Season 2, Episode 8: From a Slave to a Queen
Nanthilde was dead.
Flaochad was dead.
Æga was dead.
Dagobert was dead.
All of these people had come and all of them had gone; the only person who remained, besides the feeble-minded King, Clovis II, was Erchinoald, the Mayor of the Palace, the true source of power in Neustria and Burgundy.
However, being the “true” source of power brought responsibility. Unlike Clovis, who was allowed to spend his days lounging about and “learning” from his tutors, Erchinoald had to make sure the aristocrats who enabled this power structure remained sated. This meant jumping back and forth between a never-ending series of petty grievances and disputes spread all across Neustria and Burgundy. The work was time-consuming and required long hours; often, Erchinoald was required to travel great distances to ensure the King’s peace was kept. When this happened, he was forced to entrust the King’s person in the care and service of men he trusted, but these were becoming harder and harder to find.
Erchinoald’s one comfort in the midst of his hardships was his young slave-girl, Balthilda. Erchinoald was actually not often in the market for slaves, as he left the running of the palace household to those below him. However, on one rainy and miserable February day in 645, he found himself near one of the way stations for the human chattel taken in wars and raids, and it was there that he had first laid eyes on the young girl who was soon to be his traveling companion. Balthilda had been transported to Francia in the aftermath of yet another raid on the Saxons and was standing with the rest of her people, mud-streaked and soaking wet, awaiting transport to whatever cell or prison she would stay in until she could be ransomed back to her people - or sent to the drudgery of back-breaking labor.
Say what you will about them as a people, Erchinoald thought, Saxon women are beautiful.
And Balthilda was beautiful. At 15 years old, she was slender and blessed with long, golden hair, but more than this, the girl walked with an eloquence and poise that was strikingly out of place in a slave market. She even maintained a gentle, cheerful expression despite her wretched existence in the midst of whips, chains, and cells. What thoughts lay behind those gentle eyes remained a mystery. Erchinoald, quite unlike himself, stepped out of his carriage to take a closer look. Minutes later he became the girl’s owner, the slaver happily exchanging the girl for gold. The price paid was almost certainly higher than any ransom Balthilda would have secured, and for the slaver, now there was no work involved to secure his coins. And really, even if at the end of the day Erchinoald had low-balled his offer… well, no one was going to dare bid against the great Mayor of the Palace.
What happened next surprised even Erchinoald. Balthilda, once she was returned to his villa, was quickly bathed and given new clothes. Even though she wore only given a simple chemise, her poise, confidence and beauty shone more brightly than any of the adornments on the free women near her. She easily slipped into the customs of the house and learned the running of the estate; she never divulged any information about where she had come from or who she had been before her capture, but Erchinoald had no doubt that she had been the daughter of some noble. She was too intuitive, too well-versed on how to act and who to please.
She knows the game, he thought.
That’s how a little known slave-girl came to be in the employ of the Mayor of the Palace, riding in his carriage from place to place and meeting to meeting. Erchinoald knew there were rumors going around about what happened in that carriage between him and his servant, and to preserve his fragile ego he did little to dismiss these notions, but the fact was this: nothing ever transpired between him and Balthilda. He had lusted for her, especially after they first returned to his villa, but the one time he had tried to call her to his chambers she had outmaneuvered him. Seeing him lying in the bed, covered only by a blanket, she told him that God had a different plan for her, then ducked out of the room before he could grab her. Given the choice between running naked through the halls of his villa to take back a slave girl and causing a tremendous scene, or simply going to bed, Erchinoald chose the latter. The next day he saw her at breakfast and the pair acted as if nothing had transpired. Since then, their relationship had stayed calm and professional; this was only helped when Erchinoald moved on to yet another woman, taking her as his new wife.
Beyond her striking physical appearance, it soon became readily apparent that she knew the details of every meeting they took. She knew how much every person owed, the status of each account, which monks were hiding money and what action to take to make as many people as possible happy. She was approachable and often had common people come to her in hopes of an audience with the Mayor, yet her blonde hair, simple clothing and the fact that she was nothing more than a woman (and a slave at that!) allowed men of all ranks to speak in her presence as if she were nothing more than a piece of furniture. And Bathilda took all of the information they spoke back with her to the carriage, divulging what was needed to make her master’s job easier.
