The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4

Author: François P. G. Guizot  | Date: A.D. 486-511

Clovis Founds The Kingdom of the Franks;
It Becomes Christian

A.D. 486-511


Clovis, the sturdy Frank, wrought marvellous changes in Gaul. His marriage to the Christian princess Clotilde was followed by the conversion of himself and, gradually, that of his people. With a well-disciplined army he pulled down and swept away the last pillars of Roman power out of Gaul. Guizot gives a graphic account of the transition of the Franks, during two hundred and fifty years, from being isolated wandering tribes, each constantly warring against the other, to a well-ordered Christian kingdom, which led to the establishment of the French monarchy. The climax of this period of transition came in the reign of Clovis, with whom commences the real history of France. Under his strong hand the various tribes were gradually brought under his sole rule.

When Clovis, at the age of fifteen, succeeded his father, Childeric, as king of the Salian tribe, his people were mainly pagans; the Salian domain was very limited, the treasury empty, and there was no store of either grain or wine. But these difficulties were overcome by him; he subjugated the neighboring tribes, and made Christianity the state religion. The new faith was accorded great privileges and means of influence, in many cases favorable to humanity and showing respect to the rights of individuals. So great an advance in civilization is an early milestone on the path of progress.

About A.D. 241 or 242 the Sixth Roman legion, commanded by Aurelian, at that time military tribune, and thirty years later emperor, had just finished a campaign on the Rhine, undertaken for the purpose of driving the Germans from Gaul, and was preparing for eastern service, to make war on the Persians. The soldiers sang:

"We have slain a thousand Franks and a thousand
Sarmatians; we want a thousand, thousand,
Thousand Persians."

That was, apparently, a popular burthen at the time, for on the days of military festivals, at Rome and in Gaul, the children sang, as they danced:

"We have cut off the heads of a thousand, thousand, thousand
One man hath cut off the heads of a thousand, thousand, thousand,
Thousand thousand;
May he live a thousand thousand years, he who
Hath slain a thousand thousand!
Nobody hath so much of wine as he
Hath of blood poured out."

Aurelian, the hero of these ditties, was indeed much given to the pouring out of blood, for at the approach of a fresh war he wrote to the senate:

"I marvel, conscript fathers, that ye have so much misgiving about opening the Sibylline books, as if ye were deliberating in an assembly of Christians, and not in the temple of all the gods. Let inquiry be made of the sacred books, and let celebration take place of the ceremonies that ought to be fulfilled. Far from refusing, I offer, with zeal, to satisfy all expenditure required with captives of every nationality, victims of royal rank. It is no shame to conquer with the aid of the gods; it is thus that our ancestors began and ended many a war."

Human sacrifices, then, were not yet foreign to pagan festivals, and probably the blood of more than one Frankish captive on that occasion flowed in the temple of all the gods.

It is the first time the name of Franks appears in history; and it indicated no particular, single people, but a confederation of Germanic peoplets, settled or roving on the right bank of the Rhine, from the Main to the ocean. The number and the names of the tribes united in this confederation are uncertain. A chart of the Roman Empire, prepared apparently at the end of the fourth century, in the reign of the emperor Honorius—which chart, called tabula Peutingeri, was found among the ancient MSS. collected by Conrad Peutinger, a learned German philosopher, in the fifteenth century—bears, over a large territory on the right bank of the Rhine, the word Francia, and the following enumeration: "The Chaucians, the Ampsuarians, the Cheruscans, and the Chamavians, who are also called Franks; " and to these tribes divers chroniclers added several others, "the Attuarians, the Bructerians, the Cattians, and the Sicambrians."

Whatever may have been the specific names of these peoplets, they were all of German race, called themselves Franks, that is "freemen," and made, sometimes separately, sometimes collectively, continued incursions into Gaul—especially Belgica and the northern portions of Lyonness—at one time plundering and ravaging, at another occupying forcibly, or demanding of the Roman emperors lands whereon to settle. From the middle of the third to the beginning of the fifth century the history of the Western Empire presents an almost uninterrupted series of these invasions on the part of the Franks, together with the different relationships established between them and the imperial government. At one time whole tribes settled on Roman soil, submitted to the emperors, entered their service, and fought for them even against their own German compatriots. At another, isolated individuals, such and such warriors of German race, put themselves at the command of the emperors, and became of importance. At the middle of the third century the emperor Valerian, on committing a command to Aurelian, wrote, "Thou wilt have with thee Hartmund, Haldegast, Hildmund, and Carioviscus."

Some Frankish tribes allied themselves more or less fleetingly with the imperial government, at the same time that they preserved their independence; others pursued, throughout the empire, their life of incursion and adventure. From A.D. 260 to 268, under the reign of Gallienus, a band of Franks threw itself upon Gaul, scoured it from northeast to southeast, plundering and devastating on its way; then it passed from Aquitania into Spain, took and burned Tarragona, gained possession of certain vessels, sailed away, and disappeared in Africa, after having wandered about for twelve years at its own will and pleasure. There was no lack of valiant emperors, precarious and ephemeral as their power may have been, to defend the empire, and especially Gaul, against those enemies, themselves ephemeral, but forever recurring; Decius, Valerian, Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus, Aurellan, and Probus gallantly withstood those repeated attacks of German hordes. Sometimes they flattered themselves they had gained a definitive victory, and then the old Roman pride exhibited itself in their patriotic confidence. About A.D. 278, the emperor Probus, after gaining several victories in Gaul over the Franks, wrote to the senate:

"I render thanks to the immortal gods, conscript fathers, for that they have confirmed your judgment as regards me. Germany is subdued throughout its whole extent; nine kings of different nations have come and cast themselves at my feet, or rather at yours, as suppliants with their foreheads in the dust. Already all those barbarians are tilling for you, sowing for you, and fighting for you against the most distant nations. Order ye, therefore, according to your custom, prayers of thanksgiving, for we have slain four thousand of the enemy; we have had offered to us sixteen thousand men ready armed; and we have wrested from the enemy the seventy most important towns. The Gauls, in fact, are completely delivered. The crowns offered to me by all the cities of Gaul l have submitted, conscript fathers, to your grace; dedicate ye them with your own hands to Jupiter, all-bountiful, all-powerful, and to the other immortal gods and goddesses. All the booty is retaken, and, further, we have made fresh captures, more considerable than our first losses; the fields of Gaul are tilled by the oxen of the barbarians, and German teams bend their necks in slavery to our husbandmen; divers nations raise cattle for our consumption, and horses to remount our cavalry; our stores are full of the corn of the barbarians—in one word, we have left to the vanquished naught but the soil; all their other possessions are ours. We had at first thought it necessary, conscript fathers, to appoint a new governor of Germany; but we have put off this measure to the time when our ambition shall be more completely satisfied, which will be, as it seems to us, when it shall have pleased divine Providence to increase and multiply the forces of our armies."

