Clotilda (470–545)

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Clotilda (470–545)

Queen of the Franks and saint. Name variations: Chlotilda; Chlotilde; Chlothilde; Chrotechildis; Clothild; Clothilda; Clothilde; Clothildis; Clodechildis; Clotilde; Hlotechilde or Hluodhild. Born around 470 in Lyon (some sources cite 474 or 475); died in June 545 in Tours, France; daughter of Childeric also known as Chilperic II, king of the Burgundians, king of Lyon, and Queen Caretena; married Chlodovechs or Clodovic also known as Clovis I (465–511), king of the Franks (r. 481–511), around 490 or 493 (d. 511); children: Ingomer (b. around 494, died young); Clotimir also known as Clodomir or Chlodomer (495–524), king of Orléans (r. 511–524); Childebert I (d. 558), king of Paris (r. 511–558); Chlothar, Clothaire, Clotar also known as Lothair I (497–561), king of Soissons (r. 511), king of the Franks (r. 558–561); and several daughters including Clotilda (other names unknown, possibly died young); great-grandmother of Bertha of Kent (c. 565–c. 616). Thierry, Theodoric or Theuderic I (c. 490–534), king of Reims and Metz (r. 511–534), was the son of Clovis and Amalaberga or a mistress.

Few 6th-century historical sources touching on the life of the Frankish queen Clotilda have survived, making it difficult to reconstruct the details of her life. Adding to this difficulty are the many legends and traditions interwoven in biographies of this early medieval saint, stories that are often not easily separated from historical fact. Although much information survives about her husband Clovis, Clotilda's life must be pieced together from a few main sources, primarily the chronicles of the 6th-century monk Gregory of Tours, who wrote years after her death.

It is known that Clotilda was born around 470, the daughter of King Chilperic II of Burgundy and Queen Caretena . The 5th-century kingdom of Burgundy encompassed modern-day southeastern France. It was one of many small monarchies that arose from the political vacuum left by the collapsing Western Roman empire. Known as the "barbarian kingdoms," these small states were a mix of native Germanic culture, adopted Roman beliefs, and, eventually, Christianity. The Burgundian people had adopted Christianity, but they appear to have been divided between Arianism (which worshipped Christ as a secondary deity) and Catholicism, worshipping the Father and the Son as equal in importance. Clotilda was raised in the Catholic faith by her parents, a fact that was to play an important role in the future of the Franks, Burgundy's neighbors to the west.

There is some confusion over the fate of Clotilda's father Chilperic, who died around 490. According to Gregory of Tours, King Chilperic and his wife Caretena were killed by Chilperic's brother Gundobad (or Gundobald) in a dynastic struggle for control of Burgundy. Actually, Chilperic died in battle, and his widow took her two daughters to live at the court of Chilperic's brother King Godegisil of Geneva. Godegisil and his followers were Catholics, and Clotilda and her sister Sedeluna benefited from an excellent education provided by their uncle's advisor, the future saint Avitus of Burgundy. Sedeluna eventually founded a church and monastery near Geneva, where she became a nun under the name of Chrona.

In the history of the modern world, Saint Clotilda occupies a place of honor.

—Godefroi Kurth

A different future awaited Clotilda. Around 493, a messenger from the court of the Frankish king Clovis came to Geneva to ask for a Burgundian princess as a royal bride. Clovis was then 28 years old and had reigned over the Franks for 12 years. His realm was the most populous and powerful of the barbarian kingdoms, constantly engaging its enemies in an effort to expand their territory. Clovis, chosen king when he was only 16, had proven himself an ambitious and ruthless leader, single-minded in his desire to unite the small tribes of Frankish people into one state. He was remarkably successful in ending Roman control of Gaul and uniting the Franks, owing mostly to a strong army and a willingness to use it. Although many of the Franks were Christians, both Arian and Catholic, Clovis and his soldiers remained loyal to the warlike Germanic gods worshipped by their ancestors.

Clovis had repudiated his first wife, the Visigothic princess Amalaberga , when his alliance with her father became undesirable. He then sought a marriage alliance with the Burgundian kingdom. Popular tradition holds that it was 22-year-old Clotilda's widespread reputation for beauty and virtue that led Clovis to seek her hand from King Godegisil, but it is important to recognize Clovis' need for an alliance with the Burgundians as his prime motivation. It is also possible that Clotilda's Catholicism made her more desirable as a queen, since Clovis may have seen this as a means of bonding him to his Christian subjects.

Godegisil welcomed the opportunity to make friends with the powerful Frankish king; the alliance seemed to promise peace and security for his subjects. Clotilda's own thoughts on marrying a pagan king whom she had never met are unrecorded, but it is known that she consented to the arrangement. Thus in 493 Clotilda left Geneva and her mother and sister, whom she never saw again, and traveled to Clovis' capital at Soissons. The marriage was performed by Remigius, the Catholic bishop of Rheims; he was Clovis' supporter and soon to be a close friend and advisor to the newly crowned Queen Clotilda.

