Born c. 465; died 511. A member of the Merovingian family, Clovis was the founder of the kingdom of the Franks over which he ruled from 481 or 482 until 511. The ground work for Clovis' successful reign was prepared by his father, Childeric I, king of the Salian Franks, whose realm was centered around Tournai. As indicated in a letter sent by remigius, bishop of Reims, to Clovis about the time he succeeded his father, Childeric was recognized not only as leader of the Salian Franks but also as a legally constituted official who exercised authority over the non-Frankish population of the Roman province of Belgica II and enjoyed the support of the Christian episcopacy in that area even though he was a pagan. Childeric and his Frankish followers saw their ancient Germanic ways of life modified by their adoption of many aspects of Roman civilization.
The main source for Clovis' reign, the History of the Franks written by gregory of tours, presents his career in terms of two interrelated themes: his spectacular military victories over a variety of enemies in Gaul and his conversion from paganism to orthodox Christianity, developments that together elevated him to heroic stature. Such a picture contains considerable truth, but requires some refinement. A careful reading of all the evidence suggests that Clovis continued the ways of earlier leaders of the Salian Franks, including especially his father. He pursued their policy of extending Frankish control over and settlement in an ever larger area of the Roman Empire south and west of the lower Rhine. Like them, his successes in expanding the area of Frankish control resulted in his rule over ever-increasing numbers of Gallo-Romans inhabiting that area. Like them, he readily adopted Roman ways as a means of making his authority more effective. What distinguished his reign was the scale of his achievements along lines already plotted by his Frankish predecessors.
In 507 Clovis invaded the Visigothic kingdom and won a decisive victory at Vouillé near Poitiers which allowed him to claim almost all Visigothic territory in Gaul; only the intervention of Theoderic, king of the Ostrogoths, kept Clovis from extending the Frankish frontier to the Mediterranean. The annexation of Gaul south of the Loire confronted Clovis with the challenge of ruling a population still powerfully influenced by Roman civilization. His victory over the Visigoths marked the apogee of Clovis' career. A symbolic recognition of his achievements awaited him when he reached Tours on his return from his victory over the Visigoths; there he was met by an embassy from the Roman emperor Anastasius which had come to seek an alliance with Clovis against the Ostrogoths and to bestow on him with impressive
pomp an honorary consulship. Through his military conquests the petty kingdom he inherited had become the major power in Gaul, ranking alongside and soon to surpass such other Germanic successor states to the Roman Empire as the Ostrogothic, the Visigothic, the Burgundian, and the Vandal kingdoms.
Conversion to Christianity. A significant factor in Clovis' success was his conversion to orthodox Christianity. How this came about is far from clear. In his History of the Franks Gregory of Tours attributed Clovis' abandonment of paganism in part to the persuasive influence of Queen clotilde, who was an orthodox Christian. Clovis' decision to allow the baptism of his two oldest sons points to her role in shaping the king's religious views. Especially decisive in Gregory's account was Clovis' conviction that his victory over the Alemanni at Tolbiac was caused by the intervention of the God of Clotilde on the side of the Franks; that conviction convinced the king to seek baptism from Bishop Remigius of Reims. According to Gregory, many of Clovis' warriors willingly followed their king's example. The evidence related to the conversion leaves no doubt that there were religious factors involved in Clovis' final decision. It is equally clear that political considerations related to his rule over the Gallo-Roman population of his growing kingdom played a decisive role in Clovis' acceptance of orthodox Christianity. He was certainly aware of the important role bishops played in late antiquity in directing Gallo-Roman society and of the value of episcopal support for anyone wishing to rule in Gaul. It was also obvious that the bishops of Gaul and their followers were committed to orthodox Christianity and opposed to the Arianism of the ruling regimes in the rival kingdoms of the Bungundians and the Visigoths. Although some evidence suggests that Clovis may have toyed with accepting Arian Christianity as a means of winning diplomatic advantage in his dealings with the Arian rulers of the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Burgunds, the political advantage of accepting orthodox Christianity in terms of his role as ruler of the kingdom of the Franks was obvious, especially when he faced his crucial confrontation with the Visigoths. As it turned out, the decision of Clovis and his Frankish followers to accept the religion of the Gallo-Roman population became a decisive factor in making Frankish rule acceptable to an indigenous population much larger in number than those who were of Frankish origin and in stabilizing the new regime that replaced Roman rule in Gaul.
