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Episode 4: Clovis, the First King - Taking Power

Updated: Dec 8, 2019


Syagrius brought before Clovis in chains

Syagrius was riding hard across the plains, going as fast as his horse could carry him. He was hungry and thirsty, bloody and beaten, physically exhausted. He had been riding for days, covering the distance of nearly 500 miles between his home of Soissons, in northern Gaul, and Toulouse without stopping. The whole time he rode, he prayed to whatever god would hear him that when he finally arrived in Toulouse, that King Alaric II would let him in. If Alaric refused him, it was only a matter of time before those chasing him finally caught up and finished the job they had failed to complete in Soissons. It was this fear of being caught that kept him awake and gave him the energy to ride without stopping. In the moments when the fear subsided for just a little while, and in between silent prayers, Syagrius had one thought that repeated over and over again in his mind: How had everything gone so wrong so quickly?


Syagrius had had land, a kingdom in fact. He had been the ruler of an area in northern Gaul situated between the Franks in the north and the Visigoths in the south. He had called himself a duke and portrayed himself as a Roman provincial governor, but the Germanic tribes all around him called him a king so often that the name caught on, hence the “Kingdom of Soissons.” Syagrius had made deals to stay in power, in particular with the Visigoths, the tribe he was currently running to for safety. Because of these deals, he hadn’t been afraid to push the limits of his borders, and he had tested the strength and resolve of the Franks on multiple occasions. This was especially true once the old king, Childéric, had died and was replaced by a 15-year-old runt named Clovis.


But Syagrius had overlooked Clovis. He figured he would be too young and too weak to consolidate power and take up where Childeric had left off. Because of this, Syagrius, 30 years the senior of Clovis, had taken his time in putting any real pressure on the boy king. In the blink of an eye, however, five years had gone by and one day Clovis had strode into Soissons with an army in tow. He issued a challenge to Syagrius, one which Syagrius accepted. He was older, had more experience, and knew the terrain. He was a Roman military commander, and he wasn’t about to be outdone by some kid with long hair. They met on the battlefield the next day.


What happened next was a blur to Syagrius. He had thought his position strong, his forces properly aligned. He had noticed that at least a portion of Clovis’s army was actually withdrawn from the fight, looking on as spectators to see who would win rather than picking a side outright. Victory, Syagrius thought, was certainly going to be his this day. The fight commenced, and at first Syagrius noted that the Franks seemed incredibly eager in the fight. Their level of intensity was a sight to see, but he figured this would burn out quickly. His own side seemed lethargic in comparison, and after just a few minutes he realized that his soldiers, who were mostly of Frankish descent, were lethargic. It was as if the Franks on the other side felt they were fighting for something, to prove a point. Syagrius’s troops were only there because they had to be. Syagrius watched all of this first with pride in his inevitable triumph, then with mounting concern as his army looked like it had met its equal, and then with panic as he realized that the center of the line had failed and almost all of his troops were clearing the field. He barely had time to take in the scene before he realized that he had to move, and now, if he hoped to live another day. And it was at this moment, as his horse turned toward the south, that Syagrius went from being a king, a duke, and a ruler, to being a man on the run for his life. Meanwhile, the runt from the Franks had now, in a single blow, doubled the size of his territory and brought home the first major victory in what would ultimately be a career filled with major victories.


Syagrius finally made it to the gates of Toulouse. He was initially allowed in by Alaric and taken to a place where he could rest and clean himself up, but it wasn’t long before the Franks arrived. They had a simple demand: Give them Syagrius, and if this was done, there was no need for any bad blood between the Franks and the Visigoths. While the message was simple, the threat behind it was clear and Alaric understood it immediately. He was not going to take any chances against this new King in the North, this Clovis, and he certainly wasn’t going to take any chances on behalf of some useless Gallo-Roman wannabe king. Alaric ordered Syagrius to be delivered to the Franks in chains. And that was how Syagrius came to be Clovis’s prisoner, rotting away in Frankish jails and listening to the reports of how his territory, his kingdom, was being spoiled every day by the army of the runt that he had overlooked. He spent the rest of his life, up until the moment that Clovis had him quietly strangled and disposed of, wondering, “How had everything gone so wrong so quickly?” He never realized that his fall had just ushered in the reign of the first great French king.


His fall made way for the rise of Clovis.


This is Thugs and Miracles. Episode Four – Clovis, the First King: Taking Power.


