Clotilda of Burgandy, the Girl of the French Vineyards
It was little more than fourteen hundred years ago, in the year of our Lord 485, that a little girl crouched trembling and terrified, at the feet of a pitying priest in the palace of the kings of Burgundy. There has been many a sad little maid of ten, before and since the days of the fair-haired Princess Clotilda, but surely none had greater cause for terror and tears than she. For her cruel uncle, Gundebald, waging war against his brother Chilperic, the rightful king of Burgundy, had with a band of savage followers burst into his brother's palace and, after the fierce and relentless fashion of those cruel days, had murdered King Chilperic, the father of little Clotilda, the queen, her mother, and the young princes, her brothers; and was now searching for her and her sister Sedelenda, to kill them also.
Poor Sedelenda had hidden away in some other far-off corner; but even as Clotilda hung for protection to the robe of the good stranger-priest Ugo of Rheims (whom the king, her father, had lodged in the palace, on his homeward journey from Jerusalem), the clash of steel drew nearer and nearer. Through the corridor came the rush of feet, the arras in the doorway was rudely flung aside, and the poor child's fierce pursuers, with her cruel uncle at their head, rushed into the room.
"Hollo! Here hides the game!" he cried in savage exultation. "Thrust her away, Sir Priest, or thou diest in her stead. Not one of the tyrant's brood shall live. I say it!"
"And who art thou to judge of life or death?" demanded the priest sternly, as he still shielded the trembling child.
"I am Gundebald, King of Burgundy by the grace of mine own good sword and the right of succession," was the reply. "Trifle not with me, Sir Priest, but thrust away the child. She is my lawful prize to do with as I will. Ho, Sigebert, drag her forth!"
Quick as a flash the brave priest stepped before the cowering child, and, with one hand still resting protectingly on the girl's fair hair, he raised the other in stern and fearless protest, and boldly faced the murderous throng.
"Back, men of blood!" he cried. "Back! Nor dare to lay hand on this young maid who hath here sought sanctuary!"
Fierce and savage men always respect bravery in others. There was something so courageous and heroic in the act of that single priest in thus facing a ferocious and determined band, in defence of a little girl,—for girls were but slightingly regarded in those far-off days,—that it caught the savage fancy of the cruel king. And this, joined with his respect for the Church's right of sanctuary, and with the lessening of his thirst for blood, now that he had satisfied his first desire for revenge. led him to desist.
"So be it then," he said, lowering his threatening sword. "I yield her to thee, Sir Priest. Look to her welfare and thine own. Surely a girl can do no harm."
But King Gundebald and his house lived to learn how far wrong was that unguarded statement. For the very lowering of the murderous sword that thus brought life to the little Princess Clotilda meant the downfall of the kingdom of Burgundy and the rise of the great and victorious nation of France. The memories of even a little maid of ten are not easily blotted out.
Her sister, Sedelenda, had found refuge and safety in the convent of Ainay, near at hand, and there, too, Clotilda would have gone, but her uncle, the new king, said: "No, the maidens must be forever separated." He expressed a willingness, however, to have the Princess Clotilda brought up in his palace, which had been her father's, and requested the priest Ugo of Rheims to remain awhile, and look after the girl's education. In those days a king's request was a command, and the good Ugo, though stern and brave in the face of real danger, was shrewd enough to know that it was best for him to yield to the king's wishes. So he continued in the palace of the king, looking after the welfare of his little charge, until suddenly the girl took matters into her own hands, and decided his future and her own.
The kingdom of Burgundy, in the days of the Princess Clotilda, was a large tract of country now embraced by Southern France and Western Switzerland. It had been given over by the Romans to the Goths, who had invaded it in the year 413. It was a land of forest and vineyards, of fair valleys and sheltered hill-sides, and of busy cities that the fostering hand of Rome had beautified; while through its broad domain the Rhone, pure and sparkling, swept with a rapid current from Swiss lake and glacier, southward to the broad and beautiful Mediterranean. Lyons was its capital, and on the hill of Fourviere, overlooking the city below it, rose the marble palace of the Burgundian kings, near to the spot where, to-day, the ruined forum of the old Roman days is still shown to tourists.
