Clovis I

Clovis I

[kloh-vis; Fr. klaw-vees]
Clovis I, c.466-511, Frankish king (481-511), son of Childeric I and founder of the Merovingian monarchy. Originally little more than a tribal chieftain, he became sole leader of the Salian Franks by force of perseverance and by murdering a number of relatives. In 486 he defeated the Roman legions under Syagrius at Soissons, virtually ending Roman domination over Gaul. He then subdued the Thuringians. After his marriage (493) to the Burgundian princess Clotilda, a Catholic, he had his children baptized but was not immediately converted himself. He is said to have invoked the Christian God while locked in battle with the Alemanni in the late 490s. He defeated them and two years later converted, having been persuaded by Clotilda and St. Remi (also known as Remigius), bishop of Reims, who baptized him, reputedly along with 3,000 supporters. Thereafter Clovis was the champion of orthodox Christianity against the Arian heretics, the Burgundians, and the Visigoths. He attacked the Burgundians (500) at Dijon and the Visigoths (507) under Alaric II at Vouillé. When he died, he was master of most of Gaul—except Burgundy, Gascony, Provence, and Septimania—and of SW Germany. Shortly before his death he probably had the Salian Law revised and put into writing. Clovis united all Franks under his rule, gained the support of the Gallic clergy, made Paris his base of operations, and extended his conquests into Germany. He thus laid the foundation, which even 400 years of chaos and misrule could not destroy, of the French monarchy and foreshadowed the conquests of Charlemagne. He was succeeded by his four sons, Theodoric I, Clodomir, Childebert I, and Clotaire I.

See the history of Gregory of Tours; F. Lot, The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages (1927; tr. 1953, repr. 1961); E. James, The Origins of France: Clovis and the Capetians, A.D. 500-1000 (1982); P. J. Geary Before France and Germany (1988).

Clovis I (c. 466 – 27 November 511) was the first King of the Franks to unite all the Frankish tribes under one ruler. He succeeded his father Childeric I in 481 as King of the Salian Franks, one of the Frankish tribes who were then occupying the area west of the lower Rhine, with their centre around Tournai and Cambrai along the modern frontier between France and Belgium, in an area known as Toxandria. Clovis conquered the neighbouring Frankish tribes and established himself as sole king before his death.

He converted to Roman Catholicism, as opposed to the Arianism common among the Germanic peoples at the time, at the instigation of his wife, the Burgundian Clotilda, a Catholic. He was baptized in the Cathedral of Rheims, as most future French kings would be. This act was of immense importance in the subsequent history of Western and Central Europe in general, for Clovis expanded his dominion over almost all of the old Roman province of Gaul (roughly modern France). He is considered the founder of the Merovingian dynasty which ruled the Franks for the next two centuries.


In primary sources Clovis' name is spelled in a number of variants: The Frankish form Chlodovech was Latinised as Chlodovechus, from which came the Latin name Ludovicus, which evolved into the French name Louis.

The name features prominently in subsequent history: Three other Merovingian Kings have been called Clovis, while nine Carolingian rulers and thirteen other French kings and one Holy Roman Emperor have been called Louis.

Nearly every European language has developed its own spelling of his name. Louis (French), "Chlodwig" and Ludwig (German), Lodewijk (Dutch), Luis (Spanish), Luigi (Italian), and Lewis (English) are just six of the over 100 possible variations.

Scholars differ about the exact meaning of his (first)name. Most believe that Chlodovech is composed out of the Germanic roots Chlod- and -vech. Chlod- = (modern English) loud, with its oldest connotation praised. -vech = fighter (modern English). Compare in modern Dutch luid (hard sound or noise), luiden (verb - the oldest meaning is : to praise aloud) and vechten (verb - to fight). Chlodovech means praised fighter .

Frankish consolidation

In 486, with the help of Ragnachar, Clovis defeated Syagrius, the last Roman official in northern Gaul, who ruled the area around Soissons in present-day Picardie. This victory at Soissons extended Frankish rule to most of the area north of the Loire. After this, Clovis secured an alliance with the Ostrogoths through the marriage of his sister Audofleda to their king, Theodoric the Great. He followed this victory with another in 491 over a small group of Thuringians east of the Frankish territories. Later, with the help of the other Frankish sub-kings, he narrowly defeated the Alamanni in the Battle of Tolbiac. He had previously married the Christian Burgundian princess Clotilde (493), and, following his victory at Tolbiac (traditionally set in 496), he converted to her Trinitarian Catholic faith. This set Clovis apart from the other Germanic kings of his time, such as those of the Visigoths and the Vandals, who had converted from heathen beliefs to Arian Christianity.