Alright, welcome back to Episode Four of T+M. As always, I am Benjamin Bernier, and this week we begin the first of three deep dives into the history of Clovis and discuss how he came to power, why his reign was so remarkable, and we’ll look at a ton of really fascinating stories from throughout his life which, if true, tell the story of a leader who was equal parts intelligent, far-sighted, and ruthless. Well, actually, I guess I shouldn’t say equal parts, because above all else, Clovis was ruthless. As we saw in the show intro, he was able to command an army with great skill, and he rarely, if ever, forgave anyone who stood against him. But all of this barely came into existence. Clovis rose to the throne at 15 or 16 years old, an age at which most kids nowadays are barely trusted with a car, and it’s probable that it was only through the force of his will and that of his advisors that Clovis secured the throne. No records of Childeric’s funeral remain, but based on the size of his funeral plot, the goods sent with the dead king to the afterlife, and the positioning of these items, its almost certain that Childeric’s funeral was a stage-managed event designed to ensure the passing of regal authority to Clovis. In his book Barbarians to Angels, Peter Wells imagines what the scene may have looked like:


“A large crowd – nearly a thousand people – had gathered at dawn to witness the funeral spectacle. The death of a king was an important event because it left a chasm in the social order. Who would fill it? An obvious successor, such as Childeric’s sixteen-year-old son, Clovis? Or would rivals contest the succession and fight for their own elevation to kingship? The mood was tense because no one knew who would emerge from the ceremony as the designated successor.


The assembled group was diverse, with many different stations in life represented by people who had come to bid their king farewell and learn who would succeed him. The group included warrior followers of Childeric who had served him courageously in battle. Most of them would fight to ensure Clovis’s place in the succession. But a few wavered in their loyalty, feeling that Childeric had not rewarded them adequately for their faithful service…

For the king’s immediate counselors, who had planned and would orchestrate the event, the critical goal was to instill in the memories of all participants – advisers, warriors, and common people – the symbols and meaning of this extraordinary event. They would use sights, sounds, and smells to create a performance that would forever be fresh in the memories of participants and witnesses alike. In the process of the ritual, they would see to it that Childeric’s power was transferred smoothly and without interruption to the sixteen-year-old boy…”


Wells goes on to describe the jewelry, coins and weapons set upon Childeric prior to his burial. He also describes the slaughter of the dead king’s warhorse, as well as the horses of fifty of Childeric’s elite warriors, and their subsequent burial near the fallen king. Wells imagines Clovis throwing the first shovelful of dirt onto his dead father’s casket before being joined in the task by a score of loyalists. They eventually created a mound over the grave some six feet high and 65 feet in diameter. Finally, after all of the pomp and ceremony, the funeral ended with a funerary feast for those in attendance, a remembrance of all the good things Childeric had brought to his people and a sign that Clovis could provide the same. With this, Clovis confirmed his position as the new king. For five years no one tested him, allowing him time to develop physically and mentally. As we noted at the start of this episode, this period of calm ended in 486.


Enter Syagrius.


You see, Syagrius had fashioned himself a king, or at a minimum, a military commander and provincial governor. He was the son of a great man, the Roman Magister Militum per Gallias (Military Commander of the Gauls) Aegidus. Aegidus had effectively ruled the area of northern Gaul for most of a decade, from 21 September 454 – the day that Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III brazenly murdered his predecessor, Magister Militum Flavius Aetius, in a fit of jealousy and fear – until one day in 464 when Aegidus, for reasons unknown to history, failed to wake up ever again. From that day on, Syagrius took the reins of power and did his best to hold onto a band of Gallo-Romans in the northern reaches of Gaul who were trying to make sense of a barbarian world in which Rome herself had ceded almost all effective control. This tenuous outpost, disconnected from Rome and surrounded by the Germanic Visigothic and Frankish tribes, was holding its own; the Kingdom of Soissons served as one last island of quasi-Roman influence in an area where all the rest of that influence had gone away.


The problem for Syagrius in this situation, however, was two-fold. First, trying to draw legitimacy as a Roman warlord, even after the ties to Rome had been severed, was a precarious power play to make. He had no resources, funds, or manpower coming from the mothership, and he was essentially asking people to follow him and remain on his side because he had once had ties back to the Empire and therefore, he must know what to do, right? Living on your reputation can be tricky in the best of times, and by 486, the best of times for the Western Roman Empire had passed. This leads us to Syagrius’s second major problem, and that was the issue of who to ally with now that Rome was no longer an option. For years, Syagrius’s father Aegidus and Clovis’s father Childeric had worked together as Roman generals. On top of this, the area of Soissons and the area of Belgica Secunda, Childeric’s region, were physically near to one another. These points would make it seem like the Kingdom of Soissons and the Salian Franks would have a natural working relationship. Unfortunately, it appears that Syagrius couldn’t leave well enough alone, and when Childeric left the area of Northern Gaul in the late 470s to fight alongside Odoacer for a period of time, Syagrius felt it was the right time to flex his muscles and expand his borders. This, in and of itself, almost certainly led to issues, but then, in 481, Childeric died. In his place, the 15-year-old Clovis now had to step into the role of King, or Rex. Syagrius must have smelled blood in the water, and decided to ally with the Visigoths in southern Gaul.


