Episode Nine: The Sons of Clovis - Part I
For twelve years, Clotilde had called the Abbey of St. Martin in Tours her home. She lived each day in a calm and peaceful setting as a woman, a Queen, who had done her duty and who was now put out to rest like a well-loved and loyal mare. The problem was, Clotilde was not a horse, and simply because she had moved to Tours and away from the center of action in Paris, she had in no way removed herself from the game. If anything, moving to Tours was simply a move she had to make.
In the year 523, Clotilde was in an awkward spot as far as Merovingian politics were concerned. She was just shy of her 50th birthday, an older woman by the standard of the day, but still young enough that, barring an unforeseen illness or accident, she could reasonably expect to live for another 10-20 years or more. As a former queen, she knew the people in the Merovingian court, and she knew the rules, laws, and customs as well as anyone alive. And she was eternally tied to the memory of that greatest of Kings, Clovis; indeed, she was the person who had ultimately convinced him to come over to the one true faith, a fact that raised her estimation with the many Catholic bishops now enjoying power in the Kingdom her husband had built.
With all that said, she was in a position with no direct power. Merovingian women, per the Salic Law, were not allowed to hold land or titles except through their male kin. Clotilde was a Queen because of Clovis, and Clovis was gone. She was the mother to three more kings, but each of these had wives who would certainly try and bend their husband’s ears. Clotilde had known almost unlimited power just a few short years ago, but now she had to sit and bide her time and wait for an opportunity to present itself. That was fine with her, however; she was patient, and she realized that plans that were rushed were more often than not plans that were crushed. She was willing to wait.
Twelve years earlier, when her husband was freshly dead, she had known that she was in a precarious spot, both for herself and her children. Clovis’s eldest son, Theuderic, had not been born by her, but the Salic Law of the early 6th century had no issue in recognizing this bastard child of her husband as a true and legitimate heir. In the early days after Clovis’s death, Clotilde was in constant fear that the 24-year-old Theuderic might make some sort of power grab for control of the entire kingdom, killing her and all three of her boys to leave himself as the sole ruler of the land. With an almost ten-year head start over her next oldest son, Chlodomir, it was a thought she had to consider. Luckily, her faith in God – and her strong common sense to shore up her security – allowed Clotilde and her children to survive. When her advisors were finally able to assure her that no trap was waiting to send her into exile, prison, or to her death, she finally met with Theuderic directly to discuss the inheritance Clovis had left them. Meeting the young prince in person, she became less concerned for her safety and more concerned with striking a bargain that would leave her sons with their fair share of the Kingdom.
Her bargaining with Theuderic led to multiple agreements. The kingdom would be partitioned into four sub-kingdoms, all of which still served under the overarching banner of the Merovingians. Childebert would get Paris, Chlodomir got Orléans, and Chlothar was to get Soissons. Theuderic inherited Metz, also known as Austrasia. Everyone involved knew that Austrasia was the best of the four “equal” sub-kingdoms, but again, Clotilde could only push her bargain so far. It was also understood coming out of this meeting in early 512 that Theuderic, through virtue of his being Clovis’s eldest son, held primacy amongst the kings. He wasn’t the sole owner of the Crown in the same way as his father, but Theuderic certainly had the biggest and best claim.
All of this had been okay to the patient Clotilde; her boys were still in the inheritance, no blood was shed, and she had time on her side to plan and make moves. Now here she was, 12 years on, and she was pretty sure that a window of opportunity was getting ready to open wide. Reports were filtering out of Burgundy that the king of those parts, Sigismund, had, for some unknown reason, become a parricide by ordering the murder of his son and heir, the grandson of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric. As Clotilde heard more and more news from the south, she had become more confident that now was the time to re-enter her former homeland and rectify the wrongs of so long ago when her uncle Gundobad had slaughtered her parents. She sent the call to her boys, and they came running to her.
When they arrived, Clotilde’s message was strong and simple. She said to them, “Let me not repent, dearest sons, that I have nursed you lovingly; be angry, I beg you, at the insult to me, and avenge with a wise zeal the death of my father and mother." Her boys, always looking for a reason to expand their power or pick a fight, needed little more than this cajoling and motherly guilt to spring into action. They immediately set off to make their preparations, and in little time they were marching south at the head of their respective forces. And so it was, with these words, that Clotilde, a Queen who no longer had her King and a woman who, by law, was not allowed to wield power, managed to launch the war that would change the course of so many lives, hers included, as well as that of the Merovingian Dynasty.
