• Ben

The Sons of Clovis - Part II

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

The Murder of the Nephews
This image of the murder of the nephews came from a chocolate bar wrapper!

Chlothar, Chlodomir and Childebert spent hours and days planning their strategy for the attack on Burgundy that their mother, Clotilde, had willed into existence. They had argued and fought over almost every aspect of their battle plan, and had nearly come to lethal violence with one another in determining who would lead the charge against the enemy kings Sigismund and Godomar. Each wanted the honor of riding in the vanguard, nominally to avenge the death of their grandparents, but more realistically because each wanted to be the first to lay claim to the rich prize that was the southern Kingdom that even their vaunted father Clovis had not been able to fully bring under his control.

As they rode into battle, all three of the Frankish kings had expected stiff resistance and to take numerous casualties. They were pleasantly surprised, therefore, when they rode into Burgundy and were met with only token resistance all the way up to the walls of Lyon and Vienne. They laid waste to all that was in their path and, almost as if there were something in the air, the common people of the kingdom of Burgundy turned and fled for their lives rather than resisting in the name of their kings. Almost everyone had heard the sordid rumors of how King Sigismund had wantonly killed his own son, the crown prince; this disgusting and cowardly act had lost for Sigismund the faith and love of his subjects. Given the choice of laying down their lives for a sovereign with no honor or fleeing to the south to live another day, almost all of them chose the latter option.

Sensing this toxic atmosphere and realizing that nothing he would do could turn the tide of battle in his favor, the younger of the Burgundian kings, Godomar, gathered what was left of his army and joined the commoners in fleeing to the south. Before he left, however, Godomar found his brother, Sigismund, and tried to talk sense into the older man: the day was lost and it was time to go! His entreaties fell on deaf ears; Sigismund’s hollowed out eyes were haunted, and it was obvious that the death of his son – a murder ordered by the father – had turned the once-proud King into a shell of a man. Godomar would ordinarily have stayed by his brother’s side to try and bring him out of his funk, but today was no ordinary day and time was short until the Frankish forces would be upon them to kill them all. Godomar grabbed his brother’s face, kissed his cheek, and then turned to make his escape. He knew he would never see Sigismund again.

Twenty minutes after Godomar began his retreat, Chlodomir stormed into the castle. He and his men found Sigismund along with a few members of his personal staff, his wife, and his sons, packing some belongings in a last-second attempt to make a dash to sanctuary at the shrine of St. Maurice. They were easily captured and taken as a prize by Chlodomir, who was overjoyed that he had beaten his brothers to this find. He ordered the king’s staff killed and had Sigismund and his family bound and sent back to the Kingdom of Orléans.

Their victory complete, Chlothar, Chlodomir and Childebert split the spoils of war (only after much bickering, of course) and hauled off a tidy haul of loot to each of their respective regions. However, each of the Frankish kings had done little, if anything, to earn the love or loyalty of those they conquered in Burgundy. Additionally, the cost of keeping troops in the field to hold this new-found treasure proved to be onerous, and none of three Kings wanted to deplete his treasury toward this end. As they reveled and bickered in the north, the common people began to return to their homeland and reestablish their lives. King Godomar also saw the chance to return, and gladly joined his people. He easily overwhelmed the minor hold force left by the Franks and reestablished himself in Burgundy - this time as the sole king.

Chlothar, Chlodomir and Childebert, finally pausing from their act as the original version of the Three Stooges for long enough to realize they just lost the Kingdom that they had only just won, reassembled their armies and prepared to ride back into battle for the second time. Of these three, Chlodomir retained possession of Sigismund and his family. He decided that he didn’t want to risk having a potential military commander to his rear, and rather than risking the chance of Sigismund escaping and leading a flanking force against him, Chlodomir called for the Burgundian king’s execution. Before this could happen, a local and renowned abbot named Avitus came to pity Sigismund and begged Chlodomir to re-think his decision by sharing a vision he had had. Avitus said to Chlodomir:

“If you would look to God and amend your counsel so as not to allow these men to be killed, God will be with you and you shall go and win the victory; but if you kill them you shall be surrendered yourself into the hands of your enemies and shall perish in the same way. And what you do to Sigismund and his wife and children shall be done to you and your wife and sons."

