Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bathilda

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BATHILDA, BALTECHILDIS, BALDECHILD, or BALDHILD (d. 678?), the wife of one and mother of three Frankish kings, was, according to her contemporary biographers, of noble birth. The same authorities state that while yet of tender years she was carried off by pirates, who sold her to Erchinwald, mayor of the palace (640–c. 658), in the times of Dagobert and his son Clovis II. From a comparison of texts it would appear that she was of English, or rather of Saxon birth, for both the anonymous lives above alluded to say that she came from parts beyond sea (‘de partibus transmarinis’), while one of them adds that she was a Saxon by race—a statement which is corroborated by nearly all the chronicles of the age (compare Fredegarius ap. Du Chesne, i. 767, Gesta Reg. Franc. 568, and Chronicon Adonis, 669, ap. Dom. Bouq. ii., with Vita Bath. ci. ap. Boll. For ‘transmarinus’ used of an Englishman see Eddius, Vit. Wilfr. ch. vi.). On being received into Erchinwald's household her industry and humility were so pleasing to the mayor of the palace that he first appointed her to bring him his evening draught, and afterwards, on his wife's death, determined to marry her. But Bathilda, we are told, hid herself among the rushes till her lord had secured another partner. Later, about 649, she married Clovis II, to whom she bore three sons, all destined in their turn to rule over the kingdom of the Franks. It was now that Bathilda had her first opportunity of showing that lavish generosity for which her name is famous in French ecclesiastical history. But she seems to have been exemplary in all the other duties of her station, ‘obeying the king as her lord, showing herself as a mother to the chiefs, a daughter to the priests, and encouraging the young in all studies.’ Clovis II was ready to help her in so pious a work, and gave her Genesius, afterwards archbishop of Lyons, to be her almoner. In a short time her power in the kingdom was probably increased by the sudden madness which befell her husband in the last two years of his reign—a misfortune which has variously been attributed to sacrilege, to over-devotion, and to intemperance. On Clovis II's death (656) his young son, Clothaire III, a boy of but some seven years of age, was recognised as king over both Austrasia and Neustria; but the chroniclers are explicit in saying that his mother ruled with him (Gesta Reg. apud Dom. Bouquet, ii. 569; Fredegarius apud Du Chesne, i. 767). The next few years seem to have been comparatively peaceful, and were spent by the queen in all kinds of good works. She was urgent in building or enlarging churches and monasteries, and in reforming the abuses of the time. She endeavoured in every direction to enforce obedience to monastic vows, to suppress simony, to encourage learning, and to put down slavery. She purchased the freedom of several captives, and emancipated many children of both sexes to be trained up for a life of prayer. Her biographer adds that she was particularly kind to those of her own Saxon or Anglian race. In the meanwhile Bathilda had been founding many churches and monasteries, and several of the most famous abbeys of France were largely indebted to her generosity. To the abbeys of Jumièges, of Fontenelle, and of Troyes she was a generous protector; while for that of Corbie she took off the girdle from her waist as a gift to the brethren there. To Luxeuil and the other Burgundian monasteries she was a lavish patron, and it was she who called St. Leger from his uncle's see, and who, later, when the rival bishops were shedding blood in the streets of Autun, appointed him to the vacant post. The most cherished of all her labours was the reconstruction of the great nunnery at Chelles, not far from Paris, on the site of the ruined buildings which the wife of the first Clovis had founded more than 150 years before, and which she, the wife of the second, was to restore to far greater splendour. Here in 648 Hereswitha, the mother of Ealdwulf, king of the East Angles, had already settled; and here her sister Hilda, Caedmon's patroness, who afterwards founded the great abbey of Whitby, once had thoughts of going. Its possessions and rights were confirmed by her own hands and those of her sons, and curses were solemnly invoked on any abbess who in future times should diminish its estates, or alienate any part of its domains as a benefice. ‘Which document,’ says one of her contemporary biographers, ‘whoever cares may see in the archives of the church.’ To rule over this large nunnery she begged from the abbess of Joaire one of the nuns there, Bertila, whose fame had reached the court, and who was accordingly appointed abbess. The churches of St. Denys, St. Germains, St. Medard (at Soissons), St. Martin's (at Tours), and many others shared her care.

In an interesting passage from the life of St. Eligius, which claims to have been written by his fellow-saint, St. Audoen, we see Bathilda almost face to face in all her religious enthusiasm and devotion. She seems to have held St. Eligius in greater regard than any other churchman of the age. It was he who, a few years back, had calmed her fears lest her first-born should be a girl, who fixed its name before its birth, and had, with that artificer's skill in which he surpassed all his contemporaries, devised a special cradle for the child. He is likewise said to have predicted Bathilda's regency, her eldest son's decease, and other events. When, in the night of 30 Nov. 659, Eligius died at Noyon, the queen came early next morning, accompanied by her three young sons, her chief nobles, and a great host of people. Kissing the dead saint's face and stroking his hands, she burst into tears, and tradition told how, despite the December frost, the blood gushed from the nostrils of the corpse at the queen's touch. For three days Bathilda enjoined and kept a strict fast, hoping to remove the body to her monastery at Chelles. But for no efforts, so ran the legend at the time, could the bier be moved, not even when the queen herself put her hands to the task. She then reluctantly consented that the saint should be buried outside the walls of his own city. Bathilda followed the funeral cortege on foot, and could not be persuaded to use her horse-chariot, although the winter had made the country a huge morass. Later, at the saint's bidding, she stripped herself of all her ornaments except the golden bracelets on her arm, making of them a gold and silver vault (‘crepa’) to enshrine the body of the dead artificer, which she carefully wrapped in garments of unmixed silk (‘holo-serica’) prepared by her own hands.