Unfortunately for Syagrius, he took too long to put together a plan that would allow him to take advantage of this perceived weakness. The sources don’t mention what either side was doing during these five years after Childeric’s death in 481, but Gregory of Tours was pretty explicit about what happened in 486, when Clovis would have been about 20 years old:


“In the fifth year of his [Clovis’s] reign Siagrius, king of the Romans, son of Egidius, had his seat in the city of Soissons which Egidius, who has been mentioned before, once held. And Clovis came against him with Ragnachar, his kinsman, because he used to possess the kingdom, and demanded that they make ready a battlefield. And Siagrius did not delay nor was he afraid to resist. And so they fought against each other and Siagrius, seeing his army crushed, turned his back and fled swiftly to king Alaric at Toulouse. And Clovis sent to Alaric to send him back, otherwise he was to know that Clovis would make war on him for his refusal. And Alaric was afraid that he would incur the anger of the Franks on account of Siagrius, seeing it is the fashion of the Goths to be terrified, and he surrendered him in chains to Clovis' envoys. And Clovis took him and gave orders to put him under guard, and when he had got his kingdom he directed that he be executed secretly.”


Syagrius’s ignominious end served to really put Clovis and the Franks on the map. The total area that Clovis controlled following the Battle of Soissons was now twice what it had been when he and his forces sat in Belgica Secunda. The plunder from the region enlarged the Frankish coffers immensely, and at a time when being a good leader was directly associated with the plunder you could provide, Clovis had just earned a place as one of the best. But beyond territory and loot, the Battle of Soissons served to teach Clovis several other valuable lessons in leadership. The first of these had to do with loyalty, and in particular with this story, we’re going to take a look at an individual by the name of Chararic. If you remember from the opener, I mentioned that immediately prior to the Battle of Soissons, “at least a portion of Clovis’s army was actually withdrawn from the fight, looking on as spectators to see who would win rather than picking a side.” This portion of the army was the part led by Chararic, a minor Frankish king. In failing to support Clovis, he earned a life-long enmity toward himself and his family. After some time, Clovis captured Chararic and his son and had them tonsured, which is another way of saying he gave them really bad haircuts. In all seriousness, a tonsure was the hairstyle worn by monks at this time, and involved shaving all of the hair from the scalp while leaving the hair on the side. It’s a very pronounced hairstyle, and even more so when you remember that kings of this time took immense pride in their long, uncut hair. In fact, Clovis had Chararic and his son killed when he learned of their plans to grow out their hair and avenge their situation. Now with all of this being said, it’s not surprising that Clovis would attack someone who disloyally failed to stand by his side at a moment of need, and it would make sense if he had done so immediately after the fact. But with Chararic, the sources indicate that Clovis didn’t take his revenge until 507, over 20 years removed from the Battle of Soissons. The fact that Clovis had the two men tonsured, monk-style, indicates that he didn’t move against them until at least 496, which is the probable year in which Clovis converted to Catholicism. This large gap between the time of the offense and Clovis’s response indicates that either: a) Clovis had a long memory and could hold a grudge, b) Clovis couldn’t make the move earlier in his career, but moved when he had the appropriate amount of power, c) Clovis used the earlier offense as a pretext to remove potential rivals later in his career, or d) all of the above. There’s no way of knowing Clovis’s exact motivations at this point, especially with the lack of any correspondence or writing from him directly outlining his motives, but it’s easy enough to imagine that Clovis was aware of Chararic’s disloyalty and could do nothing to move against him earlier in his career while Clovis was still attempting to consolidate power. Instead, he would have sat on the grudge and pulled it out years later when he had both the political capital to remove Chararic and his son from the scene, and the additional motivation to do so resulting from plots, real or imagined, aimed at Clovis. If nothing else, the scene illuminates Clovis’s tactical and political awareness, his long memory, and his utter ruthlessness to move fast and hard when the time was right, even against – and as we’ll see, particularly against – family.