It had been a palace for centuries. Roman governors of "Imperial Gaul" had made it their head-quarters and their home; three Roman emperors had cooed and cried as babies within its walls; and it had witnessed also many a feast and foray, and the changing fortunes of Roman, Gallic, and Burgundian conquerors and over-lords. But it was no longer "home" to the little Princess Clotilda. She thought of her father and mother, and of her brothers, the little princes with whom she had played in this very palace, as it now seemed to her, so many years ago. And the more she feared her cruel uncle, the more did she desire to go far, far away from his presence. So, after thinking the whole matter over, as little girls of ten can sometimes think, she told her good friend Ugo, the priest, of her father's youngest brother Godegesil, who ruled the dependent principality of Geneva, far up the valley of the Rhone.
"Yes, child, I know the place," said Ugo. "A fair city indeed, on the blue and beautiful Lake Lemanus, walled in by mountains, and rich in corn and vineyards."
"Then let us fly thither," said the girl. "My uncle Godegesil I know will succor us, and I shall be freed from my fears of King Gundebald."
Though it seemed at first to the good priest only a child's desire, he learned to think better of it when he saw how unhappy the poor girl was in the hated palace, and how slight were her chances for improvement. And so, one fair spring morning in the year 486, the two slipped quietly out of the palace; and by slow and cautious stages, with help from friendly priests and nuns, and frequent rides in the heavy ox-wagons that were the only means of transport other than horseback, they finally reached the old city of Geneva.
And on the journey, the good Ugo had made the road seem less weary, and the lumbering ox-wagons less jolty and painful, by telling his bright young charge of all the wonders and relics he had seen in his journeyings in the East; but especially did the girl love to hear him tell of the boy king of the Franks, Hlodo-wig, or Clovis, who lived in the priest's own boyhood home of Tournay, in far-off Belgium, and who, though so brave and daring, was still a pagan, when all the world was fast becoming Christian. And as Clotilda listened, she wished that she could turn this brave young chief away from his heathen deities, Thor and Odin, to the worship of the Christians' God; and, revolving strange fancies in her mind, she determined what she would do when she "grew up,"—as many a girl since her day has determined. But even as they reached the fair city of Geneva—then half Roman, half Gallic, in its buildings and its life—the wonderful news met them how this boy-king Clovis, sending a challenge to combat to the prefect Syagrius, the last of the Roman governors, had defeated him in a battle at Soissons, and broken forever the power of Rome in Gaul.
War, which is never any thing but terrible, was doubly so in those savage days, and the plunder of the captured cities and homesteads was the chief return for which the barbarian soldiers followed their leaders. But when the Princess Clotilda heard how, even in the midst of his burning and plundering, the young Frankish chief spared some of the fairest Christian churches, he became still more her hero; and again the desire to convert him from paganism and to revenge her father's murder took shape in her mind. For, devout and good though she was, this excellent little maiden of the year 485 was by no means the gentle-hearted girl of 1888, and, like most of the world about her, had but two desires: to become a good church-helper, and to be revenged on her enemies. Certainly, fourteen centuries of progress and education have made us more loving and less vindictive.
But now that the good priest Ugo of Rheims saw that his own home land was in trouble, he felt that there lay his duty. And Godegesil, the under-king of Geneva, feeling uneasy alike from the nearness of this boy conqueror and the possible displeasure of his brother and over-lord, King Gundebald, declined longer to shelter his niece in his palace at Geneva.
"And why may I not go with you?" the girl asked of Ugo; but the old priest knew that a conquered and plundered land was no place to which to convey a young maid for safety, and the princess, therefore, found refuge among the sisters of the church of St. Peter in Geneva. And here she passed her girlhood, as the record says, "in works of piety and charity."
