St. Bathilde : A Norfolk Girl Who Did Well?

Bathilde’s Chemise. Copyright Kornbluth Photo,

There was little awareness of, or interest in St. Bathilde in East Anglia, even though she was a child of the 7th Century elite. She died in 658 and was canonised 200 years later. Her burial robe is pictured above.

Part of the silence may be because in the early 7th Century East Anglia was pre-literate; and many written records are thought to have been lost in subsequent raids from Vikings among others; but embarrassment about the circumstances of her exile to the Kingdom of the Franks might have played a role too!

In 627, or thereabouts, Ricberht ascended to the throne of East Anglia having first assassinated Eopwald the existing King. Subsequently, in the year 630, with the help of allies, Sigberht came from exile in Francia and deposed Ricberht.

Sometime later we hear of Bathilde as a slave in the household of Echinwoald, the Mayor of the Palace of Nuestria.  Some have guessed that she was enslaved because of her family’s support of the deposed king.  Like the 20th century au pair who married a millionaire, or Cinderella who found her prince; Bathilde did rather well!  Noticed by King Clovis II;  reader, she married him,  bore three sons; and when he died (in 655 or a little later) Bathilde ruled as regent until her children where of age.

Bathilde Seal Matrix
Copyright British Museum PAS-8709C3

Bathilde used her position of power to found monasteries and outlaw the practice of taking and trading Christian slaves. When her children  came of age she became abbess of the abbey she had founded at Chelles .

Although the histories refer to Bathilde as a slave, perhaps the Anglo-Saxon kennings ( i.e. compound words) used to describe Queen Wealtheow in the Beowulf saga might equally be applied to Bathilde – peace-pledge and peace-weaver.  She was part of an extensive network linking eastern England with the royal family and  Church of the Merovignian kingdoms of Burgundy, Austrasia and  Neustria.   Hereswith,  Hilde of Whitby’s sister, who had married into the East Anglian royal family became a nun at Chelles sometime during the 640’s;  contemporary with Hereswith , Saethryth and Aethelburg ,daughters of King Anna of East Anglia , were nuns at the nearby monastery at Faramoutier.  The similarity between the embroidered necklace on Bathilde’s Chemise (above) and the recently discovered Winfarthing Pendant is striking.

Bathilde Seal (reverse)
Copyright British Museum

Bathilde’s seal matrix – the picture above shows the side used for her private correspondence -was found by metal detectorists in the Norfolk parish of Postwick.  The discovery sparked speculation that her family connections were with this part of Norfolk; and that her personal belongings were returned to Norfolk after her death.

Was she saintly?  She was formally canonised 200 years after her death.  Stephen of Ripon, who wrote the Life of St. Wilfrid, had a contrary view.  Stephen records Bathilde’s ruthlessness  and involvement in church politics which included the assassination of troublesome  bishops!

Both the Bathilde Seal Matrix and Whitton Pendant are displayed in Norrwich’s Castle Museum

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