Stories from French History - Lena Dalkeith

A Story in Praise of Queen Clothilde and King Clovis

Once upon a time (and all this that you are about to read is true) there was a large wild country in Europe called the country of Gaul.

It lay between sea and sea, between mountain and mountain; and if you would know the names of the seas, they are the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called to-day the English Channel. And if you would know the names of the mountains, they are the Pyrenees and the Alps.

Between these boundaries then lay the wild country of Gaul. It was made up of many other high mountains besides deep valleys and great plains, through which flowed mighty rivers. These plains were darkened by great forests where fierce beasts roamed—wild oxen and elk, wolves, and swine that were fiercer than wolves.

Fierce men roamed there too; half-naked savages who hunted and killed the wild beasts so they might eat and live. And as some wild animals gather together in herds, so these wild men herded together in tribes; and of the number of tribes that lived in Gaul in that far-away time I cannot tell you, there were so many of them.

These savages made for themselves huts of wood and of clay and roofed them over with branches and straw. Round their rude huts they heaped a rough wall made of wood and earth and stones. This helped to keep away enemies, either men or beasts, from their camp or village.

No tribe stayed long in one place. So soon as all the eatable wild beasts were killed, so soon as all the flocks and herds were used up, then word was given to move. Away wandered the tribe to some more fruitful spot; and if the coveted place was already occupied by another tribe, then battles were fought again and again and again until one or the other side proved victorious. So it was that these tribes of Gaul were forever wandering and forever fighting.

In time vast hordes of them spread towards the south, swarming over the Alps into Italy. So many were there of them, so fiercely did they fight, and so often did they win, that they even threatened the sacred city of Rome itself. Never fear but that they were driven back again to their own wild country by the brave Romans. Nay, more, in the great days of Julius Caesar they were conquered by him, their country was taken possession of by him, Roman Governors ruled over them, Roman soldiers became their companions.

So it came about that the wild barbarians were taught a great many useful things by their conquerors. They learnt how to build towns and roads and bridges, how to fight with more strength and cunning and less savagery; they learnt to speak the Roman language, to use the Roman laws.

And the time of this world went on; years passed; and Rome ceased to bring forth strong men; great generals there were none; the Roman soldiers forgot their old-time skill in battle; the Roman Governors knew no more the virtue of honourable ruling; the might and the power of ancient Rome was over, and forever.

Then the conquered men of Gaul grew restless. They began to fret against the indignity of being ruled by their foes, they began to long and to dream and to plan for freedom, for rulers and laws of their own making.

There were three great tribes or peoples in Gaul at that time, and these three tribes were divided up again many times into smaller tribes. The names of the three great tribes in Gaul were these—the Visigoths, the Burgundians, and the Franks.

Now from the last of these great peoples, from a small tribe called the Salian Franks, sprang Clovis, the strong man, the chief who at last became king over the whole of Gaul. He came of a brave stock. His grandfather Meroveus gave the name Merovingian to a line of kings, and of this line Clovis was the greatest.

This same Meroveus won great honour in the war against Attila the fierce King of the Huns. When that terrible hero invaded Gaul with his savage host Meroveus gloriously drove him back again into his wilds.

After Meroveus came Childeric, his son, of whom many a brave battle tale might be told. When Clovis was but fifteen years old this warrior died. Young as he was, the stern warriors of Childeric proclaimed his son their leader, carrying him up and down the village upon a shield as a sign thereof.

This showed that he had proved himself worthy of honour in battle even then, for at that time chieftainship—nay, even kingship, was won by a man's own strength and might and not by inheritance from his father.

From the first Clovis must have dreamed of the great achievements in war, of the power and greatness which should be his. He must have early shown his ambitious spirit, for it was not long before his name became known to kings and leaders of great tribes. He led his warriors, or 'leudes' as they were called, to battle and victory many and many a time, gaining more lands and more power; so that when one fine day he sent his messengers to the King of the Burgundians demanding the hand of his fair niece in marriage, that king did not refuse the request, and in good time the beautiful Princess Clothilde became the wife of King Clovis.

