Saint Balthild of Ascania (c. 626 – January 30, 680), also called Bathilda, Baudour, or Bauthieult, was the wife and queen of Clovis II, king of Burgundy and Neustria (639–658). Born in around 626–627, two traditions, independent and conflicting, collaborate to form the history of her life. One is a hagiography which was intended to further her successful candidature for sainthood. The other is a record of chroniclers, including Jo Ann Mcnamara, Michael Frassetto and Lynda L. Coon. All of whom have a different, slightly less biased rhetoric when describing her deeds.
Both traditions represent her as an Anglo-Saxon originally of elite birth, perhaps a relative of King Ricberht of East Anglia, the last pagan king there. Ricberht was ousted by his Christian rival Sigeberht, who had spent time in the Frankish court. He was established as the rightful heir to the throne with Frankish help. Balthild was sold into slavery as a young girl and served in the household of Erchinoald, mayor of the palace of Neustria to Clovis. There are varying views of what exactly happened to her while in Erchinoald’s possession.
According to Vita S. Bathildis Balthild was beautiful, intelligent, modest, and attentive to the needs of others. Erchinoald (whose wife had died) was attracted to Balthild and wanted to marry her, but she did not want to marry him. She hid herself away and waited until Erchinoald remarried. Later, possibly because of Erchinoald, King Clovis II noticed her and asked for her hand in marriage.
Even as queen, she remained humble and modest. She is famous for her charitable service and generous donations. From her donations, the abbeys of Corbie and Chelles were founded (and likely others such as those of Jumièges, Jouarre, and Luxeuil). She also provided support to Saint Claudius of Besançon and his abbey in the Jura Mountains. She bore her husband three children, all of whom became kings: Clotaire, Childeric, and Theuderic.
When Balthild's husband died between 655 and 658, Clotaire, the eldest son and heir to the throne, succeeded at age five. Balthild served as the queen regent until he came of age in 664, when she was forced into a convent. As queen, she was a capable stateswoman. She abolished the practice of trading Christian slaves and even sought the freedom of children sold into slavery. This claim is corroborated by Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, who mentions that Balthild and saint Eloi (also known as Eligulus according to Dado) “worked together on their favorite charity, the buying and freeing of slaves”. As the story goes, after Balthild's three children were of age and "established in their respective territories" (Clotaire in Neustria, Childeric in Austrasia, and perhaps Theuderic in Burgundy), Balthild entered the abbey and gave up her royal rank. She dedicated the rest of her life to serving the poor and the infirm.
Balthild died on January 30, 680. She is buried at her foundation, the Abbey of Chelles outside of Paris. Her Vita was first written soon after her death, probably by one of the community of Chelles. The Vita Baldechildis/Vita Bathildis reginae Francorum in Monumenta Germania Historica, Scriptores Rerum Merovincarum 2, like most of the vitae of royal Merovingian-era saints, provides some useful details for the historian. Her official cult began when her remains were transferred from the former abbey to a new church, in 833, under the auspices of Louis the Pious. Balthild was canonised by Pope Nicholas I about 200 years after her death.
Sainted Women of the Dark Ages states that Balthild “was not the first Merovingian queen to begin her career in servitude”. Other Merovingian queens who arose from servile status are Fredegund, mother of Clothaire II; Bilichild, wife of Theudebert of Austrasia; and possibly Nanthild, mother of Clovis II. During the minority of Clotaire III she had to deal with the attempted coup of Grimoald, the major domus of Austrasia, but enjoyed the continued support of her former master Erchinoald. In fact, according to Sainted Women of the Middle Ages, he became a sort of “political mentor” to her throughout her marriage to Clovis II.
According to some historians, Balthild’s creation and involvement with monasteries was perhaps an act to “balance or even neutralize the efforts of the aristocratic opposition”. She installed her supporters as bishops of different sees which allowed her to gain even more power as a ruler.
According to the Vita Sancti Wilfrithi by Stephen of Ripon, she was a ruthless ruler, in continuing conflict with the bishops; she seems to have been responsible for several assassinations. However, according to A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, sects and Doctrines, some of these assassinations may not have even occurred. The bishop she so famously murdered, Dalfinus, is found on no list of bishops of Lyon. The story is thought to have possibly been written to embellish the life of Wilfrid at this time .
The vita of Saint Eligius by his companion Dado reports in chapter 2 of book 32, "Then his widowed queen with her boys obtained the reign for a few years. She was afterward removed by law and left the principate to her sons..."15 She was frustrated in her desire to have Eligius entombed at her monastery of Chelles (Eligius, vita, II.37). Though, according to this text, she performed a miracle in the process of trying to have his body moved to her monastery of Chelles (II 37). After his death, an apparition of Eligius appeared to one of her servants (II.41). After appearing multiple times to the servant without Balthild’s knowledge, the servant fell ill. When she confessed her visions to the queen, she was immediately cured. Because of these visions, Balthild was convinced to strip off her gold and jeweled ornaments, "keeping nothing except gold bracelets." According to the rest of the text, the gold she removed was separated into alms for the poor.
A gold seal matrix, which was originally attached to a seal-ring, was uncovered in 1999 by a metal detector in a field a few miles east of Norfolk's county town, Norwich. It has two sides. The official side shows a woman's face and her name BALDAHILDIS in Frankish lettering. The private side shows two naked figures, a man and a woman, embracing one another beneath a cross. In Merovingian Gaul, one seal identified official documents; the other, apparently, private ones. Although Frankish Balthildis, or the Old English form Bealdhild, would not have been an exceptional name at the time, there is a good possibility that it refers to Balthild, wife of Clovis II. It is uncertain why the object ended up in Norwich, but it may have been an honorable gift or if the identification is correct, a representative of Balthild's may have worn it to identify himself as such. It has also been suggested that the seal matrix was returned to her kin after her death. The seal matrix is conserved in the Norwich Castle Museum.