Chapter 26 - CLOVIS (AD 496)

The most famous and the most important of all the conversions which took place about this time was that of Clovis, king of the Franks. From being the chief of a small, though brave people, on the borders of France and Belgium, he grew by degrees to be the founder of the great French monarchy. His queen, Clotilda, was a Christian, and long tried in vain to bring him over to her faith. "The gods whom you worship," she said, "are nothing, and can profit neither themselves nor others; for they are graven out of stone, or wood, or metal, and the names which you give them were not the names of gods but of men. But He ought rather to be worshipped who by His word made out of nothing the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that in them is." Clovis does not seem to have cared very much about the truth, one way or the other, but he had the fancy (which was common among the heathens, and which is often mentioned in the Old Testament), that if people did not prosper in this world, the god whom they served could not have the power to protect them and give them success. And, as he lived in the time when the Roman empire of the West came to an end, the fall of the empire, which had now been Christian for more than a hundred and fifty years, seemed to him to prove that the Christian religion could not be true.

Clotilda persuaded her husband to let their eldest son be baptized. But the child died within a few days after, and Clovis said that his baptism was the cause of his death. When another prince was born, however, he allowed him too to be baptized. Clotilda continued to press her husband with all the reasons that she could think of in order to bring him over to the Gospel. Some of her reasons were true and good; some of them were drawn from the superstitious opinions of these times, such as stories about miracles wrought at the tomb of St. Martin at Tours. Perhaps the bad reasons were more likely than the good ones to have an effect on a rough barbarian prince such as Clovis; but Clotilda could make nothing of him in any way.

At length, in the year 496, he was engaged in battle with a German tribe, at a place called Tolbiac, near Cologne, and found himself in great danger of being defeated. He called on his own gods, but without success, and at last he bethought himself of the God to whose worship Clotilda had so long been trying to convert him. So, in his anxiety, he stretched out his arms towards the sky, and called on the name of Christ, promising that, if the God of Clotilda would help him in his strait, he would become a Christian. A victory followed, which Clovis ascribed to the effect of his prayer. He then put himself under the instruction of St. Remigius, bishop of Rheims, that he might get a knowledge of Christian doctrine, and at the following Christmas he was baptized in Rheims cathedral, where the kings of France were afterwards crowned for centuries, down to the unfortunate Charles X, in 1824. Remigius caused it to be decked for the occasion with beautiful carpets and hangings. A vast number of tapers shed their bright light over the building, while all without was covered by the darkness of a December evening; and we are told that the sweet perfume of incense seemed to those who were there like the air of paradise. As Clovis entered the church, and heard the solemn chant of psalms, he was overcome with awe. Turning to Remigius, who led him by the hand, he asked, "Is this the kingdom of heaven which you have promised me?" "No," answered the bishop; "but it is the beginning of the way to it." When they had reached the font, Remigius addressed the king by a name on which the noblest among the Franks prided themselves,--"Sicambrian, gently bow thy neck, worship that which thou hast burnt, and burn that which thou hast worshipped." Three thousand of the Frankish warriors were forthwith baptized, in imitation of their leader.

Remigius had much influence over Clovis as to religious things, and instructed him as he found opportunity. One day, as he was reading to the king the story of our Lord's sufferings, Clovis was so much moved by it that he started up in anger and cried out--"If I had been there with my Franks, I would have avenged His wrongs!"

From what has been said, it will be understood that the religion of Clovis was not of an enlightened kind; and there was much in his character and actions which did not become his Christian profession. Yet his conversion, such as it was, appears to have been sincere. As his conquests spread, he put down Arianism wherever he found it, and planted the Catholic faith instead of it. And from the circumstance that Clovis was converted to Catholic Christianity at a time when all the other princes of the West were Arians, and when the emperor of the East favoured the heresy of Eutyches (p 129), the kings of France got the title of "Eldest Son of the Church."