Clovis I - King of the francs (482-511)

Clovis I - King of the francs (482-511)

Clovis I, king of francs, is the most illustrious of merovingians. At the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, this grandson of the legendary king Merovée seized almost all of Roman Gaul. To consolidate his authority over his immense domain, he skillfully entered into an alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, the only institution to have survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Putting the conquering Franks and the Gallo-Romans on an equal footing, Clovis made of these two peoples a single nation: the Regnum francorum, the kingdom of francs. Thehistory of francs, written a century later by Gregory of Tours, is one of the few sources on the reign of Clovis that we have.

Gaul before the reign of Clovis

The end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 marked the beginning of the Middle Ages in historiography. However, we now know that the transition was much longer, and the mutations complex, far from the cliché of the "barbarian invasions" that would have swept Rome in a few decades.

The so-called "barbarian" peoples have been established in the Empire for a long time now, to varying degrees and in various forms. Historiography today speaks of ethnogenesis to explain the "fusion" between the Gallo-Roman population and the Barbarians. The latter, when they entered Gaul in the 5th century, were already familiar with Roman civilization, with which they would create new peoples. Germanic peoples were present in Gaul from the beginning of the 5th century, following the heavy problems experienced by the Empire at that time (sack of Rome in 410,…). The Visigoths cross it to settle in Aquitaine and Spain.

Then, it was the Burgundians who settled around Lyon and Geneva. Those that we only started at the end of the century to call “Franks” (in particular the future “Saliens”), meanwhile, crossed the Rhine and appeared in Gaul a little later, despite the ephemeral capture of Cambrai by King Clodion; they are thus repelled by the master of the militia Aetius and the future Majorian emperor in 448. This allows all the same to get to know the Franks a little, their king Clodion therefore, his son Mérovée and the son of the latter Childeric I. However, it would seem that there were many other Frankish kings and that none of them succeeded in unifying the different Frankish peoples, until Clovis. This prevents them from moving south for a long time.

It must be emphasized that these peoples end up settling in the long term, and that their relations with the Gallo-Romans are far from bad. In addition, their leaders signed treaties with Rome, or with local Roman generals, increasingly independent of the central imperial power. All, Gallo-Romans and "federated" barbarians, defend Gaul against the threat of the Huns of Attila, defeated in 451 at the Champs Catalauniques.

Twenty-five later, the fall of Romulus Augustule ultimately had little direct impact on Gaul. It was then divided between, to the south, the powerful Visigothic kingdom which extended from Spain to the Loire; to the east, along the Rhône, the Burgundians; in the far north, on each side of the Meuse, Salien Francs and Rhine Francs. Finally, stuck in the middle, between the Loire and Soissons, a “Roman royalty” led by Syagrius. It is the latter that Clovis will face.

The conquests of Clovis

When he succeeded his father Childeric in 482 (or 481), the king of the Salian francs had to assert himself like any barbarian leader in the face of his rivals. The best way is obviously conquest. He is not bothered by the Rhenish, too busy with the Alamans, but on the other hand it is not clear how the Frankish king sidelines the others, in particular the powerful Saliens established near Cambrai. In any case, Clovis manages to organize himself to attack the Somme valley fairly soon after his accession. He thus defeated Syagrius in Soissons around 486, the Roman leader having to take refuge with the Visigoths of Alaric II (who delivered him to the Frank shortly after). It was during the famous episode of the "Soissons vase" that Clovis asserted his authority, but also announced his future rapprochement with the Gallic Church.

Clovis then began a great policy of alliance with the powers of the region, in particular Ostrogoth Theodoric, to whom he married his sister Audoflède. He even went further by forging links with the Roman emperors of the East Zeno, then Anastasius, of whom he wanted to be a legitimate representative. It was at the same time that he married for a second time Clotilde, niece of the King of Burgundy.

Around 500, dynastic quarrels gave him the opportunity to intervene in the neighboring Burgundian kingdom. King Burgande Gondebaud eliminated the entire family of Queen Clotilde. Defeated near Dijon, besieged in Avignon, he must resign himself to paying tribute to Clovis and becomes his vassal. The Frankish sovereign continued his conquests: at the turn of the 6th century, he dismissed the Alamans at the battle of Tolbiac, and took the opportunity to submit the Rhine Franks.

Then, he turns to his great rivals in the South, the Visigoths; he must then calm his ardor in the face of threats from Theodoric, recently allied to Alaric II. This is only partly postponed: in 507, allied with the Burgundians, he attacked the Visigoth kingdom and defeated Alaric II in Vouillé. This decisive victory, where his rival is killed, allows him to reach Toulouse. subsequently, Clovis seized Aquitaine. At the same time, to counter the expansion of the Franc, the Ostrogoth Theodoric gets his hands on Provence. In 508, Clovis was officially recognized by Emperor Anastasius, who made him consul, further proof of the close links between the Barbarians and the Empire ...

The consolidation of the Frankish kingdom

As its territory has grown considerably, Clovis needs to organize it to better control it. He settled in Paris, which he made his capital (around 508), in particular because of the links between Saint Geneviève and her father Childeric. This does not prevent what is not yet called the court from remaining itinerant long afterwards. In an authoritarian, even violent manner, Clovis dismisses all his rivals, including within his family. He executed the king of the ripuaries, then that of Cambrai, unifying all the Frankish tribes. Towards the end of his reign, he controlled three quarters of Gaul, and only the Rhône valley and the Mediterranean facade escaped from his control.

With regard to the populations, he left their legislation to the Gallo-Romans while the Germanic peoples present there also kept the rules imposed by Rome on their allies in Gaul. In the same logic, the Franks, whether Saliens or Rhenans, also retain the Salic law and their traditions.

The baptism of Clovis and his warriors by the Bishop of Reims Remi on December 25 (probably after 500) allows him to be confirmed the support of the bishops of Gaul. In this area, Clovis respects the imperial tradition, and convokes a council in Orleans shortly before his death. The emperor, in the line of Constantine, remains the one who dictates the canons of the Church. On the other hand, the Frankish episcopate is already beginning to claim relative autonomy in certain areas.

The sons of Clovis, first "kings of the Franks"

Clovis died on November 27, 511. The first "rex francorum", a title taken up by his successors, is buried in the abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris (on the current site of the Lycée Henri-IV). In any case, the succession is not easy. Under the pressure of Clotilde, who refuses that Thierry, who is not her son, is the only successor of Clovis, the immense kingdom of the latter is shared between Childebert (current Normandy, to Paris), Clotaire (the North of Gaul), Clodomir (the Loire Valley) and therefore Thierry (the Rhine region). The fate of Aquitaine is more unclear, as its situation quickly became more complicated after its conquest.

This division does not, however, weaken Frankish power over Gaul. On the contrary, the expansion will continue ...


- G. Bührer-Thierry, C. Mériaux, France before France (481-888), Belin, 2010.

- By georges Bordonove, Clovis and the Merovingians. Pygmalion, 2009

- The History of the Frankish Kings, of Saint Grégoire de Tours. History Folio, 2011.

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