Probus had good reason to wish that "divine Providence might be pleased to increase the forces of the Roman armies," for even after his victories, exaggerated as they probably were, they did not suffice for their task, and it was not long before the vanquished recommenced war. He had dispersed over the territory of the empire the majority of the prisoners he had taken. A band of Franks, who had been transported and established as a military colony on the European shore of the Black Sea, could not make up their minds to remain there. They obtained possession of some vessels, traversed the Propontis, the Hellespont, and the Archipelago, ravaged the coasts of Greece, Asia Minor, and Africa, plundered Syracuse, scoured the whole of the Mediterranean, entered the ocean by the Straits of Gibraltar, and, making their way up again along the coasts of Gaul, arrived at last at the mouths of the Rhine, where they once more found themselves at home among the vines which Probus, in his victorious progress, had been the first to have planted, and with probably their old taste for adventure and plunder.

After the commencement of the fifth century, from A.D. 406 to 409, it was no longer by incursions limited to certain points, and sometimes repelled with success, that the Germans harassed the Roman provinces; a veritable deluge of divers nations forced, one upon another, from Asia, into Europe, by wars and migration in mass, inundated the empire and gave the decisive signal for its fall. St. Jerome did not exaggerate when he wrote to Ageruchia: "Nations, countless in number and exceeding fierce, have occupied all the Gauls; Quadians, Vandals, Sarmatians, Alans, Gepidians, Herulians, Saxons, Burgundians, Allemannians, Pannonians, and even Assyrians have laid waste all that there is between the Alps and the Pyrenees, the ocean and the Rhine. Sad destiny of the Commonwealth! Mayence, once a noble city, hath been taken and destroyed; thousands of men were slaughtered in the church. Worms hath fallen after a long siege. The inhabitants of Rheims, a powerful city, and those of Amiens, Arras, Torouanne, at the extremity of Gaul, Tournay, Spires, and Strasburg have been carried away to Germany. All hath been ravaged in Aquitania (Novempopulania), Lyonness, and Narbonensis; the towns, save a few, are dispeopled; the sword pursueth them abroad and famine at home. 1 cannot speak without tears of Toulouse; if she be not reduced to equal ruin, it is to the merits of her holy bishop Exuperus that she oweth it."

Then took place throughout the Roman Empire, in the East as well as in the West, in Asia and Africa as well as in Europe, the last grand struggle between the Roman armies and barbaric nations. Armies is the proper term; for, to tell the truth, there was no longer a Roman nation, and very seldom a Roman emperor with some little capacity for government or war. The long continuance of despotism and slavery had enervated equally the ruling power and the people; everything depended on the soldiers and their generals. It was in Gaul that the struggle was most obstinate and most promptly brought to a decisive issue, and the confusion there was as great as the obstinacy. Barbaric peoplets served in the ranks and barbaric leaders held the command of the Roman armies; Stilicho was a Goth; Arbogastes and Mellobaudes were Franks; Ricimer was a Suevian. The Roman generals, Bonifacius, Aetius, Agidius, Syagrius, at one time fought the barbarians, at another negotiated with such and such of them, either to entice them to take service against other barbarians, or to promote the objects of personal ambition; for the Roman generals also, under the titles of patrician, consul, or proconsul, aspired to and attained a sort of political independence, and contributed to the dismemberment of the empire in the very act of defending it.

No later than A.D. 412 two German nations, the Visigoths and the Burgundians, took their stand definitively in Gaul, and founded there two new kingdoms: the Visigoths, under their kings Ataulph and Wallia, in Aquitania and Narbonensis; the Burgundians, under their kings Gundichaire and Gundioch, in Lyonnais, from the southern point of Alsatia right into Provence, along the two banks of the Sabne and the left bank of the Rhone, and also in Switzerland. In 451 the arrival in Gaul of the Huns and their king Attila—already famous, both king and nation, for their wild habits, their fierce valor, and their successes against the Eastern Empire—gravely complicated the situation. The common interest of resistance against the most barbarous of barbarians, and the renown and energy of Aetius, united, for the moment, the old and new masters of Gaul; Romans, Gauls, Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks, Alans, Saxons, and Britons formed the army led by Aetius against that of Attila, who also had in his ranks Goths, Burgundians, Gepidians, Alans, and beyond-Rhine Franks, gathered together and enlisted on his road. It was a chaos and a conflict of barbarians, of every name and race, disputing one with another, pell-mell, the remnants of the Roman Empire torn asunder and in dissolution.

Attila had already arrived before Orleans, and was laying siege to it. The bishop, St. Anianus, sustained awhile the courage of the besieged by promising them aid from Aetius and his allies. The aid was slow to come; and the bishop sent to Aetius a message: "If thou be not here this very day, my son, it will be too late." Still Aetius came not. The people of Orleans determined to surrender; the gates flew open; the Huns entered; the plundering began without much disorder; "wagons were stationed to receive the booty as it was taken from the houses, and the captives, arranged in groups, were divided by lot between the victorious chieftains." Suddenly a shout reechoed through the streets: it was Aetius, Theodoric, and Torismund, his son, who were coming with the eagles of the Roman legions and with the banners of the Visigoths. A fight took place between them and the Huns, at first on the banks of the Loire, and then in the streets of the city. The people of Orleans joined their liberators; the danger was great for the Huns, and Attila ordered a retreat.

