Episode 6: Clovis, the First King - Consolidation
Sieges were the worst, and Clovis hated them with a passion.
Yet here he was, sitting in the shadow of Avignon‘s city walls, waiting for his rival, Gundobad, to simply admit that he had lost the war and come outside to take his medicine. But as the seasons were getting ready to turn for a third time and the wind and rain in the south of France got that much colder, it was becoming evident to everyone that Gundobad was never going to stick his head out. What was worse, it didn’t look the people of Avignon were going to make him. Sieges were supposed to be affairs that cut off food and water and stimulated outbreaks of disease, all of which ground people down and led them to give in. But for Avignon? It wasn’t a picnic in there, but the reports coming to Clovis indicated that food supplies were still high, the wells still had clean water, and sickness was no better or worse than it ever was. Clovis was turning out to be just as bad at a siege as his father Childéric had been when he spent years trying to get Paris to fall into his hands. In that case, a local nun, Genevieve, had managed to make supply runs up and down the Seine, laying waste to Childéric’s plans. Now there was no nun, just high walls with no apparent weaknesses and a city with unimaginably large stores of food. Clovis started to think he might have to have an army camp out here for years. And where was Godegisel?
Clovis and Godegisel had partnered up half a year earlier to push Godegisel’s brother Gundobad off of his throne in Burgundy, the region of southeastern Gaul nearest to Italy. Between the two brothers Clovis actually had more respect for Gundobad, but that was part of why he sided with Godegisel. Once the stronger brother was gone, Clovis could lean on the weaker one and perhaps turn him into a vassal so weak that Clovis wouldn’t have to waste time later on taking Burgundy by force. The other reason he sided with Godegisel is because Gundobad, the uncle of his wife Clotilde, had at one point viciously murdered her parents and sent her sister into a convent. So there was that.
Anyway, Clovis’s plan had gone well at first. He interceded in Burgundy’s civil war on behalf of Godegisel, and between their two armies they quickly laid waste to Gundobad’s forces. Unfortunately, they hadn’t caught Gundobad. The weasel had run off before the fighting ended, leaving Clovis to run after him. They ran right to Avignon, and that’s where the two men found themselves now in this early fall of 500. Godegisel, on the other hand, had watched Clovis run after his brother and, figuring there was no need for both of them to sit in a siege, had decided to clean up back closer to home and set up his new court in the prized city of Vienne. Clovis could picture him there now, sitting in a warm room on plush cushions while he sat out here in a tent, waiting.
And for Clovis, the waiting was the hardest part. He was used to action, to running from battle to battle and constantly killing his enemies and expanding his borders. If he wasn’t on campaign he was working with his lieutenants to plan the next campaign. He didn’t sit, and he certainly wasn’t made to wait as the errand boy of some puny king he intended to turn into his vassal in short order. He needed to do something; he was done with this silly game. He made up his mind and called together a group of men to go to Gundobad as an embassy. They made the Burgundian an offer that, in exchange for his life, his freedom and the lifting of the siege , he should send Clovis tribute, and then continue these payments annually. Gundobad, almost unbelieving that he was going to make it out of Avignon alive, agreed at once.
The next morning, peering over the walls, Gundobad saw that the fields around Avignon were empty and Clovis had been good to his word. He had gone home to the north, leaving the way to the east open for Gundobad to reclaim the land that he had lost. He started picking up the pieces of his shattered forces at that very moment, planning the campaign against his brother to begin as early as possible. Godegisel had to die.
This is Thugs and Miracles. Episode Six – Clovis, the First King: Consolidation.
Alright, welcome back to Episode Six of T+M. As always, I am Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re supposed to be on the third episode of a three-part series looking at the history of Clovis, but to be honest, as I’ve done more research and gone further into the subject, I don’t really think I can fit everything that’s left to say about him into just one episode. For what it’s worth, I may not be able to do it in two! So anyway, the current plan is to scrap the trilogy and move on to a tetralogy, and then go from there. Believe me, there’s so much murder, war and duplicity, not to mention statecraft, shifting alliances, and – oh yeah – the selection of Paris as the capital city of this new “Land of the Franks,” a.k.a. Francia, that I truly believe everyone involved, including myself, will be happier and better served to not try and squeeze too much into too little time. And as I’ve said before, we’re podcasting here and we make up the rules, so let’s do this.
