The King of All Franks

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Tomb of Clovis I at the Basilica of St Denis in Saint Denis

A brief biography of Clovis I, from his early conquest of the greater portion of Gaul , to his historic conversion to Christian Catholism.

Founder of a Dynasty

Clovis I is widely recognized as the founder of the famous (or infamous) Merovingian Dynasty of Frankish kings; his turbulent life encapsulates the often violent times during which he lived. Through shrewdness amounting to genius and the sheer force of his personality, he unified the various and often warring kingdoms of the Franks into what has now become the French people, and in so doing created the nation of Gaul, which would later become the nation of France, the first European nation as we understand the term today.

Birth and Early Life

Clovis was the son of Childerec I and his queen Basina, born around the year 465 A.D. He succeeded his father as king of the Salian Franks in 481, at the tender age of 15. Five years later, in 486, he led his armies against the last remaining Roman stronghold of any significance at Soissons, defeating the Roman governor Syagrius and thereby virtually eliminating the last vestiges of Roman Imperial power in Gaul.

With natural abilities perfectly suited for his time, Clovis expanded upon this victory in the ensuing years, and through a blend of military genius and calculated political treachery consolidated his power, eventually becoming the undisputed ruler of all of the Franks in Gaul.

Conversion to Catholicism

In 493 A.D., Clovis married the Burgundian princess Clotilda, a Catholic Christian, and although all of his children were baptized as Catholic, he himself did not convert until several years later, being baptized at Rheims by Saint Remigius on Christmas Day with some 3.000 of his closest followers. His conversion to Catholicism was inspired, according to his legend, by his having invoked the Christian God of his wife while fighting a losing battle with the Germanic tribe Alemanni in the late 490’s. His conversion was of immense historical importance, as it gained him the support of the Gallic-Roman aristocracy in his later wars against the Visigoths, leading to his consolidation of power over the entire region of what is now France, in effect establishing the first actual nation of a people in Western Europe.

Legacy of Clovis I

Clovis’ consolidation of military and political might laid the groundwork for the endurance of a stable monarchy, and paved the way for the later conquests of the Emperor Charlemagne. The dynasties of French kings, which endured until the 18th century, provided the basis for the subsequent political institutions that are still the basic structure of Europe today. Clovis’ great political achievement, the development of Salian Law into an institution, likewise formed the basis for European law throughout the middle ages, and into the modern period. Like the Roman law that it arose from, this legal institution remains the foundation of the principles of law, as we understand them today. While we may not approve of his means to achieving and consolidating power, we do owe Clovis a debt of gratitude for establishing a stable political order which the subsequent centuries of war, famine, and associated chaos has not managed to destroy.

Source:

  1. The Birth of France, by Katharine Scherman-Rosin. Random House, New York, 1987.