It was the 14th of June, 451, and that day was for a long while celebrated in the church of Orleans as the date of a signal deliverance. The Huns retired toward Champagne, which they had already crossed at their coming into Gaul; and when they were before Troyes, the bishop, St. Lupus, repaired to Attila’s camp, and besought him to spare a defenceless city, which had neither walls nor garrison. "So be it," answered Attila; "but thou shalt come with me and see the Rhine; I promise then to send thee back again." With mingled prudence and superstition the barbarian meant to keep the holy man as a hostage. The Huns arrived at the plains hard by Chalons-sur-Marne; Aetius and all his allies had followed them; and Attila, perceiving that a battle was inevitable, halted in a position for delivering it. The Gothic historian Jornandes says that he consulted his priests, who answered that the Huns would be beaten, but that the general of the enemy would fall in the fight. In this prophecy Attila saw predicted the death of Aetius, his most formidable enemy; and the struggle commenced. There is no precise information about the date; but "it was," says Jornandes, "a battle which for atrocity, multitude, horror, and stubbornness has not the like in the records of antiquity."

Historians vary in their exaggerations of the numbers engaged and killed: according to some, three hundred thousand, according to others one hundred and sixty-two thousand, were left on the field of battle. Theodoric, king of the Visigoths, was killed. Some chroniclers name Meroveus as king of the Franks, settled in Belgica, near Tongres, who formed part of the army of Aetius. They even attribute to him a brilliant attack made on the eve of the battle upon the Gepidians, allies of the Huns, when ninety thousand men fell according to some, and only fifteen thousand according to others. The numbers are purely imaginary, and even the fact is doubtful. However, the battle of Chalons drove the Huns out of Gaul, and was the last victory in Gaul, gained still in the name of the Roman Empire, but in reality for the advantage of the German nations which had already conquered it. Twenty-four years afterward the very name of Roman Empire disappeared with Augustulus, the last of the emperors of the West.

Thirty years after the battle of Chalons the Franks settled in Gaul were not yet united as one nation; several tribes with this name, independent one of another, were planted between the Rhine and the Somme; there were some in the environs of Cologne, Calais, Cambrai, even beyond the Seine and as far as Le Mans, on the confines of the Britons. This is one of the reasons of the confusion that prevails in the ancient chronicles about the chieftains or kings of these tribes, their names and dates, and the extent and site of their possessions. Pharamond, Clodion, Meroveus, and Childeric cannot be considered as kings of France and placed at the beginning of her history. If they are met with in connection with historical facts, fabulous legends or fanciful traditions are mingled with them; Priam appears as a predecessor of Pharamond; Clodion, who passes for having been the first to bear and transmit to the Frankish kings the title of "long-haired," is represented as the son, at one time of Pharamond, at another of another chieftain named Theodemer; romantic adventures, spoilt by geographical mistakes, adorn the life of Childeric.

All that can be distinctly affirmed is that, from A.D. 450 to 480, the two principal Frankish tribes were those of the Salian Franks and the Ripuarian Franks, settled, the latter in the east of Belgica, on the banks of the Moselle and the Rhine; the former toward the West, between the Meuse, the ocean, and the Somme. Meroveus, whose name was perpetuated in his line, was one of the principal chieftains of the Sallan Franks; and his son Childeric, who resided at Tournai, where his tomb was discovered in 1655, was the father of Clovis, who succeeded him in 481, and with whom really commenced the kingdom and history of France.

Clovis was fifteen or sixteen years old when he became king of the Salian Franks of Tournai. Five years afterward his ruling passion, ambition, exhibited itself, together with that mixture of boldness and craft which was to characterize his whole life. He had two neighbors: one, hostile to the Franks, the Roman patrician Syagrius, who was left master at Soissons after the death of his father Agidius, and whom Gregory of Tours calls "king of the Romans"; the other, a Salian-Frankish chieftain, just as Clovis was, and related to him, Ragna-caire, who was settled at Cambrai. Clovis induced Ragna-caire to join him in a campaign against Syagrius. They fought, and Syagrius was driven to take refuge in Southern Gaul, with Alaric, king of the Visigoths.

Clovis, not content with taking possession of Soissons, and anxious to prevent any troublesome return, demanded of Alaric to send Syagrius back to him, threatening war if the request were refused. The Goth, less bellicose than the Frank, delivered up Syagrius to the envoys of Clovis, who immediately had him secretly put to death, settled himself at Soissons, and from thence set on foot, in the country between the Aisne and the Loire, plundering and subjugating expeditions which speedily increased his domains and his wealth, and extended far and wide his fame as well as his ambition. The Franks who accompanied him were not long before they also felt the growth of his power; like him they were pagans, and the treasures of the Christian churches counted for a great deal in the booty they had to divide. On one of their expeditions they had taken in the church of Rheims, among other things, a vase "of marvellous size and beauty."

The bishop of Rheims, St. Remi, was not quite a stranger to Clovis. Some years before, when he had heard that the son of Childeric had become king of the Franks of Tournai, he had written to congratulate him. "We are informed," said he, "that thou hast undertaken the conduct of affairs; it is no marvel that thou beginnest to be what thy fathers ever were;" and, while taking care to put himself on good terms with the young pagan chieftain, the bishop added to his felicitations some pious Christian counsel, without letting any attempt at conversion be mixed up with his moral exhortations. The bishop, informed of the removal of the vase, sent to Clovis a messenger begging the return, if not of all his church’s ornaments, at any rate of that. "Follow us as far as Soissons," said Clovis to the messenger; "it is there the partition is to take place of what we have captured; when the lots shall have given me the vase, I will do what the bishop demands."

