Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis

Conquests of Clovis between 481 and 511

CLOVIS I (ca. 466–511)

The most important of the Merovingian kings, Clovis I was the unifier of the Franks, the conqueror of most of Gaul, and the real founder of the kingdom of the Franks under Merovingian rule. He was also the first Christian king of the Franks. He is the possessor of a reputation for astonishing ruthlessness, brutality, and unscrupulousness.

Upon the death of his father, Childeric I, in 482, Clovis succeeded as chieftain over the group of Salian Franks settled around Tournai, in modern Belgium. He began his conquests in 486 by defeating Syagrius, an independent ruler over northern Gaul. This victory made Clovis the master of Gaul north of the Loire, the later Neustria, and he transferred his capital to Soissons, accompanied by his Frankish entourage.

The chronology and sequence of events of most of the rest of Clovis’s reign are unclear and highly debated. Essentially, he became the sole Frankish king by eliminating the kings of other bands of Salian Franks through attack, treachery, and deceit. By similar means, he also rose to mastery over the Ripuarian, or Rhineland, Franks. Through a series of bitter and closely contested battles, he brought the Alemanni and Thuringians under his authority as well.

In the course of one of his battles against the Alemanni, at Zülpich (Tolbiac) in the mid-490s, Clovis converted to orthodox Christianity. This was not a sudden move, however. Like his father, Childeric, Clovis had been careful to maintain good relations with Christian authorities in his lands, and he had also married an orthodox Christian, the Burgundian princess Clotilde. The conversion of Clovis and some of his followers had little immediate effect on their pagan and polygamous habits, nor did it immediately christianize the Frankish people, but it did make Clovis the hero of orthodox Christians in Gaul.

Clovis exploited this position to gain his greatest victory. He attacked the Arian Visigoths, who controlled Gaul south of the Loire as well as Spain. In 507, Clovis defeated their army at Vouillé, near Poitiers, and in the ensuing campaigns his forces swept over most of southern Gaul. Only the military intervention of Theodoric the Ostrogoth preserved Septimania for the Visigoths and prevented the Franks from gaining the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, Clovis was the master of almost all of Gaul. For a time, he even exacted tribute from the Burgundians.

After the victory over the Visigoths, Clovis was given some sort of official recognition by the Byzantine Empire, which began a century-long tradition of Frankish- Byzantine cooperation, and he moved his capital to Paris. The years after 507 saw two of his most notable achievements. It was he who probably issued the Salic Law for his Salian Franks and all those living north of the Loire, and in 511, at Orléans, he presided over the first great church council of the Frankish kingdom.

Clovis was the master of a heterogeneous population. Franks and other Germanic peoples were in the northeast, northern Gaul was Gallo-Roman but relatively barbarized and included Franks as well, and the south was thoroughly romanized. His administration continued Roman practices; Clovis worked closely with the Gallo-Roman aristocrats, while his military was primarily Frankish. Upon his death in 511, in proper Frankish fashion his kingdom was divided equally among his four sons. The Frankish kingdom was not united again until 558, by his youngest son, Clotar I.

Most of our knowledge of Clovis comes from the writings of Gregory of Tours, three-quarters of a century after the king’s death. Despite the obvious greed and treachery of his hero, Gregory was impressed by Clovis’s promotion of orthodox Christianity, especially in the face of the detested Arians. Gregory hailed Clovis as a new Constantine and praised him in terms borrowed from biblical laud for King David. The name “Clovis,” which evolved into the French name “Louis,” was itself a French form of his correct Frankish name, Chlodovech (Chlodwig in German).


Saint Remigius was Bishop of Reims and Apostle of the Franks, (c. 437 – January 13, 533). On 24 December 496 he baptised Clovis I, King of the Franks. This baptism, leading to the conversion of the entire Frankish people to Nicene Christianity, was a momentous success for the Roman Catholic Church and a seminal event in European history.