Clovis' Rule. While the surviving record portrays Clovis chiefly as a successful warrior and as a champion of the true religion, his career had another dimension no less important. Clovis was an effective ruler who laid the foundations for a monarchical system that survived for at least two and one half centuries. That regime was based partly on military force which Clovis used ruthlessly to dispose of those who opposed him. But more crucial to his regime than brute force was Clovis' ability to merge Frankish and Roman political usages into a system that was acceptable to the population he governed, especially its elite segments.
While still a warlord, Clovis began to assume symbols of power that added a Roman dimension to his rule. Clovis' regime left undisturbed most of the traditional Roman local administrative system. Throughout most of his vast kingdom royal power was represented locally by counts whose jurisdiction extended over the territory once defined by the Roman city civitas and whose functions included recruiting military forces, administering justice, enforcing royal orders, and collecting taxes. Both Frankish and Gallo-Roman nobles were appointed to the office of count.
Especially important in the coalescence of the two cultural worlds was the religious establishment which Clovis skillfully exploited to serve his ends. The key figures in the Church were the bishops, who not only played a decisive role in directing religious life in Gaul but also who with the support of the Roman imperial regime had since the 4th century been expanding their role in keeping alive the idea of public service, especially in the cities. The episcopal office was increasingly monopolized by powerful aristocratic families whose interests were advanced by the power, wealth, and prestige attached to the office. Clovis encouraged bishops to expand their involvement in directing local affairs. The king's chief concern was to assure that only members of aristocratic families loyal to the king gained episcopal office, an objective that led him to take a keen interest in the selection of bishops. The bishops reciprocated by lending their considerable support to the newly converted champion of orthodox Christianity. They became the chief agents in the Frankish kingdom supporting charity, urban improvement, education, patronage of art and letters, all endeavors that contributed to sustaining the Roman heritage and in softening the violent, barbaric aspects of Clovis' regime. Beyond encouraging individual bishops to play a vital role in his kingdom, Clovis sought to use their collective presence as a force to shape a "national" church that would serve under royal direction to institute a common religious life throughout his realm. In 511 he summoned a synod of bishops at Orleans and defined an agenda aimed at regulating various aspects of religious life in a uniform fashion, including especially fortifying the authority of bishops and protecting the material resources of the Church. No less important than his collaboration with the episcopacy in sustaining royal authority among the Gallo-Roman population was the acceptance by Clovis and his Frankish followers of the forms of piety that were deeply rooted in Gallo-Roman society, especially the cult of saints and of relics. Clovis reflected this aspect of religious life especially in his reverence for the cult of St. Martin of Tours. His entire religious policy played an important role in bringing the Christian establishment into support for the new regime and in providing a conduit through which the conquerors and the conquered could find a common ground.
On Nov. 27, 511, Clovis died at the age of 45 after a 30-year reign. He was buried in Paris, which during the last years of his reign became the chief city in his kingdom. He left behind four sons, the eldest illegitimate and the other three children of Queen Clotilde. A division of the kingdom as if it were private property was arranged, which provided each son with a share of Clovis' realm; the model provided by this division was destined to cause unending trouble for future Frankish kings. But that fact in no way subtracts from the accomplishments of Clovis, who made the Franks masters of Gaul and a power to be reckoned with in the larger world of the early 6th century. At the same time Clovis played a significant role in establishing a political and religious order which provided a framework in which the Germanic and Roman worlds could join hands in shaping a new civilization in western Europe.
See Also: arianism; franks; merovingians; vandals; visigoths.