Chlodomir listened to the abbot, thought about his vision, and then responded:

“I think it is foolish advice to leave enemies at home and march against the rest, and when the former rise up in the rear and the latter in front I shall fall between two armies. The victory will be won better and more easily if one is separated from the other; if one is slain it will be possible to doom the others to death easily."

With this, the orders to kill Sigismund and his family were carried out. Remembering the stories he had been told on countless occasions by Queen Clotilde of how his grandmother, the former Burgundian Queen Caratena, had been drowned by being tied by the neck to a rock and thrown into the water, Chlodomir ordered the executions to take place in a non-traditional manner loaded with schadenfreude: rather than a swift and honorable beheading, the royal family was instead thrown into a well in the village of Columna and left to rot.

With this act, Chlodomir once again led his army in an attack on Burgundy. Once again the resistance in the kingdom was overwhelmed by the mighty Frankish army, and once again Godomar was forced to cede his territory in order to fight for it once more on a different day. As he turned to leave from the field, Godomar noticed Chlodomir and his retinue sitting slightly away from the main thrust of fighting, and on a whim he decided to see if he could goad this son of Clovis away from his men and into one-on-one combat. Godomar ordered his men to make a loud cry in Chlodomir’s direction, and the group made a dramatic show of turning to run from the field. Instead of leaving at a full stride, however, they only worked their horses up to a leisurely trot and allowed Chlodomir to believe that he had a chance to catch and capture them.

Godomar’s plan worked brilliantly. Seeing the slow-moving and cowardly king of the Burgundians turning to flee the battle, Chlodomir ordered his men to follow him in destroying once and for all this second and lesser Burgundian king whose father had so long ago wronged Chlodomir’s grandparents. He rode hard and fast for his target, excited by the chase and the chance for glory. He rode so fast that he outstripped his own men, and before long he found himself alone in the hunt for Godomar. Unfortunately, dusk began to fall before he could make contact with his enemy; Chlodomir cursed the darkness and gave up his pursuit, only to realize as he came out of his blood frenzy that he had lost his bearings and wasn’t entirely sure how to get back to his troops. Alone on the field, he could feel the panic starting to rise. It was then that he heard the rallying cry of his men; Chlodomir was so relieved that he rode to the call without noticing that he was headed to the south and east, even though his lines were to the north and west. He crested a small hill and entered into a field when his feelings of relief and reassurance at riding to his troops turned to panic and dread.

As soon as Chlodomir entered the field, Godomar and his men surrounded him from all sides. They had learned the Frankish king’s rallying cry and imitated it to perfection; now it was 20 well-armed and prepared men against one who was exposed and frightened. The fight lasted only a few seconds, and Chlodomir was de-horsed without laying a scratch on any of his assailants. The wind was knocked from him as he landed on the ground, and it was all he could do to breathe, much less fight back. He tried to sit up, but was suddenly knocked back to the earth with a weight on his chest: Godomar had his foot on his prize, enjoying the feeling only a gambler gets when he bets everything and wins. He savored his victory, but knew that he couldn’t do so for too long since Chlodomir’s men would be about to look for him shortly. Addressing his captive, he simply said, “I heard you threw my brother and his family down a well. For that, I will raise your head on a pike.” As soon as the last word left his mouth, Godomar drove his sword into Chlodomir’s chest and, good to his word, made quick work to relieve the king’s body of its head.

When Chlodomir’s men finally caught up with their sovereign, Godomar and his men were gone. All that remained was Chlodomir’s head, a grisly reminder of Abbot Avitus’s prediction that all that he had done to Sigismund would be done to him and to his sons.

