Saint of the Week: St. Clotilda

Central Portal, Basilique St-Clotilde, Paris

My first Sunday in Paris, I visited the spectacular Musée Rodin, then walked over to the Eiffel Tower, a walk which continued across the Seine twice, and brought me within sight of two spires. I do enjoy a good spire-hunt – it brought me to some lovely churches and neighbourhoods in Milan, after all. So I wandered over to the spires and found a Gothic construction, the Basilique Ste-Clotilde.

I looked at this name and thought, ‘That name looks Frankish!’ A week or so later, my guess was confirmed as I did research for a piece of expression écrite for French class, my chosen topic being Clovis I (r. 481-511). In my recherches, I discovered that Clotilda (Clotilde, en français) was Clovis’s wife.

And what makes a Late Antique/Early Medieval Frankish queen a saint? Read on …

Clotilda (475-545) was the daughter of the Burgundian King Chilperic II. According to Gregory of Tours, in 493, her Uncle Gundobad killed her father and mother, sent her sister Chrona to a nunnery, and Clotilda herself into exile. Ah, the joys of early European royal families…

Clovis et Clotilde, by Baron Jean-Antoine Gros, c. 1811, at the Petit Palais, Paris (my photo)

Around the time she was heading into exile, the dashing young Merovingian (descendant of Merovingius, himself a descendant of a horse or something) Clovis, king of a growing realm of Salian Franks, was interested in taking her hand in marriage. This got Gundobad out of an awkward situation, so the marriage was arranged on the grounds that Clotilda would be able to continue practising her Catholic Christianity.

According to Wikipedia, Clovis was at this time an Arian. This is an assumption based on the fact that Germanic barbarians are famously Arian. However, my other research says that he was an unbaptised pagan, raised in the cultural mélange of traditional Frankish religion and Roman customs – his father had taken some of the land and responsibilities of the vestiges of Roman rule in Gaul, and he assumed more of these roles himself throughout his reign.

So Clotilda joined the ranks of not a few Catholic/Christian princesses to marry pagan kings/princes in this era, which is part of her interest.

Eventually, as young royal couples do, Clovis and Clotilda bore a son. Clotilda insisted on him going through with the Christian rite of baptism and encouraged her husband to do likewise. Clovis said no. The child died soon thereafer, only adding fuel to Clovis’ argument that baptism was useless.

Their second son, Chlodomer (495-524) fell ill soon after his baptism, but through the prayers of his mother was healed. Clovis remained unconvinced.

Clotilda was very concerned about her beloved husband. He was a warrior of great worth, a good king, and all such things. But he rejected the truth of Christ and remained living in pagan falsehood. She wished him to gain the great riches of the life in Christ, so she would nag him about religion frequently.

When this did not seem to be working, she got (St) Remigius (Rémy) of Reims to get involved. Remigius had sent Clovis a letter of congratulation back in 481 when the young King ascended the throne; the Catholic Church had received a certain amount of protection under Clovis, and he and the bishop of Reims had met on several occasions (see the story of the vase at Soissons from Gregory of Tours). Although Clovis was a pagan, this protection of the Church represents the way in which early Frankish kings adopted much of the culture and administration of the Roman Empire they were occupying.

Remigius was also unable to persuade Clovis. However, through a combination of wifely and episcopal persuasion and a deal with God, Clovis’ conversion in 496 was as follows, according to Gregory of Tours, History of the Frankish Kings II.30-31:

[30] The queen did not cease to urge him to recognize the true God and cease worshipping idols. But he could not be influenced in any way to this belief, until at last a war arose with the Alamanni, in which he was driven by necessity to confess what before he had of his free will denied. It came about that as the two armies were fighting fiercely, there was much slaughter, and Clovis’s army began to be in danger of destruction.

He saw it and raised his eyes to heaven, and with remorse in his heart he burst into tears and cried: “Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda asserts to be the son of the living God, who art said to give aid to those in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power, since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee, I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries.”

And when he said thus, the Alamanni turned their backs, and began to disperse in flight. And when they saw that their king was killed, they submitted to the dominion of Clovis, saying: “Let not the people perish further, we pray; we are yours now.” And he stopped the fighting, and after encouraging his men, retired in peace and told the queen how he had had merit to win the victory by calling on the name of Christ. This happened in the fifteenth year of his reign.