So normally I begin the show by giving you a story that was written by Gregory of Tours or Fredegar and then break down where the story came from, why it was written, and more often than not, why the story was patently false. Today I started differently by instead presenting a story based on various facts we know about Clovis’s campaign in the south against his wife’s uncle, Gundobad. You see, everything I said is generally agreed to have happened. Clovis did go to war with Gundobad, partnering with the latter’s brother, Godegisel, to kick him out of Burgundy. Clovis and Godegisel were successful, and Clovis did in fact follow Gundobad to Avignon and lay siege to the city while Godegisel fell back to Vienne - the town just south of Lyon, not Vienna in Austria - to bask in the warm glow of victory. But why did all of this happen in the first place? To answer that, we have to understand a little more about Gundobad, Godegisel, Clotilde, and a Burgundian family that rivaled any in Gaul as the “Most Dysfunctional.”
If you remember way back to Episode Four, Clotilde and Clovis were married after the young couple played a series of tricks on Gundobad that basically put this older uncle in a position where he had to bless off on the marriage to avoid losing face. But his relationship with Clotilde went much deeper than just that. Years before, Clotilde had been the daughter of the primary Burgundian king, a man named Chilperic II. I say primary because Chilperic was the oldest of four brothers, all of whom ruled over an area of Burgundy. These younger brothers included Gundobad, ruling from Vienne, Godegisel, ruling from Geneva; and Gundomar, ruling from Lyon. Gundomar exits from history pretty quickly, in 486 to be exact, mainly because he was sitting on an area that Gundobad really liked. So Gundobad took it, an act that, family ties be damned, cost Gundomar his life. From Gundobad’s perspective, this was one down, three to go.
Gundobad next set his sights on Chilperic’s realm, centered on the city of Valence. Gundobad rose up and took his shot at the crown in 493, and to make sure he didn’t miss, he acted as brutally as possible. Gundobad found his brother and killed him, and then, to make sure there was no one left for the people to sympathize with as possible pretenders to the throne, Gundobad found his sister-in-law Caretena, Clotilde’s mother, and tied a rope around her neck. The other end he attached to a stone which he threw into a body of water – Gregory didn’t mention which body of water - an action that left no doubts about the idea of concessions or negotiations. He then turned his eyes toward Chilperic’s daughters, and in this case he was slightly more lenient. Gundobad forced one of them, a girl named Chroma, into a convent, and would have done the same or worse to the second, Clotilde, if she hadn’t been able to get away to Godegisel in Geneva before Gundobad got his hands on her. This was the family history that Clotilde undoubtedly held in her heart and which would play into Godegisel’s hands years later when he decided to square off against his brother in a Highlander-like, there-can-be-only-one-style showdown. The fact that Gundobad actually showed some leniency toward the girls almost cost him his life and kingdom. On a side note, as a wannabe historian I try not make moral judgments about what people did or didn’t do throughout history, but it’s episodes like this that make you understand a little more why conquerors would be so brutal to those they beat. Mercy has a strange way of popping up throughout history and biting people, and you could never tell who it was going to be that would get you. In this case, if Gundobad had simply executed a teenaged Clotilde, he may not have dealt with Clovis later. He certainly wasn’t above it; did I mention how he drowned Caretena with a stone?
In 499, Godegisel had raised an army to go against his brother, but he must have realized that he was in no way certain to win with his current force because he went and petitioned Clovis for his support. Gundobad, also realizing that the ensuing battle would be little better than a coin flip, also petitioned Clovis. Gundobad’s claim rested primarily on his being the legitimate ruler of Burgundy, a title he had taken through force, strength and audacity, traits that Clovis would undoubtedly appreciate. Godegisel really only had one argument going for him: he was the uncle who had not brutally murdered or imprisoned Clovis’s wife’s entire immediate family. Even in the fifth and sixth centuries, when husband-wife relationships were undoubtedly different than they are today, this latter argument was going to carry the day.