This is Thugs and Miracles. Episode Ten: The Sons of Clovis – Part II.

Alright, welcome back to this tenth episode of Thugs and Miracles. As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to explore the Frankish war in Burgundy and the fallout from the death of Clovis and Clotilde’s son Chlodomir. Remember, this war may have been fought by Clovis’s boys, but it was instigated for any number of reasons by the great king’s wife. In the end, it would be her who would experience, more than almost anyone else who survived to a natural death in our history, the truly vicious and zero-sum game nature of this first half of the 6th century.

Looking at our extended opener, dramatic effects aside, this is pretty much the story that has been passed down to us regarding the first two attempts to capture Burgundy. As Charles Oman put it: “The four brother kings [of Clovis] were all worthy sons of their wicked father; daring, unscrupulous men of war, destitute of natural affection, cruel, lustful and treacherous.” They were not, among the other attributes ascribed to them, strategic thinkers who were able to see the long-term impacts of their actions – or inaction, as was the case in failing to more adequately fortify the Burgundy region after taking it in battle the first time. This lack of foresight led to bad alliances, such as that between Theuderic and Hermenafrid in Thuringia, continual sniping and infighting between the brothers, and raid after raid into an area that could have likely been brought to heel and kept under control if the battle plans had been more thoroughly contemplated. As we’ll see, all of these themes were doomed to be repeated over and over again.

So let’s look at Chlodomir. This oldest son of Clotilde and Clovis to survive infancy was born in 495, making him just shy of 30 years old when he would have been waging war in Burgundy. He had been granted the region of Orléans following his father’s death in 511, and had gone on to marry a woman named Guntheuca in 517. Long story short, Guntheuca had been the granddaughter of the Burgundian King Godegeisel, the King murdered in Vienne after Clovis allowed Gundobad to escape the siege of Avignon way back in Episode Six. Godegeisel was Chlodomir’s great-uncle, hence making the husband and wife first cousins once removed. Together they produced three boys, Theodebald, Gunthar, and Clodoald. Now keep in mind, assuming Guntheuca and Chlodomir got pregnant almost immediately and she had her baby on time, that means the oldest child from their union would have been born in 518 and would have been no older than six at the time of Chlodomir’s death in 524. This becomes particularly important in just a moment.

Now, different versions of the history of the Battle of Vézeronce describe the events of the battle on that June day in 524 differently. Our old friend Gregory, the Bishop of Tours, provided the fodder that became the intro for today’s episode by claiming that Chlodomir was killed while chasing down Godomar after routing him and his forces and then getting separated from his men. Other sources simply indicate that he was killed in the course of the battle. Either way, the result of Chlodomir’s death seems to be that while the Franks were successful in winning the battle on this second excursion into Burgundy, they once again lost focus after their victory. According to Ryan Patrick Crisp:

“The Franks are still reported to have completed the conquest of the Burgundian kingdom, although Godomar took back the kingdom a short while later. The death of Chlodomir had immediate ramifications for the Frankish kingdom. Chlothar married his widow, Guntheuca, perhaps in a bid to gain control over his kingdom, but it appears that Clotilde stepped in and protected Chlodomir’s sons. She planned to raise them until they came of age, at which point they were to inherit Chlodomir’s [kingdom].”

Basically, in the middle of all of this fighting and the second full invasion of a foreign enemy, the remaining Merovingian kings did not immediately mourn the loss of their brother and band together to avenge him. Rather, they realized that they now had the chance to split Chlodomir’s land up and claim additional territory for themselves essentially for free. They seem to have more or less forgotten about Burgundy – again – once a more pressing political issue rose to the surface. I bring this up to indicate how, contrary to the idea of Clotilde’s boys obeying their mother’s words and running to battle in the south as some form of revenge for their dead grandparents, almost every decision made at this time was done so from the standpoint of harsh real-world considerations. Simply put, when given the choice between expanding their holdings by dividing the holdings of their dead brother or by staying at war, Chlothar and Childebert couldn’t get back north fast enough.