So four more years went by. In the north, the boy chieftain, reaching manhood, had been raised aloft on the shields of his fair-haired and long-limbed followers, and with many a "hael!" and shout had been proclaimed "King of the Franks." In the south, the young Princess Clotilda, now nearly sixteen, had washed the feet of pilgrims, ministered to the poor, and, after the manner of her day, had proved herself a zealous church-worker in that low-roofed convent near the old church of St. Peter, high on that same hill in Geneva where to-day, hemmed in by narrow streets and tall houses, the cathedral of St. Peter, twice rebuilded since Clotilda's time, overlooks the quaint city, the beautiful lake of Geneva, and the rushing Rhone, and sees across the valley of the Arve the gray and barren rocks of the Petit Seleve and the distant snows of Mont Blanc.
One bright summer day, as the young princess passed into the hospitium, or guest-room for poor pilgrims, attached to the convent, she saw there a stranger, dressed in rags. He had the wallet and staff of a mendicant, or begging pilgrim, and, coming toward her, he asked for "charity in the name of the blessed St. Peter, whose church thou servest."
The young girl brought the pilgrim food, and then, according to the custom of the day, kneeling on the earthen floor, she began to bathe his feet. But as she did so, the pilgrim, bending forward, said in a low voice:
"Lady, I have great matters to announce to thee, if thou deign to permit me to reveal them."
Pilgrims in those days were frequently made the bearers of special messages between distant friends; but this poor young orphan princess could think of no one from whom a message to her might come, Nevertheless, she simply said: "Say on." In the same low tone the beggar continued, "Clovis, King of the Franks, sends thee greeting."
The girl looked up now, thoroughly surprised. This beggar must be a madman, she thought. But the eyes of the pilgrim looked at her reassuringly, and he said: "In token whereof, he sendeth thee this ring by me, his confidant and comitatus, Aurelian of Soissons."
The Princess Clotilda took, as if in a dream, the ring of transparent jacinth set in solid gold, and asked quietly:
"What would the king of the Franks with me?"
"The king, my master, hath heard from the holy Bishop Remi and the good priest Ugo of thy beauty and discreetness," replied Aurelian; "and likewise of the sad condition of one who is the daughter of a royal line. He bade me use all my wit to come nigh to thee, and to say that, if it be the will of the gods, he would fain raise thee to his rank by marriage."
Those were days of swift and sudden surprises, when kings made up their minds in royal haste, and princesses were not expected to be surprised at whatever they might hear. And so we must not feel surprised to learn that all the dreams of her younger days came into the girl's mind, and that, as the record states, "she accepted the ring with great joy."
"Return promptly to thy lord," she said to the messenger, "and bid him, if he would fain unite me to him in marriage, to send messengers without delay to demand me of my uncle, King Gundebald, and let those same messengers take me away in haste, so soon as they shall have obtained permission."
For this wise young princess knew that her uncle's word was not to be long depended upon, and she feared, too, that certain advisers at her uncle's court might counsel him to do her harm before the messengers of King Clovis could have conducted her beyond the borders of Burgundy.
Aurelian, still in his pilgrim's disguise, for he feared discovery in a hostile country, hastened back to King Clovis, who, the record says, was "pleased with his success and with Clotilda's notion, and at once sent a deputation to Gundebald to demand his niece in marriage."
As Clotilda foresaw, her uncle stood in too much dread of this fierce young conqueror of the north to say him nay. And soon in the palace at Lyons, so full of terrible memories to this orphan girl, the courteous Aurelian, now no longer in beggar's rags, but gorgeous in white silk and a flowing sagum, or mantle of vermilion, publicly engaged himself, as the representative of King Clovis, to the Princess Clotilda; and, according to the curious custom of the time, cemented the engagement by giving to the young girl a sou and a denier.[
"Now deliver the princess into our hand, O king," said the messenger, "that we may take her to King Clovis, who waiteth for us even now at Chalons to conclude these nuptials."
So, almost before he knew what he was doing, King Gundebald had bidden his niece farewell; and the princess, with her escort of Frankish spears, was rumbling away in a clumsy basterne, or covered ox-wagon, toward the frontier of Burgundy.
But the slow-moving ox-wagon by no means suited the impatience of this shrewd young princess. She knew her uncle, the king of Burgundy, too well. When once he was roused to action, he was fierce and furious.
