The Life of Saint Bathildis, Queen of the Franks, by A Secular Priest

“Shaped her heart with woman’s meekness
To all duties of her rank:
And a gentle consort made he,
And her gentle mind was such
That she grew a noble lady,
And the people loved her much.”

Chapter 1 – Two provinces of the Franks – Reign of Dagobert I – The office of Mayor of the Palace – Bathildis, an English slave – is married to Clovis II – He dies

We are not concerned to follow the fortunes of the Merovingian race of kings, step by step, as it reached its highest point of glory, and thence began to decline. But as the commencement of its history is associated with a holy queen, so the beginning of its decline also introduces the reader to another saint, Bathildis, the wife of Clovis II. In order fully to understand the particulars of her life, it will be necessary to observe a few of the more striking changes which had been brought about in the conditions of the Franks, as a nation, during the century immediately succeeding the death of Saint Clotildis.

The four little provinces, (for in the modern sense it would be almost absurd to call them kingdoms,) of which the respective centres were Orleans, Paris, Soissons, and Metz, were fused into two, under the names of Austrasia and Neustria. Austrasia, or German-France, embraced the north-eastern part of ancient Gaul, of which the Franks had first made themselves masters, together with all the district of country stretching eastward to the confines of Germany and the Rhine. Its population was a shifting one; as new hordes of barbarians arrived from Germany, Frisians, Westphalians, and Saxons, they were not easily fused into the great Frank family, and thus the civilization of Austrasia was much retarded.

Neustria, or Roman-France, on the other hand, extended from the borders of the north-eastern province to the Atlantic Ocean, and towards the south, as far as the river Loire. It was the policy of Clovis, and of his successors, to make the most of this portion of their French possessions, as their ultimate design was the occupation of the whole territory of ancient Gaul. Through the failure of other branches of the race, it happened more than once in its history that the king of one of these provinces became king also of the other. Thus Clovis II and his son, Dagobert I, the friends and patrons of Saint Eloy, the goldsmith, held both provinces, and Burgundy into the bargain.

In Dagobert I the Merovingian race of kings is regarded as having reached its highest eminence. He was a good friend to religion, although, it must he confessed, his private life was, for a time at least, not strictly in accordance with his profession. He also laid the foundation of a system of laws for his people. From the period of his death (638,) the decline of his race is usually believed to have begun. The rapid decay of this line of kings has not escaped the remark of an eminent historian, who observes, that of the four sons of Clovis I, and again of Clotaire I, only one left issue. Most of the other kings died young men in years. They were a peculiar race. A king of the Franks was a father at fifteen, and an old man at thirty. Their sudden change from barbarism to the luxuries of comparative civilisation brought in its train habits of indulgence which proved fatal to strength and life, and at last extinguished the line altogether, in the feebleness of an effete race.

Another element in the history of the Frank kings demands notice, both as explaining another cause of their decline, and as intimately connected with the story of Bathildis. We mean the office of the Mayor of the palace, or major-domo; a kind of lord chamberlain; at first introduced by the kings, as an instrument for controlling the wealthy proprietors of land, from whom the mayor of the palace was always taken. In process of time, however, this officer found it more for his advantage to make common cause with the proprietors, and to control the king; thus he became at length the nominee, not of the king, but of the proprietors, who elected their favorite. In this way the family of Pepin, mayor of the palace in Austrasia, rose to power, and finally superseded in name, as it had long done in fact, the royal line of Clovis.

On the death of Dagobert I, Austrasia fell to the share of his son Sigebert II, while Neustria and Burgundy were allotted to his other son, Clovis II, then a minor; in whose name the regency was held by his mother, Nantechilde, and by d’Eghe, mayor of the palace. The chief ornament of his court were Saint Eloy and his friend Saint Ouen, both of them were soon afterward promoted to the mitre, at Noyon and at Rouen.

D’Eghe dying, his office at the Court of Neustria was supplied by Erchinoald; and at this point in the history of the Franks our story begins.

