The First King of France
Among the Franks who had settled in northern Gaul, the Salian Franks were the strongest. The heads of the Salian Franks were called Merwings or Merovingians.
It is said that Meroveus, one of these Merwings, was a sea-king, and you will remember his name because the kings of his race were called after him the Merovingians.
Meroveus had long yellow hair reaching to his shoulders, so the kings of his line always wore their hair long. Indeed, one of the titles of the Frankish kings was "Long-Haired." By degrees these long locks became a sign of royalty; to have them shorn a token of disgrace.
Whether Meroveus Was really a sea-king or not, his son Childeric was certainly king of the Salian Franks, and died in 481 a.d. , leaving his son Clovis, a boy of fifteen, to succeed him.
Clovis might not have become king because he was Childeric's son, but the lad had already shown on the battlefield that he was strong and could be brave. The warriors of his tribe therefore chose him, by vote, to be their king. To let the people know on whom their choice had fallen, they placed Clovis on their shields and Carried him thus through their towns and villages.
At fifteen years of age the lad was king of only a small tribe of Salian Franks; by the time he was forty-five years of age he had won all Gaul for himself and his Frankish warriors.
The only Roman governor left in northern Gaul when Clovis became king was Syagrius. He was rash enough to proclaim himself prince of the province of Soissons.
But the young king of the Franks would have no Roman, or, for the matter of that, no Frank either, ruling in opposition to him. He called his warriors together in 486 a.d. and declared war against Syagrius. Then shouting their fierce battle-cry, clashing their iron javelins upon their great white shields, the Franks set out to fight the Roman.
Syagrius did his utmost to defend his province, but neither skill nor strength was of any use before the furious onslaught of the Franks. The Roman governor was taken and secretly put to death, while Clovis established his capital at Soissons.
This success roused the ambition of Clovis. He sent his warriors out all over the country, bidding them lay waste those provinces that refused to own him as their lord.
In this way Gaul was gradually won for the king of the Franks, and the country which was ruled by the king of the Franks now, in 496 a.d. , began to be known as France.
As the king's kingdom grew larger, his power also became greater. Before long it was plain that Clovis meant to use his power.
The king was a pagan, that is, he worshipped idols, as did also his followers. But, as you know, the Romans had brought the teaching of Christ to Gaul, and here and there churches had been built in which to worship Him. These churches were already rich and held many treasures.
Clovis, being a pagan, did not hesitate to enter the churches and seize their treasures, whenever there was an opportunity to do so.
There was a law among the Franks, that all the booty taken in war should be equally divided among the warriors, the king taking his share by lot, as did the others.
One day Clovis's warriors came to a town called Rheims. Here there was a church which contained, among other treasures, a beautiful vase. It was said to be "of marvellous size and beauty." The soldiers did not fear to add the vase to their booty.
The Bishop of Rheims had sent his good wishes to Clovis when he was chosen king, and Clovis had been pleased with the priest's kindness.
When the bishop heard that the church at Rheims had been sacked, and that the vase had been carried away, he sent a messenger to the king, begging that all the church's treasures might be sent back, but if that could not be, that at least the vase "of marvellous size and beauty" should be returned.
Clovis, pagan though he was, wished to please the bishop, and bade the messenger go with him to Soissons, where the booty was to be divided.
When they reached the capital, the plunder was piled up in a great heap, and round it stood the host commanded by the king.
Clovis, determined to please the bishop, stepped forward and said, "Valiant warriors, I pray thee not to refuse me, over and above my share, this vase," and he pointed to the one which the bishop valued so greatly.
The Franks, who were proud of their king because he led them always to victory, answered his appeal right royally.
"Glorious king," they cried, "everything we see here is thine, and we ourselves are submissive to thy command. Do thou as seemeth good to thee, for there is none that can resist thy power."
You can imagine how pleased Clovis was as he listened to the words of his brave warriors.
But among these warriors was one who thought it would be a fine thing to defy his king. He broke from the ranks and struck the beautiful vase with his battle-axe, so that it was broken in half. Then pointing to the pile of booty, he shouted, "Thou shalt have naught of all this, O king, save what the lots shall truly give thee."
Clovis took no notice of the soldier's rudeness. It seemed as though he had not heard, for he took the broken vase and gave it to the bishop's messenger.
But punishment was yet to be meted out to the insolent soldier. Some months later, Clovis ordered his battle host to assemble, that he might, as was his custom, inspect their arms. All went well until the king came to the soldier who had struck the vase.