When Soissons was reached, and all the booty had been placed in the midst of the host, the king said: "Valiant warriors, I pray you not to refuse me, over and above my share, this vase here." At these words of the king, those who were of sound mind among the assembly answered: "Glorious king, everything we see here is thine, and we ourselves are submissive to thy commands. Do thou as seemeth good to thee, for there is none that can resist thy power." When they had thus spoken, a certain Frank, light-minded, jealous, and vain, cried out aloud as he struck the vase with his battle-axe, "Thou shalt have naught of all this save what the lots shall truly give thee." At these words all were astounded; but the king bore the insult with sweet patience, and, accepting the vase, he gave it to the messenger, hiding his wound in the recesses of his heart. At the end of a year he ordered all his host to assemble fully equipped at the March parade, to have their arms inspected. After having passed in review all the other warriors, he came to him who had struck the vase. "None," said he, "hath brought hither arms so ill-kept as thine; nor lance, nor sword, nor battle-axe are in condition for service." And wresting from him his axe he flung it on the ground. The man stooped down a little to pick it up, and forthwith the King, raising with both hands his own battle-axe, drove it into his skull, saying, "Thus didst thou to the vase of Soissons!" On the death of this fellow he bade the rest begone, and by this act made himself greatly feared.

A bold and unexpected deed has always a great effect on men: with his Frankish warriors, as well as with his Roman and Gothic foes, Clovis had at command the instincts of patience and brutality in turn; he could bear a mortification and take vengeance in due season. While prosecuting his course of plunder and war in Eastern Belgica, on the banks of the Meuse, Clovis was inspired with a wish to get married. He had heard tell of a young girl, like himself of the Germanic royal line, Clotilde, niece of Gondebaud, at that time king of the Burgundians. She was dubbed beautiful, wise, and well-informed; but her situation was melancholy and perilous. Ambition and fraternal hatred had devastated her family. Her father, Chilperic, and her two brothers, had been put to death by her uncle Gondebaud, who had caused her mother, Agrippina, to be thrown into the Rhone, with a stone round her neck, and drowned. Two sisters alone had survived this slaughter: the elder, Chrona, had taken religious vows; the other, Clotilde, was living almost in exile at Geneva, absorbed in works of piety and charity.

The principal historian of this epoch, Gregory of Tours, an almost contemporary authority, for he was elected bishop sixty-two years after the death of Clovis, says simply: "Clovis at once sent a deputation to Gondebaud to ask Clotilde in marriage. Gondebaud, not daring to refuse, put her into the hands of the envoys, who took her promptly to the King. Clovis at sight of her was transported with joy, and married her." But to this short account other chroniclers, among them Fredegaire, who wrote a commentary upon and a continuation of Gregory of Tours’ work, added details which deserve reproduction, first as a picture of manners, next for the better understanding of history. "As he was not allowed to see Clotilde," says Fredegaire, "Clovis charged a certain Roman, named Aurelian, to use all his wit to come nigh her. Aurelian repaired alone to the spot, clothed in rags and with his wallet upon his back, like a mendicant. TO insure confidence in himself he took with him the ring of Clovis. On his arrival at Geneva, Clotilde received him as a pilgrim charitably, and while she was washing his feet Aurelian, bending toward her, said, under his breath, ’Lady, I have great matters to announce to thee if thou deign to permit me secret revelation.’ She, consenting, replied, ’Say on.’ ’Clovis, king of the Franks,’ said he, ’hath sent me to thee: if it be the will of God, he would fain raise thee to his high rank by marriage; and that thou mayest be certified thereof, he sendeth thee this ring.’ She accepted the ring with great joy, and said to Aurelian, ’Take for recompense of thy pains these hundred sous in gold and this ring of mine. Return promptly to thy lord; if he would fain unite me to him by marriage, let him send without delay messengers to demand me of my uncle Gondebaud, and let the messengers who shall come take me away in haste, so soon as they shall have obtained permission; if they haste not I fear lest a certain sage, one Aridius, may return from Constantinople, and, if he arrive beforehand, all this matter will by his counsel come to naught.’

"Aurelian returned in the same disguise under which he had come. On approaching the territory of Orleans, and at no great distance from his house, he had taken as travelling companion a certain poor mendicant, by whom he, having fallen asleep from sheer fatigue, and thinking himself safe, was robbed of his wallet and the hundred sous in gold that it contained. On awakening, Aurelian was sorely vexed, ran swiftly home, and sent his servants in all directions in search of the mendicant who had stolen his wallet. He was found and brought to Aurelian, who, after drubbing him soundly for three days, let him go his way. He afterward told Clovis all that had passed and what Clotilde suggested. Clovis, pleased with his success and with Clotilde’s notion, at once sent a deputation to Gondebaud to demand his niece in marriage. Gondebaud, not daring to refuse, and flattered at the idea of making a friend of Clovis, promised to give her to him. Then the deputation, having offered the denier and the sou, according to the custom of the Franks, espoused Clotilde in the name of Clovis, and demanded that she be given up to them to be married.

"Without any delay the council was assembled at Chalons, and preparations made for the nuptials. The Franks, having arrived with all speed, received her from the hands of Gondebaud, put her into a covered carriage, and escorted her to Clovis, together with much treasure. She, however, having already learned that Aridius was on his way back, said to the Frankish lords, ’If ye would take me into the presence of your lord, let me descend from this carriage, mount me on horseback, and get you hence as fast as ye may; for never in this carriage shall I reach the presence of your lord.’

"Aridius, in fact, returned very speedily from Marseilles, and Gondebaud, on seeing him, said to him, ’Thou knowest that we have made friends with the Franks, and that i have given my niece to Clovis to wife.’ ’This,’ answered Aridius, ’is no bond of friendship, but the beginning of perpetual strife. Thou shouldst have remembered, my lord, that thou didst slay Clotilde’s father, thy brother Chilperic, that thou didst drown her mother, and that thou didst cut off her brothers’ heads and cast their bodies into a well. If Clotilde become powerful she will avenge the wrongs of her relatives. Send thou forthwith a troop in chase, and have her brought back to thee. It will be easier for thee to bear the wrath of one person than to be perpetually at strife, thyself and thine, with all the Franks.’ And Gondebaud did send forthwith a troop in chase to fetch back Clotilde with the carriage and all the treasure; but she, on approaching Villers, where Clovis was waiting for her, in the territory of the Troyes, and before passing the Burgundian frontier, urged them who escorted her to disperse right and left over a space of twelve leagues in the country whence she was departing, to plunder and burn; and that having been done with the permission of Clovis, she cried aloud, ’I thank thee, God omnipotent, for that 1 see the commencement of vengeance for my parents and my brethren!"’