Apostle of the Franks, Archbishop of Reims, b. at Cerny or Laon, 437; d. at Reims, 13 January 533. His feast is celebrated 1 October. His father was Emile, Count of Laon. He studied literature at Reims and soon became so noted for learning and sanctity that he was elected Archbishop of Reims in his twenty-second year. Thence-forward his chief aim was the propagation of Christianity in the realm of the Franks. The story of the return of the sacred vessels, which had been stolen from the Church of Soissons testifies to the friendly relations existing between him and Clovis, King of the Franks, whom he converted to Christianity with the assistance of St. Waast (Vedastus, Vaast) and St. Clotilda, wife of Clovis. Even before he embraced Christianity Clovis had showered benefits upon both the Bishop and Cathedral of Reims, and after the battle of Tolbiac, he requested Remigius to baptize him at Reims (24 December, 496) in presence of several bishops of the Franks and Alemanni and great numbers of the Frankish army. Clovis granted Remigius stretches of territory, in which the latter established and endowed many churches. He erected, with the papal consent, bishoprics at Tournai; Cambrai; Terouanne, where he ordained the first bishop in 499; Arras, where he placed St. Waast; Laon, which he gave to his nephew Gunband. The authors of “Gallia Christiana” record numerous and munificent donations made to St. Remigius by members of the Frankish nobility, which he presented to the cathedral at Reims. In 517 he held a synod, at which after a heated discussion he converted a bishop of Arian views. In 523 he wrote congratulating Pope Hormisdas upon his election. St. Medardus, Bishop of Noyon, was consecrated by him in 530. Although St. Remigius’s influence over people and prelates was extraordinary, yet upon one occasion, the history of which has come down to us, his course of action was attacked. His condonement of the offences of one Claudius, a priest, brought upon him the rebukes of his episcopal brethren, who deemed Claudius d eserving of degradation. The reply of St. Remigius, which is still extant, is able and convincing (cf. Labbe, “Concilia”, IV). His relics were kept in the cathedral of Reims, whence Hincmar had them translated to Epernay during the period of the invasion by the Northmen, thence, in 1099, at the instance of Leo IX, to the Abbey of Saint-Remy. His sermons, so much admired by Sidonius Apollinaris (lib. IX, cap. lxx), are not extant. On his other works we have four letters, the one containing his defence in the matter of Claudius, two written to Clovis, and a fourth to the Bishop of Tongres. According to several biographers, the Testament of St. Remigius is apocryphal; Mabillon and Ducange, however, argue for its authenticity. The attribution of other works to St. Remigius, particularly a commentary upon St. Paul’s Epistles, is entirely without foundation.


Clovis allied himself with the Catholic Church in Gaul, most of whose bishops came from the Gallo-Roman aristocracy. Clovis’ wife, Clotilde, was Catholic and presumably exerted some sort of influence over him, but as usual Clovis was probably guided more by political opportunism than by any sincere interest in Christianity. Alliance with the Church meant alliance with the Gallo-Roman nobles in the short term and it led ultimately to papal recognition of his kingship, which Clovis probably foresaw. Nevertheless, he did eventually convert around the year 500 a.d. The story given by Gregory of Tours has it that Clovis, experiencing his first battlefield defeat at the hands of the Alemanni, called out to Christ, offering to convert in return for victory on the field; Jesus, who had shown no particular concern for military matters during his lifetime, evidently had a keen interest in Frankish slaughter—for Gregory tells us that Christ came immediately to Clovis’ aid, scattered the Alemanni, and led the Franks to a glorious rout.

Then King Clovis asked to be the first one baptized by the bishop [Remigius of Reims, who was in attendance]. He stepped up to the baptismal font like  a new Constantine, seeking to wash away the scabs of his old leprosy and be cleansed in that flowing water, to free himself of the ugly stains he had borne for so long.

According to legend, Constantine had suffered from leprosy and was miraculously cured by his baptismal waters. Gregory invokes the legend here to suggest that Clovis’ ruthlessness and savagery were likewise washed away, but also to posit, however improbable the comparison, that Clovis represents for the Church in the west what Constantine represented for it in the east—namely, the divinely chosen secular leader whose power could be utilized in the service of the faith.

Clovis ordered the baptism of the three thousand soldiers who had fought with him that day, and subsequently of all his Frankish subjects. But no instruction in the faith accompanied any of these baptisms, and so even though the Franks were vaguely familiar with Christianity through their contact with the Christian Gallo-Romans, the most that we can say happened with the Franks is that they added Christ to the pantheon of pagan gods they continued to worship. Paganism flourished in Gaul, in both its Roman and Germanic forms, for centuries after the formal conversion of the Franks around the year 500, as it did in the realms of all the other Germanic kingdoms. In fact, paganism, the worship of sacred groves, and the practice of magic and divination characterized popular religious life in many parts of northern Europe until well into the eleventh century, especially in rural areas.