A beautiful, wise, and well-learned maiden was Clotilde, princess of Burgundy, the noblest and most charming of the daughters of the Franks. Such was the story that the voice of fame whispered into the ear of Clovis, the first of the long line of Frankish kings. Beautiful she was, but unfortunate. Grief had marked her for its own. Her father had been murdered. Her two brothers had shared his fate. Her mother had been thrown into the Rhone, with a stone around her neck, and drowned. Her sister Chrona had taken religious vows. She remained alone, the last of her family, not knowing at what moment she might share their fate, dwelling almost in exile at Geneva, where her days were spent in works of charity and piety.
It was to her uncle, Gondebaud, king of the Burgundians, that she owed these misfortunes. Ambition was their cause. The fierce barbarian, in whom desire for a throne outweighed all brotherly feeling, had murdered his brother and seized the throne, leaving of the line of Chilperic only these two helpless girls, one a nun, the other seemingly a devotee.
To the ears of Clovis, the king of the Franks, came, as we have said, the story of the beauty and misfortunes of this Burgundian maiden, a scion like himself of the royal line of Germany, but an heir to sorrow and exposed to peril. Clovis was young, unmarried, and ardent of heart. He craved the love of this famed maiden, if she should be as beautiful as report said, but wisely wished to satisfy himself in this regard before making a formal demand for her hand. He could not himself see her. Royal etiquette forbade that. Nor did he care to rouse Gondebaud's suspicions by sending an envoy. He therefore adopted more secret measures, and sent a Roman, named Aurelian, bidding him to seek Geneva in the guise of a beggar, and to use all his wit to gain sight of and speech with the fair Clotilde.
Clothed in rags, and bearing his wallet on his back, like a wandering mendicant, Aurelian set out on his mission, travelling on foot to Geneva. Clovis had entrusted him with his ring, as proof of his mission, in case he should deem the maiden worthy to be the bride of his king. Geneva was duly reached, and the seeming pilgrim, learning where the princess dwelt, and her habits of Christian charity towards strangers, sought her dwelling and begged for alms and shelter. Clotilde received him with all kindness, bade him welcome, and, in pursuance of the custom of the times, washed his feet.
Aurelian, who had quickly made up his mind as to the beauty, grace, and wit of the royal maiden, and her fitness to become a king's bride, bent towards her as she was thus humbly employed, and in a low voice said,—
"Lady, I have great matters to announce to thee, if thou wilt deign to grant me secret speech."
Clotilde looked up quickly, and saw deep meaning in his face. "Surely," she thought, "this is no common beggar."
"Say on," she remarked, in the same cautious tone.
"Clovis, king of the Franks, has sent me to thee," said Aurelian. "If it be the will of God, he would fain raise thee to his high rank by marriage, and that thou mayst be satisfied that I am a true messenger, he sendeth thee this, his ring."
Clotilde joyfully took the ring, her heart beating high with hope and desire for revenge. Dismissing her attendants, she warmly thanked the messenger for his caution, and declared that nothing could give her greater joy than to be bride to Clovis, the great and valorous king who was bringing all the land of Gaul under his rule.
"Take in payment for thy pains these hundred sous in gold and this ring of mine," she said. "Return promptly to thy lord. If he would have my hand in marriage, let him send messengers without delay to demand me of my uncle Gondebaud; and bid him direct his messengers, as soon as they obtain permission, to take me away in haste. If they delay, I fear all will fail. Aridius, my uncle's counsellor, is on his way back from Constantinople. If he should arrive, and gain my uncle's ear, before I am gone, all will come to naught. Haste, then, and advise Clovis that there be no delay."
Aurelian was willing enough to comply with her request, but he met with obstacles on the way. Starting back in the same disguise in which he had come, he made all haste towards Orleans, where he dwelt, and where he hoped to learn the location of the camp of the warlike Clovis. On nearing this city, he took for travelling companion a poor mendicant, whom fortune threw in his way, and with whom he journeyed for miles in the intimacy of the highway. Growing weary as night approached, and having confidence in his companion, Aurelian fell asleep by the wayside, leaving the beggar to watch.
Several hours passed before he awoke. When he did so it was to find, to his intense alarm, that his companion had vanished and his wallet had gone, and with it the gold which it contained and Clotilde's precious ring. In dismay Aurelian hurried to the city, reached his home, and sent his servants in all directions in search of the thievish mendicant, whom he felt sure had sought some lurking-place within the city walls.