Now Clothilde was a Christian. Clovis was a pagan. He worshipped, he and all his warriors with him, at the altars of strange gods, made of wood and stone.

In the fifth century, in the time of Clovis, most men were pagans. Nevertheless the Church of Christ had already begun to show some little power. Its bishops and priests were often rich and powerful men owning great lands and much treasure. Clovis, although he did not agree with their faith, was always ready to help them when he could, and this even before he married Clothilde. Afterwards, you will understand, he was more than ever their very good friend.

This made the good bishops hope that one day Clothilde would persuade her stern husband to turn Christian—for he loved her dearly, and she him. And this was her prayer night and day for many and many a year: "Dear God, make of Clovis a good Christian, that he may live only to honour Thy Church and glorify Thy name, here on earth, and afterwards in Heaven."

Not only did Clothilde pray and fast, and do good deeds of charity in the hope that her prayers might be granted, but she spared no pains, using all her sweet arts of speech and manner to persuade her lord to desert the false gods of his fathers and worship the true God. All her labours were in vain; yet when her first little son was born, Clothilde's hopes rose high. Surely Clovis could deny her nothing at such a joyous time. So she came to him, speaking fair. "In a little while," she said, "the holy Bishop of Rheims, the good St. Remy, will come to baptize our babe. O good my lord, wilt thou not let him baptize thee also upon that same most joyous day?"

"Nay," answered the King, but gently, "baptize the child an thou must; as for me, I will worship my father's gods or none. Verily they have served me well in battle, forever leading me to victory, and shall I desert them for no cause save a woman's fancy?"

So the child alone was baptized, and was christened Ingomer by the holy bishop. This much had Clothilde for comfort, yet not for long; for very soon after the little Ingomer sickened and died, and when Clovis came back from some war in triumph there was no little son awaiting him to rejoice his proud heart. The Queen herself, white and sorrowful, told him of their loss.

"What have you to say for your God now?" cried Clovis, beside himself with anger and grief. "He has killed my son, my first-born son. You and your bishops make great ado about His power and might. You say He hears all your prayers and answers them. Now see what He has done for you. See how He has answered your prayers. You took my son and baptized him; now behold him—dead. My gods were angered and they killed him; your God was too weak to prevent them."

Then answered the Queen, grown very white and still: "I bear up against my sorrow," she said, and these are her very words;—"I bear up against my sorrow, because I believe in the wisdom and goodness of the true God. Ingomer is with the whitest angels in heaven."

Upon this Clovis fell to silence, nor did he reproach the Queen again. Nevertheless, he would never suffer her to speak of her faith or her God for many a long and weary month. It seemed as if he were more determined than ever to worship his own gods. And yet for all his seeming sternness, methinks the stern King, even in the midst of his wars and ambitious dreams, must have grown more inclined towards the new religion than he let his wife suspect, for Clothilde never lost heart. She never ceased to believe that one day her prayers would be granted and Clovis would become a Christian. Her hopefulness, her gentleness, her strength to bear sorrow impressed Clovis in spite of himself. It made him think about this new religion and wonder what there was in it which could make a weak woman so strong.

All the while he fought many desperate battles for his ambition's sake, winning power and fame in the land. Men feared him, too, for he showed little mercy to his enemies, and for this we must not unduly blame him. In those days, soldiers, even Christian soldiers, thought but little of the virtue of gentleness and forgiveness.

Not so very long after Prince Chlodomir, his second son, was born, the Allemans, a strong and savage German tribe, crossed over the River Rhine in great numbers, and attacked and made havoc among the Frank settlements. They coveted these rich and pleasant lands for themselves.

Clovis and Clothilde


Clovis no sooner heard of the invasion than he made instantly ready to march against them. In full battle array he came to take leave of Clothilde and his small son.

Clovis, like most of the Franks, was tall and fair and fierce-looking. His yellow hair fell in two long braids to his waist, his moustache, too, was long and fair. He wore a helmet on his head, an axe at his belt and a two edged sword. He carried also a javelin, a lance and a shield. His cloak and vest were made of beautiful fur, his tunic of linen, and his leather shoes were bound with long and wide leather thongs reaching from ankle to knee.

