The Norwich Museum and Art Gallery has a curios old artifact in its collection, an unusual double-sided gold seal called the Balthild Seal Matrix. Close inspection of the seal revels contrasting images on its two sides. It shows a woman’s face on front side and a very intimate scene, two naked figures – a man and a woman- embracing beneath a cross on the reverse side. The item itself looks as if it was originally attached to a ring, where it would have swiveled on the bar that still runs through its center. The style of its engravings suggest an early Anglo-Saxon date of approximately 648 AD.
The side with the woman’s face on it can give potential clues as to the origins of the seal. Her image is surrounded by the letters, “BALDEHILDIS” in Frankish lettering. Nevertheless, who was she? Seal rings of this date are very rare and typically belonged to important people such as royals, nobles and bishops. Thus, it could be a depiction of Balthild, a 7th-century Frankish queen. History represents her as an Anglo-Saxon of elite birth who, as a young girl, was sold as a slave to serve in the household of Erchinoald, the mayor of the palace of Neustria, in the Kingdom of the Franks (now France). Bathilde’s beauty and intelligence gained her the admiration of the Frankish King Clovis II (648-657). He married her and freed her from slavery. Balthild, who remained modest and was famous for her generosity, founded a monastery at Chelles in France and was made a saint after her death.
The erotic scene of the two nude figures makes this object unique for this period in English history. Nevertheless, it could have had a deeper meaning. The cross above the couple may indicate its religious meaning, perhaps the celebration of the biblical command to “Go forth and multiply”. Perhaps, Balthild used this side to seal private correspondence, while the other side was for official documents… It may have had a completely different purpose.
This unusual artifact was discovered in a field in Postwick in Norfolk in 1999. Its location raises the question of why and how it wound up in East Anglia. It may have been that an overseas representative of Balthild had worn the ring as a form of identification. It has also been suggested that the seal was sent to Balthild’s kin, who remained in the area, after her death.
Some speculate that the seal may have belonged to a different Baldehildis entirely. Skeptics dispute that St Balthild’s face is the one depicted on the seal and speculate that it is most likely a design copied from a Byzantine coin.