The majority of the learned have regarded this account of Fredegaire as a romantic fable, and have declined to give it a place in history. M. Fauriel, one of the most learned associates of the Academy of Inscriptions, has given much the same opinion, but he nevertheless adds: "Whatever may be their authorship, the fables in question are historic in the sense that they relate to—real facts of which they are a poetical expression, a romantic development, conceived with the idea of popularizing the Frankish kings among the Gallo-Roman subjects." It cannot, however, be admitted that a desire to popularize the Frankish kings is a sufficient and truth-like explanation of these tales of the Gallo-Roman chroniclers, or that they are no more than "a poetical expression, a romantic development" of the real facts briefly noted by Gregory of Tours; the tales have a graver origin and contain more truth than would be presumed from some of the anecdotes and sayings mixed up with them. In the condition of minds and parties in Gaul at the end of the fifth century the marriage of Clovis and Clotilde was, for the public of the period, for the barbarians and for the Gallo-Romans, a great matter. Clovis and the Franks were still pagans; Gondebaud and the Burgundians were Christians, but Arians; Clotilde was a Catholic Christian. To which of the two, Catholics or Arians, would Clovis ally himself? To whom, Arian, pagan, or Catholic, would Clotilde be married?

Assuredly the bishops, priests, and all the Gallo-Roman clergy, for the most part Catholics, desired to see Clovis, that young and audacious Frankish chieftain, take to wife a Catholic rather than an Arian or a pagan, and hoped to convert the pagan Clovis to Christianity much more easily than an Arian to orthodoxy. The question between Catholic orthodoxy and Arianism was, at that time, a vital question for Christianity in its entirety, and St. Athanasius was not wrong in attributing to it supreme importance. It may be presumed that the Catholic clergy, the bishop of Rheims, or the bishop of Langres was no stranger to the repeated praises which turned the thoughts of the Frankish King toward the Burgundian princess, and the idea of their marriage once set afloat, the Catholics, priesthood or laity, labored undoubtedly to push it forward, while the Burgundian Arians exerted themselves to prevent it.

Thus there took place between opposing influences, religious and national, a most animated struggle. No astonishment can be felt, then, at the obstacles the marriage encountered, at the complications mingled with it, and at the indirect means employed on both sides to cause its success or failure. The account of Fredegaire is but a picture of this struggle and its incidents, a little amplified or altered by imagination or the credulity of the period; but the essential features of the picture, the disguise of Aurelian, the hurry of Clotilde, the prudent recollection of Aridius, Gondebaud’s alternations of fear and violence, and Clotilde’s vindictive passion when she is once out of danger—there is nothing in all this out of keeping with the manners of the time or the position of the actors. Let it be added that Aurelian and Aridius are real personages who are met with elsewhere in history, and whose parts as played on the occasion of Clotilde’s marriage are in harmony with the other traces that remain of their lives.

The consequences of the marriage justified before long the importance which had on all sides been attached to it. Clotilde had a son; she was anxious to have him baptized, and urged her husband to consent. "The gods you worship," said she, "are naught, and can do naught for themselves or others; they are of wood or stone or metal." Clovis resisted, saying: "It is by the command of our gods that all things are created and brought forth. It is plain that your God hath no power; there is no proof even that he is of the race of the gods." But Clotilde prevailed; and she had her son baptized solemnly, hoping that the striking nature of the ceremony might win to the faith the father whom her words and prayers had been powerless to touch. The child soon died, and Clovis bitterly reproached the Queen, saying: "Had the child been dedicated to my gods he would be alive; he was baptized in the name of your God, and he could not live." Clotilde defended her God and prayed. She had a second son who was also baptized, and fell sick. "It cannot be otherwise with him than with his brother," said Clovis; "baptized in the name of your Christ, he is going to die." But the child was cured, and lived; and Clovis was pacified and less incredulous of Christ.

An event then came to pass which affected him still more than the sickness or cure of his children.

In 496 the Alemannians, a Germanic confederation like the Franks, who also had been, for some time past, assailing the Roman Empire on the banks of the Rhine or the frontiers of Switzerland, crossed the river and invaded the settlements of the Franks on the left bank. Clovis went to the aid of his confederation and attacked the Alemannians at Tolbiac, near Cologne. He had with him Aurelian, who had been his messenger to Clotilde, whom he had made duke of Melun, and who commanded the forces of Sens. The battle was going ill; the Franks were wavering and Clovis was anxious. Before setting out he had, according to Fredegaire, promised his wife that if he were victorious he would turn Christian.

Other chroniclers say that Aurelian, seeing the battle in danger of being lost, said to Clovis, "My lord King, believe only on the Lord of heaven whom the Queen, my mistress, preacheth." Clovis cried out with emotion: "Christ Jesus, thou whom my queen Clotilde calleth the Son of the living God, l have invoked my own gods, and they have withdrawn from me; I believe that they have no power, since they aid not those who call upon them. Thee, very God and Lord, I invoke; if thou give me victory over these foes, if I find in thee the power that the people proclaim of thee, I will believe on thee, and will be baptized in thy name." The tide of battle turned; the Franks recovered confidence and courage; and the Allemannians, beaten and seeing their King slain, surrendered themselves to Clovis, saying: "Cease, of thy grace, to cause any more of our people to perish; for we are thine."