Another story that comes up at about this same time, directly after the battle against Syagrius, is the story of the Vase of Soissons. As we have already seen with Chararic, Clovis was the King of the Franks, but the tribe was still fragmented and there were many who wanted to test their limits with the young king. Clovis had to close this internal gap, while at the same time looking to mobilize his forces to push their borders out. The story of the Vase encapsulates this struggle perfectly. Again from Gregory of Tours:


“At that time many churches were despoiled by Clovis' army, since he was as yet involved in heathen error. Now the army had taken from a certain church a vase of wonderful size and beauty, along with the remainder of the utensils for the service of the church. And the bishop of the church sent messengers to the king asking that the vase at least be returned, if he could not get back any more of the sacred dishes. On hearing this the king said to the messenger: "Follow us as far as Soissons, because all that has been taken is to be divided there and when the lot assigns me that dish I will do what the father asks." Then when he came to Soissons and all the booty was set in their midst, the king said: "I ask of you, brave warriors, not to refuse to grant me in addition to my share, yonder dish," that is, he was speaking of the vase just mentioned. In answer to the speech of the king those of more sense replied: "Glorious king, all that we see is yours, and we ourselves are subject to your rule. Now do what seems well ­pleasing to you; for no one is able to resist your power." When they said this a foolish, envious and excitable fellow lifted his battle­ax and struck the vase, and cried in a loud voice: "You shall get nothing here except what the lot fairly bestows on you." At this all were stupefied, but the king endured the insult with the gentleness of patience, and taking the vase he handed it over to the messenger of the church, nursing the wound deep in his heart. And at the end of the year he ordered the whole army to come with their equipment of armor, to show the brightness of their arms on the field of March. And when he was reviewing them all carefully, he came to the man who struck the vase, and said to him "No one has brought armor so carelessly kept as you; for neither your spear nor sword nor ax is in serviceable condition." And seizing his ax he cast it to the earth, and when the other had bent over somewhat to pick it up, the king raised his hands and drove his own ax into the man's head. "This," said he, "'is what you did at Soissons to the vase." Upon the death of this man, he ordered the rest to depart, raising great dread of himself by this action. He made many wars and gained many victories. In the tenth year of his reign he made war on the Thuringi and brought them under his dominion.”


As we can see from the story, most of Clovis’s people were behind him, but a brave few – in hindsight, stupid few – wanted to test his mettle. In this sense, the story is likely allegorical. In discussing Clovis’s memory, it is likely he may have been willing to accept slights with dignity and a straight face early on in his reign, but he never forgot those who crossed him. Additionally, the brutality of Clovis’s action against this man served to prove that Clovis, in no uncertain terms, was the ruler. Up to this point, the Franks had been more of a confederation than a single, unified tribe. John M. Riddle claims that the group was a “tribal swarm,” “a loose coalition of many tribes that came together under the term Frank.” Important matters were discussed among the people, and kings were looked upon more as a higher form of leader than as an autocrat. Hence the antagonist’s line, "You shall get nothing here except what the lot fairly bestows on you." Clovis’s splitting of the antagonist’s head at a later time, and the reaction of those around him who choose to depart without question rather than admonish him for killing the man extrajudicially, shows through this story his growth from a leader-king into the unquestioned ruler of a unified Frankish tribe. It’s clear that his followers must have agreed with and condoned his rise, in practice at the very least, by the story’s finishing lines, wherein Gregory turns on a dime from Clovis standing bloody and dreadful over the body of a fellow Frankish tribal member, to Clovis waging war and dominating the Thuringi. If they didn’t trust Clovis or didn’t want him to be king, they could have turned on him. Instead, they followed him to war and greater riches.


As Clovis grew, both in age and in power, he also grew smart in the best ways to rule and expand his reach through means other than military. He did this largely through selective marriages. First, he married off his sister, Audofleda, to the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great. According to historian Ryan Crisp, this “connection surely must have increased Clovis’ status in northern Gaul, for no other Frankish king of the time could boast such a connection.” Beyond just marrying off his sibling, Clovis got wise and selected a wife for himself because, as with all things monarchy, there’s really no more important job than keeping the family, and in particular the male side of the family, growing. But Clovis’s choice for a bride transcended simply picking a mate with whom to bear children. He had already done that, impregnating and bearing a son, Theuderic, with an unnamed concubine – and at this time, that was a legitimate way to gain a male heir. Clovis wasn’t just aiming for offspring, but rather, a strategic pairing that would increase the esteem of his kingship. Enter now Clotilde, the first Frankish wife in this podcast to receive the courtesy of a backstory more compelling than that of simply being used as the love tryst of Neptune’s sea-bull, such as Chlodio’s unnamed wife, or being so compelled by the manliness of the Frankish king that she couldn’t possibly stay with her loser Thuringian husband, such as Childéric’s wife Basina, or the completely unknown wife of Merovech. No, Clotilde actually gets to go into history for actions that far surpass simply being the trophy wife of Clovis.


