Celts to the Crèche: Day 19
St. Bathilde (Balthilde) of Chelles
626/7-January 30, 680/687
On this 19th day of our journey with Celts to the Creche, we encounter St. Bathilde of Chelles, also known as Queen Balthilde and Baldechildis of France. She was born in Anglo-Saxon England likely into royalty. She became a slave to a Merovingian noble family and later married a King of France. She established or patronized numerous monasteries including Corbie and was likely the founder of Chelles Abbey. Bathilde spent much of her fortune on ransoming slaves. She also endowed the basilicas of Paris and even the basilicas of Peter and Paul in Rome and gave gifts to the poor in Rome.
You may desire to continue reading more about Bathilde or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.
Born in England and Sold into Slavery in France: We do not know exactly how Bathilde, an Anglo-Saxon in England became a slave in Merovingian France, but we do know that there was a slave trade in which Anglo-Saxons were taken captive in raids and were sold to those in France and Italy. She was purchased for the household of Erchinoald, the mayor of an area of France called Neustria. He was a relative of King Dagobert’s mother, Altetrude.
Becomes a Queen: In the Life of Bathilde that was likely written at her monastery of Chelles by one of her nuns soon after her death, it states that Erchinoald’s wife had died and he was smitten with this beautiful blonde woman who was clever and courageous and wanted to marry her. He probably realized that she was well-bred, that she had likely been royalty in England. She did not want to marry him and hid until he had found someone else to marry. Somehow she ended up catching the eye of Clovis II, king of Neustria and Burgundy and became his Queen. Bathilde had three sons with him, Clothar III, Childeric, and Theuderic. Her husband died when their children were young and Bathilde took up the regency for her six year old son, Clothar III who became king.
In the Life of Wilfrid, who was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop, the writer accused Queen Bathilde of having ordered the deaths of nine bishops, but no one knows whether this was true. We do know that the leaders of the Celtic monasteries including St. Hilda of Whitby (see day 2 of Celts to the Creche) did not care for Wilfrid.
Uses Her Wealth for Good: Bathilde used the royal treasury to fund the establishment of several monasteries like Chelles and Corbie. She also patronized those that were already established including St. Denis, Luxeuil, and Jouarre. As Queen, she required reformation in the church and worked to stop simony; to ensure the adoption of rules in monasteries; the redemption of slaves; the prohibition against enslaving Christians; and the punishment for infanticide.
Her monastery at Chelles, founded between 657 and 660 was east of Paris, near modern-day EuroDisney. Some think that St. Clothilde first opened Chelles Monastery and later Bathilde took it over and enlarged it. The first Abbess of Chelles under Bathilde was Bertilla (Bertille) whom she brought over along with some nuns from the monastery of Jouarre when Theodechilde was Abbess (see day 21 of Celts to the Creche). Balthilde entered Chelles about 664 AD as a nun. Chelles likely followed the Celtic Rule of St. Columbanus (see day 8 of Celts to the Creche) that was moderated later.
Bede (see day 23 of Celts to the Creche) in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People wrote that Queen Hereswith (see day 3 of Celts to the Creche) entered Chelles Monastery when she went (perhaps was exiled) to France from East Anglia. I think Bede is incorrect as at the time Hereswith entered a monastery, Chelles had not even been established yet. I believe that Hereswith went to the already established Faremoutiers and perhaps later in life, transferred to Chelles. It was heartening to discover that the Merovingian scholar, J.M. Wallace-Hadrill also agrees with this assessment, he wrote “Chelles, was not founded, or possibly refounded, by Balthildis until 660, and even then the foundation may not have been complete….For the same reason it is unlikely that in 647 Hild could have intended to enter Chelles and that her sister Hereswith should have already been a nun there, as implied by Bede in IV. 21.”1
Corbie Monastery located in the Picardy region of France was also founded by Bathilde along with her son Clotaire III. She arranged for monks from Luxueil Monastery, founded by Irish Columbanus to come help set up this new monastic foundation. So, Corbie had a strong Celtic inspiration.
Her Place of Resurrection: Bathilde died on January 30, 680 or 687 (some say she died on January 26) and was buried at Chelles. It is said that near her death she had a vision of a ladder reaching from the altar to heaven, and she climbed up this into the company of angels. She was buried in a red semicircular cloak with yellow fringes.2 Along with the cloak was a shirt/tunic/chausable which bore an embroidered necklace. It is thought that the shirt is in too good a shape to have been burial clothes and was likely cared for by the nuns throughout the years.3 These burial clothes were on display at the Musée Alfred Bonno in Chelles before they temporarily closed for two-three years. The museum’s contents that are still being cared for there will be transferred to another location according to a February 1, 2019 email conversation with Dr. Christian Charamond, Directeur du Musée et du Service Archéologique de Chelles.
Interestingly, items of clothing were found in 1983 when historian Jean-Pierre LaPorte had the reliquaries at the parish church of Chelles opened. This hoard of treasures had parchment tags from about the 7th-9th centuries attached to each item telling about whom the item belonged.4 (On a sidenote, in September 2009, my spouse and I circled around and around and around the bustling town of Chelles for two hours and sadly, could never locate the Bonno museum that I so desperately wanted to visit.)
Chelles Monastery survived until the French Revolution when it was destroyed and its’ treasures taken away including the manuscripts produced by the nuns in the well-known scriptorium. It is recorded that the Abbess Ermentrude of Jouarre in the 9th century, owned a number of relics including relics of St. Bathilde.5
In 1999, a metal detectorist found a gold seal matrix in a field in Postwick, 4.5 miles east of Norwich, England. At one time the seal had been attached to a ring. One side shows a woman’s face and her name Baldahildis in Frankish lettering. The other side portrays two naked figures, a man and a woman, embracing one another beneath a cross. No one is sure how it got from France to England, but perhaps one of her Anglo-Saxon relatives brought it back to her home area.