Christian king

The conversion of Clovis to Catholic Christianity, the religion of the majority of his subjects, strengthened the bonds between his Roman subjects, led by their Catholic bishops, and their Germanic conquerors. Nevertheless, Bernard Bachrach has argued that this conversion from his Frankish paganism alienated many of the other Frankish sub-kings and weakened his military position over the next few years. William Daly, in order more directly to assess Clovis' allegedly barbaric and pagan origins, was obliged to ignore the bishop Saint Gregory of Tours and base his account on the scant earlier sources, a sixth-century "vita" of Saint Genevieve and letters to or concerning Clovis from bishops and Theodoric.

In the familiar literary convention called "interpretatio romana," Gregory of Tours gave the gods that Clovis abandoned the names of roughly equivalent Roman gods, such as Jupiter and Mercury. Taken literally, such usage would suggest a strong affinity of early Frankish rulers for the prestige of Roman culture, which they may have embraced as allies and federates of the Empire during the previous century.

Though he fought a battle at Dijon in the year 500, Clovis did not successfully subdue the Burgundian kingdom. It appears that he somehow gained the support of the Arvernians in the following years, for they assisted him in his defeat of the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse in the Battle of Vouillé (507) which eliminated Visigothic power in Gaul and confined the Visigoths to Hispania; the battle added most of Aquitaine to Clovis' kingdom. He then established Paris as his capital, and established an abbey dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul on the south bank of the Seine. Later it was renamed Sainte-Geneviève Abbey, in honor of the patron saint of Paris.

According to Gregory of Tours, following the Battle of Vouillé, the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, granted Clovis the title of consul. Since Clovis' name does not appear in the consular lists, it is likely he was granted a suffect consulship. Gregory also records Clovis' systematic campaigns following his victory in Vouillé to eliminate the other Frankish "reguli" or sub-kings. These included Sigobert the Lame and his son Chlodoric the Parricide; Chararic, another king of the Salian Franks; Ragnachar of Cambrai, his brother Ricchar, and their brother Rignomer of Le Mans. Shortly before his death, Clovis called a synod of Gallic bishops to meet in Orléans to reform the church and create a strong link between the Crown and the Catholic episcopate. This was the First Council of Orléans.

Death and succession

Clovis I died in 511 and is interred in Saint Denis Basilica, Paris, where his father had been buried with the older Merovingian kings in Tournai. Upon his death his realm was divided among his four sons: Theuderic, Chlodomer, Childebert, and Clotaire. This partitioning created the new political units of the Kingdoms of Rheims, Orléans, Paris and Soissons and inaugurated a period of disunity which was to last, with brief interruptions, until the end (751) of his Merovingian dynasty.


The legacy of Clovis is well-established on three heads: his unification of the Frankish nation, his conquest of Gaul, and his conversion to the Roman Catholic Faith. By the first act, he assured the influence of his people in wider affairs, something no petty regional king could accomplish. By the second act, he laid the foundations of a later nation-state: France. Finally, by the third act, he made himself the ally of the papacy and its protector as well as that of the people, who were mostly Catholics.

Detracting, perhaps, from these acts of more than just national importance, his division of the state, not along national or even largely geographical lines, but primarily to assure equal income amongst his sons on his death, which may or may not have been his intention, was the cause of much internal discord in Gaul and contributed in the long run to the fall of his dynasty, for it was a pattern constantly repeated. Clovis did bequeath to his heirs the support of both people and church such that, when finally the magnates were ready to do away with the royal house, the sanction of the pope was sought first.



  • Daly, William M., "Clovis: How Barbaric, How Pagan?" Speculum 69.3 (July 1994, pp. 619-664.
  • James, Edward. The Origins of France: Clovis to the Capetians 500-1000. Macmillan, 1982.
  • Kaiser, Reinhold. Das römische Erbe und das Merowingerreich. München 2004. (Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte 26)
  • Oman, Charles. The Dark Ages 476-918. Rivingtons: London, 1914.
  • Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. The Long-haired Kings. London, 1962.
  • The Oxford Merovingian Page

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