Gateway to the Classics: Barbarian and Noble by Marion Florence Lansing
Barbarian and Noble by  Marion Florence Lansing

Clovis, King of the Franks


Conqueror and civilizer, Theodoric sat on his Italian throne, and for the first time since Alaric and his barbarians crossed the Alps the land had rest. "He was an illustrious man and full of good will towards all," says the chronicler. "He reigned thirty-three years, and so great was the happiness attained by Italy that even the wayfarers were at peace. For he did nothing wrong. Thus did he govern the two nations, the Goths and Romans, as if they were one people. So great was the order which he maintained that, if any one wished to leave gold or silver on his land, it was deemed as safe as if within a walled city. An indication of this was the fact that throughout all Italy he never made gates for any city, and the gates that were in the cities were not closed. Any one who had any business to transact did it at any hour of the night as securely as in the day. He was a lover of manufactures and a great restorer of cities."

Nor was it only Italy that prospered. Merchants came flocking from all the countries round about to carry on their trade under his protection, and neighboring peoples desired to have a share in this wonderful peace and prosperity, or, as the quaint record reads, "Thus he so charmed the neighboring nations that they came under a league with him, hoping that he would be their king." That Theodoric did everything in his power to strengthen the friendship between his people and the Teutonic nations with which he was surrounded, and to maintain the peace of Europe, is shown by the system of marriages which he arranged. His sister Amalfrida he gave in marriage to the king of the Vandals, who ruled in Carthage and. northern Africa, his two daughters were the wives of the kings of the West Gothic and Burgundian peoples, and he himself married the sister of that greatest barbarian of them all, Clovis, the king of the Franks. The Franks were a new branch of the Teutonic peoples and had come but lately within the pale of civilization. They lived in the northwesternmost corner of Europe, in the land to which they have since given their name, and came first into the great family of barbarian nations on that day when all Europe united to drive back the terrible Attila and his Huns. They were not even united under one king until the days of Clovis, who came to the chieftainship in 481, eight years before Theodoric came over into Italy. Clovis was but fifteen or sixteen years old when he became king, but he went speedily to war with all his neighbors and succeeded in so extending his territory that the statesmanlike Theodoric thought him sufficiently powerful to be included in his system of family alliances, and sought and obtained in marriage Audefelda, the sister of the Frankish lord.

Clovis was a shrewd as well as a savage and brutal king. He looked upon the great alliance of Teutonic nations which Theodoric was building up, and decided that it would be a help to him to have a Christian wife of royal family. To this end he selected Clotilda, niece of the king of the Burgundians, whose own family had all been put to death by her uncle Gundobad, that he might seize the throne.

Clotilda was living in partial exile at Geneva. The story is that Clovis knew that Gundobad would never allow him to see her, and he therefore sent a Roman who was at his court, by name Aurelian, to try to see the lady. Aurelian went alone to Geneva, clothed in rags and with a wallet on his back like a beggar, but carrying with him the ring of Clovis to show his true purpose. Clotilda, who was famous for her piety and charity, received the wandering pilgrim kindly, and herself brought water to wash his feet that she might show her humility before this holy man of her faith. As she knelt before him Aurelian gave his message.

"Lady," he whispered, "I have great matters to announce to thee if thou wilt deign to listen to me in secret."

"Say on," replied Clotilda, consenting.

"Clovis, king of the Franks, hath sent me to thee; if it be thy will, he would fain raise thee to his high rank by marriage; and that thou mayest be assured of his purpose, he sendeth thee this ring."

Clotilda accepted the ring with pleasure, and said to Aurelian: "Take for the recompense of thy pains. as messenger these hundred sous in gold and this ring of mine. Return promptly to thy lord, and tell him that if he would fain unite me to him by marriage, let him send without delay messengers to demand me of my uncle Gundobad, and let the messengers who shall come, take me away in all haste, so soon as they shall have obtained permission, for my uncle and his counselors, my enemies, would fain prevent such a marriage by craft and deceit, but they will not dare to openly oppose your lord."

Clovis was glad at the message and sent an embassy who did even as Clotilda had said. Gundobad dared not refuse the powerful Frank, and gave Clotilda over to the envoys, who took her promptly to the king. "Clovis," the chronicler adds, "was transported with joy at the sight of her, and married her at once." So Clovis took his first step out of barbarianism, and it was due to the influence of Clotilda that he made his next great move.

Night and day the queen had pleaded with her heathen husband that he would come into the Christian faith, for she was an ardent believer. But he would not. Her one God had never, he declared, been proved any stronger if as strong as his many gods, and wherefore should he change?

Meanwhile a son was born to them, and the queen presented him for baptism. She had the church adorned with tapestry, seeking to attract her husband by the splendor of the ceremony. But the child died in his white baptismal robe. Then Clovis reproached her bitterly, saying: "If the child had been consecrated in the name of my gods he would be alive still. But now because he is baptized in the name of your God, he cannot live."