This is Thugs and Miracles. Episode Nine: The Sons of Clovis – Part I.
Alright, welcome back to Thugs and Miracles. As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to explore what exactly happened after Clovis’s ended his 30-year reign and passed the torch to his sons Theuderic, Chlothar, Chlodomir and Childebert. Because it can start to get confusing very quickly, I’m going to start with the oldest of these new Kings, Theuderic, and do my best to keep everyone in order. The storylines will inevitably – and tragically – intertwine, but the goal at the end is to spin them all into something ordered and recognizable, like a spider’s web, rather than throwing them together in a lump akin to a rat’s nest. So anyway, here we go…
As I said in the intro, Theuderic was Clovis’s oldest child by nearly a decade. He was born around 487, just a year or so after his father led his army to victory against Syagrius in Soissons. Not much is mentioned about his birth or his childhood except that Gregory refers to his mother as a “concubine” who had had a child with Clovis prior to him having met Clotilde. Well, Theuderic grew up tall and he grew up right, and by the age of twenty he went on campaign with his father in Vouillé. Following Clovis’s victory against Alaric in the main event, he sent his son to clean up in Visigothic areas to the east of the battle. According to Gregory, Theuderic “went, and brought under his father's dominion the cities from the boundaries of the Goths to the limit of the Burgundians.”
With this statement, we can infer that Theuderic was an accomplished military commander by the time of his father’s death. He was still young, only 24 years old, but as we have seen time and again, ages for everything skewed much younger back at this time. It is well within the realm of possibility that Clovis, who had been only 15 when he took the Crown and who was only 20 when he enjoyed his first major military victory, would never have thought twice about placing his oldest son in a position to gain experience and military glory. With this being the case, it’s easy to see how Theuderic had a commanding lead over his half-brothers when it came time to determine the line of succession for their father. Clotilde’s three boys ranged in age from 14-16 years old at Clovis’s death, and would have had little, if any, military experience by this point. Although it’s possible that Clotilde may have tried to push her own children to the head of the line of succession, their status as minors, Theuderic’s claim as the first-born, and his military success alongside of his father guaranteed he would in no way be passed over. When all was said and done, a strong argument can be made that Clotilde did well to barter for as much as she was able to get for her boys. (Side note: The bargaining for the splitting up of the kingdom is yet another example of how Gregory would routinely gloss over significant areas of the history when he either didn’t know the details or didn’t like how the details would affect the story he was trying to write. In this case, he felt that all of the negotiations that would have inevitably ensued at the passing of the King were good for just one line: “Now on the death of king Clovis, his four sons, namely, Theuderic, Chlodomir, Childebert and Chlothar, received his kingdom and divided it among them in equal parts.” Given how important this division of power would be for the Dynasty and how hotly it was almost certainly debated, it is staggering that the Bishop of Tours felt the incident to be worth no more than one line.)
At any rate, Theuderic is the first of Clovis’s sons to be noted as acting like a king, doing so when he appoints a bishop around 515. It was also noted that the daughter of Clotilde, fittingly named Clotilde, was given over to the new King of the Visigoths in Spain, Amalaric, at around this time. Amalaric is said to have asked for her hand in marriage, a request that was granted along with “[sending] her into the Spanish country with a great quantity of beautiful things.” A marriage alliance of this this magnitude would have almost certainly have required Theuderic’s attention, although Gregory doesn’t point out who exactly pulled the trigger on the union or the size of the dowry.
Another act Theuderic took part in was to send his son Theudebert against a Danish invasion in 516. Personally, I find it difficult to classify this as having been particularly kingly, for myself anyway. Theudebert would have been all of a whopping 13 years old when his dad handed him an army and told him to go protect the kingdom from an invasion; I know I had said earlier that times were different and people were promoted at younger ages back in the 6th century, but 13 just seems a little ambitious, even for this time. But for what it’s worth, the kid did great. According to The Cambridge Medieval History:
“Chocilaicus, King of the Danes or, according to another authority, of the Getae in South Sweden, made a raid on the territory of the Franks on the Lower Rhine but was defeated and slain by Theudebert, son of the Frankish king Theuderic, as he was withdrawing from Frisia with extensive plunder. This expedition finds poetic record in the exploits of Hygelac, King of the Geats in Beowulf.”
