Son of Childeric, King of the Salic Franks; born in the year 466; died at Paris, 27 November, 511. He succeeded his father as the King of the Franks of Tournai in 481. His kingdom was probably one of the States that sprang from the division of Clodion’s monarchy like those of Cambrai, Tongres and Cologne. Although a Pagan, Childeric had kept up friendly relations with the bishops of Gaul, and when Clovis ascended the throne he received a most cordial letter of congratulation from St. Remigius, Archbishop of Reims. The young king early began his course of conquest by attacking Syagrius, son of Aegidius, the Roman Count. Having established himself at Soissons, he acquired sovereign authority over so great a part of Northern Gaul as to be known to his contemporaries as the King of Soissons. Syagrius, being defeated, fled for protection to Alaric II, King of the Visigoths, but the latter, alarmed by a summons from Clovis, delivered Syagrius to his conqueror, who had him decapitated in 486. Clovis then remained master of the dominions of Syagrius and took up his residence at Soissons. It would seem as if the episode of the celebrated vase of Soissons were an incident of the campaign against Syagrius, and it proves that, although a pagan, Clovis continued his father’s policy by remaining on amicable terms with Gaulish episcopate. The vase, taken by the Frankish soldiers while plundering a church, formed part of the booty that was to be divided among the army. It was claimed by the bishop (St. Remigius?), and the king sought to have it awarded to himself in order to return it intact to the bishop, but a dissatisfied soldier split the vase with his battle-axe, saying to this king: “You will get only the share allotted you by fate”. Clovis did not openly resent the insult, but the following year, when reviewing his army he came upon this same soldier and, reproving him for the the defective condition of his arms, he split his skull with an axe, saying: “It was thus that you treated the Soissons vase.” This incident has often been cited to show that although in time of war a king has unlimited authority over his army, after the war his power is restricted and that in the division of booty the rights of the soldiers must be respected.
After the defeat of Syagrius, Clovis extended his dominion as far as the Loire. It was owing to the assistance given him by the Gaulish episcopate that he gained possession of the country. The bishops, it is quite certain mapped out the regime that afterwards prevailed. Unlike that adopted in other barbarian kingdoms founded upon the ruins of the Roman Empire, this regime established absolute equality between the Gallo-Roman natives and their Germanic conquerors all sharing the same privileges. Procopius, a Byzantine writer has given us an idea of this agreement, but we know it best by its results. There was no distribution of Gaulish territory by the victors; established in the Belgian provinces, they had lands there to which they returned after each campaign. All the free men in the kingdom of Clovis, whether they were of Roman or of Germanic origin, called themselves Franks, and we must guard against the old mistake of looking upon the Franks after Clovis as no more than Germanic barbarians.
Master of half of Gaul, Clovis returned to Belgium and conquered the two Salic kingdoms of Cambrai and Tongres (?), where his cousins Ragnacaire and Chararic reigned. These events have been made known to us only through the poetic tradition of the Franks which has singularly distorted them. According to this tradition Clovis called upon Chararic to assist him its his war against Syagrius, but Chararic’s attitude throughout the battle was most suspicious, as he refrained from taking sides until he saw which of the rivals was to be victorious. Clovis longed to have revenge. Through a ruse he obtained possession of Chararic and his son and threw them into prison; he then had their heads shaved, and both were ordained, the father to the priesthood and the son to the diaconate. When Chararic bemoaned and wept over this humiliation his son exclaimed: “The leaves of a green tree have been cut but they will quickly bud forth again; may he who has done this perish as quickly!” This remark was reported to Clovis, and he had both father and son beheaded.
Tradition goes on to say that Ragnacaire King of Cambrai, was a man of such loose morals he hardly respected his own kindred, and Farron, his favourite, was equally licentious. So great was the king’s infatuation for this man that, if given a present, he would accept it for himself and his Farron. This filled his subjects with indignation and Clovis, to win them over to his side before taking the field, distributed among them money, bracelets, and baldries, all in gilded copper in fraudulent imitation of genuine gold. On different occasions Ragnacaire sent out spies to ascertain the strength of Clovis’s army, and upon returning they said: “It is a great reinforcement for you and your Farron.” Meanwhile Clovis advanced and the battle began. Being defeated, Ragnacaire sought refuge in flight, but was overtaken; made prisoner, and brought to Clovis, his hands bound behind him. “Why”, said his conqueror have you permitted our blood to be humiliated by allowing yourself to be put in chains? It were better that you should die.” And, so saying, Clovis dealt him his death-blow. Then, turning to Richaire, Ragnacaire’s brother, who had been taken prisoner with the king, he said: “Had you but helped your brother, they would not have bound him”, and he slew Richaire also. After these deaths the traitors discovered that they had been given counterfeit gold and complained of it to Clovis, but he only laughed at them. Rignomir, one of Ragnacaire’s brothers, was put to death at Le Mans by order of Clovis, who took possession of the kingdom and the treasure of his victims.