Their eagerness was tempered somewhat by the fact that their mother took in Chlodomir’s children, their nephews, and planned on raising them to take the seat vacated by their father. This turn of events would have stopped most people from their machinations of plundering their dead brother’s lands; after all, even if brotherly love didn’t stop their scheming, certainly their love for their mother would be enough to get them to respect her wishes for her grandchildren and their nephews, right? Well… no, absolutely not. Chlothar and Childebert saw ungoverned land ripe for the taking, and in turn they pushed the concept of realpolitik to just about its breaking point in one of the most infamous power moves of all time. From Gregory:

“While Queen Clotilde was staying at Paris, Childebert saw that his mother loved with especial affection the sons of Chlodomir, whom we have mentioned above, and being envious and fearful that they would have a share in the kingdom through the favor of the queen, he sent secretly to his brother king Chlothar, saying: "Our mother keeps our brother's sons with her, and wishes them to be kings. You must come swiftly to Paris, where we will take counsel together and discuss what ought to be done about them, whether their hair shall be cut and they be treated like the rest of the common people, or whether we shall kill them and divide our brother's kingdom between ourselves equally." And Chlothar was very glad at these words, and came to Paris. Now Childebert had spread the report among the people that the kings were meeting for the purpose of raising the little ones to the throne. And when they met, they sent to the queen, who was then dwelling in the city, saying: "Send the little ones to us, that they may be raised to the throne." And she rejoiced, not knowing their treachery, and giving the boys food and drink, she sent them saying: "I shall not think that I have lost my son, if I see you occupy his place in the kingdom." And they went, and were seized at once, and were separated from their servants and tutors, and they were guarded separately, in one place the servants, in another these little ones. Then Childebert and Chlothar sent Arcadius…to the queen, with a pair of scissors and a naked sword. And coming he showed both to the queen, and said: "Most glorious queen, your sons, our masters, ask your decision as to what you think ought to be done with the boys, whether you give command for them to live with shorn hair, or for both to be put to death." She was terrified by the news and at the same time enraged, especially when she saw the naked sword and the scissors, and being overcome with bitterness, and not knowing in her grief what she was saying, she said imprudently: "It is better for me to see them dead rather than shorn, if they are not raised to the kingship." But he wondered little at her grief, and did not think what she would say later in less haste, but went swiftly, taking the news and saying: "Finish the task you have begun with the queen's favor; for she wishes your design to be accomplished." There was no delay. Chlothar seized the older boy by the arm, and dashed him to the earth, and plunging his hunting knife into his side, he killed him pitilessly. And while the child was screaming, his brother threw himself at Childebert's feet and seized his knees and said: "Help me, kind father, lest I perish like my brother." Then Childebert, his face covered with tears, said: "Dearest brother, I ask you to grant his life to me in your generosity, and let me pay for his life what you wish, only let him not be killed." But the other attacked him with abuse, and said: "Cast him from you, or you shall surely die in his place. It is you," said he, "that are the guilty instigator of this matter. Do you so easily break faith?" Childebert heeded this and cast the boy away from him to the other, who seized him and plunged his knife into his side and slew him as he had his brother before: then they killed the servants and the tutors. When they were killed Chlothar mounted his horse and went off, making a small matter of the killing of his nephews. And Childebert retired to the outskirts of the city. And the queen placed their little bodies on a bier and followed them to the church of St. Peter with loud singing and unbounded grief, and buried them side by side. One was ten years old, the other seven. But the third, Clodoald, they were unable to seize, since he was freed by the aid of brave men. He gave up his earthly kingdom and passed to the Lord's service, and cutting his hair with his own hand he became a clerk, busied with good works, and as a priest passed from this life. The two kings divided equally between them the kingdom of Chlodomir.”