And so it was that Clovis rose up with Godegisel and drove Gundobad to Avignon. Unfortunately for Godegisel, however, the rest of the opening story is true. Clovis held out a siege for a few months, but eventually gave in when Gundobad’s envoys convinced Clovis to relent in exchange for tribute. This situation would work out fine for Clovis, the strong and brutal warlord of the north, but not so much for the much less motivated Godegisel. The fact that Gundobad was alive basically ensured that he would be back. And that’s what happened. Gundobad took his second chance on life, and according to Gregory, around 501:
“He regained his power, and now contemptuously refused to pay the promised tribute to king Clovis, and set his army in motion against his brother Godegisel, and shut him up in the city of Vienne and besieged him. And when food began to be lacking for the common people, Godegisel was afraid that the famine would extend to himself, and gave orders that the common people be expelled from the city. When this was done, there was driven out, among the rest, the artisan who had charge of the aqueduct. And he was indignant that he had been cast out from the city with the rest, and went to Gundobad in a rage to inform him how to burst into the city and take vengeance on his brother. Under his guidance an army was led through the aqueduct, and… surprised from the rear the defenders who were shooting arrows from the wall. The trumpet was sounded in the midst of the city, and the besiegers seized the gates, and opened them and entered at the same time, and when the people between these two battle lines were being slain by each army, Godegisel sought refuge in the church of the heretics, and was slain there along with the Arian bishop. Finally the Franks who were with Godegisel gathered in a tower. But Gundobad ordered that no harm should be done to a single one of them, but seized them and sent them in exile to King Alaric at Toulouse.”
Sensing rising tensions with Clovis and hoping to dissuade yet another incursion by the Franks into Visigoth territory, these Frankish soldiers became the set piece around which Alaric called for a meeting with the Frankish king so that the two monarchs could work out their issues and come to an understanding. The gambit worked. Alaric sent an emissary to Clovis, asking to meet at an island in the Loire. Clovis accepted and the two met; they ate and drank together, they promised friendship, and they left the island in peace. Clovis got his soldiers back and returned north. And then he continued to plot.
After his return north from the siege of Avignon in 500/501, Clovis would have been able to survey his Kingdom and plan his next moves. In this sense he was much more like Gundobad: he would never stop moving, never stop looking for the next move, never stop planning and battling to expand his Kingdom. He didn’t have it in him to settle like Godegisel, to go back to a small province and be happy with the many advantages his position had brought him and his family. Besides, Gundobad had seen to it that Godegisel didn’t get to enjoy anything for too long, a fact that almost certainly served to bolster Clovis’s view of himself and the world: The weak get eaten by the strong while thugs, men of brute force and action, get to do the eating.
At any rate, it was now that Clovis would have been able to look over a map to see just how much he had won. He would have seen a land that stretched exponentially further than anything his predecessors had ever envisioned. Starting from the small northern region of Belgica Secunda, he had systematically pushed outward, taking Syagrius’s kingdom in 486 and then turning his sights to the west to defeat the Thuringi in 491. In 496, with God’s help, Clovis had subdued the Alemanni, while at the same time in the west he had secured his flank by allying with the Amoricans who resided in the area of modern-day Brittany. His kingdom stretched from well beyond the Rhine River in the east, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The sea to the north protected him from invaders, all of which allowed him to focus his efforts on pushing in one direction, the only direction left available: south.
But south was the one place where Clovis had to admit that he had tasted defeat. Throughout the 490s he had looked at pushing into Aquitaine, the land to the southwest held by King Alaric II and his Visigoths. He had had some success, pushing as far south as Bordeaux and managing to take towns like Poitiers and Tours. But when the Alemanni required Clovis to focus on the eastern part of the empire, he was forced to cede the land he had taken from the Visigoths; he just had not had the forces available to hold the areas he had taken deep in enemy territory and fight for more on the opposite side of the kingdom.