Maybe God really does have bigger plans for this little Saxon,” Erchinoald considered.
After some time, Erchinoald brought Bathilda to court. She had been in his service for over two years, and it was becoming too big of a hassle for him to have her spending time away from him in the villa. When he was in the presence of the King he needed to have answers, and Bathilda had all of the answers. Rather than wasting any more time in sending messengers back and forth to her, Erchinoald simply had her brought to the palace and set her up in her own rooms. A day later, he made the formal introductions between his slave-girl, the 17-year-old wunderkind who had become his right-hand, and the 11-year-old King, the physical embodiment of the government Erchinoald ran.
It was clear from the start that Clovis was completely taken with the girl, in the sort of way and with the purity of heart that only an 11-year-old boy can be taken with an older girl. In a way it made perfect sense: Bathilda was the exact opposite of everything Clovis was or had been surrounded with. She was a Saxon, he a Frank. She was smart and knew the dealings of every noble in the Kingdom; he was slow, knowing only what his tutors told him and nothing at all about life outside of the walls. She was beautiful and already of an age where, despite her plain clothes and lack of adornment, men took notice of her every step; he was a boy, in every way unremarkable except for the crown thrust upon his head. And there was the final, most important distinction: he was a King, and she was a slave.
Balthilda stayed at the palace that spring, and for the next few years. Her daily walk with the King soon became all that the young monarch would talk about, and before long her status began to rise as anyone who wanted to get a word to the King would start with her, hoping she might slip a word to the boy about whatever case they were putting forward. She was in the enviable position of being able to advance causes she cared for to a person who had the authority to make them happen; she also had the curse of being blamed for every issue that didn’t make it through to law. In these cases, it was never that the merits of the suitor’s case were weak or corrupt or wrong; it was always that she hadn’t tried hard enough, that Bathilda was showing favor to a competitor. The biggest saving grace for the girl in these times was her eyes; just like that first day when Erchinoald saw her in the slave market, her eyes never belied her true feelings. She remained an enigma to everyone in the Court except the King. For him, he knew only one thing, and that was that he was in love with Bathilda.
In mid-June 649, Erchinoald was called away to yet another issue, something about a land dispute near to the Frankish border with the Bretons. The people on that God-forsaken spit of land to the west were constantly causing trouble; why should this year be different than any other? Erchinoald pondered.
The matter seemed to be simple enough to deal with and only required a two day ride, thus making it easier for him to leave Bathilda at the palace; besides, she was making such an impression on the King, Erchinoald didn’t want to pull her away. With that in mind, he mounted up and left.
Unfortunately for the Mayor, the situation with the Bretons was worse than he had been told. Upon arriving, he called together local leaders. He threatened, he compromised, and he bribed, but every time he thought he was near a deal to quiet the region, something would go wrong and force him to start over. The simple matter that was supposed to call him away for no more than a few days turned into a Sisyphean task that kept him isolated for weeks.
While Erchinoald’s trial lingered in Brittany, summer came to the rest of Francia; unfortunately, the rains never did. Crops began to dry up around the Kingdom, and uprisings sprang up in their place by the day. The peasants were revolting, and in the midst of the trouble everyone turned their eyes to the King. The 16-year-old, untested, simple-minded King. The boy was trapped; he had nowhere to turn, no one to turn to… except for Bathilda.
“What am I supposed to do?” he cried excitedly as they took yet another afternoon stroll together. “Erchinoald is trapped trying to secure peace in the west, and no one here wants to offer an opinion for fear of doing something against what the Mayor may wish. But I have to do something! I fear the people will amass in such numbers as to storm the gates. What am I to do?”
The King had asked a simple question, honestly and in good faith. Bathilda answered him in the same manner. Gently and calmly, she gave the King her opinion and offered him an option that would sate the people for long enough to allow Erchinoald to return. Her wisdom was beyond her years, and as she spoke Clovis could see that the path she endorsed offered him a way to see the crisis out. He wished he was as smart as her. God’s plan is a mystery, he thought. She would be a far better King than I will ever make.