That’s about as treacherous as you can get, in my opinion at least. Exploiting your mother’s love and good faith to get control of your dead brother’s children, putting her on the spot to consider whether she would rather have the boys robbed of their birthright or executed, and then carrying out the murder of the two kids who look at you as a father figure while they scream and cry in shock, pain, fear and disbelief? I mean, holy brutal… I understand that mindsets are much different now than they were back then, but I can’t help but wonder if Childebert, as he “retired to the outskirts of the city,” was able to sleep without seeing the face of the boy he handed over to Chlothar to be stabbed. And Chlothar: what does it tell us about him that he’d be able to commit such an act and then simply mount his horse and ride off, “making a small matter of the killing of his nephews”? Finally, what about Clotilde in this whole scenario? Most of the sources gloss over her reaction to the actual murder of the boys. Gregory says that she lived in grace at the Shrine of St. Martin in Tours and lived a pious life following this whole incident, handing out alms and giving support to various dioceses by bestowing lands and estates to them, and I don’t doubt that she very well could have been quiet as to politics in her later years. After all, she had just seen her own sons trick her in order to stab her grandchildren to death. Plus, she gave them the go-ahead to do it when she claimed she would rather see the boys dead than shorn. Did she think she was calling their bluff? Did she regret saying these words the moment Arcadius left her presence? How badly broken was she when she learned that the act had been accomplished?

In the end, Chlodomir suffered the fate foretold for him by the Abbott Avitus when he killed Sigismund and his family. He ended up with his head on a pike, his boys were brutally cut down, and his wife married his brother, the man who would then go slaughter his children. Who knows, maybe Gregory just wrote the part about Avitus into his Histories for dramatic effect as a warning against murdering unarmed people who pose no threat. Maybe Chlodomir’s kids would have died anyway once his Kingdom went up for grabs. Or maybe it was just a good guess on Avitus’s part as to what would happen to Chlodomir. Personally, I think that each of these “maybes” carries a bit of truth with it. What’s for certain is that, in this early part of the 6th century, the Kings of the Franks were fighting for more than just glory and honor; if they died in battle, they could reasonably expect their whole family to join them in the afterlife in short order.

CONCLUSION/NEXT EPISODE: Alright, so from four brothers we are now down to three, and we can clearly see just how brutal the competition of monarchy was back in the early stages of the Merovingian Dynasty. Not only did a person need to be born to the right people, he also had to be strong and lucky to survive into manhood, smart enough to avoid getting killed in battle once he was finally a king, and then long-lived enough that he could have some amount of say in his succession. And at all times in this process, there would always be someone looking to benefit from his death; simple math dictates that less people splitting a kingdom makes for larger shares of that kingdom. So, would any of Clovis’s boys ever attain their father’s rank as the sole King of the Franks? We’ll have to wait and find out in our next episode. But before we leave, let’s take a moment and to say bon voyage to one of the people from today’s episode who won’t be returning to our story in any significant way in the future.

BON VOYAGE: Today we say goodbye to Clodoald, better known as Saint Cloud, or for purposes of our story, the one that got away. Cloud had been born somewhere around 520-522, meaning that this youngest child of Chlodomir would have been somewhere in the range of 3-6 years old when his dad died and his uncles came to destroy him and his older brothers, Theodebald and Gunthar. We already know from our earlier story what happened to those two boys, but we lost sight of Cloud. In all of the mess surrounding the execution of his brothers, someone apparently decided to pity this young boy and sneak him away from his uncles; we have no idea who this was, besides some “brave men” as mentioned by Gregory. Given that Clothar’s actions during this time meet many of the indicators of a being a true psychopath, whoever decided to put his life on the line to smuggle a five-year-old to safety would have indeed been pretty brave.