Now to move south, Clovis would have to overcome these two powerful enemies along his southern border, both with reasons to mistrust and dislike Clovis. On top of that, Alaric was tied to a third king, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, who in 493 had been able to kill Odoacer, who in turn was the man who had deposed Romulus Augustus and brought an end to the Western Roman Empire in 476. Theodoric crowned himself as King of Italy and was interested in reconstituting the Western Roman Empire as a Gothic empire; he was not going to stand idly by if the Franks went to war with the Visigoths. As a final bit of intrigue, Theodoric had been particularly crafty in the use of marriage alliances: he had married Clovis’s sister, Audofleda, and had married off his children to various power players across the remnants of the Western Empire. He, like Clovis, was smart enough to realize that there were times when diplomacy could get a king more than a battle could. Unfortunately for Theodoric, Audofleda had died back in 501, so his diplomatic ties to the Frankish king were not as strong as they had been.
With all of these machinations going on in the south, Clovis had been just as busy in the north: he had recently received a delegation from the Byzantine Empire representing Emperor Anastasius himself. The Emperor had deep pockets, well deeper than Alaric’s and anything that had been promised on that island in the Loire, and was able to make Clovis an offer he couldn’t refuse. By 507, with dreams of further conquest dancing in his mind and the support of the Eastern Roman Emperor - and from here on in referred to exclusively as the Byzantine Emperor - filling his sails, Clovis sent out the call to mobilize the Army. The Franks were headed to war.
And it was here again that we can see Clovis’s decision to convert to Catholicism coming back to serve him. According to Danuta Shanzer:
“The long-term success of the Franks and the survival of Francia have often been ascribed to Clovis’s decision to be baptized as a Nicene Christian. His choice, so it goes, removed a barrier between himself and his own Roman subjects and allowed him to drive wedges between rival Arian kings and their Roman subjects, permitted him to harness the power of the Nicene church, and enabled him more easily to be recognized by Emperor Anastasius in Constantinople.”
In other words, being a Catholic tied Clovis into a world of power, resources and manpower/popular support that his rival kings could not touch. It also made him the rightful ruler in the eyes of many people living inside of the territories of the Arian kings, setting in place a fifth column of sorts. If they weren’t active in their dissension to their Arian kings, being forced to choose between their monarch and their god would certainly have diminished the fervor of many would-be soldiers.
So anyway, we have Clovis crossing the threshold and entering into Gothic territory, getting as far as the city of Vouillé. How does everyone react to this? Well, Alaric gets his army together and heads up to face the threat. Gundobad, politician to the end, chooses to get his army together and then wait to see how things play out. And Theodoric, the powerful King of Italy, also got his army ready to fight, but was then side-tracked by a coastal attack from Byzantines. This latter attack was almost certainly nothing more than a feint, but it had the intended effect of fixing Theodoric in place in Italy long enough for Clovis to go to war against a single, un-reinforced enemy. Procopius of Caesarea takes the narrative from here, beginning with Alaric learning of Clovis’s move south:
“When Alaric learned this, he summoned Theoderic as quickly as possible. And he set out to his assistance with a great army. In the meantime, the Visigoths, upon learning that the Germans were in camp near the city of Carcasiana, went to meet them, and making a camp remained quiet. But since much time was being spent by them in blocking the enemy in this way, they began to be vexed, and seeing that their land was being plundered by the enemy, they became indignant. And at length they began to heap many insults upon Alaric, reviling him on account of his fear of the enemy and taunting him with the delay of his father-in-law. For they declared that they by themselves were a match for the enemy in battle and that even though unaided they would easily overcome the Germans in the war. For this reason Alaric was compelled to do battle with the enemy before the Goths had as yet arrived. And the Germans, gaining the upper hand in this engagement, killed the most of the Visigoths and their ruler Alaric. Then they took possession of the greater part of Gaul and held it; and they laid siege to Carcasiana with great enthusiasm, because they had learned that the royal treasure was there, which Alaric the elder in earlier times had taken as booty when he captured Rome.”