Clotilde came from a traditionally broken royal home of this time period; in this case, her family was the ruling family of the Burgundians, centered in the southern city of Lyon. Her grandfather had had four sons; her father, Chilperic – not to be confused with the second Frankish king, Childéric – was killed in a fit of courtly intrigue by her uncle, Gundobad. This forced the young Clotilde to take refuge in Geneva with one of her other uncles, while Gundobad consolidated power and took over as the head of the family. Clotilde, however, was still a Burgundian princess and holder of a high rank. She was rightfully upset over Gundobad’s murder of her father, her subsequent exile, and her lack of access to her inheritance due to Gundobad’s position as head of the family. Sources from this time debate over how much agency she had in the ultimate decision to marry Clovis, with Gregory stating that she was simply handed over to Clovis's men when he came to call upon her hand in marriage. The medieval historian Fredegar, on the other hand, spices things up and claims Clotilde actively worked to become Clovis’s wife by taking the betrothal ring he had sent to her and hiding it in Gundobad’s treasure. This, for some reason the logic of which I honestly don’t fully understand, forced Gundobad to admit he had been out-maneuvered by the pair and accept their marriage. No matter what, Crisp states:


“What all the sources do agree upon, however, is what a prestigious bride Clotild was. Since Clotild’s parents were deceased, and her sister was a nun, she was the heiress to her father’s treasure. The sources tell us that Gundobad had control over that treasure as her guardian, but Clovis may have seen an opportunity to gain control of that treasure, and Clotild, desiring to have more control over her own inheritance, worked out a scheme to force Gundobad to hand it over, backed up by the threat of war with the Franks. Thus, Clotild had the marital virtue of wealth. Gregory also took pains to emphasize the nobility of Clotild… She, therefore, also had the marital virtue of high birth and rank. Gregory further reported that Clovis’ legates “saw that she was elegant and wise, and born of a royal race.” She was thus of good character, as well.”


In this way, Clovis and Clotilde were pretty much a perfect match for one another; depending on who you believe, they may have even had a love connection! The romantic in me likes to think that they had a respect for one another that brought out the best in themselves, but this was still the 490s and it’s probably more realistic that both of them knew what the other brought to the table for them to use and manipulate. He brought the threat of force, which secured for Clotilde access to her inheritance, and she brought a level of refinement and class that raised Clovis’s kingship to new levels. Whether it was love or political economy, the match worked incredibly well. And Clotilde’s influence didn’t stop there; as we’ll see next week, Clotilde played a dangerous game with her pagan husband and took steps to influence him to her Catholic faith, going so far as to secretly baptize their first child, a boy, only to watch the child die after the ceremony. Actions such as these, in this time when battles were fought and courtiers were killed over matters far less important than religion or the death of a male heir, would put Clotilde in a position to either share in the ruling of a kingdom, or lose everything.


OUTRO: Alright, now that we understand how Clovis came to power, some of the things he did early in his career to consolidate that power, and the strength of the woman who became his Queen, Clotilde, we will turn next time to discussing arguably the most important thing he did to ensure his legacy, and that was his conversion from paganism to Catholicism. This move tied Clovis into the power structure being established by priests, bishops, and monasteries, allowed him to plug into the remaining power of Rome, and made him allies with the Byzantine, Eastern Roman Empire. Of course, how and why he converted is open to debate, and certain Middle Age writers – I’m looking at you again Gregory of Tours – may have plagiarized his battlefield conversion to more closely resemble that of Constantine’s from centuries earlier. But hey, why let facts get in the way of a good story, right? Along with that, we’ll continue to look deeper into the Clotilde’s impact on Clovis and his kingdom, and also get into discussing a Parisian nun named Geneviève. These two formidable women would go on to influence the course of the monarchy, impact the importance of Paris as a capital city, and eventually become saints in the eyes of the Church. Geneviève’s importance was such that her tomb became the site of the Panthéon, the burial place for distinguished Frenchmen and women that is used up to this very day. The last two interred in the Panthéon were Simone and Antoine Veil in 2018, a reminder of how the past, while gone, continues to affect and influence the future.


Before we go, as always, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode and a list of sources is available online at thugsandmiracles.com; please leave a comment. You can email me at thugsandmiracles@gmail.com, and you can also hit me on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle, or leave a comment on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ThugsAndMiracles/. Finally, if you enjoyed the show and have a moment, I ask you to please leave a review on whichever platform you get your podcasts; this helps to get the podcast out to more people. If you feel the show is worth five stars, I will be forever in your debt if you take the time to put that online. Once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you in two weeks with the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.