How Clovis Created a Basis for French National Identity in the 5th and 6th Centuries

History Hit

4 mins

27 Nov 2017

On the 27 November 511, Clovis died. His name meant “fame in combat,” and he would expand the land of the Franks to encompass almost all of the modern territory of France, with the notable exception of Burgundy.

After crushing the last remnant of the Western Roman Empire, Clovis achieved religious unity across his lands by converting his people to Christianity.

From his line of kings would come Charlemagne, and no fewer than 18 rulers bearing the Latinised form of his name, Louis.

Over the course of the 5th century, Roman rule in the west gradually fell apart. Forced to abandon Britain in 410, Gaul, which broadly encompasses the territory of modern France, was lost piece by piece to Germanic invaders as the years took their toll on the decaying Empire.

Many of these invaders were Franks, a loose confederation of tribes who sought rich and fertile land in Gaul.

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Kingdom of Soissons

By the 460s, the only area of Roman control left in the area was the Kingdom of Soissons, an area in northern France and western Germany where the old legions had gathered to preserve a fraction of the Empire.

Both Clovis and his father Childeric are thought to have served in Rome’s last armies. Surrounded by enemies, this rump state employed Frankish tribes as mercenaries in order to secure their borders.

Sepulchre of Clovis 1st at the Cathedral of Saint-Denis near Paris. Credit: Arnaud25 / Commons.

Clovis is thought to have been born around 466 into the tribe of the Salian Franks, who occupied the area on the modern border between France and Belgium.

The Salian Franks split further, and the first King of one of these new branches was Clovis’ grandfather Merovech.

King was a grandiose term for what was essentially the chieftain of a tribal grouping, but Merovech’s son Childeric provided assistance to Aegidius, the Roman ruler of Soissons, and was part of an army which defeated an invading force of Visigoths at the battle of Orleans in 463.

Childeric was a solid and capable ruler, but his ambitions were largely confined to his own tiny kingdom. When his son Clovis succeeded the throne in 482, the fortunes of the Salian Franks would change dramatically.

Salian Kingdoms in 481 and conquests of Clovis until 511. Credit: Altaileopard / Commons.

Firstly, he united his tribe, and the Romans in Soissons were sufficiently impressed to grant the young Frank a senior command despite him being a pagan barbarian.

After a few years of rule, Clovis turned on his employers and waged a vicious war against them, culminating in the climactic Battle of Soissons in 486.

With victory, the last Roman kingdom crumbled, and the twenty year old Clovis was considered a rising force in the region. The next years were a whirlwind.

Aware that he had youth and momentum behind him, Clovis lead lightning campaigns against rival Frankish Kings Ragnachar and Characic, and absorbed their lands and warriors.

Battle of Tolbiac, 496. Credit: Palace of Versailles / Commons.

With the northern Franks now on his side the King turned his gaze to foreign threats, and crushed the Germanic Thuringians and Burgundians in decisive battles.

The zenith of his military career came at Vouille in 507, when he smashed an army of Visigoths, another Germanic tribe who had occupied the south of France and Spain, and claimed the southern part of Gaul.

After victory over the Alamanni tribe at the Battle of Tolbiac in 496, Clovis gained control of a small Roman town called Paris, and seeing its central and valuable strategic location, he decided to make it the capital of his growing lands.

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Conversion to Christianity

That year, thanks to the pleading of his wife Clotilde, and the knowledge that the vast majority of his subjects were Christian, the King of the Franks converted.

Clovis and Clotilde by Antoine-Jean Gros. Credit: Petit Palais / Commons.

To celebrate this, he built a great abbey in his new capital, a powerful symbol of religious Frankish unity.

The various Frankish tribes followed a idiosyncratic collection of Christian or pagan sects, but the force of Clovis’ character and royal authority made sure that many converted to Catholicism, especially after being aided by the Catholic lords of southern Gaul in later campaigns.

With religious identity and a new Frankish capital sorted out, Clovis focused on the law.

Unlike many “barbarian” leaders he recognised the benefits of what the Romans had left behind, and his legal code the Lex Salica offered an intriguing blend of Roman laws and traditional Salian Frankish teachings on morality.

This was an immensely important moment in European history, as for the first time a kingdom had risen out of the ashes of Rome and created its own systems of law and government.

Ivory binding plate, Reims, last quarter of the ninth century. The baptism of Clovis by Saint Remy with the miracle of the Holy Bulb. Credit: Museum of Picardy in Amiens / Commons.

“Salic law,” as it became known, would endure for centuries after the death of its creator, and as late as 1890 the kingdom of the Netherlands and the duchy of Luxembourg split over a disagreement involving a clause in the laws created by Clovis on the matter of succession to the throne.

Clovis was just 45 when he died, but by 511 he had shown that Europe had a future beyond the remnants of Roman power, and many French people today salute him as a founding father.

Header image credit: Clovis 1st King of the Franks (465-511) as painted by François-Louis Dejuinne (1786-1844).

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