“You can never let anyone know that this was my idea,” Bathilda said as they returned to the villa. “You must act alone and make the orders as if they were from your mind and will alone.”
Clovis stopped and turned toward the older girl. She stopped in turn and looked down at her sovereign; he was still well shorter than her.
“When this is over,” he said quietly, looking up into her eyes, “I would like very much to marry you. I know it has only been a short time, and I am young, but I can tell already that I need you at my side. I will always need you. Will you let me take you as my wife?”
Bathilda smiled at Clovis. “Of course. Now go!”
At that, Clovis took off in a sprint. The boy who had everything had never been so happy, and he set about his next task with a vigor he had never before displayed.
“Get my horses!” he ordered to the Court. “We are headed to Saint Denis.”
At the great shrine built by Dagobert, the monks were happy to see the new King riding to see them; surely he was here to hear their wisdom on how to deal with the current troubles. Clovis was no doubt looking to them to save him in much the same way that their church's namesake had so many times saved his father. The abbot of St. Denis, Ægulf, moved forward, taking the reins of the King's horse as he arrived at their door. He began to speak, but the King interrupted as he jumped off the horse.
“Come inside now, Abbot,” Clovis commanded as he strode into the church. “Time is short, so bring your monks.”
Ægulf was dumbstruck. He had rarely seen the King moving, much less striding about with confidence and issuing commands. What was going on here?
As they moved inside, Clovis began to point to various pieces strewn about the church, having a scribe note each item. The site had been richly and graciously furnished by King Dagobert and there was no shortage of items for the King to choose. Choose for what, though?
“Your Grace, if I may be of assistance, perhaps you can tell me why you are looking at all of our gold and silver plates?”
“I'm not looking, Abbot Ægulf, I'm instructing my man here as to what is to be taken from this site and brought back to my villa.”
“Whatever for?” the abbot exclaimed. “These items were placed here by your father to render honour unto God Almighty; to remove them would be to dishonor the Most High. It would be a sin!”
Ægulf’s voice was near to cracking as he spoke. What had gotten into the King, this stupid boy?!
“Abbot, the people of my Kingdom are suffering, and while I appreciate that God enjoys the majesty of the items that have been placed before him, I cannot believe that He would want these pieces hoarded that could otherwise be used to ease the burdens of his followers. That is why I am taking these pieces from the church, to melt them down and redistribute them to those in need. When we are again living in happier times I will be among the first to lead the call to the-adorn this shrine, but until then, we cannot allow what is needed to be kept from the people and wasted.”
What is needed by the people? What is wasted? The abbot’s mind reeled.
“Who has placed these ideas into your head?” the abbot blurted, all semblance of deference to the King’s rank momentarily forgotten.
At this, the King finally slowed. He smiled, the picture of Bathilda’s face entering his mind. He was following her plan to the letter, and so far everything had happened as she said it would. He could hardly wait to get back to her, to tell her how well he had done.
“Don't worry yourself about anything other than fulfilling my will abbot. And it is my will that my people, your flock, shall be well tended. Is that understood?” When the abbot didn't respond after a few seconds, Clovis finished his thoughts. “My man here will continue the inventory and will return back to me directly when he is done. I expect he will be unhindered in his task; do you understand?”
Without waiting for a response, the King set off to leave the church and return home. He needed to tell Bathilda that he had succeeded in her plan, that they had been successful in finding a way to end the crisis.
Clovis may have been slow, but he knew one thing with absolutely perfect clarity: With the slave girl at his side, the boy King could accomplish anything.
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season Two, Épisode 8: From A Slave to a Queen.
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re switching our pattention away from Dagobert I and toward his sons, Clovis II and Sigibert III. Of these two Kings, Sigibert was actually the older, having been sired from a relationship between Dagobert and his concubine Ragnatrude. Clovis was actually a “legitimate” child, having been born to Dagobert’s wife Nanthilde after Dagobert returned to their marital bed after having taken a long enough break from it to sire Sigibert. Now, nowhere in the research I conducted was I ever able to find any telling information about how these two Kings felt about one another. They were half-brothers, but Sigibert was sent off when he was still only a toddler to rule over Austrasia, before Clovis was even born.
