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Ethnic and administrative organization of Western Europe around AD500

The Birth of France

Date Spring, 507

Location Vouillé, 15km (9 miles) north-west of Poitiers, Aquitaine


The most important historical development of the fifth century in western Europe was the emergence of the Germanic kingdoms, which had already absorbed the former western provinces of the Western Roman Empire. The main groups that can be identified were the Western Goths (Visigoths), who dominated south-west Gaul and Spain, the Burgundians in the upper Rhone valley, the Salian Franks who were emerging in northern and central Gaul, and the eastern Goths (Ostrogoths), based in Pannonia through the third quarter of the century, who were to take control of Italy at the end of the fifth century.

After the death of the Roman general Aetius, the victor of Chalons (Catalaunian Plains) in 454, imperial power in Gaul rapidly disintegrated. The emergence of the Kingdom of Soissons in northern Gaul (later, Naustria) as a Roman remnant state under Aegidius, a former magister militum of Roman Gaul appointed by Emperor Majorian (reigned 457-461) before his murder in 461, increased the chaos of contemporary Gaul, as he maintained his power against Franks to his east and Visigoths to his south; his son Syagrius succeeded his father to the rule of Soissons in 465.

After the middle of the fifth century, the king of the Salian Franks, Childeric (ruled 457-481), became a major power in northern Gaul, and his victories against the Visigoths, Saxons and Alemanni established the basis of the Salian-Frankish State in northern Gaul. He further supported Aegidius in the latter’s victory against the Visigoths at Orléans in 463. But it was Childeric’s son Clovis (ruled 481-511) who would go on to unite most of Gaul north of the Loire.

By 481, the major geo-political clash in western Europe would be between the three peoples that were competing for predominance in the territory of Aquitaine: the Visigoths in south-western Gaul, the Burgundians in the south-east, and the Franks north of the Loire. Clovis, who had succeeded his father as leader of the Salian Franks of Tournai in 481, gradually brought under his control the territories between the Loire and the Somme; by around 486 he had defeated Syagrius and effectively dissolved the Kingdom of Soissons. This victory provided Clovis with a strongly fortified base – Soissons, a substantial arms factory, and the Roman units that had served Syagrius and were being integrated into his following.

After he gained full control of Neustria (the territories under the former Kingdom of Soissons, between the Loire and the Somme), Clovis turned his attention against a small group of Thuringians in eastern Gaul, just north of the Burgundians, winning a battle in 491. It was quickly becoming apparent that Clovis’ expansionist strategy was directed against the Burgundians and the Alamans of the Upper and Middle Rhine. Eventually, he won the Battle of Tolbiac in 496, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Cologne, against an Alamanni invasion of Austrasia and the Lower Rhine.

Although the exact nature of the battle remains obscured in legend, according to Gregory of Tours, Clovis adopted his wife Clotilda’s Orthodox (that is, Nicene) Christian faith, having undergone some sort of a religious experience during the battle. Or perhaps it was mere diplomatic manoeuvring that pushed the Frankish king to denounce his pagan past, which always entailed the danger of losing him the support of his pagan followers; historians have emphasized a letter sent by Remigius, the bishop of Rheims who eventually baptised Clovis, in which he pointed out to the Frankish King that `he would find it advantageous to have the support of the Gallo-Roman church.’

The later 490s saw a series of poorly attested Frankish attacks upon Visigoth Aquitania, which were boosted by an alliance with the Arborychi (`Armoricans’) from modern-day Brittany who, probably, provided Clovis improved access to the Visigothic kingdom south of the Loire. But the Visigoths eventually repelled the Frankish attacks, with Gregory of Tours reporting a sixty-day siege of Nantes, at the mouth of the Loire, by the Franks led by Clovis himself; he was put to flight by the Visigoths. The latter also regained control of Tours, on the south bank of the Loire, and Bordeaux – the capital city of Aquitaine – by 505; these cities had been captured by the Franks in the previous decade in what seems to historians to have been more of a raid than a campaign of conquest.

Around 500, Clovis made the unwise decision to be drawn into the Burgundian civil war on the side of the Burgundian king Godegisel. The latter’s defeat was a political and diplomatic setback for Clovis, with Frankish captives sent `in exile, to Toulouse, to King Alaric’, while the Visigoths, who had supported Godegisel’s rival Gundobad, even gained control over Avignon for their troubles. Nevertheless, Clovis continued to have designs on Aquitania. He planned to improve his standing in western Europe by strengthening his alliance with other Germanic leaders; thus he married his sister Audefleda to the ambitious Ostrogothic king Theoderic.