So yeah, take this as further proof that listening to your boys is not always sound strategy. In Alaric’s defense, he was between a rock and a hard place. If he sat and continued to do nothing he was likely to face a mutiny, so he took his shot with the, and Rumsfeld would love this, army he had, not the one he wanted. And it ended poorly. Some accounts go so far as to say Clovis and Alaric met on the field of battle in single combat, with the former stabbing the latter in the face. There’s even paintings of the event depicting exactly that, but all of these accounts and drawing came about hundreds of years after the event, so take the notion of a grand and gallant Game of Thrones-style sword fight with a grain of salt.
What we can surmise happened is that Clovis destroyed Alaric and his forces relatively easily and pushed on toward the Mediterranean. Gundobad, seeing how his now-good friend Clovis had won at Vouillé, jumped into the battle at this point and laid siege to Arles. However, Theodoric was finally able to get his army into Gaul to mount a counter-offensive, and was able to keep a narrow band in the Narbonne and Septimania regions of far-southern Gaul under the control of the Goths. This might not sound like much, but this thin strip of land served three huge purposes. First, it kept the Goths physically connected and prevented the Franks and Burgundians from applying a divide-and-conquer strategy. Second, it kept a land line of communication available for the Ostrogoths and Visigoths to maintain movement for years to come, even after the Visigoths had fled to safety of Hispania, modern-day Spain, behind the Pyrenees. And finally, this narrow strip of land prevented Clovis from establishing a beachhead that would allow his Byzantine friends to join the fight in earnest. Honestly, and this is just my opinion here, but this action alone probably changed the complexion of European world for several centuries.
So at this point we can start to see the full extent of Clovis’s campaigns coming into clear focus. With the addition of Aquitaine, Clovis was now fully uncontested all the way down to the Pyrenees. Gundobad remained on the Burgundian throne, but after having been beaten down by Theodoric for their part in besieging Arles, Burgundy wasn’t an immediate threat to Clovis. And speaking of Theodoric, there’s almost no doubt that he would have loved to have campaigned in the west, but he was smart enough to realize that if he did that he would completely expose his eastern flank, and it just wasn’t a long enough march between Constantinople and Ravenna for him to feel comfortable pulling his armies away from his stronghold.
So now here we are, in the year 508. Clovis has pushed the Visigoths over the mountains and into Hispania, modern-day Spain. He is effectively in control of most of what had been Roman Gaul and, after all of these battles, he has more land and more booty than he knows what to do with. He finally seemed to have it all, when Emperor Anastasius came sweeping in to add the cherry to the top of the imperial sundae. From Gregory:
“Clovis received an appointment to the consulship from the emperor Anastasius, and in the church of the blessed Martin he clad himself in the purple tunic and chlamys, and placed a diadem on his head. Then he mounted his horse, and in the most generous manner he gave gold and silver as he passed along the way which is between the gate of the entrance [of the church of St. Martin] and the church of the city, scattering it among the people who were there with his own hand, and from that day he was called consul or Augustus. Leaving Tours he went to Paris and there he established the seat of his kingdom.”
For a guy who lived his entire life in the shadow of the Roman Empire, this was the peak. Now that he had a proper kingdom and the recognition of the Emperor as a consul of Rome, it was time for Clovis to rule what he had earned. And he chose to do so from Paris, which is a site that seems obvious to us now, but was likely not so clear a choice early on in the 6th century. So let’s take a quick look at the history of Paris, to see if we can understand a little better why Clovis thought this was the best place from which to headquarter his kingdom.