His surmise was correct. The fellow was found and brought to him, the wallet and its valuable contents being recovered intact. What was to be done with the thief? Those were not days of courts and prisons. Men were apt to interpret law and administer punishment for themselves. Culprits were hung, thrashed, or set at liberty. Aurelian weighed the offence and decided on the just measures of retribution. The culprit, so says the chronicle, was soundly thrashed for three days, and then set free.
Having thus settled this knotty question of law, Aurelian continued his journey until Clovis was reached, told him what he had seen and what heard, and gave him Clotilde's ring and message. Clovis was alike pleased with the favorable report of his messenger and with the judicious advice of the maiden. He sent a deputation at once to Gondebaud, bidding the envoys to make no delay either in going or returning, and to demand of Gondebaud the hand of his niece in marriage.
They found Gondebaud, and found him willing. The request of the powerful Clovis was not one to be safely refused, and the Burgundian king was pleased with the idea of gaining his friendship, by giving him his niece in marriage. His consent gained, the deputation offered him a denier and a sou, according to the marriage customs of the Franks, and espoused Clotilde in the name of Clovis. Word was at once sent to Clovis of their success, and without delay the king's council was assembled at Châlons, and preparations made for the marriage.
Meanwhile, news startling to Clotilde had reached Geneva. Aridius was on his way back. He had arrived at Marseilles, and was travelling with all speed towards Burgundy. The alarmed woman, in a fever of impatience, hastened the departure of the Franks, seemingly burning with desire to reach the court of the king, really cold with fear at the near approach of the shrewd Aridius, whose counsel she greatly dreaded. Her nervous haste expedited matters. Gondebaud formally transferred her to the Franks, with valuable gifts which he sent as a marriage portion, and the cortege set out, Clotilde in a covered carriage, her attendants and escort on horseback. And thus slowly moved away this old-time marriage-train.
But not far had they left the city behind them when Clotilde's impatience with their slow movement displayed itself. She had kept herself advised. Aridius was near at hand. He might reach Geneva that very day. Calling to her carriage the leaders of her escort, she said,—
"Good sirs, if you hope to take me into the presence of your lord, you must find me better means of speed than this slow carriage. Let me descend, mount on horseback, and then away as fast as we may. Much I fear that, in this carriage, I shall never see Clovis, your king."
Learning the reason of her haste, they did as requested, and mounted on one of their swiftest steeds, Clotilde swept onward to love and vengeance, leaving the lumbering carriage to follow with her female attendants at its slow will.
She was none too soon. Not long had she left her uncle's court before Aridius reached it. Gondebaud, who had unbounded respect for and confidence in him, received him joyfully, and said, after their first greetings,—
"I have just completed a good stroke of policy. I have made friends with the Franks, and given my niece Clotilde to Clovis in marriage."
"You have?" exclaimed Aridius, in surprise and alarm. "And you deem this a bond of friendship? To my poor wit, Gondebaud, it is a pledge of perpetual strife. Have you forgotten, my lord, that you killed Clotilde's father and drowned her mother, and that you cut off the heads of her brothers and threw their bodies into a well? What think you this woman is made of? If she become powerful, will not revenge be her first and only thought? She is not far gone; if you are wise you will send at once a troop in swift pursuit, and bring her back. She is but one, the Franks are many. You will find it easier to bear the wrath of one person than for you and yours to be perpetually at war with all the Franks."
Gondebaud saw the wisdom of these words, and lost no time in taking his councillor's advice. A troop was sent, with orders to ride at all speed, and bring back Clotilde with the carriage and the treasure.
The carriage and the treasure they did bring back; but not Clotilde. She, with her escort, was already far away, riding in haste for the frontier of Burgundy. Clovis had advanced to meet her, and was awaiting at Villers, in the territory of Troyes, at no great distance from the border of Burgundy. But before reaching this frontier, Clotilde gave vent to revengeful passion, crying to her escort,—
"Ride right and left! Plunder and burn! Do what damage you may to this hated country from which Heaven has delivered me!"
Then, as they rode away on their mission of ruin, to which they had obtained permission from Clovis, she cried aloud,—
"I thank thee, God omnipotent, for that I see in this the beginning of the vengeance which I owe to my slaughtered parents and brethren!"
The vow of Clovis.
In no long time afterwards she joined Clovis, who received her with a lover's joy, and in due season the marriage was celebrated, with all the pomp and ceremony of which those rude times were capable.