On the return of Clovis, Clotilde, fearing he should forget his victory and his promise, "secretly sent," says Gregory of Tours, "to St. Remi, bishop of Rheims, and prayed him to penetrate the King’s heart with the words of salvation." St. Rend was a fervent Christian and’ able bishop; and "I will listen to thee, most holy father," said Clovis, "willingly; but there is a difficulty. The people that follow me will not give up their gods. But I am about to assemble them, and will speak to them according to thy word." The King found the people more docile or better prepared than he had represented to the bishop. Even before he opened his mouth the greater part of those present cried out: "We abjure the mortal gods; we are ready to follow the immortal God whom Remi preacheth."

About three thousand Frankish warriors, however, persisted in their intention of remaining pagans, and deserting Clovis betook themselves to Ragnacaire, the Frankish king of Cambrai, who was destined ere long to pay dearly for this acquisition. So soon as St. Remi was informed of this good disposition on the part of king and people, lie fixed Christmas Day of this year, 496, for the ceremony of the baptism of these grand neophytes. The description of it is borrowed from the historian of the church of Rheims, Frodoard by name, born at the close of the ninth century. He gathered together the essential points of it from the Life of Saint Remi, written, shortly before that period, by the saint’s celebrated successor at Rheims, Archbishop Hincmar. "The bishop," says he, "went in search of the King at early morn in his bed-chamber, in order that, taking him at the moment of freedom from secular cares, he might more freely communicate to him the mysteries of the holy word. The King’s chamber-people receive him with great respect, and the King himself runs forward to meet him. Thereupon they pass together into an oratory dedicated to St. Peter, chief of the apostles, and adjoining the King’s apartment.

"When the bishop, the King, and the Queen had taken their places on the seats prepared for them, and admission had been given to some clerics and also some friends and household servants of the King, the venerable bishop began his instructions on the subject of salvation.

"Meanwhile preparations are being made along the road from the palace to the baptistery; curtains and valuable stuffs are hung up; the houses on either side of the street are dressed Out; the baptistery is sprinkled with balm and all manner of perfume. The procession moves from the palace; the clergy lead the way with the holy gospels, the cross, and standards, singing hymns and spiritual songs; then comes the bishop, leading the King by the hand; after him the Queen, lastly the people. On the road, it is said that the King asked the bishop if that were the kingdom promised him. ’No,’ answered the prelate, ’but it is the entrance to the road that leads to it.’

"At the moment when the King bent his head over the fountain of life, ’Lower thy head with humility, Sicambrian,’ cried the eloquent bishop; ’adore what thou hast burned; burn what thou hast adored.’ The King’s two sisters, Alboflede and Lante-childe, likewise received baptism; and so at the same time did three thousand of the Frankish army, besides a large number of women and children."

When it was known that Clovis had been baptized by St. Remi, and with what striking circumstance, great was the satisfaction among the Catholics. The chief Burgundian prelate, Avitus, bishop of Vienne, wrote to the Frankish King: "Your faith is our victory; in choosing for you and yours, you have pronounced for all; divine Providence hath given you as arbiter to our age. Greece can boast of having a sovereign of our persuasion; but she is no longer alone in possession of this precious gift; the rest of the world doth share her light." Pope Anastasius hastened to express his joy to Clovis. "The Church, our common mother," he wrote, "rejoiceth to have born unto God so great a king. Continue, glorious and illustrious son, to cheer the heart of this tender mother; be a column of iron to support her, and she in her turn will give thee victory over all thine enemies."

Clovis was not a man to omit turning his Catholic popularity to the account of his ambition. At the very time when he was receiving these testimonies of goodwill from the heads of the Church he learned that Gondebaud, disquieted, no doubt, at the conversion of his powerful neighbor, had just made a vain attempt, at a conference held at Lyons, to reconcile in his kingdom the Catholics and the Arians. Clovis considered the moment favorable to his projects of aggrandizement at the expense of the Burgundian King; he fomented the dissensions which already prevailed between Gondebaud and his brother Godegisile, assured to himself the latter’s complicity, and suddenly entered Burgundy with his army. Gondebaud, betrayed and beaten at the first encounter at Dijon, fled to the south of his kingdom, and went and shut himself up in Avignon. Clovis pursued, and besieged him there. Gondebaud in great alarm asked counsel of his Roman confidant Aridius, who had but lately foretold to him what the marriage of his niece Clotilde would bring upon him. "On every side," said the King, I am encompassed by perils, and l know not what to do. Lo! here be these barbarians come upon us to slay us and destroy the land." "To escape death," answered Aridius, "thou must appease the ferocity of this man. Now, if it please thee, I will feign to fly from thee and go over to him. So soon as I shall be with him, I will so do that he ruin neither thee nor the land. Only have thou care to perform whatsoever I shall ask of thee, until the Lord in his goodness deign to make thy cause triumph." "All that thou shalt bid will I do," said Gondebaud. So Aridius left Gondebaud and went his way to Clovis, and said: "Most pious King, I am thy humble servant; I give up this wretched Gondebaud and come unto thy mightiness. If thy goodness deign to cast a glance upon me, thou and thy descendants will find in me a servant of integrity and fidelity."

Clovis received him very kindly and kept him by him, for Aridius was agreeable in conversation, wise in counsel, just in judgment, and faithful in whatever was committed to his care. As the siege continued Aridius said to Clovis: "O King, if the glory of thy greatness would suffer thee to listen to the words of my feebleness, though thou needest not counsel, I would submit them to thee in all fidelity, and they might be of use to thee, whether for thyself or for the towns by the which thou dost propose to pass. Wherefore keepest thou here thine army whilst thine enemy doth hide himself in a well-fortified place? Thou ravagest the fields, thou pillagest the corn, thou cuttest down the vines, thou fellest the olive-trees, thou destroyest all the produce of the land, and yet thou succeedest not in destroying thine adversary. Rather send thou unto him deputies, and lay on him a tribute to be paid to thee every year. Thus the land will be preserved, and thou wilt be lord forever over him who owes thee tribute. If he refuse, thou shalt then do what pleaseth thee." Clovis found the counsel good, ordered his army to return home, sent deputies to Gondebaud, and called upon him to undertake the payment every year of a fixed tribute. Gondebaud paid for the time, and promised to pay punctually for the future. And peace appeared made between the two barbarians.

