Monday, 16 January 2012

Name in the Spotlight: Herleva

Today's Spotlight is all about William the Conqueror's mother, usually known as Herleva (pronounced by Professor Robert Bartlett as Hur-LAY-vah).

Not much is known about Herleva and what is known is not all that certain. She may have been the daughter of a Norman tanner, but some sources have indicated that it is more likely that she came from a bourgeois family. The tale goes that she caught the attention of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy, when dyeing leather, a process that required her to trample on the material barefoot. She raised her skirts more than needed, the Duke saw, and, as they say, the rest is history. 

Herleva remained Robert's mistress for a number of years, giving him two children, Adelaide, and William in 1027. It is difficult to say why or how their relationship came to an end. Some sources state that Robert married Herleva to Herluin de Conteville, knowing that he himself could never marry her. Other sources argue that Herleva only married Herluin after Robert's death. Interestingly, Herleva named one of her sons from her marriage Robert.  An act of love, or a sign of respect to one's ruler?

Her name is possibly of Germanic roots, deriving from Old Norse elements of hari meaning 'army' and era meaning 'honour' (or elra meaning 'noble'). While undoubtedly unusual - I could only find one person in the BMD records- it  has similar sounds to some mainstream names of today, such as Helena (when pronounced Heh-LAY-nah), Ava and even Hermione

But William the Conqueror's mother appears in sources by various other names, such as Herleve, Herlette, Arlette, Arletta and Arlotte. It turns out  they are wonderful alternatives and only a few letters away from Scarlett and Charlotte, both at the top of their game, ranking #24 and #20 in England and Wales, respectively. There is something very stylish and unexpected about all these French sounding names. Herleva of Falaise certainly throws some interesting options our way.