At Sutton Hoo, the famous ship burial filled with treasure in East Anglia, England, there were numerous gold Merovingian coins. We know that there was much travel back and forth between those two countries that had familial connections. It is interesting to me that Bathilde’s name even has the name “Hild” in it.
Feast Day January 30
Often we see saints such as Bathilde, in whom the Spirit has taken something so very awful and horrible in our life and turned it to good, transformed it into blessing. May we trust the Spirit to take those tender, bruised, broken, shattered places of our life and remold and remake them into something that is beautiful and whole. The Hebrew people used the term “shalom” for the peace of God, but it had a deeper meaning for them than just peace. Shalom meant the fullness of peace: wholeness, good health, reconciliation, justice, and goodwill.
1 Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary, p. 232.
2 Effros, Caring for Body & Soul, p. 21.
3 Ibid, p. 160.
4 Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Essays on Medieval Europe in Honor of Daniel F. Callahan, ed. by Michael Frassetto, John Hosler, Matthew Gabriele, p. 156.
5Chaussy. L’Abbaye Royale Notre-Dame de Jouarre, p. 76-77 and Schulenberg, “Women’s Monasteries and Sacred Space”, in Gender & Christianity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives, p. 72.
Bathilde Seal Matrix. Norfolk Museum Collections.
BBC: A History of the World. Personal Seal Matrix of Queen Bathild.
Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2015.
Chaussy, Yves. L’Abbaye Royale Notre-Dame de Jouarre. Paris: G. Victor, 1961.
Effros, Bonnie. Caring for Body & Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. University Park, PA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Crook, John. English Medieval Shrines. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2011.
Fouracre, Paul and Richard A. Gerberding. “Vita Domnae Balthildis (The Life of Lady Balthild, Queen of the Franks).” Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography 640-720. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996.
Fox, Yaniv. Power and Religion in Merovingian Gaul: Columban Monasticism and the Frankish Elites. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Geary, Patrick. Before France & Germany: The Creation & Transformation of the Merovingian World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Harrison, Dick. The Age of Abbesses and Queens: Gender and Political Culture in Early Medieval Europe. Lund, Sweden: Nordic Academic Press, 1998.
Hilder, Marie. “a post concerning the textiles in Chelles and Balthilde.” British Medieval History on Facebook, March 24, 2018.
Jones, Trefor. The English Saints: East Anglia. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 1999.
Kornbluth, Genevra. Tunic of Balthilde. Kornbluth Photography, Historical Archive. This photographer has taken excellent photos of numerous historical objects including those of Balthilde. (www.kornbluthphoto.com)
Laporte, Jean-Pierre. Trésors de Chelles: Sepultures et Reliques de la Reine Bathilde et de L’Abbesse Bertille. Organisée au Musée Alfred Bonno. Ville de Chelles, France: Societe Archeologique et Historique Les Amis Du Musee, 1991.
“Life of Bathilde” in Jo Ann McNamara, ed and trans. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.
Musée Alfred Bonno. Chelles, France. NOTE: this museum has temporarily closed, but Bathilde’s items are still there being cared for until the museum is transferred to another location. (some of Bathilde’s clothes and even her blonde braided hair are housed in this museum along with relics from Chelle’s first Abbess Bertille who was sent from the Jouarre Abbey)
Nelson, Janet. “Queens as Jezebels: the careers of Brunhild and Balthild in Merovingian History, ” in Baker, Derek, ed. Medieval Women. Oxford: Basil Blackwell for The Ecclesiastical History Society, 1978, 1985 reprint.
Our Orthodox Life. Vitae Sanctae Bathildis.
Ranft, Patricia. Women and the Religious Life in Premodern Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.
Schoenbechler, Roger. “Merovingian Monastic Women,” in Magistra: A Journal of Women’s Spirituality in History. Vol. 1, No. 2.
Schulenburg, Jane Tibbets. Forgetful of their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500–1100. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
_____________. “Women’s Monasteries and Sacred Space” in Gender & Christianity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives ed. by Lisa M. Bitel and Felice Lifshitz, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2008.
Siglindesart’s Blog: interesting account about a visit to the Musée Alfred Bonno to see Bathilde’s clothing. February 16, 2013. (she has some photos of Bathilde’s clothing.)
Stephanus, Eddius. The Life of Wilfrid.
Suvia’s Letters: A blog dedicated to the Merovingian World and Material Culture . (an interesting and excellent blog concerning the clothes/hairstyles of the Merovingian women. There are photos of Bathilde’s long hair that was wound with ribbons found in her sarcophagus). Also more information at alfalfa press/Suvia.
Textile Research Centre, Leiden. Chemise de Sainte Balthilde.
Torchet, Charles. Histoire de L’Abbaye Royale de Notre-Dame De Chelles, V. 1. Paris: Retaux-Bray, Libraire-Éditeur, 1889, reprint.
“Vita Domnae Balthidlis” (The Life of Lady Balthild, Queen of the Franks) in Fouracre, Paul and Richard A. Gerberding. Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography 640-720. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996.
Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
Wemple, Suzanne Fonay. “Female Spirituality and Mysticism in Frankish Monasteries: Radegund, Balthild and Aldegund,” in Peaceweavers: Vol. 2, ed. by Lillian Thomas Shank and John A. Nichols. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1987.
__________. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and Cloister 500-900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1981.
Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Essays on Medieval Europe in Honor of Daniel F. Callahan, ed. by Michael Frassetto, John Hosler, Matthew Gabriele, Brill, 2014.
Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.