Such is the legend of Clovis; it abounds in all kinds of improbabilities, which cannot be considered as true history. The only facts that can be accepted are that Clovis made war upon Kings Ragnacaire and Chararic, put them to death and seized their territories. Moreover, the author of this article is of opinion that these events occurred shortly after the conquest of the territory of Syagrius, and not after the war against the Visigoths, as has been maintained by Gregory of Tours, whose only authority is an oral tradition, and whose chronology in this matter is decidedly misleading. Besides Gregory of Tours has not given us the name of Chararic’s kingdom; it was long believed to have been established at Therouanne but it is more probable that Tongres was its capital city, since it was here that the Franks settled on gaining a foothold in Belgium.
In 492 or 493 Clovis, who was master of Gaul from the Loire to the frontiers of the Rhenish Kingdom of Cologne, married Clotilda, the niece of Gondebad, King of the Burgundians. The popular epic of the Franks has transformed the story of this marriage into a veritable nuptial poem the analysis of which will be found in the article on Clotilda. Clotilda, who was a Catholic, and very pious, won the consent of Clovis to the baptism of their son, and then urged that he himself embrace the Catholic Faith. He deliberated for a long time. Finally, during a battle against the Alemanni–which without apparent reason has been called the battle of Tolbiac (Zulpich)–seeing his troops on the point of yielding, he invoked the aid of Clotilda’s God, promised to become a Christian if only victory should be granted him. He conquered and, true to his word was baptized at Reims by St. Remigius, bishop of that city, his sister Albofledis and three thousand of his warriors at the same time embracing Christianity. Gregory of Tours, in his ecclesiastical history of the Franks has described this event, which took place amid great pomp at Christmas, 496. “Bow thy head, O Sicambrian”, said St. Remigius to the royal convert “Adore what thou hast burned and burn what thou hast adored.” According to a ninth-century legend found in the life of St. Remigius, written by the celebrated Hinemar himself Archbishop of Reims, the chrism for the baptismal ceremony was missing and was brought from heaven in a vase (ampulla) borne by a dove. This is what is known as the Sainte Ampoule of Reims, preserved in the treasury of the cathedral of that city and used for the coronation of the kings of France from Philip Augustus down to Charles X.
The conversion of Clovis to the religion of the majority of his subjects soon brought about the union of the Gallo-Romans with their barbarian conquerors. While in all the other Germanic kingdoms founded on the ruins of the Roman Empire the difference of religion between the Catholic natives and Arian conquerers was a very active cause of destruction, in the Frankish kingdom, on the contrary, the fundamental identity of religious beliefs and equality of political rights made national and patriotic sentiments universal and produced the most perfect harmony between the two races. The Frankish Kingdom was thenceforth the representative and defender of Catholic interests throughout the West, while to his conversion Clovis owed an exceptionally brilliant position. Those historians who do not understand the problems of religious psychology have concluded that Clovis embraced Christianity solely from political motives, but nothing is more erroneous. On the contrary, everything goes to prove that his conversion was sincere, and the opposite cannot be maintained without refusing credence to the most trustworthy evidence.
In the year 500 Clovis was called upon to mediate in a quarrel between his wife’s two uncles, Kings Gondebad of Vienne and Godegisil of Geneva. He took sides with the latter, whom he helped to defeat Gondebad at Dijon, and then, deeming it prudent to interfere no further in this fratricidal struggle, he returned home, leaving Godegisil an auxiliary corps of five thousand Franks. After Clovis’s departure Gondebad reconquered Vienne, his capital in which Godegisil had established himself. This reconquest was effected by a stratagem seconded by treachery, and Godegisil himself perished on the same occasion. The popular poetry of the Franks has singularly misrepresented this intervention of Clovis, pretending that, at the instigation of his wife Clotilda, he sought to avenge her grievances against her uncle Gondebad (see CLOTILDA) and that the latter king, besieged in Avignon by Clovis, got rid of his opponent through the agency of Aredius, a faithful follower. But in these poems there are so many fictions as to render the history in them indistinguishable.