According to Saint Cloud’s biography from the Dicose of Saint Cloud, the young boy was brought to “sanctuary with Saint Remigius, the Bishop of Rheims, located a short distance from Paris… Cloud grew from childhood into young manhood under the guidance and protection of the holy bishop and his sainted grandmother.” If you remember, Remigius was the bishop who anointed Clovis the King of the Franks and a Nicene Christian, along with a little help from Queen Clotilde. Given his role in the Merovingian Dynasty and his ties to the Queen Mother, having the boy taken into the protection of Remigius has a certain logical ring to it. Not much is known about how Cloud spent his adolescence, but he eventually found his way into the service of Saint Severin, a hermit. This part really made sense to me, as I can see such an early and brutal trauma leaving a permanent emotional scar on pretty much anybody. If I were a Merovingian and I didn’t want to fight for the crown by stabbing my entire family to death, I’d take to the woods as well.

Speaking of not fighting for the crown, Cloud went a step further to ensure that his uncles knew, in no uncertain terms, that he was absolutely no threat to them as a potential king-in-hiding. Again according to the Diocese:

“At the age of 20, Saint Cloud left his hermitage, appeared before the Bishop of Paris surrounded by religious and civic leaders and members of the royal family — his royal family. Remember, Cloud was a prince and heir to the throne! He clothed himself in royal robes and carried a scissors in one hand and a coarse garment in the other. He offered the coarse garment to the bishop who clothed him with it as a symbol of his preferred “spiritual” rather than “material” riches. With the scissors, the bishop cut Cloud’s long hair, which was a symbol of his royalty.”

It appears that this act finally got his uncles off of his case. By going out, quite literally in front of God and everybody, and setting aside his royal robes in preference of a coarse garment and then letting the Bishop remove the hair that marked him as royalty of the Merovingian line, Cloud made it perfectly clear that he was a man of God and nothing more. He left the church and walked off into the countryside. But of course, Cloud was reasonably well-known, what with being the Crown Prince who walked away and all. He was sought out by people, and soon he developed a reputation as a divine healer. He attracted more and more attention, and eventually fled to a monastery in Provence where he lived for some time. Honestly, as I did the research for this, I couldn’t help but think of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the main characters constant attempts to evade his followers only resulting in more people following him; this is pretty much what happened to Saint Cloud. Anyway, after some time Cloud decided to return to Paris; it was then that he was ordained as a priest. Apparently, the people liked him as a monk and wanted him to have all of the authority that came along with being a full-fledged priest, namely the sharing of communion. He was ordained in 551 by Eusebius, the Bishop of Paris, and stayed in the city for some time. Cloud being who he was, however, he began to draw crowds again, and once again, he left to find a quieter place in which to be alone with God.

Cloud settled in the village of Nogent-sur-Seine near Versailles and quickly drew followers. According to his biography:

“Saint Cloud used his gifts of healing, counseling, preaching and celebrating the Eucharist in ministry to the people. As time passed, the uncles of Saint Cloud repented of their sin and reconciled themselves with their nephew. They, in turn, restored many castles, estates and lands to Cloud. As a hermit, he sold some of these properties and distributed his wealth to the poor. He received permission from the Bishop Eusebius to use a small portion of that wealth to build a church with his own hands, and he dedicated it to Saint Martin of Tours.”

In this location Cloud seemed to have at last found peace. He spent the last seven years of his life in this community, dying on 7 September 560 at age 38. As with Saint Genevieve and the Church of the Holy Apostles, so many people came to associate Cloud with this town that it eventually took on his name. The village of Saint Cloud is a suburb of Paris to this day, and the relics of the Saint Cloud still rest in the Église Saint-Clodoald.

OUTRO: 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 check out the site and sign up for the e-mail list so we can keep you up-to-date on all things T+M. Speaking of email, you can write to us at thugsandmiracles@gmail.com, you can hit us on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle, with no “s” at the end, or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Instagram at ThugsAndMiracles. Finally, if you enjoyed the show, I ask you to keep spreading the word! Your word-of-mouth does more than anything else to allow the show to grow. If you want to go a step further, leaving a review on whichever platform you get your podcasts is awesome and would really get this new decade started off right!

Alright, 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.