid to the thrones of Normandy and then England.
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Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry - this one depicts Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Duke William, and Count Robert of Mortain. (Public Domain)
Protecting a Future King
William was only a child—about eight years old—when his dad died; add to that his illegitimacy, and you get an unstable central government. His maternal family gathered around him to support him. Grandfather Fulbert had served Duke Robert in his palace, perhaps as a personal attendant, after his daughter took up with the Duke.
And William’s uncles, Osbern and Walter, helped protect the child-duke. Walter allegedly snatched little William from his bed when danger threatened and hid him in the poor sections of town. And it worked, for William went on to quite the illustrious career in war and peace.
Vincent of Beauvais, Le Miroir Historial (Vol. IV): William the Conqueror invades England. (Public Domain)
Top image: ‘God Speed’ (1900) by Edmund Leighton. William the Conqueror’s parents may not have been exactly like this knight and lady, but their love story is an interesting one! Source: Public Domain
By Carly Silver
Borman, Tracy Joanne. Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I. New York: Bantam, 2011.
Crouch, David. The Normans: The History of a Dynasty. New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2002.
Bottom of Form
Douglas, David C. William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.
McDougall, Sara. Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy, 800-1230. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017
van Houts, Elisabeth M. C. The Origins of Herleva, Mother of William the Conqueror.” The English Historical Review. 101.399 (1986): 399–404.
Weir, Alison. Britain’s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy. London: Vintage Books, 2008.
William of Malmesbury. Chronicle of the Kings of England From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen. Translated by J.A. Giles. London: Bell & Daldy, 1866.