It has been argued that the Battle of Vouillé was the opening military encounter of a campaign to destroy the Visigothic kingdom in Aquitaine and to conquer the southwestern region of Gaul. Bachrach, however, has raised serious doubts as to whether this military campaign was the initiative of the Frankish king. He speculates that:

… an imperial policy intended to strengthen the position of the Franks, now Nicene Christians with the support of the episcopal hierarchy in the north against the Arian Visigoths and Ostrogoths, surely would have been attractive to [Byzantine] Emperor Anastasius.

In fact, the primary sources report of Emperor Anastasius’ envoys who met with Clovis, probably at his capital in Paris, and promises were made by both sides. 2 The role of the Nicene bishops in Aquitaine, who worked as mediators between Paris and Constantinople to support the cause of the Roman-Christian king of the Franks against the Arian Visigoths, should also be considered a strong possibility, although the sources are silent on this issue.

In 506, the year before the battle, Clovis agreed a non-aggression pact with the Visigoth king Alaric, after a meeting on an island in the middle of the River Loire – the symbolic border between the two kingdoms. And it is probably at this time that Alaric handed over to Clovis the fortress cities of Nantes, Angers, Tours and Orléans, which controlled the lower Loire valley with its immense agricultural and commercial importance; people in the aforementioned cities were Roman-Catholic Christians who despised, or even hated, the Arian Visigoths.

However, we will never know whether the two leaders negotiated in good faith, or if this was a ruse perpetrated by Clovis to throw off the Visigoth king from his real intention of invading Aquitaine. Finally, the Frankish king arranged for a military alliance with the Burgundian king, Gundobad, which involved Burgundian troops mounting operations against various Visigoth cities and strongholds in the south-east, perhaps acting as a `shield’ army to intercept a possible Ostrogoth invasion by Theoderic to support his son-in-law, Alaric.


In February or early March 507, Clovis issued orders throughout the regnum Francorum for the mobilization of the army. Shortly after, in early spring, he crossed the Loire into Aquitaine. Clovis’ campaign strategy was to invade Visigoth-controlled Aquitaine and move south as fast as possible, hoping, no doubt, that he would be welcomed by the Catholic Gallo-Roman socio-political élite of the region, who opposed Visigoth domination. Some historians have added that Clovis probably believed that he could integrate the militia levies of the fortified cities of Aquitaine into his army.

On the other hand, it is clear from the History of Gregory of Tours that Alaric’s strategy was reactive, ordering his troops to concentrate at Poitiers to intercept the invading Franks. It also points out the fact that the Visigoth king had intelligence about the invasion early enough to allow him to order his units drawn from the civitates of Aquitaine and Auvergne, to concentrate at the strongly fortified city of Poitiers, some 100km (60 miles) south of the Loire.

Poitier’s importance lay in its strategic location at the junction of old Roman roads going north to south, and the crossing of a navigable river. As would be the case twenty-two centuries later, when Charles Martel invaded Aquitaine to intercept a Muslim campaigning army, the River Vienne was a major obstacle to overcome – especially in April, a period when the early spring rains and the melting snows had swollen the river. Poitiers was also the site of an important religious centre, the late Roman basilica of St-Hilaire, which would be restored and adorned with golden mosaics and precious relics by Clovis shortly after his victory.

After fording the Vienne where wild animals were seen crossing it, Clovis placed his encampment in the environs of Vouillé to the north-west of Poitiers, at a place where the distance between his army and the city of Poitiers was about 15 kilometres (9 miles). He had sent his scouts the day before the battle to find out about the whereabouts of the Visigoth army, thus having ample time to position his soldiers on a field of battle of his own choice.



There is very little evidence of what might be thought of as typically `barbarian’ equipment, because there was very little standardization among, or even within, the various tribal armies that had infiltrated the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. The only exception is the francisca, a Frankish throwing axe that had an average weight of 1 to 2kg, the wooden handle measuring some 40cm in length, and the iron head some 18cm.

Similarities between `barbarian’ and Roman weapons in post-Roman Europe came as a direct result not only of the enormous cultural and economic influence of the empire beyond its frontiers for many centuries, but also because of the vast quantities of manufactured arms and armour in the local fabricae that supplied the `barbarians’ who fought with/for the Romans. In fact, the arms utilized by the late Roman army remained the basic weapons of fighting men in the period up to and through the rule of Charlemagne (ruled 768-814).

Soldiers fighting on foot largely used the short sword and the spear. As it is to be expected for this early period, there was no standardization in spear design, and archaeological findings point to the conclusion that each smith produced his own style and size of spearhead, with no official guidelines. A possible exception was the Frankish angon, a throwing spear that resembled a Roman pilum and was modified (in the seventh century) by three points attached at the end of the shaft where the iron staff was fixed, and were turned backwards like hooks to get stuck on an enemy warrior’s shield and put it out of use.