Before he left her, Clothilde, again braving his displeasure, spoke her old request. She feared lest one day he might fall in battle unbaptized, and that for her would indeed be a great sorrow—separating them even in death.

"How canst thou beg me to desert my own gods at this most dangerous time?" cried Clovis when the Queen had spoken. "Know'st not that these Allemans are fierce and terrible foes? Though we fear them not, we may not despise them. They must be conquered, else we shall know neither peace nor freedom in this land ever again. Yet you ask me to desert my strong gods now when I most need them!"

"There is only one God, the Lord Jesus Christ," said Clothilde steadfastly, "mighty in battle—strong to save."

Thereupon she fell on her knees before the King, crying, "Oh, for the sake of thy little son, and the love we bear him, wilt thou not make thy wife blessed?"

Now the young Chlodomir had been baptized, and still he lived, a strong and lusty babe. Moreover, with every year, the bishops of the Church gained more power and influence in the world. Their friendship and help were not to be despised. Clovis knew this, and he knew that he could count on them to help him well should he turn Christian; he also loved his fair wife dearly and secretly longed to make her happy. Nevertheless he did not quite dare to let go of his old gods. He believed they had helped him to win many of his battles. Thus it was that, after thinking for a while, he said, "I cannot do all thou wouldst have me do, Clothilde, but this much I promise thee: if ever in battle I do call upon my gods and they answer me not; if I find that I and all my warriors are in sore danger of defeat, then will I call upon thy God, and if He hear my prayer and succour me, Him will I worship and none other for evermore."

And the Queen answered, "It is well; I am content."

And now Clothilde serenely waited, sure that her prayers were to be answered at last, while, Clovis marched away to fight the Allemans.

These barbarians fought like savage heroes, careless of death, eager for victory. Clovis had set himself no easy task.

In one of their fiercest encounters the King suddenly became aware that the battle was going against him. His keen eye saw that where the blows rained thickest the Franks were giving way; they were being slowly but steadily beaten back by the Allemans.

With shouts and fierce cries Clovis flung himself into the struggle, and still, in spite of his bravery, his warriors were forced back by these desperate enemies.

Then the King called loudly upon his gods for help. They vouchsafed him no answer. Again and again, hot with anger, he called; all in vain. In his despair Clovis remembered Clothilde and his promise. "Thou God of Clothilde," he thundered, and his voice could be heard even above the noise of battle, "now do I call upon Thee for aid. Award me the victory and I turn from my gods and follow Thee for ever." O miracle! Even as he spoke the tide of battle turned. Led by Clovis, the Franks with new courage rallied, and gathering strength with every inch of recovered ground at last put their foes to flight.

Clovis soon vanquished the Allemans altogether and it was not long before they were forced to recross the Rhine and return to their own country.

The King faithfully kept his promise. When he returned victorious to Clothilde he told her the good news, and one day the holy Bishop St. Remy baptized him, and three thousand of his warriors with him, in the Cathedral at Rheims.

It was a great and glorious day. Judge for yourselves whether Clothilde rejoiced or no, and whether she did not praise God in prayer and good deeds all the rest of her life. If you look you will find her name written down among the saints in the Calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.

As for Clovis, the good bishop told him on his baptism to "hate those gods which he had adored, sand adore that one which he had hated"; but whether he obeyed this command faithfully, it is not for me to say, nor whether, having become a Christian, he grew gentler and more forgiving than before. The age in which he lived was a fierce and cruel one, and one so far away that we may not judge too harshly of his deeds. Certainly, he did one good thing, and for that he is now remembered. By the help of the Church, by his own strength and prowess, by the aid of his own cunning brain, using treachery and truth alike, Clovis, before he died, accomplished his end. He ruled over the whole of Gaul. He made a divided and turbulent country into some likeness of a united kingdom. He, drawing, as it were, upon the large white sheet of the history of his country, till then scarcely marked save by scribbles—he, drawing then, worked out a rough and shadowy outline upon it. And from this rough and shadowy outline was shaped, in time, the fair and comely form of the Kingdom of France.