Thus ends the romantic story told us by the chronicler Frédégaire, somewhat too romantic to be accepted for veracious history, we fear. Yet it is interesting as a picture of the times, and has doubtless in it an element of fact—though it may have been colored by imagination. Aurelian and Aridius are historical personages, and what we know of them is in keeping with what is here told of them. So the reader may, if he will, accept the story as an interesting compound of reality and romance.
But there is more to tell. Clotilde had an important historical part to play, which is picturesquely described by the chronicler, Gregory of Tours. She was a Christian, Clovis a pagan; it was natural that she should desire to convert her husband, and through him turn the nation of the Franks into worshippers of Christ. She had a son, whom she wished to have baptized. She begged her husband to yield to her wishes.
"The gods you worship," she said, "are of wood, stone, or metal. They are nought, and can do nought for you or themselves."
"It is by command of our gods that all things are created," answered Clovis. "It is plain that your God has no power. There is no proof that he is even of the race of gods."
Yet he yielded to her wishes and let the child be baptized. Soon afterwards the infant died, and Clovis reproached her bitterly.
"Had he been dedicated to my gods he would still be alive," he said. "He was baptized in the name of your God, and you see the end; he could not live."
A second son was born, and was also baptized. He, too, fell sick.
"It will be with him as with his brother," said Clovis. "You have had your will in baptizing him, and he is going to die. Is this the power of your Christ?"
But the child lived, and Clovis grew less incredulous of the God of his wife. In the year 496 war broke out between him and a German tribe. The Germans were successful, the Franks wavering, Clovis was anxious. Before hurrying to the front he had promised his wife—so says Frédégaire—to become a Christian if the victory were his. Others say that he made this promise at the suggestion of Aurelian, at a moment when the battle seemed lost. However that be, the tide of battle turned, the victory remained with the Franks, the Germans were defeated and their king slain.
Clotilde, fearing that he would forget his promise, sent secretly to St. Remy, bishop of Rheims, to come and use his influence with the king. He did so, and fervently besought Clovis to accept the Christian faith.
"I would willingly listen to you, holy father," said Clovis, "but I fear that the people who follow me will not give up their gods. I am about to assemble them, and will repeat to them your words."
He found them more ready than he deemed. The story of his promise and the victory that followed it had, doubtless, strongly influenced them. Before he could speak, most of those present cried out,—
"We abjure the mortal gods; we are ready to follow the immortal God whom Remy preaches."
About three thousand of the Franks, however, refused to give up their old faith, and deserted Clovis, joining the Frankish King of Cambrai—who was before long to pay dearly for this addition to his ranks.
Christmas-day, 496, was fixed by Remy for the ceremony of baptism of the king and his followers, and on that day, with impressive ceremonies, Clovis the king and about three thousand of his warriors were made Christians, and the maker of the French nation was received into the fold of the Church. From that time forward Clovis won victory after victory over his surrounding enemies. He had been born leader of a tribe. He died king of a nation.
As regards Gundebaud, the result proved as Aridius predicted, whether or not through the personal influence of Clotilde upon her husband. Clovis broke his truce with Gondebaud, and entered Burgundy with an army. Gondebaud was met and defeated at Dijon, partly through the treachery of his brother, whom Clovis had won over. He fled to Avignon and shut himself up in that stronghold. Clovis pursued and besieged him. Gondebaud, filled with alarm, asked counsel of Aridius, who told him that he had brought this upon himself.
"I will save you, though," he said. "I will feign to fly and go over to Clovis. Trust me to act so that he shall ruin neither you nor your land. But you must do what I ask."
"I will do whatever you bid," said Gondebaud.
Aridius thereupon sought Clovis, in the guise of a deserter from Gondebaud. But such was his intelligence, the charm of his conversation, the wisdom and good judgment of his counsel, that Clovis was greatly taken with him, and yielded to his advice.
"You gain nothing by ravaging the fields, cutting down the vines, and destroying the harvests of your adversary," he said, "while he defies you in his stronghold. Rather send him deputies, and lay on him a tribute to be paid you every year. Thus the land will be preserved, and you be lord forever over him who owes you tribute. If he refuse, then do what pleases you."
Clovis deemed the advice good, did as requested, and found Gondebaud more than willing to become his tributary vassal. And thus ended the contest between them, Burgundy becoming a tributary province of France.