Numerous `barbarian’ gravesites point to the assumption that the Germanic peoples in pre-Carolingian Europe were carrying both long swords (75-100cm long, 6cm in width) and short ones (40cm long, 4cm in width), both straight and twoedged, and the scramasax – a long (20cm) dagger used by peoples in northern Europe (Vikings, Saxons, Franks), either as a primary edged weapon or as a side arm. Probably the most common weapon of the period, however, was the spear, which varied enormously in shape and size. Mounted troops carried the lance and long sword, although most mounted fighting men had short swords as well.

The most basic defensive armament would have been the wooden shield, either round or convex, and some 80-90cm in diameter. Manuscript illuminations support the idea that helmets between the late fifth to seventh centuries were commonly of a type called Spangenhelme, where the bowl of the helmet was made of several parts, held together by reinforcing clasps, which covered the joins. Contemporary written sources imply that metallic armour (both mail and lamellar) was also common, though far from universal.

Where metallic armour was not available, warriors probably made use of boiled leather or padded protection. Nobles also owned a helmet, usually produced from a single sheet of iron, and chain mail body armour, both lavishly decorated and similar in construction to late Roman military equipment.

Military Forces

Alaric’s military forces were composed of an unknown number of both Visigoths and Gallo-Romans. The former were the descendants of the victorious armies that had defeated Attila and the Huns fifty-six years earlier; the more affluent who were able to support a horse and armour were fighting as cavalry, while the poorer levies were conscripted to fight on foot, with either a spear or a bow.

The majority of the campaigning army, however, was largely composed of the local Gallo-Roman levies, who lacked both horses and sophisticated military equipment because of the low level of the minimum wealth requirement. Finally, there was a rather small élite of well-armed and well-trained mounted troops among the men serving in these armies, who were the household troops of the Gallo-Roman aristocrats.

Clovis’ forces were also drawn from a wide variety of sources, although again, their exact numbers are not known. These were mainly troops from the military household of the king and his aristocrats, a group of élite warriors of either Frankish or Gallo-Roman descent, or foreign mercenaries from neighbouring countries. Other sources that contributed to the early Merovingian army were the landholders of military lands who owed military service, and the regular troops from the late Roman institution of the laeti – defeated enemy troops who were settled in Roman territory and owed hereditary military service to the late Roman state.


There are no surviving eyewitness accounts of the battle, hence there is no way to ascertain the battle deployment of either of the armies, or the ratio between mounted and foot soldiers. Nevertheless, Gregory of Tours recounts that the battle promptly opened with the ordinary exchanges of missiles – arrows and probably lances as well, thus firmly conforming to the Roman battle practices that had been in place for many centuries. This was followed by a mounted charge by the Visigoths against the Frankish phalanx of foot soldiers, who held their ground despite the ferocity of the attack, reminiscent of the Visigoth mounted charge at Chalons fifty years earlier.

Our sources do not give any more details on the course of the battle, or the tactics employed by the two opposing armies. However, there is a reference in Gregory of Tour’s History of a possible feigned retreat conducted by the Visigoth cavalry in the face of the Frankish phalanx, apparently in an attempt to break their solid formation. This effort failed. Regrettably, Gregory is silent about what followed the Visigoths’ retreat, and he notes simply that `king Clovis won the victory by God’s aid’. This comment could very well mean that Clovis counter-attacked with a cavalry unit he may have kept in reserve, but this is mere speculation.

The end result was a complete victory for the Franks after Alaric was killed in the final stage of the battle; tradition has it that Clovis was directly responsible for Alaric’s death.


Following the successful outcome of the battle, the Frankish king swept south to take the Gothic-ruled cities of the northern, central and western Aquitaine (Gallia Aquitania), including the fortress city of Bordeaux. The Visigoth capital at Toulouse in south-eastern Aquitaine (Gallia Narbonensis) was also captured, along with the royal treasure, while Clovis’ Burgundian allies took Narbonne. Further Frankish advances to the south and east, both along Carcassonne and Arles, failed because of the intervention of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric, who shortly thereafter captured both Narbonne and Toulouse. It would be another two centuries before the Franks gained access to the Mediterranean Sea.

When Clovis returned to Tours in spring 508 to celebrate his triumph, he received both the patriciate and the honorary consulate by Emperor Anastasius. These honours qualified Clovis to serve as an imperial governor in southern Gaul, while recognizing his de facto status as king in the northern half of Gaul. He had won a decisive victory at Vouillé against another emerging superpower of the age, a victory that settled once and for all the future of continental Gaul. King Alaric was killed, and his army was in tatters and unable to withstand the further conquest of Aquitaine. The future history of Gaul was to be written not by the Goths but by the Franks, who also gave it a new name: France.