In the beginning of the fifth century the Franks were among the many tribes of Teutonic origin who helped to dismember the Roman Empire. They took possession of part of Gaul, which, in time, became known as Frankland, and which formed the nucleus of the state which we know to-day as France. When the Franks invaded the Empire they did so in a manner different from that of the other Teutons. They did not cut themselves off from Germany. They did not wander far into the Empire, making conquests now here, now there. They simply crossed the border, and taking possession of a small portion, settled there.
Nor were they like the Goths and Vandals a single people who marched to war in a body. They were made up of various tribes who moved about independently of each other and who settled in various places. Their great strength lay in the fact that they kept their line of communication open. While plundering the Empire they still kept in touch with the great unexploited forces of the heathen world behind them.
The chief of these Frankish tribes were the Salians and the Riparians, who settled in what is now Belgium. And it was the Salian Franks which at length became the dominant tribe. Their first king of any account was Clovis. He traced his descent from a mythical sea-king called Merovée, and from that the dynasty to which he belonged is called the Merovingian dynasty.
Clovis came to the throne at the age of sixteen. He soon set out upon a career of conquest, and in no long time doubled and trebled his kingdom.
At the time of their invasion of the Empire nearly all the Teutonic tribes were Christian. But they were Arian Christians—that is, they were followers of Arius, whose doctrine, to put it simply, was a sort of early Unitarianism. It was easier for the uneducated Teutons to understand this doctrine than the more complicated one of the Trinity, and therefore they adopted it.
Arianism has long since passed away, and it may not seem to matter very much what those half-civilized tribes believed. But in the reconstruction of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire it had some importance. For the fact that the Teutons were Arians made for them an enemy in the Bishop of Rome, who was gradually becoming a power in temporal as well as in spiritual matters.
But although most of the barbarians who attacked the Empire were Christian, some were not. Among those who were not were the Angles and the Saxons, who took possession of England, and the Franks.
Clovis, like the people over whom he ruled, was a heathen, but he married a Christian princess, Clotilda, the niece of the King of Burgundy. And this Clotilda was not an Arian like her uncle, but a Catholic. She was very devout, and she tried very earnestly to convert her heathen husband. But Clovis resisted all her efforts. He allowed her undisturbed to follow her own religion, but he was satisfied with his own gods, and refused to change. At last, however, Clotilda had her wish.
Clovis was fighting against the Allemanni, and in the Battle of Tolbiac his soldiers were being beaten. Fervently he called upon his heathen gods to save him, and turn the fortune of the day in his favour. His prayers were in vain, and the Franks fled before the foe. Then, in the agony of defeat, Clovis prayed to Clotilda's God.
"Jesus Christ," he cried, "whom Clotilda declares to be the only true God, aid me. If Thou wilt grant me victory over mine enemies I will believe in Thee, and will be baptized in Thy name. I have called upon my own gods and they have not helped me. To Thee alone I pray."
As Clovis so prayed the tide of battle turned, and when night fell the victory was his, and the enemy fled in all directions. Returning home, the king loyally kept his word. The water of baptism was sprinkled upon him, his forehead received the sign of the Cross, and henceforth he was a Christian. Nor was Clovis alone in his baptism. With him three hundred of his followers accepted the Christian faith.
This sudden and wholesale conversion made little difference in the lives of Clovis and his tameless warriors. After, as before, they were blood-thirsty barbarians. But much of the king's future success was due to his conversion. For it brought him a powerful friend in the Church of Rome, and when he conquered the Arian kings of the Visigoths and the Burgundians, the great prelates looked upon him as a champion of the Church, and regarded his wars as holy wars. Thus began an alliance between the popes and the kings of France which, in days to come, had great influence upon the history of western Europe.
Even the emperor in far-off Constantinople honoured Clovis. Instead of regarding him as a barbarian enemy, assisting at the destruction of the Empire, he looked upon him as an ally, and gave him the title of Roman Consul. It was but an empty title, and added nothing to the reality of the Frankish king's conquests, but it pleased his barbaric mind.
Clovis reigned for thirty years. At the beginning of his reign he had been merely the chief of a petty tribe. When he died he was ruler of a vast kingdom stretching from beyond the Rhine to the Pyrenees. "For each day," says an old writer, "the enemies of Clovis fell beneath his hand, and his kingdom was augmented, because with a pure heart he walked before the Lord, and did that which was right in His eyes."