Many legends were later created about the betrothal and marriage of Clovis and Clotilda in popular tradition. Resembling other medieval nuptial legends, some describe a secret betrothal; others hold that King Gundobad, who feared Clovis' revenge on him because of his (supposed) murder of Clotilda's parents, tried to stop the wedding. Others describe Clotilda as seeking vengeance for her parents' death by burning Gundobad's villages as she passed through them on her way to Soissons. Such stories grew out of the later popular belief that Clovis' marriage had transformed France's future: that by marrying a Catholic, Clovis had truly founded the French nation. Understandably, an event of such historical importance became an imaginative story of high drama and intrigue.

Clotilda established a Christian court at the ancient Roman palace in Soissons. Soissons was only one of the royal residences; frequent travel around the region—to quell uprisings, ensure loyalty, dispense justice, and collect tribute—was a necessary part of kingship in the early Middle Ages. The king never traveled alone, and so Clotilda, along with their children, attendants, soldiers, and courtiers, spent the better part of each year on the road. But in the final years of their marriage, Clotilda and Clovis established an essentially permanent capital in Paris. We unfortunately know little of Clotilda's married life or of her relationship with Clovis. Gregory of Tours informs us that they were a loving couple who agreed on most matters—except for the fundamental question of religious belief—and that they enjoyed great popularity among their subjects.

According to Gregory of Tours, and most of Clotilda's later Catholic biographers, the queen's most cherished goal was the conversion of her husband to Catholicism. While it is not known exactly how Clotilda sought to convert Clovis, it is clear that his conversion was indeed of utmost importance to her and that her efforts were aided by Bishop Remigius. When their first child, Ingomer, was born around 494, Clotilda persuaded Clovis to have him baptized, showing Clotilda's influence on her pagan husband; but Clovis blamed the baby's early death on the anger of his gods for allowing the baptism. Nonetheless, Clotilda persuaded him to have their second child, Chlodomer, baptized as well, in 495. Sons Childebert and Lothair (I) were also baptized. Her last child was her only surviving daughter, also named Clotilda . As she was born after Clovis' conversion to Christianity, Clotilda's hope to raise a Catholic family was indeed realized. There is no evidence that any of her children gave up their mother's faith to worship the ancestral gods of the Franks.

Much has been written of Clovis' conversion, which probably occurred in 496. Indeed, his conversion is often considered the defining moment of his reign. Before him, no Christian monarch ruled over the people who founded France; after him, no pagan monarch did. Most of the credit for this turn of events has been given to Clotilda, unyielding in her determination to bring her husband to her faith. Like Clovis' marriage to Clotilda, numerous legends surround the king's decision to accept his wife's faith. The most widely told version places the momentous event during the Franks' battle against the Alemanni in 496 at Tolbiac. His army facing defeat, Clovis called on "the god of Clotilda" to aid him, promising to be baptized and forsake his old gods if he won the battle. When word of his miraculous victory reached Clotilda, she called on Bishop Remigius to help instruct Clovis in her faith.

Clovis still hesitated to commit himself to the new faith, however, despite Clotilda's urgings, because he feared his pagan subjects would reject him. But Clotilda saw her efforts rewarded when Clovis finally yielded and allowed Remigius to baptize him and his soldiers on Christmas Day 496. Clovis must have seen the political advantages of his conversion. By proclaiming his new faith across Europe, he secured the powerful friendship of the pope and the Eastern Roman emperor. They became allies in his constant struggle against the Arian-led Visigoths and Burgundians who surrounded the Frankish kingdom. Having such allies legitimized Clovis' rule, helping him conquer his enemies and expand his state.

Clovis' conversion began a new phase in Clotilda's married life. No longer concerned with bringing her faith to her husband, Clotilda turned her attentions to educating her children, presiding over an increasingly larger and more pious court, and bringing her faith to their subjects. Clovis became her partner in this, and the Catholic king and queen worked to strengthen the church within their kingdom. Together they founded a church in Paris dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul; they also formed a friendship with Geneviève of Paris (c. 422–512), the great spiritual leader of the city. After Geneviève's death and canonization, Clotilda and Clovis had her buried in the royal vault in their church, which was renamed in her honor.

Clotilda was about 40 when Clovis died in 511. Earlier that year, he had summoned and presided over the first Catholic council of bishops in Western Europe, his last important act as king and one that certainly pleased his devout queen. But the legacy of Clovis and Clotilda's rule—a strong and united Frankish kingdom supported by, and supportive of, the Catholic church—was not to last long. Clotilda's three surviving sons, along with Clovis' son from his first marriage, immediately divided the realm into four small and quarrelsome kingdoms. Her eldest son was only 16 years old; all four were immature, rash, ambitious, and competitive. Like their father, they were warrior-kings, which was to cause their pious mother much grief.