Before him the king lingered, looking at his lance, his sword, his battle-axe. Then stern and loud he spoke: "None hath brought hither arms so ill-kept as thine, nor lance, nor sword, nor battle-axe are fit for service" and snatching the battle-axe from the soldier's hand, Clovis flung it to the ground.
As the warrior stooped to pick it up, the king seized his own battle-axe, swung it high above his head, and bringing it down upon the soldier's neck, said, "Thus diddest thou to the vase at Soissons."
Rough as the times were, the king's deed filled his warriors with fear.
Now as Clovis journeyed through his land, he heard of a beautiful princess named Clotilde. Clotilde was a Christian, yet Clovis, the worshipper of idols, determined to marry her.
The bishops and priests were pleased that Clovis should marry Clotilde. They thought that for the love he bore his wife the king would soon become a Christian, and the bishops wished the powerful young monarch to be on their side. When the priests told Clovis the story of Christ's death upon the Cross, he cried, "Had I and my Franks been there we would have avenged the wrong."
Clotilde also longed to see her husband give up his idols and often she would plead with him to pray to the true God. But the years passed, and still Clovis clung to his idols.
At length the queen had a little son. She begged Clovis to let their child be baptized by the Bishop of Rheims. Perhaps in her heart she hoped that Clovis would himself be baptized with his boy.
Ofttimes she said to the king, "The gods you worship are naught and can do naught for themselves or others: they are of wood or stone or metal."
Clovis loved Clotilde well, and although he was not yet willing to give up his gods, he could not refuse to let their little son be baptized as Clotilde wished. So the bishop came to the palace, and the child was baptized in the name of Christ.
The queen was glad, and looked more beautiful than ever in her joy. But in a little while her joy faded, for her little son grew ill and died.
To add to Clotilde's grief Clovis reproached her. In his pain he scarce knew what he said.
"Had the child been dedicated to my gods he would have been alive," he muttered. "He was baptized in the name of your God and could not live."
Clotilde answered gently, "bear up against my sorrow, because I believe in the wisdom and goodness of the true God. Our little babe is with the whitest angels in heaven."
Then Clovis grew ashamed and silent before the patience of Clotilde. When another little son was bom he also was baptized, and as he grew strong and lusty, Clovis began to think more kindly of Christ.
Now, soon after the birth of his second son, a fierce German tribe attacked the Franks. Clovis at once set out to punish the invaders. When he had said good-bye to his wife she had begged him, once again, to give up his strange gods. But on the eve of battle how dare he forsake those who had often given him victory? So he had closed his heart against Clotilde's words.
In the midst of the battle Clovis saw that his soldiers were beginning to waver before the fury of the enemy.
At that moment one of his servants also saw that the battle was going against his master. Then he called out, so says an old chronicler, "My lord king, believe only on the Lord of Heaven, whom the queen my mistress preacheth."
Then in his despair Clovis raised his hands and prayed, "Christ Jesus, Thou whom my Queen Clotilde calleth the Son of the living God, I have invoked my own gods and they have withdrawn from me. . . . Thee, very God and Lord, I invoke; if Thou give me victory over these foes. . . I will believe on Thee and be baptized in Thy name."
Shouting his war-cry anew, Clovis once again led his men against the foe, and lo! the victory was his.
When Clotilde heard how the battle had been won, she was glad, but gladder still she grew as the day drew near on which her lord would be baptized.
From the palace to the church the royal procession walked when the great day dawned, the bishop leading the king by the hand as a little child. Following the king came the queen, more joyous than on her bridal morn, while behind her pressed the people. They, too, were going to be baptized with Clovis.
So great was the splendour prepared for the royal procession that, as he passed along the road from the palace to the church, the king said to the bishop, father, is not this itself that heaven which you have promised me?"
With Clovis were baptized three thousand of his warriors as well as many women and children.
After his baptism the king went back to his wars, for he could not rest until he had brought all Gaul under his own rule. But now, when he went forth to battle, Clovis no longer invoked his old gods of wood and stone; instead, he prayed to one of the saints of the Christian Church.
Soon after he became a Christian, Clovis went to Paris. And there, in the city which the Emperor Julian had loved for its sea breezes, its vines and figs, Clovis established his capital.
The work of the king was now nearly over. But before he died, Clovis confessed all the evil he had done, and knowing that he had often been cruel and unjust, he said that he had need of a "large pardon."
It was in the grey autumn days of the year 511 a.d. that King Clovis died at Paris, and was buried in a church which had been built by his wife Clotilde.
And you will remember that to Clovis belongs the glory of founding the kingdom of France, and of making it a Christian land.