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Clovis The First
The honor of having established the French monarchy and the French nation, of having raised himself from his position as chief of a petty and turbulent tribe to be the ruler of a powerful and permanent kingdom, unquestionably belongs to Clovis the First, who was born in the year 465. The multitude of petty kingdoms subsisting in Gaul at this time, forms, says an illustrious historian, one of the greatest difficulties in the ancient history of France. In a manuscript work, still preserved in the King's library at Paris, it is imputed to the disorders which prevailed after the expulsion of Childeric, father of Clovis, when such as were sufficiently powerful took advantage of the anarchy in which the nation was involved, to establish independent monarchies of their own. Clovis ascended the throne at the age of fifteen, and at the early age of twenty began to show his jealousy toward those whom he considered usurpers of his territories. His courtiers, ever ready to fan into a flame the spark they had discovered in the breast of their master, incited him to challenge Syagrius, a Roman who still had possession of Soissons and a part of the adjacent country.
Clovis punishing a rebel.
Such a leader, who could so long await a fitting opportunity, and then so sternly avenge an insult to his power, was well calculated to wield great authority among these stern and hardy warriors. He had enjoyed several years of uninterrupted tranquillity, when Basinus, King of Thuringia, made a sudden irruption into that part of the dominions of Clovis situated beyond the Rhine. Clovis was no sooner informed of this invasion, than he assembled his army, and entering the enemy's country, laid it waste with fire and sword, and imposed a perpetual tribute on the offending monarch.
Clovis now bent his thoughts on the formation of an alliance by marriage with some of the neighboring princes. He accordingly despatched his ambassadors to the King of Burgundy, asking for the hand of the Princess Clotildis, his niece, the accounts of whose extraordinary piety and beauty had made a deep impression on his heart. The court of Burgundy, fearful of offending a young and powerful prince, whose arms had hitherto been everywhere victorious, complied with his request.
Great preparations were made for the departure of the queen elect, and she began her journey in a kind of wagon, called basterne, drawn by oxen, which was the most elegant vehicle then in use. The marriage was celebrated at Soissons, amid the joyful acclamations of the people.
Heaven smiled on this propitious union; Clotildis became mother of a prince, who received baptism with the king's consent, and was named Ingomer. The subsequent death of this child, on whom Clovis had so firmly set his affections, inspired him, notwithstanding the prayers and remonstrances of his affectionate and pious princess, with an aversion to the Christian religion. He was prevailed on, however, to suffer his second son to undergo the ceremony of baptism. He also was attacked by a severe indisposition, but the prayers of this pious woman were heard and answered, the young prince restored to health, and the anxiety of his father dispelled.
The conversion to Christianity of Clovis, soon after this, is thus related by historians: The Germans had commenced preparing for incursions into the dominions of Clovis; he, being apprised of their intentions, hastened to impede their progress, and met them on the plains of Tolbiac, not far from Cologne, where a bloody battle was fought. Clovis, perceiving that the strength of his army was diminishing, lifted up his eyes to Heaven, and exclaimed, "God of my Queen Clotildis, grant me victory, and I here vow to worship none other than you." He immediately rallied his yielding forces, again led the charge, pierced with irresistible ardor the enemy's battalions, and entirely put them to flight. He then followed them into Germany, where he dispersed the remains of the vanquished army, reduced to obedience a nation hitherto invincible, and compelled them to pay him an annual tribute.
Faithful to his vow, he requested to be made acquainted with the mysteries of the Christian religion; and on Christmas-day, 496, received baptism at the church of St. Martin, in Paris, from Remigius, Bishop of Rheims, a prelate equally distinguished for his birth and piety. His sister Albofleda, and about three thousand of his subjects, followed his example. An improbable legend prevails, that during the ceremony of the baptism of Clovis, a dove descended from Heaven, bringing a phial of balsam, with which he was consecrated. This is what is now called La Sainte Ampoule, the Holy Phial; which was kept with extreme care, and contained the oil used by the monarchs of France at their coronation.
The conversion of Clovis had not repressed his warlike ambition. Brabant, the country of Liege, and that part of Flanders which was situated on the sea-coast, had not yet submitted to the new conqueror of Gaul.
The most considerable of these small states was the Arborici, a Christian nation, firmly attached to the Christian religion, and thence maintaining an enmity against the French, who were pagans. But the recent conversion to Christianity of Clovis and so many of his subjects, diminished the aversion of the people of this peaceful nation; they were induced to consent to an alliance with him, acknowledge him for their sovereign, and became subjects of the French kingdom. The Roman garrisons, following the example, capitulated and gave up all the places that were still in their possession, toward the ocean and on the banks of the Rhine.
Clovis did not as yet consider his victories complete; the conquest of Brittany was soon followed by that of Alaric II., King of the Visigoths. Before the French set out on this latter expedition, they made a vow not to shave themselves till they had subdued their enemies. Vows of this kind were very common at that period. It was the custom of those times to draw an omen from the verse that was chanting, when a person entered the church. The king's envoys, at their entrance into the church of St. Martin, heard these words from the Psalms: "Thou hast endued me with strength for the wars; thou hast supplanted those that had risen up against me; and hast put mine enemies to flight." This fortunate prognostic was confirmed on the banks of the Vienne. The army was at a loss where to pass that river, when a hind plunged into the stream in sight of the whole camp, and showed them a ford which still retains the name of the Passage of the Hind.
The two armies met in the plains of Vouille, near Poictiers. Soon after the commencement of the battle, the monarchs of either nation perceiving each other, rushed forward at the same instant, and engaged in single combat, when the superior skill and strength of Clovis decided the victory in his favor; he dismounted his adversary, and slew him on the spot. Nothing now remained to impede the progress of the conqueror, who extended his empire from the banks of the Loire to the Pyrenean mountains. Clovis then withdrew to Paris, and fixed his residence in a palace in the southern part of the capital, which had formerly been inhabited by the emperors Julian and Valentinian the First. Success had hitherto attended all the plans of Clovis, and allowing for the ferocious and martial spirit which then prevailed, he had preserved his fame from any material pollution.
The assembling of the Council of Orleans was the last remarkable event of the reign of Clovis, who died the same year, A.D. 511, at the age of forty-five, and was buried in the church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, which he had caused to be built. It has been a subject of dispute with historians, whether the military or the political talents of this prince were the most eminent. Gaul, subdued by his arms, preserved by his prudence, affords a proof that he was equally skillful in the cabinet and formidable in the field.
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