Although she continued to enjoy her previous rank and wealth, Queen Clotilda retired from an active political life. She moved from Paris to Tours; the town had been part of her dowry and now it provided her with a royal income. For the most part, her remaining years were filled with charitable works; she founded monasteries and churches, endowed convents, and gave away her own lands to support these new religious establishments. Two of her foundations in particular, Chelles and Notre Dame des Andelys in Touraine, became renowned as centers of learning in later centuries, and revered Clotilda as their patron saint.

Around 523 all three sons joined together to declare war on the Burgundians, their mother's people, for reasons that are unclear. Popular tradition attributes this war to Clotilda herself, still attempting to revenge her parents' supposed murder by attacking the sons of their murderer. This portrayal of Clotilda as cruel and vengeful, though common in biographies of her, is starkly at odds with the equally common but more substantiated portrayal of her as a pious and benevolent queen. In the course of the war, Clotilda learned to her sorrow that her eldest son Chlodomer had murdered her first cousin, King Sigismund; this was followed by the murder of Chlodomer himself by another Burgundian cousin. Clotilda, advanced in age for her time at 52 years old, adopted and raised Chlodomer's three children. She was devoted to the little princes, which soon led to more familial troubles.

Clotilda's two sons were jealous of their nephews, and feared that Clotilda would seek kingdoms for her grandsons at her sons' expense. Lothair and Childebert resolved to eliminate this threat. They requested their mother to send the boys to them so that, as they told her, they might make the boys kings. Clotilda, trusting in her sons, sent Theodoald, Gonthier, and Clodoald to Paris. There they were imprisoned and the two eldest murdered by their uncles. The youngest, five-year-old Clodoald, was smuggled to a monastery and became a monk, canonized after his death as Saint Cloud.

When Clotilda learned of the murders and of the subsequent flight of her sons from Paris, she went in mourning to the capital city to see the children buried next to Clovis in the royal vault. After returning to Tours, the queen discovered that her daughter Clotilda, who had been given in marriage to Amalaric, the king of the Visigoths in Spain, was being abused by her Arian husband in part because of her Catholic faith. Lothair and Childebert also heard of this outrage against their sister, and used it as a pretext for invading the Visigothic kingdom. Amalaric was killed in the ensuing battles, and although Clotilda was rescued and brought back to Gaul by her brothers, she unfortunately died soon afterwards. Thus in the course of a few months, Queen Clotilda had suffered the loss of her eldest son, her only daughter, and two of her grandchildren.

In Tours, Clotilda returned to her efforts to relieve the suffering of the poor and her religious activities. Her relationship with her remaining sons was bitter; she rarely saw them, but because they were the only surviving members of her family, she felt that she could not abandon them, despite their horrendous deeds. In 544, war broke out between Lothair and Childebert. According to Gregory of Tours, the distraught queen prayed for days that God would end the conflict, until at last, as the armies were about to engage, God sent a terrible storm, which caused both armies to flee and make peace. This was only one of the numerous miracles attributed to Clotilda in the years after her death.

Clotilda died, age 74, around June 3, 545, not long after her sons reconciled. Her sons were reportedly with her when she died, and they led the large mourning procession that took her body from Tours to Paris. The popular queen was buried next to her husband in the Church of Saint Geneviève in Paris. Clotilda was soon canonized and has been revered for bringing Catholicism to the French people. She became one of Paris' patron saints, and as recently as 1857, a new church in that city was dedicated to her.


Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Trans. by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books, 1974.

Kurth, Godefroi. Saint Clotilda. Trans. by V.M. Crawford. London: Duckworth, 1906.

Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450–751. London: Longman, 1994.

suggested reading:

Bachrach, Bernard S. Merovingian Military Organization. University of Minnesota Press, 1972.

Bury, J.B. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. Norton, 1967.

Geary, Patrick J. Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World. Oxford University Press, 1988.

James, Edward. The Origins of France: From Clovis to the Capetians, 500–1000. St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Lasko, Peter. The Kingdom of the Franks: North-west Europe before Charlemagne. McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Sergeant, Lewis. The Franks. Putnam, 1898.

Scherman, Katharine. The Birth of France: Warriors, Bishops and Long-Haired Kings. NY: Random House, 1987.

Simonde de Sismondi, J.C.L. The French Under the Merovingians and the Carlovingians. Trans. by William Bellingham. London: W. & T. Piper, 1850 (1975).

Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. The Long-Haired Kings: And Other Studies in Frankish History. London: Methuen, 1962.

Zollner, Erich. Geschichte der Franken Bis zur Mitte des 6. Jahrhunderts. Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag, 1970.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Clotilda (470–545)

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