Pleased with his campaign against the Burgundians, Clovis kept on good terms with Gondebaud, who was to be hence-forth a simple tributary, and transferred to the Visigoths of Aguitam’s and their King, Alaric II, his views of conquest. He had there the same pretexts for attack and the same means of success. Alaric and his Visigoths were Arians, and between them and the bishops of Southern Gaul, nearly all orthodox Catholics, there were permanent ill-will and distrust. Alaric attempted to conciliate their good-will: in 506 a council met at Agde; the thirty-four bishops of Aquitania attended in person or by delegate; the King protested that he had no design of persecuting the Catholics; the bishops, at the opening of the council, offered prayers for the King; but Alaric did not forget that immediately after the conversion of Clovis, Volusian, bishop of Tours, had conspired in favor of the Frankish King, and the bishops of Aquitania regarded Volusian as a martyr, for he had been deposed, without trial, from his see, and taken as a prisoner first to Toulouse, and afterward into Spain, where in a short time he had been put to death. In vain did the glorious chief of the race of Goths, Theodoric the Great, king of Italy, father-in-law of Alaric, and brother-in-law of Clovis, exert himself to prevent any outbreak between the two kings. In 498 Alaric, no doubt at his father-in-law’s solicitation, wrote to Clovis, "If my brother consent thereto, I would, following my desires and by the grace of God, have an interview with him."

The interview took place at a small island in the Loire, called the Ile d’Or or de St. Jean, near Amboise. "The two kings," says Gregory of Tours, "conversed, ate, and drank together, and separated with mutual promises of friendship." The positions and passions of each soon made the promises of no effect. In 505 Clovis was seriously ill; the bishops of Aquitania testified warm interest in him; and one of them, Quintian, bishop of Rodez, being on this account persecuted by the Visigoths, had to seek refuge at Clermont, in Auvergne. Clovis no longer concealed his designs. In 507 he assembled his principal chieftains; and "It displeaseth me greatly," said he, "that these Arians should possess a portion of the Gauls; march we forth with the help of God, drive we them from that land, for it is very goodly, and bring we it under our own power."

The Franks applauded their King; and the army set out on the march in the direction of Poitiers, where Alaric happened at that time to be. "As a portion of the troops was crossing the territory of Tours," says Gregory, who was shortly afterward its bishop, "Clovis forbade, out of respect for St. Martin, anything to be taken, save grass and water. One of the army, however, having found some hay belonging to a poor man, said, ’This is grass; we do not break the King’s commands by taking it’; and, in spite of the poor man’s resistance, he robbed him of his hay. Clovis, informed of the fact, slew the soldier on the spot with’ one sweep of his sword, saying, ’what will become of our hopes of victory, if we offend St. Martin?"’ Alaric had prepared for the struggle; and the two armies met in the plain of Vouille, on the banks of the little river Clain, a few leagues from Poitiers. The battle was very severe. "The Goths," says Gregory of Tours, "fought with missiles; the Franks sword in hand. Clovis met and with his own hand slew Alaric in the fray; at the moment of striking his blow two Goths fell suddenly upon Clovis, and attacked him with their pikes on either side, but he escaped death, thanks to his cuirass and the agility of his horse."

Beaten and kingless, the Goths retreated in great disorder; and Clovis, pursuing his march, arrived without opposition at Bordeaux, where he settled down with his Franks for the winter. When the war season returned he marched on Toulouse, the capital of the Visigoths, which he likewise occupied without resistance, and where he seized a portion of the treasure of the Visigothic kings. He quitted it to lay siege to Carcassonne, which had been made by the Romans into the strong-hold of Septimania.

There his course of conquest was destined to end. After the battle of Vouille he had sent his eldest son, Theodoric, in command of a division, with orders to cross Central Gaul from west to east, to go and join the Burgundians of Gondebaud, who had promised his assistance, and in conjunction with them to attack the Visigoths on the banks of the Rhone and in Narbonensis. The young Frank boldly executed his father’s orders, but the intervention of Theodoric the Great, king of Italy, prevented the success of the operation. He sent an army into Gaul to the aid of his son-in-law Alaric; and the united Franks and Burgundians failed in their attacks upon the Visigoths of the eastern provinces. Clovis had no idea of compromising by his obstinacy the conquests already accomplished; he therefore raised the siege of Carcassonne, returned first to Toulouse, and then to Bordeaux, took Angouleme, the only town of importance he did not possess in Aquitania; and feeling reasonably sure that the Visigoths, who, even with the aid that had come from Italy, had great difficulty in defending what remained to them of Southern Gaul, would not come and dispute with him what he had already conquered, he halted at Tours, and stayed there some time, to enjoy on the very spot the fruits of his victory and to establish his power in his new possessions.

It appears that even the Britons of Armorica tendered to him at that time, through the interposition of Melanius, bishop of Rennes, if not their actual submission, at any rate their subordination and homage.

Clovis at the same time had his self-respect flattered in a manner to which barbaric conquerors always attach great importance. Anastasius, emperor of the East, with whom he had already had some communication, sent to him at Tours a solemn embassy, bringing him the titles and insignia of patrician and consul. "Clovis," says Gregory of Tours, "put on the tunic of purple and the chlamys and the diadem; then mounting his horse, he scattered with his own hand and with much bounty gold and silver among the people, on the road which lies between the gate of the court belonging to the basilica of St. Martin and the church of the city. From that day he was called consul and augustus. On leaving the city of Tours he repaired to Paris, where he fixed the seat of his government."