In other pages of her own or the next century she appears as the persecutor and the murderess. Eddius tells us how St. Wilfrid on his journey to and from Rome was kindly received by Dalphinus, the archbishop of Lyons, who offered to make the young Englishman his heir and to give him his daughter in marriage. ‘But at that time,’ Eddius continues, ‘an evilly-disposed queen, Baldhild by name, persecuted the church of God. As the most wicked Jezebel of old, who slew God's prophets, so she bade slay ten bishops, of whom this Dalphinus was one.’ Bathilda seems to have given orders for him to be brought to the court, and to have had him slain on the way. Wilfrid, we read, was desirous of sharing his patron's fate, but the murderers, on hearing that he was an Englishman, appear to have been afraid to take away the life of one who was of their queen's race. The whole question, however, is full of obscurity. No Dalphinus is to be found in the list of the archbishops of Lyons, though certain old breviaries belonging to that diocese have preserved the name of a Count Dalphinus and his brother, Bishop Annemund, who, having been unable to attend a gathering of the Frankish chiefs at Orleans, was slandered to the king as a traitor, and privily put to death at Chalons by his enemies. It seems probable either that Annemund and Dalphinus were one and the same, or that Annemund the archbishop had a brother Dalphinus, and that Eddius has confused the two. The French hagiographers are much concerned to explain away Bathilda's action in slaying a bishop, and are glad to refer the whole occurrence to the machinations of Ebroin, who had succeeded to Erchinwald about the year 658. Many manuscripts read Brunechilde for Baldchild—a palpable error, as Brunechilde was dead before Wilfrid's birth (see original passages, eddius, iv.–vi.; Bede, v. 19; Will. Malm. iii. 100; and the whole question discussed, Acta Sanct. 26 Jan., p. 737; Ste-Marthe's Gallia Christ iv. 43–7; Mabillon's Annal. Benedict. i. 425).

But, besides being a church patron, Bathilda was a stateswoman, and it may be that it is in the last capacity that she appears in the preceding paragraph. In 660, mainly, we are told, by her management and that of her councillors, Bishop Chrodobert of Paris, Audoen of Rouen, and Ebroin, her second son, Childeric, was appointed king of Austrasia, an event which seems to have led to a more or less settled peace between the two countries. Some four years later (664 or 665?), when her eldest son was of fit age to govern, Bathilda at last found herself able to carry out her long-cherished desire of retiring from the world. Her nobles had been strongly opposed to this step, for ‘the Franks,’ we are told, ‘loved her very greatly,’ and it was only by an accident that she finally accomplished her wish. A certain Sigoberrand, apparently one of her most trusted councillors, had given offence to his fellow Franks, and they, conspiring together, put him to death without due trial (‘contra legem’). Fearing lest Bathilda should take vengeance for her friend's murder, they now consented to her retirement; and she, having first taken counsel with the priests, pardoned the offenders.

From this time the queen's life seems to have been spent in works of piety. In the nunnery of Chelles she submitted to the rule of that Bertila whom she had herself made abbess. Nor did the lowhest offices of the household or the kitchen shock her. Sometimes, however, she would revisit the outside world. At the request of Bertila she would carry the ‘eulogia’ or gifts to the royal court, so that the king and his nobles might protect her favourite foundation. She took the poor and the stranger guests under her special care; and so continued her pious life till (c 678) she fell sick of an internal disease, ‘quod medici ileos vocant,’ and had to entrust herself to a physician's hands. As her last hours drew on, she refused to let the sisters call up the aged abbess to her bedside, because, being so infirm, the shock might kill her. From her dying couch she gave orders that her little godchild, Radegunde, should be placed beside her in the tomb, and so died, seeing, according to the pious fancy of the times, her old friend Genesius with a choir of angels waiting to receive her soul. She was buried at Chelles in the church of the Holy Cross, where the remains of her eldest son, Clothaire III, had lain since 670. Some hundred and fifty years later her body was removed to the church of St. Mary, by order of Hegilwich, abbess of Chelles, and mother of Judith, wife of Louis the Pious.

There are two early lives of St. Bathilda, of which the first seems, from internal evidence, to have been written shortly after her death. The second, which is very largely based upon the former, is considered by the Bollandist fathers to be nearly contemporary, but is assigned by Mabillon (Annal. Benedict. 555) to the middle of the eighth century.

[Act. Sanct. 26 Jan. 732–49; Fredegarius apud Dom. Bouquet, 449, &c.; Gesta Reg. apud Dom. Bouq. ii. 569, &c.; Vita S. Leodegarii apud Dom. Bouquet, ii. 612, &c.; Vita Bertilæ ap. Du Chesne, i. 669, 618; Acta Sanct. apud Bolland in Vita Wandregesil, 22 July, 276; Vita Frodoberti, 8 Jan. 508; Vita Ansberti, 9 Feb. 347; and Vita Philiberti, 20 Aug. 76; Mabillon's Annales Benedict. i.; D'Achery's Acta Sanct. Benedict. sæc. ii. 994; Le Cointe's Annales Eccles. Franc. iii.; Ghesquière's Acta Sanct. Belg. in Vita S. Eligii, iii. 286–9; Bede's Hist. Eccles. iv. c. 23, iii. 8; Barthélemy's Vie de St. Eloi; Binet's Vie de Ste. Bathilde; and authorities cited above.]

T. A. A.