Harlette, daughter of Fulbert the Tanner, changed the course of history for ever when she raised her skirts a little higher than necessary in the courtyard of Gilbert Count of Brionne, one of the most powerful landowners in Normandy.
Ambitions of a medieval lady
Her charms were noticed and she was summoned to Gilbert’s side. Soon ambitious Harlette (also know as Hervela) was no longer stamping dye in a courtyard but a fragrant and gilded lady. After the usual 9 months a son, Richard, was born
Fabulous if fickle, Harlette then caught the eye of Robert, 6th Duke of Normandy. Robert, just 21, was a direct descendent of Rollo the Viking. In a heartbeat Harlette left Château de Brionne for Robert and the Château of Falaise.
Pride and passion
Harlette was proud as well as gorgeous and demanded to enter the castle on horseback, not be shuffled in by the back door like his other conquests. The young Duke was infatuated and allowed her outrageous wish.
Harlette arrived at the entrance to Falaise castle on a white horse, bedecked in the finest clothes and jewels her previous lover had bought her.
Harlette was Robert’s official mistress for a few short years. In 1028 a baby William was born, the only son to survive this powerful man.
Once William was past the dangerous early years of childhood he was taken from his mother and bought up as his father’s son. How this separation affected William we can only guess. Records say he was always fond of Harlette, although he was never allowed to forget his scandalous origins.
Years later the citizens of Alençon besieged by William, now Duke of Normandy, hung cow hides on the battlements of their castle and taunted him for being a ‘tanner’s bastard child’. But a special toughness creates conquerors as 32 captives discovered when their hands and feet were hacked off in vile retribution.
Happiness for Harlette
Harlette did eventually marry, not the Duke but at his suggestion a friend Herluin of Conteville. She was blessed with three more children; Odo, Robert and Muriel.
During difficult medieval times William was grateful for loyal family. When he invaded England in October 1066 William invited his three half-brothers, Richard Fitz Gilbert, Odo Bishop of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain to join him.
After victory at Hastings they battled on to London. By December London and England were conquered.
William was crowned King of England on Christmas day 1066. His brothers’ allegiance was well rewarded with land and titles. They would be part of a new English aristocracy.
The tanner’s daughter had created an astonishing legacy.
We tried to match this stunning vintage image of the castle but were defeated, despite exploring the hill opposite thoroughly. We nearly found it after trudging over a field and through some trees but then a new housing estate got in the way. One of those homes must have the best view in Falaise.
If you have this match, please send us your photos!
More on William the Conqueror:
- How to invade England – 1066 and all that
- The very private castle of William the Conqueror, at Bonneville-sur-Touques
- The ghosts of Normandy past, in Sussex England
- Spartacus Educational
- Great Lives From History by Howard Bromberg
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