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The (Seal) Matrix: An Ancient Tale Of Romance

7 February 2017

Balthild seal obv 600x400

Here’s a romantic and inspiring story which has sprung from an unexpected source: the discovery of an ancient gold seal matrix in Norfolk.

The seal today is exhibited in Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, along with other finds and hoards from the area. In 2012 the seal was named in the 'top 50 greatest treasures discovered by the public' by ITV and the British Museum.

THE FIND

Discovered by a metal detectorist on private grounds in Postwick, only 5 miles from Norwich, the ‘object’ was examined in great detail by local archaeologists and experts from the British Museum. Excitingly, it was found to be a doubled sided seal matrix dating right back to 648 and it was identified as the personal seal of a woman called Bathilde (also known as Bathild, Batilde and other variations). It was also revealed that one side of the seal had a face of a queen, with the word ‘Baldehilds’ in Frankish lettering, and on the back two figures which seemed to be naked – seemingly in an erotic position beneath the cross.

Balthild seal rev 600x400

Image: the reverse of the Bathilde Seal

 

BUT WHO WAS BATHILDE?

Bathilde was a woman from East Anglia who was thought to have originally been from an important and/or highly respected family (some sources claim that she may have been a descendant of Anglo-Saxon kings, though this is not proven), but she was sold to slavery as a young girl to serve the wife of Erchinoald, who was mayor of Neustrasia.

Though she was a slave, she was seen as very virtuous, beautiful, attentive to others and highly intelligent – an all-round good egg! As in many a tale from the past, Erichinoald’s wife died, which gave him the opportunity to turn his attentions to Bathilde whom he tried to persuade to marry him. But the prospect of being Erichinoald’s wife definitely did not appeal to Bathilde, despite his high status – in fact, she hid herself away until he remarried to avoid this!

Bathilde’s modesty (and beauty, grace, intelligence… you get the picture) gained her the admiration of another, this time King Clovis II. Clovis was the King of Bergundy and Neustrasia, and only aged between 12 – 16 years (depending on which account you go by) when he married Bathilde – who was a good few years older at 19! In marrying her he freed her from slavery – a true Cinderella-like story.

 

BATHILDE: GENEROSITY IN SPADES

Bathilde remained a person of good and generous spirit even as a Queen, having technically left her slavery days far behind her – she didn’t forget her humble beginnings. When King Clovis died at only 20 years old, the oldest of their three children - Clothaire -  succeeded him but, at only 5 years old himself, he was proclaimed as King under the regency of his mother. So Bathilde was able to carry out various reforms, many of which benefitted the poor - she ended the awful trade in Christian slaves and founded charities and institutions such as hospitals and convents - and really managed to stay true to her roots by never forgetting where she came from.

This benevolent action is in stark contrast to her late husband’s reign, during which he was largely regarded to have done and achieved nothing – an early ‘Roi fainéant’, or ‘lazy’ / ’do-nothing’ King. Then again, he was a minor for almost all of his reign, so I suppose we can’t be too hard on him!

Either way, King Clovis II’s marriage to Bathilde, and the resulting freedom she enjoyed as part of this, meant she could live a better life and make important changes to many people’s lives. She went on to enter an abbey, giving up her royal status, and lived a secluded life caring for the poor and unwell.

Around 200 years after her death she was declared a saint, by Pope Nicholas I. There is a statue erected in her honour in Luxembourg Gardens, Paris.

statue of saint bathild crop bw

Image: statue of Saint Bathilde in Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

THE MATRIX DESCRIBED

The item itself looks like it was once part of a ring which would swivel around the finger, and is cast in gold. It would have been used to press wax into a certain shape which would identify the sender. Circular in shape, it bears markings on both sides.  We don’t know how the seal matrix got back to England, but it might perhaps have been returned after Bathild died.

You can still see the seal today; it's on display in Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery's Anglo-Saxon and Viking Gallery. Find out more about the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.


FINDS

Each year thousands of finds are reported to The British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a voluntary scheme (managed by the British Museum) to record archaeological objects (not necessarily Treasure) found by members of the public in England and Wales. Every year many thousands of objects are discovered, many of these by metal-detector users, but also by people whilst out walking, gardening or going about their daily work. Such discoveries offer an important source for understanding our past. More information can be found here

Find out more about recording finds at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.


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