Heroes of the Middle Ages  by Eva March Tappan


O F all the Teutons who came to live on Roman territory, the most important were the Franks, or free men. They had no wish to wander over the world when they had once found a country that pleased them, and so, since they liked the land about the mouth of the Rhine, they settled there and held on to it, adding more and more wherever a little fighting would win it for them. Each tribe had its chief; but Clovis, one of these chiefs, came at last to rule them all. The country west of the Rhine, then called Gaul, was still partly held by the Romans, but Clovis meant to drive them away and keep the land for the Franks.


Bronze Helmet of a Frankish Warrior

When he was only twenty-one, he led his men against the Roman governor at Soissons and took the place. From here he sent out expeditions to conquer one bit of land after another and to bring back rich booty. The most valuable treasures were usually kept in the churches, and the heathen Franks took great delight in seizing these. Among the church treasures captured at Rheims was a marvellously beautiful vase. Now the bishop of Rheims was on good terms with Clovis, and he sent a messenger to the young chief to beg that, even if the soldiers would not return all the holy vessels of the church, this one at least might be given back. Clovis bade the messenger follow on to Soissons, where the booty would be divided. At Soissons, when all the warriors were assembled, the king pointed to the vase and said, "I ask you, O most valiant warriors, not to refuse to me the vase in addition to my rightful part." Most of the soldiers were wise enough not to object to the wishes of so powerful a chief; but one foolish, envious man swung his battle-axe and crushed the vase, crying, "Thou shalt receive nothing of this unless a just lot gives it to thee." It is no wonder that the whole army were amazed at such audacity. Clovis said nothing, but quietly handed the crushed vase to the bishop's messenger. He did not forget the insult, however, and a year later, when he was reviewing his troops, he declared that this man's weapons were not in fit condition, and with one blow of his axe he struck the soldier dead, saying, "Thus thou didst to the vase at Soissons."

Clovis showed himself so much stronger than the other chiefs of the Franks that at length they all accepted him as their king. Soon after this, he began to think about taking a wife. The story of his wooing is almost like a fairy tale. In the land of Burgundy lived a fair young girl named Clotilda, whose wicked uncle had slain her father, mother, and brothers that he might get the kingdom. Clovis had heard how beautiful and good she was, and he sent an envoy to ask for her hand in marriage. The wicked uncle was afraid to have her marry so powerful a ruler, lest she should avenge the slaughter of her family; but he did not dare to refuse Clovis or to murder the girl after Clovis had asked that she might become his queen. There was nothing to do but to send her to the king of the Franks. Clovis was delighted with her, and they were married with all festivities.


Frankish Costume of the Time of Clovis

Clotilda was a Christian, and she was much grieved that her husband should remain a heathen. She told him many times about her God, but nothing moved him. When their first child was born, Clotilda had the baby baptized. Not long afterwards, the little boy grew ill and died. "That is because he was baptized in the name of your God," declared Clovis bitterly. "If he had been consecrated in the name of my gods, he would be alive still." Nevertheless, when a second son was born, Clotilda had him baptized. He, too, fell ill, and the king said, "He was baptized in the name of Christ, and he will soon die." But the mother prayed to God, and by God's will the boy recovered. Still Clovis would not give up the gods of his fathers. It came to pass, however, that he was engaged in a fierce battle near where Cologne now stands. His enemies were fast getting the better of him, and he was almost in despair, when suddenly he thought of the God of his queen, and he cried, "Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda declares to be the Son of the living God, if Thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, I will believe in Thee and be baptized in Thy name." Soon the enemy fled, and Clovis did not doubt that his prayer had been answered.


Baptism of Clovis

When he told Clotilda of this, she was delighted. She sent for the bishop and asked him to teach her husband the true religion. After a little, Clovis said to him, "I am glad to listen to you, but my people will not leave their gods." He thought a while and then he declared, "I will go forth and tell them what you have told me." He went out among his people, and, as the legend says, even before he had spoken a word, the people cried out all together, "We are ready to follow the immortal God." Then the bishop ordered the font to be prepared for the baptism of the king. The procession set out from the palace and passed through streets made gorgeous with embroidered hangings. First came the clergy, chanting hymns as they marched, and bearing the Gospels and a golden cross. After them walked the bishop, leading the king by the hand. Behind them came the queen, and after her the people. They passed through the door and into the church. The candles gleamed, the house was hung with tapestries of the purest white and was fragrant with incense; and there the king of the Franks, his sisters, and more than three thousand of his warriors, besides a throng of women and children, were baptized and marked with the sign of the cross.

The times were harsh and rude, and even a king who was looked upon as a Christian ruler never dreamed of hesitating to do many cruel deeds. Clovis wished to enlarge his kingdom, and he could always find some excuse for attacking any tribe living on land next his own. He cared nothing for his word, and to get what he wanted, he was ready to lie or steal or murder.

Clovis died in 511, but before that time all the lands between the lower Rhine and the Pyrenees had been obliged to acknowledge his rule. He made Paris his capital, and went there to live. This was the beginning of France. The descendants of Clovis held the throne for nearly two centuries and a half. They were called Merovingians from Merovæus, the grandfather of Clovis.