The Tale of Bealhildis or how an Anglo-Saxon slave became a saintly French Queen
By TS Morangles
Part One: From Riches to Rags (warning: this chapter requires tissues)
Often, the British media accuse France of being mistakenly blind to the virtues embodied by men who dwell across the Channel: France is the country which produced Bonaparte, the kingdom which repulsed the English pretenders etc. and ad libitum…
To be Frank (yes, it is a pitiful pun), France has not been very kind with its Queens of Anglo-Saxon origin … until one realizes something is missing. Yes, Mary of England born Tudor pretended to be pregnant in the forlorn hope to get his brother Henry VIII sole guardian of the child (if she had been, Prince Hal would have had such a laugh) while the Plantagenet ladies suffered frankly hostile crowds (not a pun). Did British ladies fail to impress the French? One would think until one reads about the success story of Bealhildis or as we call her now Bathilde: The East Anglian gal who enjoyed the fairy tale wedding down to the edifying death. Giving a name to the French Dynasties to come and a very rare glimpse of Merovingian female fashion.
Bealhildis probably was born around 631. Proposed year has been calculated as she was reportedly 6 years older than her husband who (this time we know for sure) was born in 637. We do not know much of her early years except what we know from Fredegar’s Chronicles. Shall we say we know less on her beginnings than we know of her end.
However, it is not every day England gives a home girl to be worshipped as a Saint by enthusiastic Gallic crowds. Her feast day will be celebrated on January 30th.
The ages are dark in Britain and troubled in Frankia. Eadbald, grandson of Charibert of Paris rules in Kent along his Frankish Queen Ymme (possibly Dagobert sister or cousin from Austrasia). Kent is an island of Christianity surrounded by Pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Raedwald of East Anglia, a king of uncertain faith is dead. His brother-in-law the converted king of Northumbria has been killed in battle by Penda of Mercia along a native Romano-Briton of Gwynedd. Caedwallon ap Cadfan is Christian but not Roman Catholic like in Kent. After the disaster of Haetfelt, Eadbald has found no other solution but send his surviving nephew to Dagobert.
Penda and Caedwallon will not murder the little boy and the surviving entourage of Deira nobles. It will be one of these recurring fevers which are dreaded by all the parents of these Barbarian days. Eadbald’s nephew dies along his cousins: Dagobert’s own sons and very likely his own Queen.
This double tragedy solves for once and for all any dynastic worry for Northumbria; it also shows Britain and Frankia were not living apart: Eoforwic, Cantwarabyrgh, Paris…. Add to this some Merovingian coins found in a purse in Sutton Hoo and we turn to East Anglia.
Raedwald, blamed by Bede for his lack of Christian conviction leaves a complicated succession. Some of his heirs are Christian like Sighebert; others are not. Sighebert gives East Anglia its first royal saint (when one dynasty could no more hail from Woden, a martyred king was top of the royal charts). Sighebert rules, enters a convent (willingly is debatable as convents were often a way out for rivals to the throne when one was not keen on killing one’s kin). Penda attacks and Blessed Sighebert is no more.
Penda the pagan will carry on collecting the heads of quite a few Christian kings as now it includes Edwin of Deira, his nephew Oswald since Maserfelth and Anna, Raedwald’s nephew…
These are the days where in England, slain kings have their heads cut off after their death to adorn a spear left as grim reminder not to anger Penda. For their wives and children, it is exile like for Eadbald sister… otherwise it is slavery or in the case of Acha of Deira she becomes a concubine. Finally, there is death.
In East Anglia, Penda feasts while a little girl born in a Royal Hall is sold into slavery…ending up as a servant to the king in his palace of Paris.
How old is she? We do not know except she is old enough to spend a few years in the capacity of a domestic in the royal household. A household in disarray.
In 639, Dagobert dies living as sole heir’s two young boys. Sigebert, the eldest is with luck about 8; the youngest Clovis is not yet two. To be orphaned is sad, to lose both parents is life threatening. Clovis is barely five, king and now under the guardianship of the Neustrian Mayor of the Palace Erchinoald while Sigebert is under the care of Pippin of Landen in Austrasia.
From the menial position of Major Domo: in short the head butler; the now Mayors of Palaces are powerful; soon they will lead armies. In the case of Erchinoald, he has to deal with the Houses of Neustria and Burgundy (a souvenir from King Gunthram, Dagobert great-uncle).
The crown rests on the thin shoulders of two children. In the distant future, another Clovis or as it will evolve Louis will become king at the tender age of five. The survival of the Bourbon family needs an heir: Louis will be married at 15.
It says a lot that in these very dark days two young boys will stay alive and reach adulthood to become fathers. Erchinoald and Pippin must have cared for their young charges. Nobody seems to have cared for poor Balthildis. Unless….
Unless the Kent connection which had introduced Christianity to East Anglia played a long game.
Nobody knows for sure the father of Balthildis. Frankish chronicles mention a Sigoigne of Ascagnie. If the writing is obscure, the pronunciation is less. Sigoigne sounds like a Saxon Sigebert as for Ascagnie; it makes sense imagining a Frankish mouth trying to say East Anglia! Or Anglie as it was written at the time. Who is our little slave/servant/exile mother? We do not know.
Possibly, some womenfolk of the king of Kent. A king protected from Penda by his close ties with the rulers of the Frankish realm. In a time where trade however budding and uncertain at it was, being the cousin of the King and as such probably allowed the famous long hair sported by any male of the Clovis family, Eadbald had more justification to become his cousins guardian if… if the Salian Law was not ruling. Eadbald born from a Frankish princess and married to Ymme another Frankish princess had too many fingers in the pies of trade with the continent. Maybe Penda own merchants were given places of choice, allowed to go to Quentovic…
Penda did not threaten Kent and Kent sorted the difficult problem of what to do with female relatives whose life is in danger if they stay in England. Dagobert provided safety to Eadbald nephew and possibly his mother until Oswald of Northumbria killed in turn Caedwallon; who can say he did not accept another young exile.
The girl would be sent to a Convent or a noble household where she would wait for calmer, happier days. Things could always change. Sighebert certainly did not stay a monk; went back to lead his people and was slain consecutively in the 640s… A little girl whose father head was gracing the end of a spear, a refugee in Frankia. Cinderella in a less cruel home; but expected to be at the beck and call of richer, luckier relations.
While a younger king tries to emulate the great kings of his dynasties.
Stay tuned for the next episode: How a servant becomes a queen by saying no.
You can follow TS Morangles on Twitter @morangles