An expedition, otherwise important and profitable was undertaken by Clovis in the year 506 against Alaric II, King of the Visigoths of Aquitaine. He was awaited as their deliverer by the Catholics of that kingdom, who were being cruelly persecuted by Arian fanatics, and was encouraged in his enterprise by the Emperor Anastasius, who wished to crush this ally of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths. Despite the diplomatic efforts made by the latter to prevent the war, Clovis crossed the Loire and proceeded to Vouille, near Poitiers, where he defeated and slew Alaric, whose demoralized troops fled in disorder. The Franks took possession of the Visigoth Kingdom as far as the Pyrenees and the Rhone, but the part situated on the left bank of this river was stoutly defended by the armies of Theodoric, and thus the Franks were prevented from seizing Arles and Provence. Notwithstanding this last failure, Clovis, by his conquest of Aquitaine, added to the Frankish crown the fairest of its jewels. So greatly did the Emperor Anastasius rejoice over the success attained by Clovis that, to testify his satisfaction, he sent the Frankish conqueror the insignia of the consular dignity, an honour always highly appreciated by the barbarians.
The annexation of the Rhenish Kingdom of Cologne crowned the acquisition of Gaul by Clovis. But the history of this conquest, also, has been disfigured by a legend that Clovis instigated Chloderic, son of Sigebert of Cologne, to assassinate his father, then, after the perpetration of this foul deed, caused Chloderic himself to be assassinated, and finally offered himself to the Rhenish Franks as king, protesting his innocence of the crimes that had been committed. The only historical element in this old story, preserved by Gregory of Tours, is that the two kings of Cologne met with violent deaths, and that that Clovis, their relative, succeeded them partly by right of birth, partly by popular choice. The criminal means by which he is said to have reached this throne are pure creation of the barbarian imagination.
Master now of a vast kingdom, Clovis displayed the same talent in governing that he had displayed in conquering it. From Paris, which he had finally made his capital, he administered the various provinces through the agency of counts (comites) established in each city and selected by him from the aristocracy of both races, conformably to the principle of absolute equality between Romans and barbarians, a principle which dominated his entire policy. He caused the Salic Law (Lex Salica) to be reduced to written form, revised end adapted to the new social conditions under which his fellow barbarians were subsequently to live. Acknowledging the Church as the foremost civilizing force, he protected it in every way possible, especially by providing for it the National Council of Orleans (511), at which the bishops of Gaul settled many questions pertaining to the relations between Church and state. Hagiographic legends attribute to Clovis the founding of a great many churches and monasteries throughout France, and although the accuracy of this claim cannot be positively established, it is nevertheless certain that the influence of the council in this matter must have been considerable. However, history has preserved the memory of foundation which was undoubtedly due to Clovis: the church of the Apostles, later of Sainte-Geneviève, on what was then Mons Lucotetius, to the south of Paris. The king destined it as a mausoleum for himself and his queen Clotilda, and before it was completed his mortal remains were there interred. Clovis died at the age of forty-five. His sarcophagus remained in the crypt of Sainte-Geneviève until the time of the French Revolution, when it was broken open by the revolutionists, and his ashes scattered to the winds, the sanctuary of the beautiful church being destroyed.
The history of this monarch has been so hopelessly distorted by popular poetry and so grossly disfigured by the vagaries of the barbarian imagination as make the portrayal of his character wellneigh impossible. However, from authentic accounts of him it may be concluded that his private life was not without virtues. As a statesman he succeeded in accomplishing what neither the genius of Theodoric the Great nor that of any contemporary barbarian king could achieve: upon the ruins of the Roman Empire he built up a powerful system, the influence of which dominated European civilization during many centuries, and from which sprang France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland, without taking into account that northern Spain and northern Italy were also, for a time, under the civilizing regime of the Frankish Empire.
Clovis left four sons. Theodoric, the eldest, was the issue of union prior to that contracted with Clotilda, who was, however, the mother of the three others, Clodomir, Childebert, and Clotaire. They divided their father’s kingdom among themselves, following the barbarian principle that sought promotion of personal rather than national interests, and looked upon royalty as the personal prerogative of the sons of kings. After the death of Clovis his daughter Clotilda, named after her mother, married Amalric, king of the Visigoths. She died young, being cruelly abused by this Arian prince, who seemed eager to wreak vengeance on the daughter of Clovis for the tragic death of Alaric II.
ARNDT (ed.), GREGORY OF TOURS, Historia ecclesiastica Francorum in Mon. Germ. Hist:. Script. RR. Merovingicarum; JUNGHANS, Die Gesdichte der frankischen Konige Childerich und Chlodovich (Gottingen, 1857), tr. by MONOD as Histore critique de rois Childeric et Clovis (Paris, 1879); RAJNA, Le origini dell’ epopea francese (Florence, 1884); KURTH, Histoire poetique des Merovingiens (Paris 1893): IDEM, Clovis (Tours, 1896, and Paris, 1901).
GODEFROID KURTH (Catholic Encyclopedia)
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