The Life of Saint Clotildis, Queen of the Franks, by A Secular Priest

painted and gilded stone, glass and enamel scuplture of Saint Clotilde; Eugène Guillaume, sculptor, Alexandre Denuelle, painter, 1854; Church of Saint Clothilde, Paris, France; photographed on 17 June 2018 by Ibex73; swiped from Wikimedia Commons“The best things that the best believe
Are in her face so brightly writ,
The faithless, seeing her, conceive
Not only Heaven, but hope of it.”

Chapter 1 – Rise of the Franks – Clovis is their chief – Saint Remi – Clovis marries Clotildis of Burgundy – Her narrow escape

The cradle of the German tribe celebrated in history as the Franks, or the Freemen, lay to the east of the Rhine, in the country bounded by the Maine and the Weser, and now divided into Nassau, Hesse-Cassel, Westphalia, and part of Hanover. Two centuries and a half after Christ, they are found making frequent excursions across the Rhine, partly in search of plunder, partly of adventure. The Roman governors of Gaul had enough to do to keep them at bay, and were often glad to bargain for their services, as an advanced guard along the Rhine, to oppose the savage tribes lying to the eastward, the Vandals, the Goths, and the Huns. These hordes at length grew irrepressible, and the Franks were gradually pushed westwards before them. The last part of Gaul that remained in possession of the Romans lay to the north of the river Loire, between the Rhine and the German ocean. To the south of the Loire the rising kingdom of Burgundy occupied the eastern part, and the Gothic tribes the western and southern parts of modern France and the Mediterranean shore.

The German tribe of the Franks by degrees overran the whole of the country between the Rhine and the Atlantic, and gave the name of France to the ancient Gallia of the Romans. As a race, however, they seem to have been chiefly confined to the modern countries of Holland and Belgium, and that part of France lying to the north of the Loire. Their other possessions, to the south of that river, partook more of the nature of a military occupation. As a race, they never fully absorbed into their own, the incongruous tribes, which were forced to yield to their arms.

The transition of the Franks from a predatory tribe into a rising nation must be assigned to the period of Clovis I, the founder of what is called the Merovingian race of kings, from their military eminence, towards the close of the fifth century (486.) On the death of his father at Tournay, then the chief seat of the tribe, Clovis found himself at their head, and although still very young, he soon made the name of the Franks terrible to his neighbours. His first great success was at Soissons, where he dealt a fatal blow to the declining power of the Romans beyond the Alps, and compelled Syagrius, the governor of Gaul, to take refuge at Toulouse with Alaric, chief of the Visigoths. Flushed with success, Clovis sent an imperative command to Alaric to deliver up the fugitive; a command which the barbarian felt it most prudent to obey. Syagrius was sent back a prisoner, and after awhile was secretly put to death by the terrible Frank. From Soissons Clovis fought his way to the Seine, and thence as far as the Loire. Idolater as he was, he had policy enough to make him respect the Christian institutions which he found in his way; and from his experience of the difficulty of repressing the rapacious habits of his followers, he generally contrived to avoid the large towns on his route, where the property of the Christian church was chiefly accumulated. In this way he refrained from entering the town of Rheims, at that time the residence of Saint Remi. Some of the Frank soldiers, however, not so scrupulous, managed to pillage the church, and, among their booty, to carry off a vase of exquisite workmanship. The bishop sent a deputation of his clergy to Clovis, to request the restoration of this treasure. The chief received them with courtesy, invited them to follow him to Soissons, where the booty was collected, and compelled the thief to restore what he had taken.

An attack of the Thuringians, a German tribe to the eastward of the Weser, on the Frank possessions beyond the Rhine, next occupied the military talent of Clovis. As before with the Romans, he again drove everything before him, and made his name feared from the Weser to the Pyrennees.