I mean, that’s pretty good for a teenager to score a military victory that got transcribed into one of the most important epic poems in Old English literature. It’s also impressive that he led the charge against what appears to be the earliest appearance of the Danes/Vikings in France. The group will play a huge part in the history later on, but by later on I mean nearly 300 years later. The Vikings didn’t come back to France until 800 and tormented the north of the country for the better part of a century. This is a huge “what-if,” but what if Theudebert had failed and Chocilaicus had been able to return home loaded down with loot? Would this have inspired the Vikings to target raids into France earlier than they did? This is, of course, impossible to answer, but the fact that Theudebert waded out to meet the first expedition of these undoubtedly strange and foreign enemies from the sea – and defeated them – speaks highly of his courage, ability and potential.
At around the same time that Theudebert was fighting these first Vikings, Theuderic was busy with the kingdom of Thuringia and inner Germany. Being on campaign in this area would go a long way toward helping us understand why Theuderic didn’t ride out himself to meet Chocilaicus and would instead send his teenage son. Theuderic wasn’t lazy; he was likely otherwise engaged with attack planning and armaments for a war he reasonably expected to be much larger than a simple pirate raid. But how did he end up in Thuringia? Well, according to Walter C. Perry, writing in 1857: “The fall of Thuringia is traced by the historian to the ungovernable passions of one of the female sex, which plays so prominent a part in the history of these times.”
Alright, once we get done slapping our collective foreheads and/or waxing our moustaches in response to Mr. Perry’s 19th century views on women, we can move on to the actual story. So, Thuringia in the mid 520s was ruled over by three princes: Baderic, Hermenafrid and Berthar. Of these three, Hermenafrid won the hand of Amalaberg, the niece of Theoderic the Great of Gothic fame. This wedding would have been a substantial boon to Hermenafrid, allowing him to enjoy close ties to one of the strongest kings living in Western Europe at that time. However, much like some of the other women I have mentioned so far in this show, such as Honoria and Clotilde, Amalaberg didn’t have it in her to simply sit quietly at the side of her husband. She spoke her mind as she saw fit, and being the niece of Theodoric, she appears to have found it appalling that her husband would be content to sit back and share power with two others. To make her point, Gregory tells us:
“On returning home one day to a banquet, Hermenafrid observed that a part of the table had no cloth upon it; and when he inquired of the queen the reason of this unusual state of things, she told him that it became a king who was despoiled of the centre of his kingdom to have the middle of his table bare. Excited by the suggestions of his queen, Hermenafrid determined to destroy his brothers, and made secret overtures to Theoderic of Austrasia, to whom he promised a portion of his expected acquisitions on condition of receiving aid.”
Now, I would submit that Hermenafrid strikes me as having had a fairly weak character if something so simple as a bare table could excite him to the level of attacking his own brothers and co-rulers. This story is almost certainly apocryphal; it just seems that throughout history it has been easier to blame the bad ideas and misdeeds of men on the “ungovernable passions of one of the female sex.” Adam and Eve, Paris and Helen, Antony and Cleopatra: all of these are examples of men who were betrayed, tricked, or held in thrall by a woman, and in every case the woman is held to blame for having misled the poor man. And here we see it again with Hermenafrid: he was a good guy and loyal brother until wicked old Amalaberg bent him to her will, right? I call B.S. In all likelihood, Hermenafrid would have been scoping out his brothers long before his marriage in order to take possession of their lands. Making a marital tie to Theodoric would have been a power play rather than a romantic gesture, and while it’s altogether possible that Amalaberg would have supported and even goaded Hermenafrid, it seems highly unlikely that he would have gone to war unless he wanted to go to war. And if he truly was tricked into starting a battle because his wife cut up a tablecloth? Well, if he was that simple to manipulate, I really can’t blame her very much for doing so.
Moving on from Hermenafrid’s weak will, we can note that he reached out to Theuderic at this time for a little help. Theuderic would have been a strong ally; he was heir to Clovis, had strong military bona fides, his kingdom bordered Thuringia, and his grandmother, Basina, wife of Childéric, had been a Thuringian princess. And given that Theodoric had chosen Hermenafrid as the brother to whom to marry Amalaberg, it stands to reason that he was the strongest of the three and the best one for Theuderic to ally with. So from Theuderic’s point-of-view, given everything I just mentioned, why wouldn’t he take a shot at expanding his empire? According to the histories, Theuderic signed up, went to war, and was able to defeat both Baderic and Berthar without too much trouble. Unfortunately, Hermenafrid, simple and weak-willed soul that he was, decided after the fighting was done to go back on his word. Again from Gregory’s history:
“A man who, to serve his ambition, had not shrunk from a double fratricide, was not likely to be very scrupulous in observing his engagements to a mere ally. He entirely forgot his promise to Theuderic and kept the whole of Thuringia to himself. He relied for impunity on his connection with the house of the Ostrogoths, his alliance with the Heruli and Warni, and the great increase of his strength in Thuringia itself.”