"Good Aurelian," she said at length to the king's ambassador, who rode by her side: "if that thou wouldst take me into the presence of thy lord, the king of the Franks, let me descend from this carriage, mount me on horseback, and let us speed hence as fast as we may, for never in this carriage shall I reach the presence of my lord, the king."
And none too soon was her advice acted, upon for, the counsellors of King Gundebald, noticing Clotilda's anxiety to be gone, concluded that, after all, they had made a mistake in betrothing her to King Clovis.
"Thou shouldst have remembered, my lord," they said, "that thou didst slay Clotilda's father, her mother, and the young princes, her brothers. If Clotilda become powerful, be sure she will avenge the wrong thou hast wrought her."
And forthwith the king sent off an armed band, with orders to bring back both the princess and the treasure he had sent with her as her marriage portion. But already the princess and her escort were safely across the Seine, where, in the Campania, or plain-country,—later known as the province of Champagne—she met the king of the Franks.
I am sorry to be obliged to confess that the first recorded desire of this beautiful, brave, and devout young maiden, when she found herself safely among the fierce followers of King Clovis, was a request for vengeance. But we must remember, girls and boys, that this is a story of half-savage days when, as I have already said, the desire for revenge on one's enemies was common to all.
From the midst of his skin-clad and green-robed guards and nobles, young Clovis—in a dress of "crimson and gold, and milk-white silk," and with his yellow hair coiled in a great top-knot on his uncovered head—advanced to meet his bride.
"My lord king," said Clotilda, "the bands of the king of Burgundy follow hard upon us to bear me off. Command, I pray thee, that these, my escort, scatter themselves right and left for twoscore miles, and plunder and burn the lands of the king of Burgundy."
Probably in no other way could this wise young girl of seventeen have so thoroughly pleased the fierce and warlike young king. He gladly ordered her wishes to be carried out, and the plunderers forthwith departed to carry out the royal command.
So her troubles were ended, and this prince and princess,—Hlodo-wig, or Clovis (meaning the "warrior youth"), and Hlodo-hilde, or Clotilda (meaning the "brilliant and noble maid"),—in spite of the wicked uncle Gundebald, were married at Soissons, in the year 493, and, as the fairy stories say, "lived happily together ever after."
The record of their later years has no place in this sketch of the girlhood of Clotilda; but it is one of the most interesting and dramatic of the old-time historic stories. The dream of that sad little princess in the old convent at Geneva, "to make her boy-hero a Christian, and to be revenged on the murderer of her parents," was in time fulfilled. For on Christmas-day, in the year 493, the young king and three thousand of his followers were baptized amid gorgeous ceremonial in the great church of St. Martin at Rheims.
The story of the young queen's revenge is not to be told in these pages. But, though terrible, it is only one among the many tales of vengeance that show us what fierce and cruel folk our ancestors were, in the days when passion instead of love ruled the hearts of men and women, and of boys and girls as well; and how favored are we of this nineteenth century, in all the peace and prosperity and home happiness that surround us.
But from this conversion, as also from this revenge, came the great power of Clovis and Clotilda; for, ere his death, in the year 511, he brought all the land under his sway from the Rhine to the Rhone, the ocean and the Pyrenees; he was hailed by his people with the old Roman titles of Consul and Augustus, and reigned victorious as the first king of France. Clotilda, after years of wise counsel and charitable works, upon which her determination for revenge seems to be the only stain, died long after her husband, in the year 545, and to-day, in the city of Paris, which was even then the capital of new France, the church of St. Clotilda stands as her memorial, while her marble statue may be seen by the traveller in the great palace of the Luxembourg.
A typical girl of those harsh old days of the long ago,—loving and generous toward her friends, unforgiving and revengeful to her enemies,—reared in the midst of cruelty and of charity, she did her duty according to the light given her, made France a Christian nation, and so helped on the progress of civilization. Certainly a place among the world's historic girls may rightly be accorded to this fair-haired young princess of the summer-land of France, the beautiful Clotilda of Burgundy.