Sending Clovis to Austrasia can be read in a couple of ways, but at its core, the logic seems to me to be this: infant mortality rates were high and Dagobert had had a tough time with siring a son, so getting rid of a perfectly good boy - even if he was one born to a concubine - wasn’t going to happen. And using this child as a “King” in Austrasia was a convenient way to extend the Palace’s reach from Paris into an area reticent to submit to more centralized control, even if Dagobert had also once been the King of Austrasia. With that being said, Dagobert was more savvy than most when it came to Austrasian politics and he knew this type of gesture was something they would appreciate. On a more personal level, one has to wonder if Dagobert found this to be an expedient way to keep a potential heir while also keeping that heir away from Nanthilde - who was newly pregnant - and who would be none to happy to raise another woman’s child - even though Ragnatrude was safely locked up in a nunnery. Long story short, it’s safe to say that the boys weren’t close and maybe never even met; considering it was their counselors who ran their Courts for the better part of their short lives, there would have been little reason to have come together.
On a slightly different note, I want to take a moment to bring up how odd a name Sigibert was for one of Dagobert’s children. You see, Sigibert I was the King who had gone to war, along with his wife Brunhilda, against King Chilperic and his wife Fredegunda. Fredegunda conspired to assassinate Sigibert, and it was from this murder that she and Chilperic were able to live long enough to bring Chlothar II - Dagobert’s dad - into the world. Chlothar II would later go to war against a whole bevy of Brunhilda’s relatives, one of whom was Sigibert II. Well, Sigibert II was only about 12 years old when he was captured by Chlothar’s forces, and despite his age, he was murdered and the crown was consolidated. So, with all of this being said, it’s just strange - to me, at least - that Dagobert would choose to name his son with the same name as the man his grandmother had assassinated, and also the name of a boy that his father executed. Perhaps Sigibert was just a common name at the time, or maybe Dagobert wanted to reclaim the name for his lineage. Or maybe he didn’t want to give a particularly glorious name, like Clovis or Merovech, to a child born to a concubine. Whatever the reason, it’s hard for me to understand.
So I’m going to pull away from too much more discussion on Sigibert III at this point; his story will come into play next week, and there’s a reason why I started with the younger brother first. Basically, things are going to happen in Sigibert’s reign and with the people around him that Clovis II will have to deal with, so the flow of the next few episodes is to introduce you to Clovis and let you know where he stands, then move over to Sigibert and tell you his life story, and then finally to move back to Clovis and describe how he deals with everything. I gave a lot of thought to this, and for lack of a better way of saying it, things get capital-C crazy in the next episode and if I tried to introduce you to Clovis after we start down that path, it just wouldn’t work from a storytelling standpoint. It’s a good time!
Now, with that being said, Clovis II has some interesting stuff happening too, and when we left off last week he had assumed the throne and his mother, Queen Nanthilde, had died after a four-year regency alongside of Æda at first, and then Erchinoald following the first man’s death. That, as the story’s opening indicates, left Erchinoald as the Mayor of the Palace and pretty much in sole possession of Neustria and Burgundy. Given that Erchinoald was likely the great-uncle of Clovis and therefore a blood tie to the monarchy, it stands to reason that he would have been particularly well suited to the role of Mayor and likely to have been happy to observe the facade of “serving” a King who was in all reality nothing more than a figurehead.