Long story short, Hermenafrid won a few fights and got a big head. He’s certainly not the first or the last person who has ever had this happen to him, but just like so many others, overconfidence would be his downfall. You see, Theuderic and the Franks were pretty strong. Even split into four separate kingdoms, they were still a powerful force. As a whole they had gone forth and conquered almost all of Gaul just a few years earlier, and even separately they were still making significant moves throughout the Continent. At roughly the same time Theuderic was fighting Baderic and Berthar, Theudebert had been sent to annihilate the Danish invasion to the north and Childebert, Chlodomer, and Chlothar were on campaign in the south, in Burgundy. The Franks at this time were an overwhelming force, and double-crossing them would be something a wannabe king would do at his own peril. Finally, history has taught us that when a person derives his or her power from another person, they only retain their strength while they enjoy the love of that higher power or until that higher power dies. In Hermenafrid’s case, Theodoric died in 526, after which Hermenafrid’s marital and military ties ceased to matter. According to Scott:
“The Franks, who required no very powerful oratory to induce them to undertake an expedition in which there was prospect of plunder, unanimously declared for war; and Theuderic, in company with his son Theudebert and his brother Chlothar of Soissons, marched into Thuringia. The inhabitants…were, however, compelled to retreat to the river Unstrut in Saxon Prussia, where they made a stand, but were defeated with immense carnage, so that the river "was choked with dead bodies, which served as a bridge for the invaders." The whole country was quickly reduced and permanently incorporated with Austrasia. And thus, after a long interval, the Franks repossessed themselves of the ancient homes of their tribe, and by one great victory established themselves in the very heart of Germany.”
At this point, let’s take a moment and swing back to our opening story, wherein Clotilde had compelled her three boys to charge into Burgundy and start a war. Just like Scott, Gregory would have us believe that Clotilde had her sons go down this road due to her uncontrollable female passions, and not because of smarter or more strategic reasons. Gregory claims she told her boys to “avenge with a wise zeal the death of my father and mother,” even though their deaths had happened 30 years prior and at the hands of someone who was no longer in control of Burgundy. In reality, Clotilde more than likely realized three key items that made a launch into the south a relatively smart move.
The first consideration was geopolitical. As we’ve pointed out repeatedly on this show, for the kings of the early 6th century world, you really had no choice but to provide loot and land for your people if you wanted to stay in power, and the fact is that Francia was surrounded on three sides by natural boundaries that prevented further expansion: the sea to the north, the ocean to the west, and the Pyrenees to the south. This left Clovis’s sons with two immediate expansion points: Thuringia and Germany to the east, or Burgundy to the south. Theuderic had already moved on Thuringia, so that left Burgundy as the only spot ripe for conquest. Burgundy was surrounded on one half by the Franks and on the other by the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, and there was every reason for someone in Clotilde’s position to believe that if she didn’t get her sons there first, someone else would.
The next reason Clotilde had for convincing her sons to march south was the fact that Theuderic had married a Burgundian princess. Suavegotha, was the daughter of Sigismund, the Burgundian king, and the union between her and Theuderic would make it difficult to go after Burgundy if Theuderic was not otherwise distracted. It also presented an existential threat to Clotilde and her boys if Theuderic actively sided with his Burgundian in-laws over his stepmother and half-brothers. Fortunately for Clotilde, Theuderic went to war in Thuringia and had the Danish issue to contend with up north, and was therefore distracted when Childebert, Chlodomir, and Chlothar went on the road.