Paris was certainly the political centre of his dominions, the intermediate point between the early settlements of his race and himself in Gaul and his new Gallic conquests; but he lacked some of the possessions nearest to him and most naturally, in his own opinion, his. To the east, north, and southwest of Paris were settled some independent Frankish tribes, governed by chieftains with the name of kings. So soon as he had settled at Paris, it was the one fixed idea of Clovis to reduce them all to subjection. He had conquered the Burgundians and the Visigoths; it remained for him to conquer and unite together all the Franks. The barbarian showed himself in his true colors, during this new enterprise, with his violence, his craft, his cruelty, and his perfidy. He began with the most powerful of the tribes, the Ripuarian Franks. He sent secretly to Cloderic, son of Sigebert, their King, saying: "Thy father hath become old, and his wound maketh him to limp o’ one foot; if he should die, his kingdom will come to thee of right, together with our friendship." Cloderic had his father assassinated while asleep in his tent, and sent messengers to Clovis, saying: "My father is dead, and I have in my power his kingdom and his treasures. Send thou unto me certain of thy people, and I will gladly give into their hands whatsoever among these treasures shall seem like to please thee." The envoys of Clovis came, and, as they were examining in detail the treasures of Sigebert, Cloderic said to them, "This is the coffer wherein my father was wont to pile up his gold pieces." "Plunge," said they, "thy hand right to the bottom, that none escape thee." Cloderic bent forward, and one of the envoys lifted his battle-axe and cleft his skull.

Clovis went to Cologne and convoked the Franks of the canton. "Learn," said he, "that which hath happened. As I was sailing on the river Scheldt, Cloderic, son of my relative, did vex his father, saying I was minded to slay him; and as Sigebert was flying across the forest of Buchaw, his son himself sent bandits, who fell upon him and slew him. Cloderic also is dead, smitten i know not by whom as he was opening his father’s treasures. I am altogether unconcerned in it all, and I could not shed the blood of my relatives, for it is a crime. But since it hath so happened, i give unto you counsel, which ye shall follow if it seem to you good; turn ye toward me, and live under my protection." And they who were present hoisted him on a huge buckler and hailed him king.

After Sigebert and the Ripuarian Franks came the Franks of Trouanne, and Chararic, their King. He had refused, twenty years before, to march with Clovis against the Roman Syagrius. Clovis, who had not forgotten it, attacked him, took him and his son prisoners, and had them both shorn, ordering that Chararic should be ordained priest and his son deacon. Chararic was much grieved. Then said his son to him: "Here be branches which were cut from a green tree, and are not yet wholly dried Up: soon they will sprout forth again. May it please God that he who hath wrought all this shall die as quickly!" Clovis considered these words as a menace, had both father and son beheaded, and took possession of their dominions. Ragnacaire, king of the Franks of Cambrai, was the third to be attacked. He had served Clovis against Syagrius, but Clovis took no account of that. Ragnacaire, being beaten, was preparing for flight, when he was seized by his own soldiers, who tied his hands behind his back, and took him to Clovis along with his brother Riquier. "Wherefore hast thou dishonored our race," said Clovis, "by letting thyself wear bonds? ’Twere better to have died," and cleft his skull with one stroke of his battle-axe; then turning to Riquier, "Hadst thou succored thy brother," said he, "he had assuredly not been bound," and felled him likewise at his feet. Rignomer, king of the Franks of Le Mans, met the same fate, but not at the hands, only by the order, of Clovis. So Clovis remained sole king of the Franks, for all the independent chieftains had disappeared.

It is said that one day, after all these murders, Clovis, surrounded by his trusted servants, cried: "Woe is me! who am left as a traveller among strangers, and who have no longer relatives to lend me support in the day of adversity!" Thus do the most shameless take pleasure in exhibiting sham sorrow after crimes they cannot disavow.

It cannot be known whether Clovis ever felt in his soul any scruple or regret for his many acts of ferocity and perfidy, or if he looked as sufficient expiation upon the favor he had bestowed on the churches and their bishops, upon the gifts he lavished on them, and upon the absolutions he demanded of them. In times of mingled barbarism and faith there are strange cases of credulity in the way of bargains made with divine justice. We read in the life of St. Eleutherus, bishop of Tournai, the native land of Clovis, that at one of those periods when the conscience of the Frankish King must have been most heavily laden, he presented himself one day at the church. "My lord King," said the bishop, "I know wherefore thou art come to me." "I have nothing special to say unto thee," reloined Clovis. "Say not so, O King," replied the bishop; "thou hast sinned, and darest not avow it." The King was moved, and ended by confessing that he had deeply sinned and had need of large pardon. St. Eleutherus betook himself to prayer; the King came back the next day, and the bishop gave him a paper on which was written by a divine hand, lie said, "the pardon granted to royal offences which might not be revealed,"

Clovis accepted this absolution, and loaded the church of Tournai with his gifts. In 511, the very year of his death, his last act in life was the convocation at Orleans of a council, which was attended by thirty bishops from the different parts of his kingdom, and at which were adopted thirty-one canons that, while granting to the Church great privileges and means of influence, in many cases favorable to humanity and respect for the rights of individuals, bound the Church closely to the state, and gave to royalty, even in ecclesiastical matters, great power. The bishops, on breaking up, sent these canons to Clovis, praying him to give them the sanction of his adhesion, which he did. A few months afterward, on the 27th of November, 1511, Clovis died at Paris, and was buried in the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, nowadays St. Genevieve, built by his wife, Queen Clotilde, who survived him.

It was but right to make the reader intimately acquainted with that great barbarian who, with all his vices and all his crimes, brought about, or rather began, two great matters which have already endured through fourteen centuries and still endure; for he founded the French monarchy and Christian France. Such men and such facts have a right to be closely studied and set in a clear light by history. Nothing similar will be seen for two centuries, under the descendants of Clovis, the Merovingians; among them will be encountered none but those personages whom death reduces to insignificance, whatever may have been their rank in the world, and of whom Vergil thus speaks to Dante:

"Waste we no words on them: one glance and pass thou on."


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Chicago: François P. G. Guizot, "Clovis Founds the Kingdom of the Franks; It Becomes Christian," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: Guizot, François P. G. "Clovis Founds the Kingdom of the Franks; It Becomes Christian." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: Guizot, FP, 'Clovis Founds the Kingdom of the Franks; It Becomes Christian' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from