Clotilda unceasingly urged the king to acknowledge the true God, but he could not be won over. Five years went by, and Clovis's power grew ever greater and greater till he ruled from the ocean to the western bank of the river Rhine, and there he came upon a nation from the north, equally barbarous and equally strong in battle. He had thought to cross over easily into the fertile land which they held, and dispossess them of it. But they crossed over instead to meet him and surprised his troops and drew them into battle before they were ready. For once the Frankish king had met his match, and it seemed as if he was to be defeated.


Then in the midst of the battle, when all was going against him, Clovis bethought him of the God of Clotilda, who she had declared had all power. Right on the battle field, while the fighting went on about him, he stopped, and raising his arms to heaven cried out loudly:

"O Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda declares to be the Son of the living God, who art said to give victory to those who put their hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thine aid. I have called on my gods, and have proved that they are far from me and have no power to help me. Now will I test that power which thy people say they have proved concerning thee. If thou wilt grant me the victory over these enemies, I will believe on thee and be baptized in thy name."

The tide of battle turned, and the enemy began to flee before the Franks. Their king was killed, and when they saw that they were without a leader they submitted to Clovis, saying: "We wish that no more people should perish. Now we are thine." Then Clovis forbade further war, and after praising his soldiers he returned to the queen and told her how he had won the victory.

At the Christmas festival Clovis, who had meantime been instructed in the principles of the Christian faith, received baptism in the church of Rheims. The story of the coming of the royal convert is written thus in the records of the church:

"Preparations had been made along the road from the palace to the baptistery; curtains and valuable stuffs had been hung; the houses on either side of the street had been decorated; the baptistery had been sprinkled with balm and all manner of perfume. The procession moved from the palace; the clergy led the way with the holy book, the cross, and the standards, singing hymns and spiritual songs; then came 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 the land through which he passed was the kingdom promised him. 'No,' answered the prelate, 'but it is the entrance to the road that leads to it.'"

Even at the moment of submission the barbarian king had evidently dreams of earthly conquest. But at the font of baptism he was to receive his rebuke.


"Bow thy head in humility, Barbarian!" cried the bishop. "Henceforth adore what thou hast burned, and burn what thou hast adored."

The king's two sisters and three thousand men of the Frankish army, besides many women and children, received baptism on that day, and from that time the Franks were reckoned a Christian nation.

Clovis had bowed his head to the word of the Church. He was to meet another power before which he must pause. In the course of his wars he dealt cruelly with a people who, driven from their homes, sought protection and received it from Theodoric in Italy. Clovis prepared to pursue them and wipe them off the earth in his fierce anger, but Theodoric wrote him a letter, of which the tone is more one of command than of advice, warning him not to come farther. No one else on earth could have said to the fierce Frankish king, "Thus far shalt thou come and no farther," and been obeyed. But Clovis turned from his march and went back to his own domain.

For a time Clovis did not encroach on the Gothic territory. Then his ambition led him to his undoing. He could not rest in the thought that Theodoric had commanded him and he had turned back, and he provoked a war with his nearest Gothic neighbor, the son in law of the great king. Once more Theodoric warned him, but this time he did not heed, and there followed a war in which Theodoric himself after his long years of peace was forced to join, and in which Clovis was defeated and forced to give up part of the lands which he had won by conquest, and make a lasting peace with Theodoric.

Our last picture of Clovis is a strange one. Returning to Paris, humiliated no doubt by the thought that while he could hold his own wide kingdom he could not harm Theodoric, he set up his government there and, longing for recognition of his power, entered into negotiations with the far off Roman emperor at Constantinople. It is a sign of the wonderful hold which Rome had gained in the past over the minds of the barbarians that now, when she was but a name, they sought her titles. Theodoric, who had made the world forget his barbarian origin by his noble work as civilizer and peacemaker, still refrained from adopting the title, to which he had a right, of "Emperor of the Western World," out of respect to a Roman emperor hundreds of miles away. And Clovis, the most barbarian of the Teutonic rulers, as Theodoric was the most noble, was pleased as a child when the Roman emperor sent him the tunic of purple and the diadem which signified that he was a Roman consul. Putting them on, Clovis mounted his horse, and calling his people together that they might see him he rode in his purple garment from one end of Paris to the other, scattering with his own hand gold and silver coins among his subjects in response to their admiring cries of "Clovis Consul!" "Clovis Augustus!"

Three titles the ambitious barbarian had won for himself in the forty-five years of his life. He had been crowned "King of the Franks," and in that name was written the story of his success as a warrior. To be "King of the Franks" when Clovis was chosen chief of his tribe at the age of sixteen would have meant to be lord over all the other Frankish chieftains and tribes, as well as head of his own. The father of Clovis would have doubted if any one man could gain such power. But that would have been to rule only a small part of the region west of the Rhine. To be "King of the Franks" when Clovis died was to rule the Roman and the Teutonic peoples who dwelt in the lands from the Rhine to the Pyrenees. This Frankish empire which Clovis had founded was soon to lead all Christendom.

At his baptism Clovis had been greeted as "Eldest Son and Supporter of the Church," a title which was to lead his successors into crusades against the whole Mohammedan world. Now, at the end of his life, he received the empty honors of the dying Roman Empire, and it was over these that he and his people went wild with delight.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Goth against Goth  |  Next: Roderick and the Saracens
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.