So now I have to ask: what was Clovis II’s true character? If we read sources such as Henri Pirenne or Charles Oman, one could easily walk away believing that this King was nothing more than a depraved and debauched monarch who idled away his days and who “died insane.” But I have trouble believing this characterization, and here’s why. First off, Clovis II lost his father at about four-years-old and his mom when he was eight. Given his importance as the physical embodiment of the state, he was no doubt generally treated very unlike a normal child. François de Mezeray notes that Clovis had “his Brain much shaken with frequent Convulsions”; if there’s any truth to this, then it’s safe to assume that Clovis had some sort of ongoing neurological condition, the likes of which would almost certainly have been ill-treated in the 7th century. Hell, Pirenne was writing in the 19th century and still felt it appropriately to paint all of the “do-nothing” Kings with a broad brush, accusing them of debauchery and sexual excesses without providing evidence, and stating that “most of them were doubtless degenerates.” This flies in the face of how the Gesta Dagoberti tends to write about Clovis’s nature, and for what it’s worth, the Gesta was written over 1,000 years nearer to the actual life of the King. This doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent correct either, but its temporal closeness lends it some credibility, at least in my book. Anyway, the Gesta tells us the following story:
“Clovis, after the death of his parents, was thus in possession of the kingdom. He took care to renew the donations which the glorious king his father had made to the church of the holy martyrs, and confirmed them by his signature, as well as by affixing his seal to them. But in the fourteenth year of his reign, according to the opinion of a few men, and because a great famine was then being felt, he ordered that the covering of the vault under which the bodies of St. Denis and his companions lied be lifted, this being the covering that the piety of the king, his father, had ordered adorned with pure silver. It was to come to the aid of the poor, the hungry, and the pilgrims, it was said. Clovis ordered the abbot Ægulf, who then governed this monastery, to carry out this work faithfully and with the fear of God, without fear of anything from his bishop - for the monastery, it seems, was still then subject to the authority of the bishop of Paris - nor of any other man.”
I don’t know, that’s a pretty strong move on the part of the King to order a silver monument to be melted down in order to feed “the poor, the hungry, and the pilgrims,” and it tells us that, only a century after his death, people were still exchanging stories of Clovis as a concerned ruler rather than as a depraved, murderous and overly-indulged tyrant. The same document that I just mentioned also said that, “the bishops approved of his excellent piety,” and that he “maintained peace in his Kingdom without any trouble.” That doesn’t sound too bad to me for a kid who was thrust onto the throne at so young an age; in fact, it strikes me that he actually did a pretty impressive job and has then had to suffer being overly scrutinized by later historians who may not have agreed with him melting down Church artifacts to help the people, or for things that were probably bona-fide medical issues, the kind that cause frequent convulsions.
Now, if Clovis II had anyone at all in his corner to help him as the ruler of a pretty huge and diversified landmass, it was his great-uncle and Mayor of the Palace, Erchinoald. But there was also another, a young girl who caught the eye of the even younger King: Bathilda. Bathilda has been the happy recipient of a lot of good press over the years, and for that alone I have to applaud her; most of the people we’ve met and have yet to meet usually get the opposite treatment, and this makes me think that the true woman may have been almost as good as she has been made out. Her hagiographic treatment practically gushes about her, and did so to great effect as the Queen would later be turned into a Saint by Pope Nicholas I about 200 years after she died. To give you an idea of how people have viewed, and still view, Bathilde, here’s a small piece from Joy Mosbarger’s 2015 article, “From Slave to Queen to Nun”:
“Bathild’s first occupation was that of slave. She was an Anglo-Saxon captive sold to Erchinoald, mayor of the palace for Frankish king Clovis II. Bathild distinguished herself in Erchinoald’s household by serving him kindly, humbly, and faithfully. In addition, she served her elders by cheerfully and gladly washing their feet, bringing them water to wash themselves, and preparing their clothing. Though she found herself an enslaved captive, Bathild was committed to joyfully serving others. Bathild’s service brought her to the attention of Clovis II, king of Neustria and Burgundy, who married her in spite of her status as a slave.”
I mean honestly, this girl is too good to be true! She’s kind and pleasant, even when treated as the lowest of human beings. Her writing treats her as one who was bound to be noticed, and also treats her as pretty much the diametric opposite of some of the other Queens we have met to this point. In particular I’m thinking of Fredegunda, but I’m also thinking of some of our other Queens such as Clotilde and Brunhilda. All three of these women had to struggle to survive and to be seen; Clotilde had to work to bring her husband to Christianity and risked much by baptizing her sons against the King’s will. Brunhilda too had to plot and scheme to rise to power, and was among the most deft political figures we’ve looked at yet. And then there was Fredegunda: that woman had the subtlety of a flaming baseball bat, but God she was fun to research and write about! But when you think of Fredegunda, about the last thing that comes to mind is the notion that she would serve “her elders by cheerfully and gladly washing their feet, bringing them water to wash themselves, and preparing their clothing.” No, if Fredegunda brought a person water, it was probably in their best interest not to wash with it. Or drink it.