It now became part of the policy of Clovis to ally himself by marriage with a princess of some Gallic family. He had already established a friendly understanding with the little court of Burgundy, as a mutual protection against their common enemy and neighbour, the formidable Alaric. The emissaries of Clovis to this court had returned to him, full of the praises of the princess Chrotildis, or Clotildis, a niece of Gondebaud, the reigning king. Her father Chilperic, her mother, and all of her brothers but one had been dispatched by Gondebaud, to clear his own way to the throne; he had hitherto spared the lives of his two nieces, thinking them too young to be dangerous to him. Clotildis lived at her uncle’s seat; her sister Chrona was in a convent.

Although surrounded in her childhood by Arians, young Clotildis was trained in the Catholic faith; and as her character developed itself with her years, her unaffected piety added an indescribable charm to the gifts of mind and of person with which nature had endowed her. The terrible tragedy of her childhood had early taught her the vanity of rank, especially during a period of lawlessness, like the age in which she lived. The reputation of the handsome princess of Burgundy for sweetness, for innocence and for wit, made her an object of interest to neighbouring courts. Clovis, hearing of her attractive qualities, sent another embassy to solicit the hand of the Princess Clotildis from her uncle. The guilty conscience of Gondebaud suggested to him the risk that might attend the marriage of his niece with the king of the Franks; what if her husband should also espouse her quarrel, and vindicate her father’s wrongs and her own with his terrible sword? On the other hand, the guilty man felt the danger of irritating so redoubtable a warrior as Clovis, by a refusal, to be almost equal to the danger of acceding to his request. Gondebaud therefore temporised. He affected willingness to accept the Frank as a suitor for his niece, but raised a difficulty against the marriage of a Christian princess with an idolater. The representative of Clovis, who had by this time secured the consent of Clotildis herself, made light of this objection; and the king, reduced to his last shift, pretended to resent the acceptance which his niece had accorded to the proposal, without his concurrence. The young princess behaved with much spirit on the occasion; she longed for deliverance from the tyranny of her wicked uncle, and therefore bade the Frank ambassador urge his suit with all the energy possible, so as to anticipate the return of a courtier of her uncle’s from Constantinople, who had been his accomplice in her father’s murder, and who would certainly put a stop to her marriage. Gondebaud gave way at last, through fear; and the marriage having been celebrated by proxy, the young princess set out from Chalons on the Saone, in a covered cart drawn by oxen. This slow mode of travelling did not suit the anxious haste of Clotildis to get safely out of her uncle’s power. She prevailed on the ambassador of her husband, who attended her, to finish the journey on horseback, and leave the cart to follow by easy stages; if she could only feel herself fairly out of Burgundy, all would be well. Her deliverance was not effected a moment too soon. The wicked counsellor of Gondebaud had meanwhile returned from his mission to the East, and had persuaded the king to annul the marriage and recall his niece. Mounted soldiers followed on her track, and seized the empty cart; but by that time Clotildis was safe across the border of Burgundy, and soon reached Soissons, where Clovis welcomed her. An hour or two, earlier or later; a mile or two, faster or slower; on so trifling a preponderance of the balance is Providence often pleased to make the most momentous consequences depend.

Chapter 2 – Trials of the young queen – Her infant children – Battle of Tolbiac – Vow of Clovis – His baptism

It was a bold venture, after all, which the young fugitive had made, to become the wife of a heathen; yet she had no doubt heard enough of his respectful deference for such men as Saint Remi, to make her hope the best for the effect of her influence on him. Besides, she was not by any means a solitary Christian at her husband’s court. All of his Gallic subjects, that is, the natives of the country which the Franks then occupied, were Christians, although the leaven of Arianism had to a certain extent impaired the integrity of the faith of many among them. The arrival of a Catholic queen at Soissons was an event of the brightest augury for them. They indulged in the fondest hopes that the honest heart of their heathen king would submit to the influence of Christianity, as he saw its spirit so engagingly represented in his incomparable queen. Their hopes were realised in the end; but neither at the time nor in the way that those good souls had anticipated.

