The Frankish king Clovis I (465-511) founded the Merovingian kingdom of Gaul, the most successful of the barbarian states of the 5th century. He is widely regarded as the originator of the French nation.
The son of Childeric I and Basina, Clovis inherited the kingship of the Salian Franks in 481, at the age of 15. In 486 he led his army against Soissons, the last of the Gallo-Roman strongholds, and defeated the Roman governor. He then engaged in a series of campaigns against other barbarian kingdoms, and it was during one of these military ventures that Clovis was converted to non-Arian Christianity. According to Gregory of Tours, Clovis was at a disadvantage in his fight against the Alamans and sought the aid of the God of his Christian wife Clotilde, promising that if he were given victory he would become a Christian. In 506 Clovis inflicted a crushing defeat on the Alamans at Tolbiac (Zülpich).
After the battle Clovis adopted Christianity and by so doing won the support of the Gallo-Roman bishops who controlled a significant portion of the wealth of Gaul and were exceedingly influential with the population. Moreover, his conversion automatically made Clovis's wars into holy wars against heretics and nonbelievers. Many historians have seen Clovis's conversion as a shrewd political move; but it is also likely that the victory of Tolbiac was instrumental in his religious shift and that without a sign of some variety he might never have abandoned his ancestral gods.
Within the Frankish portion of his kingdom Clovis, who was ruthless in his desire for power, gradually eliminated the other kings who had previously been his allies, and by a combination of military expertise and treachery he emerged as the supreme ruler in Gaul.
The period of Frankish expansion, which had begun in 486, ended with the battle against the Visigoths at Vouille (near Poitiers) in 507. Clovis then turned his attention to the government of his newly conquered territories. His reign, which combined elements of Germanic kingship with traditional Roman fiscal and administrative systems, owed much of its success to the cooperation between Clovis and his Germanic followers and the Gallo-Roman episcopate. His policy toward the Church was essentially one of overlordship tempered with consideration for ecclesiastical needs and privileges. In the latter years of his reign, Clovis devoted much energy to the promulgation and codification of the Lex Salica (Salic Law), the customary unwritten laws of the Franks, and thus he provided jurisdictional unity for his kingdom.
Clovis died at Paris on Nov. 27, 511, at the age of 45. In keeping with Frankish tradition, his four sons (Chlodomer, Childebert I, Clothar I, and Theuderic) divided his kingdom.
The most important source for the life of Clovis and the character of Merovingian Gaul is the History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, written between 575 and 585 and available in several English translations. The best modern descriptions of the life and times of Clovis are The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 3 (1913), and J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Long-Haired Kings (1962). □
Learn more about Clovis I