In one of the frequent forays, (for they merit no more dignified name,) that took place between the Franks and the inhabitants of that part of Great Britain lying next France, a young English girl was taken prisoner, carried into France, and sold as a domestic slave to Erchinoald, mayor of the palace, under Clovis II. Her name was Baltechildis, shortened into Balthildis, or Bathildis. Her sweetness and goodness under misfortune, quite as much as the cheerfulness of her beautiful countenance, and the elegance of her figure, recommended her to her master, who appointed her to the lighter duties of waiting, as the cupbearer, at his table. She was as popular among her fellow-slaves, as she was with her master and his friends. There was no office of kindness too menial for her to perform, for the very least among them. The charm of her manners we are told, was farther heightened by a delicate reserve, which forbade familiarity, without diminishing their gracefulness.

“Within her face,
Humility and dignity
Were met in a most sweet embrace.”

Her master was fascinated by his beautiful slave; and at the death of his wife, Lanthilde, he offered his hand in marriage to Bathildis. It was found impossible, however, to overcome her reluctance. Young Clovis, equally attracted by the lovely English girl, was more fortunate; Bathildis accepted him, and became his queen. She carried with her into her new life of honour the same goodness that had won all hearts to her in her former lowliness. She studied her husband’s wishes in everything; the poor found her a liberal friend; to the clergy she showed the deference of an affectionate daughter. She, too, like all of her blessed order, was much devoted to prayer, frequently mingling her tears with her supplications. Clovis seeing her piety, gave her a valuable assistant and guide, in his friend, abbot Genesius, through whom she dispensed her bounty to the destitute, and to convents and churches. The good abbot rose to be bishop of Lyons in the course of time.

Her union with the king was blessed with three sons. The crown of Austrasia becoming vacant (656,) by the death of Sigebert, and the failure of his issue, Clovis succeeded to the possession of the entire kingdom of the Franks. He did not long survive this accumulation of honours, dying in November of the same year, after a reign of eighteen years, yet still a young man.

Chapter 2 – Bathild’s is Regent – Her humane acts – Her convents – She resigns – and retires – Chelles – Dies – Reflections

As was usual on the death of a Frank king, one of the sons of Clovis succeeded to the crown of Neustria and of Burgundy, with the title of Clotaire III; his brother Childeric I became king of Austrasia; while Thierry, the youngest of the late king’s sons, had to wait for fifteen years, till the death of his brother Clotaire opened up for him the succession to Neustria and Burgundy.

The Regency of her son Clotaire’s share of the kingdom was held by his mother, Bathildis, assisted by Erchinoald, the mayor of the palace, her old master. For a time all went well. The queen studied the advantage of her people in every possible way. She extinguished a poll-tax, which had been so rigorously levied as to tempt poor fathers of families to destroy their children rather than incur the penalty incident to rearing a numerous family of contributors to the odious tax. Like Saint Margaret of Scotland, also, Bathildis took much to heart the abuses which had crept into religion, and she engaged the bishops to extirpate the plague of simony, which threatened to eat into the heart of the Frank church. The queen was a munificent friend to the religious houses of her kingdom. In particular, she founded two, out of her own private property; one of them at Corby, near Amiens; and the other at Chelles, near Paris, on the river Marne.

When Saint Eloy gave up his holy soul to God (659), at Noyon, the queen went to see his remains, and spared no pains to secure them, as relics of a saint, for her convent at Chelles. The inhabitants of the town were equally desirous to keep them to themselves, and the queen eventually waived her claim.

To the redemption of slaves taken in war, queen Bathildis especially devoted herself, with the liberality of one who had herself known the sorrows of a captive in an enemy’s land. While prisoners of war were everyday sold for the benefit of their captors, the queen was a constant purchaser, more particularly when her unhappy countrymen and countrywomen were offered for sale. Her edicts against the barbarous practice do not seem to have been much attended to.