The final consideration for Clotilde was timing. Not only had Theuderic taken himself out of the situation, but Sigismund, the co-king of the Burgundians along with his brother Godomar, had also been in a weak spot ever since he had killed his son for little to no reason. From Gregory:
“And losing his first wife, the daughter of Theodoric, king of Italy, he married another, and she began to malign his son bitterly and make charges against him as is the custom of stepmothers. From this it came about that on a day of ceremony when the boy recognized his mother's dress on her, he was filled with anger, and said to her: " You are not worthy to have on your back those garments which are known to have belonged to your mistress, that is, my mother." And she was set on fire with rage and she stirred her husband up with crafty words, saying: "The wicked boy wishes to possess your kingdom, and he plans when you are killed to extend it as far as Italy, forsooth, that he may possess the kingdom which his grandfather Theodoric held in Italy. For he knows that while you live he cannot accomplish this; and unless you fall he will not rise." Sigismund was aroused by these words, and taking the advice of his wicked wife he became a wicked parricide. For when his son had been made drowsy by wine he bade him sleep in the afternoon; and while he slept a napkin was placed under his neck and tied under his chin, and he was strangled by two servants who drew in opposite directions. When it was done the father repented too late, and falling on the lifeless corpse began to weep most bitterly.”
So once again we are confronted with a situation in the ancient history books wherein a man is easily roused to stupid action by the “crafty words” of a woman. I mean seriously, if women were able to get men to do silly things so easily then it makes absolutely no sense how the queens of this age were not openly running the show. But I digress.
After this parricide, there likely would have been an opening for Clotilde’s boys to exploit. The king was distracted, the crown prince was dead, and given what we have already discussed, there was no time quite as good as 523 to go ahead and attack Burgundy for the purposes of expanding Francia’s holdings. Now with all of that said, there very well may have been a certain amount of schadenfreude for Clotilde insofar as having her sons attacking the sons of the hated uncle who killed her parents. But to lay the entire cause of the Burgundy War at the feet of a “nasty woman” does a disservice to her and history alike.
The fact is, things were lined up for the war to happen, and in the dog-eat-dog nature of this time it was a successful ruler who pounced on the weakness of another ruler. Clotilde was not new to the political scene of this time and would have received an education both from the tragic events of her youth and from having been in Clovis’s presence for nearly two decades. She would have known the geography and she would have known the general location of her threats, her stepson included. She would have had all sorts of intelligence indicating for her that now was the time, and as a mother wanting to set her children up for success, she likely would have pushed them to move fast and hard. She may even have used a little Catholic mother guilt to get the job done, but what I find extremely unlikely is that she simply cried and wailed due to her “ungovernable passions” in an attempt to get her kids to avenge the deaths of her parents some thirty years prior. To believe otherwise is to rob Clotilde of her agency, and she showed on multiple other occasions in Gregory’s writings that she was intelligent, pious and headstrong. If she wasn’t all of these things, she wouldn’t have had the success she had in bringing Clovis into the fold of Nicene Christianity. So let’s give her credit: whether the war in Burgundy was a good idea or not, she was able to spur it into existence for good reasons and as a result of sound logic, not her uncontrollable emotions.
OUTRO: Alright, so we have moved from the death of Clovis and the borders he was able to attain by 511, and we are now in two wars on two fronts in the middle of the 520s, both of which will serve to garner much more land for the Merovingian Dynasty. But at what cost? Wars are not cheap, and their outcomes are never as certain as the hawks would have you believe. Clotilde and Theuderic both have gotten what they asked for, but remember, be careful when you make a deal with the devil. You just might get what you asked for.
Before we go, I’d like to give a quick shout-out to Elon Musk – yes, that Elon Musk – for having taken the opportunity to blow up my Twitter feed last week. I sent out a small note in praise of the Age of Napoleon and several other great indie podcasts, and Elon waded into the conversation to let the world know that, in his words, “Age of Napoleon is excellent.” And he’s absolutely right! Anyway, the Tweet got over 1.3 million views, got a bunch of us some free publicity, and gave me hope for bigger and better things because now I know that a) Elon Musk sees my Tweets, b) he listens to and supports independent podcasts, and c) from the response to all of this, there is a huge appetite out there for just the kind of great material that myself and other podcasters work really hard to bring to you. So once again, thank you to Elon Musk for listening and reviewing, and congrats to the Age of Napoleon for having your hard work noticed!
Alright, 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 and be sure to sign up for the e-mail list so we can keep you up-to-date on new episodes and all things T+M. Speaking of email, you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can hit me on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (no “s” at the end, just one miracle for Twitter), you can leave a comment on Facebook at facebook.com/ThugsAndMiracles, and you can find us on Instagram as well at ThugsAndMiracles. More photos and stories are going up all the time.
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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.