Clotildis sustained her difficult part with excellent tact and prudence. She made good use of opportunities when they offered, for talking quietly to her husband about religion, without offensively obtruding it on his notice. The first evidence of her growing influence was the permission which he gave her to have their eldest child, Ingomer, baptised. Her trust in Providence must have been sorely tried, when God took her infant to himself within a week of his baptism, and when in addition to her own natural sorrow, she had to bear the reproaches of her husband as the occasion of her child’s death, by subjecting it to what he considered a superstitious rite. The broken-hearted mother could only reply by declaring her thankfulness to God for having called a child of her’s to his kingdom.

By the time that her second child, Clodomir, was born, Clotildis had regained sufficient influence to have him also carried to the baptismal font. Within a day or two after, he too sickened, like his brother, and Clovis, confirmed in his idea of baptism as a baneful act of magic, could only exclaim, in the bitterness of his disappointment, “Of course he must die, like his brother, since you have had him baptised.” It was a moment of trial for our holy queen, hardly inferior in heaviness to that which demanded from Abraham the sacrifice of his only son. Not only the life of her child, but the chance, so to speak, of her husband’s conversion was trembling in the balance. Yet she could do what alone remained for her to do. She asked from God the life of her infant as much for its father’s sake as for its own, which indeed was not small to her. Providence was satisfied with the ordeal of suspense endured by the queen; the moment of danger passed safely, and Clodomir lived to be a man.

The founder of a race of kings was not disposed, in the pride of his first success, to receive the grace of conversion. It was necessary that he should be taught the uncertain value of human glory, before he could humble himself to accept of a religious system which must for some time previously have recommended itself to his understanding. But the time for his conversion was advancing, and at last arrived, in the following manner.

The Allemanni, a warlike tribe of Germany, occupying the right, or eastern bank of the Upper Rhine, between the lake of Constance and Mayence, crossed the river (496), and attacked Cologne. The Franks in that part of the country lived under Sigebert, with whom Clovis at once made common cause, and gave the invaders battle at Tolbiac. The fortune of war seemed on the point of deserting the standard of Clovis; his army was hard pressed, and himself in danger of falling into the hands of the enemy. When hopeless rout was impending on the Franks, Clovis cried out in his agony, invoking Jesus Christ, whom Clotildis said was the Son of the living God, and vowing that if he gained the day, he would worship this Jesus, and be baptised in his name. It was a blind sort of venture, thus to stake truth or falsehood on the chance of a battle; yet his rude heart probably intended well; and after the tide of war had turned in his favour, he set about fulfilling his vow in earnest. Passing by Toul on his return home, he took along with him Saint Vedast, a holy priest, to instruct him in the Christian religion. Queen Clotildis met him at Rheims with a grateful heart, and Saint Remi was invited to admit the king to the rite of baptism. A difficulty yet remained. The Franks were devoted to their idols, and Clovis feared to shake their allegiance to himself if he offered any violence to the objects of their false worship. On the remonstrance of Remi, however, he called his army together, related to them the particulars of his vow on the day of danger before the enemy, and urged them to renounce their idols which had been unable to help them in emergency. They did not wait till he had finished speaking, but cried out, to a man, ” We renounce them, and will adore the Incarnate God, whom Remi proclaims.” It was then arranged that the ceremony of baptism should be performed on the eve of Christmas, in the church of Saint Martin, outside the gates of the town (496).

When the auspicious day arrived, a long and beautiful procession wound through the streets of Rheims. singing hymns of joy, till it reached the church, which had been sumptuously decorated for the occasion. Saint Remi led Clovis by the hand; Clotildis followed, with an overflowing heart, leading two sisters of her husband. No doubt she felt that the blessed spirit of her little Ingomer was not far off on that day; his bitter death had been the sowing-time of this harvest of recompense. The procession closed with three thousand Frank soldiers, the first-fruits of their nation to the gospel. On the way, Clovis turned to the bishop and asked him, “My father, is this the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which you have promised to me?” “No, my prince,” replied Saint Remi, “it is only the way that leads to it.”