But troubles now began to gather round our queen. Erchinoald was no longer mayor of the palace; and the ambitious and impracticable policy of his successor, Ebroin, involved the government in serious disputes with the nobles and the clergy of Neustria. The new mayor was unscrupulous as he was daring. If a bishop presumed to question his designs, the mitre was no protection against the vengeance of Ebroin. Annemond, bishop of Lyons, perished in this way; and to aggravate the crime, the mayor pretended that he had the authority of the queen for what he had done. This was not the only instance in which he attempted to compromise his royal mistress, who, feeling herself no match for her chamberlain, could only resign the regency, and retire altogether from public life (665). She bade adieu to her counsellors, forgiving those who had injured her, and asking the forgiveness of all for herself in return; and sought a home among her nuns at Chelles. Here her habitual humility again found full scope: she submitted to the abbess, as to a mother; and the sisters she regarded as her equals, or even as her superiors; for there was no duty in the house low enough or menial enough to satisfy her. She served them at their meals, and she served them in the scullery; but her favourite post of service was the infirmary. She had learnt her noviciate of charity while she was the slave of Divine Providence; now she perfected herself in it as the slave of the love of Jesus. Her habit of prayer, her gift of tears, followed her to Chelles, and were the crown of her holy life, as they had been its chief support.

The last fifteen years of her life were passed in this peaceful retirement. At length the end began to draw near. Her health declined, and she suffered acute pain. Yet so complete was the training of this holy woman in the school of suffering, that she made her very infirmities a subject of thanksgiving to her Lord. Shortly before her departure to eternal life, she had a vision similar to the dream of the patriarch Jacob. She beheld a ladder erected before the altar of the Blessed Virgin; its summit was lost in heaven, and the angels of God were waiting to accompany herself in her ascent to paradise. She gathered from it an intimation that the hour of her deliverance was at hand. She seems to have confided her vision to a few persons only, and to have begged that it might be kept secret from the good abbess and her nuns, knowing the grief that such an intimation would occasion them; neither was her humility willing to make a boast of the assurance of her heavenly reward, with which she had been favoured. She applied herself more assiduously than ever to prayer, waiting from day to day, with great humility and contrition of heart, the pleasure of her gracious Lord. A young godchild of hers, aged six years, was invited by the saint to accompany her to heaven, and took leave of the world a short time before herself. Finally, the saint, resigning her soul into the protection of Jesus, with her eyes and her hands raised to heaven, departed in great peace, January 30th, 680. A supernatural light is said to have pervaded her chamber at the moment of her passage. Few persons were aware of it, so well had her secret been kept. The grief of her nuns was great in proportion to its suddenness, on hearing that their treasure, for so they regarded her, had been taken from them. Commending her precious soul with many tears to their heavenly master, they buried their beloved friend with great reverence and honour.

Her contemporary biographer sums up her character in few words, as a striking example of the union of humility with wisdom, of meekness, and amiability, and even excessive compassion, with the most vigilant prudence, and delicacy the most pure. All her actions were the fruit, not of impulse, but of well-concerted method.

A succession of miraculous cures at her tomb attested the stamp of approbation which Almighty God had put on her life and her holy death. Her remains were long preserved as relics at Chelles, and a part of them at Corby. A hundred and fifty years after her death, they were translated into a more distinguished shrine.

Distance of time makes events, which in their day seemed long separated, appear as if they were almost coincident. Distance of place has a similar effect on objects of vision. Two stars, millions, perhaps billions of miles apart, shall seem as if they shone together as one, if you only recede far enough away from them. We read, on one page, of our saint’s trials as a slave; on the next, of her trials as a queen. A page or two further on, we come to the end of all her trials, and the commencement of her reward. Doubtless, as she regards all these events now, from her seat of bliss in heaven, they must appear as transient, as virtually coincident as they do to us in reading of them, twelve centuries after their occurrence. But they were by no means so closely united, while they were actually and slowly passing. Each day of slavery, of separation from her native land, seemed as long to her, then, as any day of suffering still seems to us now. Faith and hope alone can thus bring the beginning and the end together, and so blend the endurance of the conflict with the enjoyment of the crown, as to make the heaviest trials appear light, and the longest, “but for a moment,” even while they are actually weighing on the human spirit. This is an important lesson, resulting especially from the study of the lives of saints who were, more remarkably than others, “made perfect through suffering.”