[31] Then the queen asked saint Remi, bishop of Rheims, to summon Clovis secretly, urging him to introduce the king to the word of salvation. And the bishop sent for him secretly and began to urge him to believe in the true God, maker of heaven and earth, and to cease worshipping idols, which could help neither themselves nor any one else.

But the king said: “I gladly hear you, most holy father; but there remains one thing: the people who follow me cannot endure to abandon their gods; but I shall go and speak to them according to your words.”

He met with his followers, but before he could speak the power of God anticipated him, and all the people cried out together: “O pious king, we reject our mortal gods, and we are ready to follow the immortal God whom Remi preaches.”

This was reported to the bishop, who was greatly rejoiced, and bade them get ready the baptismal font. The squares were shaded with tapestried canopies, the churches adorned with white curtains, the baptistery set in order, the aroma of incense spread, candles of fragrant odor burned brightly, and the whole shrine of the baptistery was filled with a divine fragrance: and the Lord gave such grace to those who stood by that they thought they were placed amid the odors of paradise. And the king was the first to ask to be baptized by the bishop. (From the Internet History Sourcebook)

Tour Clovis, Paris

Clotilda, then, was instrumental in the conversion of Clovis to Christianity. And he followed her version of Catholic Christianity, the form of Christian belief held by the majority of the populace under his rule in Gaul. This is a significant moment in the history of the western Church – the Roman Empire in Gaul has been replaced by a Catholic Kingdom. Clovis and his Franks will become more acceptable rulers aided by this religious assimilation, as well as their having taken up a variety of other Roman practices. They will also drive the Arian Visigoths out of southern Gaul under Clovis, uniting not only all the Franks (as Clovis did) but all Gaul again as well.

I doubt the Merovingian Franks knew it, but they were part of a wider trajectory that would lead to Charlemagne and the attempt to unite the realms of western Europe as a single empire once more in the eighth and ninth centuries. We stand with Clovis and Clotilda at one of those moments of history, one of those points of the birthing of the Middle Ages where the players had no idea that the long-term significance of the religious act.

If Clovis had died a pagan, would he have united Gaul? Would the Basilica St-Denis in the north of Paris, where his remains were last accounted for, have been built?

Clotilda is part of a wider paradigm during the age of the barbarian conversions. We see other Christian princesses, in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, for example, marrying pagan kings and being instrumental in their conversion. Thus King Edwin, for example.

This path of sanctity is one recommended by St Paul, who urges believing wives not to leave unbelieving husbands to remain and convert them to Christ through the example of their holy lives and the witness of the words of the Gospel.

Clotilda and Clovis had four children who survived infancy, the aforementioned Chlodomer as well as Childebert, Clothar, and Clotilda. As was the custom amongst the Franks, Clovis divided his kingdom among the three sons upon his death in 511, each of them continuing the Merovingian line. Clotilda the younger married Amalaric, (Arian) King of the Visigoths.

In 511, upon the death of her husband at Paris, at the end of a long public career in the world alongside a man who had waged wars and sought to maintain a system of order in the Frankish realms both in Gaul and beyond, Clotilda joined the Abbey of St. Martin at Tours.

Not that being a nun would keep a late-ancient Queen Mother out of action permanently. In 523, Clotilda incited her sons to wage war against her cousin Sigismund in revenge for the assassination of her parents. Sadly for Clotilda, although this unsaintly action resulted in the death of her cousin, it also resulted in the death of her eldest son Chlodomer, which was followed swiftly by the assassination of two of Chlodomer’s sons by their uncles; the third joined the clergy and was thus safely out of the way.*

Having determined that politics was perhaps no longer her milieu, Clotilda devoted the rest of her life to the cloister, not simply by living in one, but by founding many. It is this pious, cloistered life and the conversion of her husband that have contributed to her sainthood.

Clotilda, a real woman in a man’s world, living her life for God’s Kingdom, who made some mistakes on the way, but who is revered to this day for her overall saintliness. The kind of saint I like.

*While this is particularly bloody, it is nothing compared to what happened upon the death of Constantine in 337. Read R W Burgess, ‘The Summer of Blood,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers 62 (2008),  5-51 (appeared in 2010), for an analysis of the events surrounding that succession.

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