When they had reached the font, the bishop addressed the royal convert, “Bow thy head, proud Sygambrian, beneath the yoke of the Lord; worship what thou hast heretofore burnt, and burn what thou hast worshipped.” He then baptised the king in the name of the Holy Trinity, and anointed him with chrism. Albofledis, one of the king’s sisters, was also baptised; the other, who was already a Christian, but had adopted the Arian creed, was received back to Catholic communion. The brave men, who were companions of the king in the graces of that day, were baptised by the bishops and the clergy whom the great event had brought in numbers to Rheims. The whole of the following week was devoted to the completion of the king’s instruction in religion. It is reported that while Remi was reading to him the Passion of our Lord, the soldiers’ nature broke forth in this exclamation, “If I had only been there with my Franks to avenge him!”

Chapter 3 – Clovis the Eldest Son of the Church – He kills Alaric – Is made a Patrician of the Empire – Commences a church over the tomb of Saint Genevieve at Paris – Provincial Council at Orleans – Clovis dies – His grandson murdered – Story of young Clotildis – The queen retires to Tours – Her death

The conversion of Clovis and of his companions gave sincere joy throughout the Christian world. The Pope wrote to congratulate him on the great event. The share which Saint Remi had in it procured for him the title of the Apostle of the Franks, as Saint Martin, a century earlier, was called the Apostle of the Gallic nation. In fact, at that period, Clovis was the only Catholic sovereign in existence. The emperor was a Eutychian; the kings of the Vandals in Africa, of the Visigoths in Spain and Aquitaine, of the Ostrogoths in Italy, and of the people of Burgundy, were all Arians. The conversion of the Franks happening about a century earlier than the arrival of Saint Augustine among the Anglo-Saxons in England, the king of the French nation used to call himself the Eldest son of the Church.

With the zeal of a neophyte, Clovis made strong and successful appeals to the body of the French nation to imitate his example, and abandon their idols. Before long, he had the pleasure of witnessing the conversion of nearly the whole of his people. Those of them who still remained unchanged, retired into Belgium, under a prince of the Franks who resided near Cambrai; and, indeed, part of the Belgian population remained pagan, till the time of Saint Bernard.

Clovis also became an apt scholar of his holy wife, in works of Christian charity, in building and endowing churches, in relieving the poor, and in maintaining widows and orphans. When he had occasion to move his army in the neighbourhood of churches or monasteries, he was more than ever strict in enforcing their immunity from plunder.

It must be confessed, however, with the most impartial historians, that the love of dominion and of conquest was little changed in the Frank king by his conversion. Only, when acts of injustice were successfully achieved, of which the pagan would have thought no more, the Christian king set about making reparation for them, by munificent gifts to religion. He made the profession of Arianism, maintained by Alaric, an apology for attacking the kingdom of the Visigoths; in reality, however, burning with desire to plunder it for his own benefit. He defeated and killed Alaric in a pitched battle near Poitiers, and seized his treasury at Toulouse; and but for the threatening attitude of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, the royal treasury at Carcassonne would have shared the same fate.

By way of compensation, Clovis made rich presents to the church of Saint Hilary at Poitiers, and of Saint Martin at Tours; and, on his return home, he fulfilled a vow which he had made before leaving it, to commence the erection of a church over the tomb of Saint Genevieve at Paris, in honour of Saint Peter and Paul; an edifice to which Clotildis put a finishing hand.

About the same time, the Roman emperor, Anastasius, paid the Frank king the high compliment of sending him the purple robe which distinguished a patrician, or a high nobleman of the empire. He assumed the badge of his new dignity at the tomb of Saint Martin, outside the gate of Tours, and thence rode in state to the Cathedral, wearing a circlet of gold on his head, and scattering largesse to the people as he went along.

The close of his reign was dishonoured by the treacherous murder of several princes of his family in Austrasia, whom he desired to put out of the way, that the sovereignty might without fail descend to his own sons. His inordinate ambition satisfied, he had leisure to repent of what he had done, and to make such reparation as he could for his crimes. The last year of his life, a numerous council of bishops assembled at Orleans, consisting of five metropolitans, or archbishops, and twenty-seven suffragans. The king co-operated with them in securing the stability of the rising French church. He died the same year (511), at Paris, and was interred in his new church, which afterwards became celebrated, under the name of the virgin Saint Genevieve.