Bibliography: Sources: Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Historiarum Libri X, Bk. 2, chs. 27–43, ed. b. krusch, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptore rerum Merowingicarum 1 (Hannover 1937) 71–94, English translation as Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Bk. 2, chs. 27–43, trans. with intro. l. thrope (Harmondsworth, Eng. 1974) 139–158. Die Gesetze des Merowingerreiches 478–714, v. 1: Pactus legis Salicae: Recensiones Merovingicae, ed. k.a. eckhardt (Germanenrechte, Texte und übersetzungen 1; Göttingen 1955), English translations as Laws of the Salian and Ripuarian Franks, trans. t. j. rivers (New York, 1986), and as The Laws of the Salian Franks, ed. k. fisher drew (Middle Ages Series ; Philadelphia 1991). Concilia Gallia, A. 551–A.695, ed. c. de clercq, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 148A (Turnhout 1965) 3–19. Epistolae Merowingii et Karolini aevi, ed. w. gundlach, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae 3 (Berlin 1982) 112–113 (letter of Bishop Remigius of Reims to Clovis). Literature: w. von den steinen, Clodwigs Übergang zum Christentum: eine quellenkritische Studie (Darmstadt 1963). g. tessier, La baptême de Clovis: 25 décembre 496(?), (Paris 1964). i. gobry, Clovis le Grand (Paris 1995). b. chevallier Clovis, un roi européen, (Paris 1996). m. rouche, Clovis, (Paris 1996). p. delorme and l. de goustine, Clovis, 496–1996: Enquête sur le XV ème centenaire (Paris 1996). p. chaume and É. mension–rigau, Baptême de Clovis, baptême de la France: De la religion d'État à la laïcité d'État (Paris 1996). Clovis, histoire et mémoire. Actes du Colloque international d'histoire de Reims, 19–25 septembre 1996, ed. m. rouche, 2 v. (Paris 1997). j. w. currier, Clovis, King of the Franks (Milwaukee, WI 1997). r. mussot–goulard Clovis, "Que sais-je?" (Paris 1997). g. bordonove, Clovis et les Mérovingiens (Les rois qui on fait le France. Les Préecurseurs 1; Paris 1998).
[r. e. sullivan]
The Frankish king Clovis I (465-511) founded the Merovingian kingdom of Gaul, the most successful of the barbarian states of the 5th century. He is widely regarded as the originator of the French nation.
The son of Childeric I and Basina, Clovis inherited the kingship of the Salian Franks in 481, at the age of 15. In 486 he led his army against Soissons, the last of the Gallo-Roman strongholds, and defeated the Roman governor. He then engaged in a series of campaigns against other barbarian kingdoms, and it was during one of these military ventures that Clovis was converted to non-Arian Christianity. According to Gregory of Tours, Clovis was at a disadvantage in his fight against the Alamans and sought the aid of the God of his Christian wife Clotilde, promising that if he were given victory he would become a Christian. In 506 Clovis inflicted a crushing defeat on the Alamans at Tolbiac (Zülpich).
After the battle Clovis adopted Christianity and by so doing won the support of the Gallo-Roman bishops who controlled a significant portion of the wealth of Gaul and were exceedingly influential with the population. Moreover, his conversion automatically made Clovis's wars into holy wars against heretics and nonbelievers. Many historians have seen Clovis's conversion as a shrewd political move; but it is also likely that the victory of Tolbiac was instrumental in his religious shift and that without a sign of some variety he might never have abandoned his ancestral gods.
Within the Frankish portion of his kingdom Clovis, who was ruthless in his desire for power, gradually eliminated the other kings who had previously been his allies, and by a combination of military expertise and treachery he emerged as the supreme ruler in Gaul.
The period of Frankish expansion, which had begun in 486, ended with the battle against the Visigoths at Vouille (near Poitiers) in 507. Clovis then turned his attention to the government of his newly conquered territories. His reign, which combined elements of Germanic kingship with traditional Roman fiscal and administrative systems, owed much of its success to the cooperation between Clovis and his Germanic followers and the Gallo-Roman episcopate. His policy toward the Church was essentially one of overlordship tempered with consideration for ecclesiastical needs and privileges. In the latter years of his reign, Clovis devoted much energy to the promulgation and codification of the Lex Salica (Salic Law), the customary unwritten laws of the Franks, and thus he provided jurisdictional unity for his kingdom.
Clovis died at Paris on Nov. 27, 511, at the age of 45. In keeping with Frankish tradition, his four sons (Chlodomer, Childebert I, Clothar I, and Theuderic) divided his kingdom.
The most important source for the life of Clovis and the character of Merovingian Gaul is the History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, written between 575 and 585 and available in several English translations. The best modern descriptions of the life and times of Clovis are The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 3 (1913), and J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Long-Haired Kings (1962). □