Anyway, Bathilda really does seem to be the opposite of a schemer. Her intentions seem to be well-meant and not necessarily self-serving. I’m too cynical to think that she wasn’t a little ambitious, but I’m also willing to give her that she may have hid away from Erchinoald for a little while when he tried to lure her into bed more out of not wanting to sleep with a lecherous old man than setting herself up for a bigger and better position with the King. And I also can buy that any advice she would have given to Clovis, either in their courtship or in their marriage, would have been to help the King and protect her children. If she were party in any way to the melting of the plates at Saint Denis, I can see her giving such advice because she placed the suffering of the people around her on a higher level than the adornment of a church. Now, in all fairness, I must admit that none of the histories from this time actually place her as the one to direct the King to do this, but this would have been roughly the time that the two met, and making such a radical move as directing the abbot to melt down his treasures seems out of place for the quiet young King. Who knows? He wouldn’t be the first young man to be spurred into action in an attempt to satisfy a love interest, would he?
I would also suggest that she doesn’t get credit for this in her biography, the Vita Sanctae Bathildis, or mentioned as having been around when it happens because her Vita was being used to sell her to the clergy and the Pope as a possible Saint; the author wouldn’t want a bunch of stuff about artifact melting and Church destruction being used against her. However, the book has a hard time reconciling how and why Bathilda chose to marry Clovis. First the book tells us that, “She had hoped not to get married but to have Jesus alone for her spouse,” but then literally two sentences later tells us that she “eventually came to be espoused to Clovis, son of the former king Dagobert.” There’s no explanation given for this change of heart, and with that said, again, the book was trying to hit the high points of her life for a very select audience and purpose. The idea that she didn’t have any plans or ambitions strikes me as just a touch too good, but again, just like not including her in the tale of Clovis and Saint Denis, it would make sense to not provide anyone standing against her canonization with ammunition to use against her.
CONCLUSION: Alright, with all of that said, let’s look ahead to the next episode. In Neustria and Burgundy we have King Clovis II and his new and saintly wife, Queen Bathilda. They’ll spend the next few years doing what Kings and Queens do, bringing heirs and spares – and in their case, even a third son - into the Kingdom. What about over in Austrasia? What has Sigibert III been getting up to since his dad died? Did he have the same factors motivating him, or at the very least, did he have a cadre of people such as Erchinoald and Bathilda standing in his corner? Or did he have someone who would look to abuse his position and the youth and naivety of a boy-king to try and take over the Kingdom for himself and his own family? If your guessing the latter, well, thank you for following my over-the-top foreshadowing. Next week we’ll meet Grimoald, the Austrasian Mayor of the Palace; if he wasn’t the first to wonder why the people doing the job of running the Kingdom were not the ones sitting upon the throne, he’ll definitely be the first to take active steps to make that happen. Join us next episode and be ready for impostors, tonsures, and a coup d’état that might just bring down the Merovingian Dynasty!
OUTRO: Alright, thanks again to That’s Not Canon Productions ; be sure to check out the network if you’re looking for new and intriguing content when you’re done here. As always, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode, a list of sources, an updated monarchy/family tree, and also a list of other great history podcasts are all available online at thugsandmiracles.com. We’ve made it easier than ever to sign up for our free e-mail list, so please, take advantage of that so we can keep you up to date with announcements on new shows and our monthly newsletter. Speaking of email, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can hit us on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (with no “s” on the end), or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. Also be sure to check out the #TimeTravelTalks hashtag and account on Twitter, as well as HistoryPods.com and their associated Twitter handle, @podsofhistory. Finally, as always, if you haven’t already, head over to your podcast player of choice and leave T+M and all of your other favorite pods a rating. We appreciate what you have to say, and as always, we appreciate you!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. Wishing you a happy belated Valentine’s Day, I look forward to seeing you again in two weeks, as we continue to explore Thugs and Miracles.