Going way back, the city was occupied from around the middle of the 3rd century BC by a sub-tribe of the Celtic Senones know as the Parisii. It became a hub for trade due its location along the Seine, and was captured by the Romans in 52 BC. They called the town Lutetia (more fully, Lutetia Parisiorum, or "Lutetia of the Parisii") and it became a prosperous city with a forum, baths, temples, theatres, and an amphitheater. By the end of the Western Roman Empire the town was known simply as Parisius, and over time it would shorten to the Paris we know today. Due to its wealth and strategic location the city became a target for raiding by barbarians in the third century, which led to the inhabitants building walls to fortify the area. The material of ancient monuments, especially the amphitheater, was used to erect the walls. Besides the walls, the new center of the city was comprised of at least four monuments also erected in the fourth century: the basilica, the “Palais,” one Roman thermae and the Cathedral. Of these, we’re going to focus on the Palais and the Cathedral as these two buildings have the most relevance to our story.
The “Palais” was probably a military construction and it was presumably used as an imperial residence by the Roman Emperors Julian and Valentinian I between 364 and 375 AD while they lived in the city. This tie to relatively recent Roman emperors would certainly have made Paris more appealing to Clovis, a strong ruler in his own right, who was tied to the Byzantines and who would gladly use the symbolism of of these past emperors to strengthen and polish his own claim to the throne.
The second monument we’ll discuss is the Cathedral. This building, according to written and archaeological evidence, was likely built in the fourth century. It was constructed similar to a Roman basilica, and was considered the first church of Paris. What’s particularly interesting, to me anyway, is that this church existed at the same time in the city as the Roman thermae. This shows that there were no abrupt ruptures between the Gallo-Roman city and the Christian city, but instead, the changes in habits were very gradual. The inhabitants of Paris probably continued to go to the thermae to worship Roman gods, while at the same time they attended the Cathedral to participate in the rituals associated with Christianity. In the next several centuries, the Roman monuments and gods would fade in influence and eventually disappear as more Christian buildings were built and more festivals associated with different saints took place in the city; however, the Cathedral would remain important.
Despite the local importance of having served as a residence to Emperors Julian and Valentinian, Paris in 508 was still not one of the most important cities of Gaul. Paris was overshadowed by cities such as Tours and Rouen, and was so small from the point of view of strategic importance that Attila failed to lay waste to it when he campaigned through Gaul in 450-451. Fans of St. Genevieve like to say this was because she led a prayer group that brought God’s favor upon the town and caused Attila to rampage elsewhere. Not to be overly skeptical, but Attila probably passed the town because it wouldn’t have been worth the time and manpower needed to take it. At any rate Clovis, who was originally from nearby Tournai, likely chose the town for multiple reasons. It was far enough north to keep him near to where he had started, but far enough south that he was still relatively centrally located. Paris also likely held some amount of personal importance for him – his dad Childéric spent years trying to take it and now it was his – plus, he would have known of the Roman Emperors living there. He was a Roman Consul now, by order of the Byzantine Emperor, and he would want to draw on this history. No record remains as to which of these items, or if any of them, was his main rationale for choosing Paris, but ultimately it was his choice and the rest, as they say, is history.
OUTRO: Alright, so we can now say that we have looked at exactly how Clovis, a 15-year-old orphan living in upstate Gaul, was able to parlay the inheritance left to him by Childéric into a kingdom that, by 508, was starting to look a whole lot like the country of France we know today. We understand why he may have selected Paris for his capital city, and we have also seen the ongoing importance of his conversion to Catholicism in helping him win over the people and the Byzantine Emperor alike. Next time, however, we are going to focus on those “people” I just mentioned. We have spent a lot of time discussing kings and capitals and wars and diplomacy, but we haven’t stepped back to understand what the world of the early sixth century probably looked like to a common person. Luckily, I had the good fortune to have corresponded recently with David Powell, an alumnus of Villanova University who spent his graduate studies focused on the evolution of late antique and early medieval urban and suburban Western Europe, and in particular Gaul. One of his papers, “The Peasant Rusticus - Life near Paris in the Time of Clovis” does an outstanding job of laying out what this period of time must have felt like for the common person, from the point of view of a common man doing his best to work and live and get along. Then, after that episode, we’ll come back to Clovis for one last look at what he accomplished in his last three years and the legacy he left for his four sons. It should be fun; there’s treachery, deceit, and at least one more guy getting his head laid open with an axe. In other words, all of the things we love to talk about with these times.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.