Three sons of Clovis and of Saint Clotildis survived their father, together with a fourth son of Clovis, born before his marriage with Clotildis. They divided the kingdom among them; the towns of Metz, Soissons, Paris and Orleans being their respective capitals. For some years they lived in peace. The queen dowager spent a great part of her time at Tours, devoted to good works and the daily worship of God, in the church of Saint Martin.

By and by, however, the French kings were again involved in war with their neighbours. Clodomir, the eldest, fell in an engagement with the king of Burgundy, leaving three young sons, whose rights to their father’s share of the kingdom obtained no respect from their uncles. The unhappy children were educated by their grandmother, Clotildis, who also removed to Paris, that she might more readily promote their interests, and prevail on their uncles to do them justice. The saint’s surviving sons, jealous of the interest that she took in the young princes, and fearing that her influence might oblige restitution of their patrimony, obtained possession of their persons by stratagem, and put two of them to death; the third, Clodoald or Cloud, escaping, afterwards entered into holy orders, and lived and died in a pious manner, in the neighbourhood of Paris, where, in later times, a church and a royal residence received his name of Saint Cloud, in deference to the local estimation which he enjoyed as a saint. The disconsolate queen recovered the bodies of her grandchildren, and gave them a royal funeral in the new church of Saint Genevieve at Paris.

Our Saint was destined to suffer another and still more cruel family affliction, in the person of her only daughter, Clotildis, w^ho was married to Amalaric, king of the Visigoths. The young princess was a sincere Catholic, while her husband had the misfortune to be an Arian. This marriage of policy turned out a very miserable one. Amalaric insisted on his wife conforming to his religion; she refused, and had to submit, in consequence, to the most savage treatment from the king, and even to the lowest indignities from her people, as she went to public worship in her own church. She at length appealed to her brother Childebert, king of Paris, and as a token, sent him a handkerchief dyed with her blood. The prince did not hesitate a moment. He entered Narbonne, the Visigoth capital, with an armed force, seized the treasury, and killed Amalaric as he tried to escape.

This act of summary justice accomplished, he set out in triumph for Paris, taking his unhappy sister along with him; but she expired on the road, of the severe injuries she had received.

Thus, on the whole, the life of our Saint, in that lawless time, had been a painful one. The massacre of her own family, when she was a child; the death of her husband, the murder of her grandsons, and now the premature death of her only daughter, had nearly filled her cup of bitterness to the brim. But from this point, the closing years of her pilgrimage on earth were passed in comparative repose. She spent much of her time at Tours, in penitential observances and in continual prayer. Such property as she possessed was divided among the poor, and the followers of voluntary poverty in the religious orders. She built several houses for these in various parts of France, more particularly at Rheims, at Tours, and at Rouen.

Old age found her engaged in these works of charity and of piety. During one of her visits to Tours, she received an intimation from a heavenly messenger that the day of her summons hence was very near. In the exuberant joy of her heart, she cried out, “Unto thee, Lord, I have lifted up my soul; come and deliver me; Lord I have trusted in thee.” An attack of illness confined her to bed, but alms and prayer continued to be her constant employment. She sent for her two sons from Paris and from Soissons, to come and see her die. They came at her bidding, and she foretold to them many events which were about to happen. On the thirtieth day after the summons of the angel, she was anointed, and then received the sacred viaticum, according to the usual order at that time, and for many ages subsequently. Then declaring her belief in the Most Holy Trinity, she passed away from the scene of her many trials to everlasting rest, the 3rd of June, 545. Her departure took place in the night; yet we are told that her chamber shone as if it had been noonday; and that the brightness lasted till daybreak. Her sons conveyed the body of the queen to Paris, and laid it beside her husband, in the church of Saint Genevieve; from which they were afterwards removed to the royal mausoleum at Saint Denys.