Famous Men of the Middle Ages
By John H. Haaren (John Henry)
Public Domain Books
Henry the Second
King from 481-511 A.D.
While the power of the Roman Empire was declining there dwelt on the banks of the River Rhine a number of savage Teuton tribes called Franks. The word Frank means FREE, and those tribes took pride in being known as Franks or freemen.
The Franks occupied the east bank of the Rhine for about two hundred years. Then many of the tribes crossed the river in search of new homes. The region west of the river was at that time called Gaul. Here the Franks established themselves and became a powerful people. From their name the country was afterwards called FRANCE.
Each tribe of the Franks had its own king. The greatest of all these kings was Chlodwig, or Clovis, as we call him, who became ruler of his tribe in the year 481, just six years after Theodoric became king of the Ostrogoths. Clovis was then only sixteen years of age. But though he was so young he proved in a very short time that he could govern as well as older men. He was intelligent and brave. No one ever knew him to be afraid of anything even when he was but a child. His father, who was named Childeric (chil’-der-ic), often took him to wars which the Franks had with neighboring tribes, and he was very proud of his son’s bravery. The young man was also a bold and skillful horseman. He could tame and ride the most fiery horse.
When Clovis became king of the Franks a great part of Gaul still belonged to Rome. This part was then governed by a Roman general, named Syagrius (sy-ag’-ri-us). Clovis resolved to drive the Romans out of the country, and he talked over the matter with the head men of his army.
“My desire,” said he, “is that the Franks shall have possession of every part of this fair land. I shall drive the Romans and their friends away and make Gaul the empire of the Franks.”
At this time the Romans had a great army in Gaul. It was encamped near the city of Soissons (swah-son’) and was commanded by Syagrius. Clovis resolved to attack it and led his army at once to Soissons. When he came near the city he summoned Syagrius to surrender. Syagrius refused and asked for an interview with the commander of the Franks. Clovis consented to meet him, and an arrangement was made that the meeting should take place in the open space between the two armies. When Clovis stepped out in front of his own army, accompanied by some of his savage warriors, Syagrius also came forward. But the moment he saw the king of the Franks he laughed loudly and exclaimed:
“A boy! A boy has come to fight me! The Franks with a boy to lead them have come to fight the Romans.”
Clovis was very angry at this insulting language and shouted back:
“Ay, but this boy will conquer you.”
Then both sides prepared for battle. The Romans thought that they would win the victory easily, but they were mistaken. Every time that they made a charge upon the Franks they were beaten back by the warriors of Clovis. The young king himself fought bravely at the head of his men and with his own sword struck down a number of the Romans. He tried to find Syagrius and fight with him; but the Roman commander was nowhere to be found. Early in the battle he had fled from the field, leaving his men to defend themselves as best they could.
The Franks gained a great victory. With their gallant boy king leading them on they drove the Roman’s before them, and when the battle was over they took possession of the city of Soissons. Clovis afterwards conquered all the other Frankish chiefs and made himself king of all the Franks.
Not very long after Clovis became king he heard of a beautiful young girl, the niece of Gondebaud (gon’-de-baud), king of Burgundy, and he thought he would like to marry her. Her name was Clotilde (clo-tilde’), and she was an orphan, for her wicked uncle Gondebaud had killed her father and mother. Clovis sent one of his nobles to Gondebaud to ask her for his wife. At first Gondebaud thought of refusing to let the girl go. He feared that she might have him punished for the murder of her parents if she became the wife of so powerful a man as Clovis. But he was also afraid that by refusing he would provoke the anger of Clovis; so he permitted the girl to be taken to the court of the king of the Franks. Clovis was delighted when he saw her; and they were immediately married.
Clotilde was a devout Christian, and she wished very much to convert her husband, who, like most of his people, was a worshiper of the heathen gods. But Clovis was not willing to give up his own religion. Nevertheless Clotilde continued to do every thing she could to persuade him to become a Christian.
Soon after his marriage Clovis had a war with a tribe called the Alemanni. This tribe had crossed the Rhine from Germany and taken possession of some of the eastern provinces of Gaul. Clovis speedily got his warriors together and marched against them. A battle was fought at a place called Tolbiac, not far from the present city of Cologne. In this battle the Franks were nearly beaten, for the Alemanni were fierce and brave men and skillful fighters. When Clovis saw his soldiers driven back several times he began to lose hope, but at that moment he thought of his pious wife and of the powerful God of whom she had so often spoken. Then he raised his hands to heaven and earnestly prayed to that God.
“O God of Clotilde,” he cried, “help me in this my hour of need. If thou wilt give me victory now I will believe in thee.”
Almost immediately the course of the battle began to change in favor of the Franks. Clovis led his warriors forward once more, and this time the Alemanni fled before them in terror. The Franks gained a great victory, and they believed it was in answer to the prayer of their king.
When Clovis returned home he did not forget his promise. He told Clotilde how he had prayed to her God for help and how his prayer had been heard, and he said he was now ready to become a Christian. Clotilde was very happy on hearing this, and she arranged that her husband should be baptized in the church of Rheims on the following Christmas day.
Meanwhile Clovis issued a proclamation to his people declaring that he was a believer in Christ, and giving orders that all the images and temples of the heathen gods should be destroyed. This was immediately done, and many of the people followed his example and became Christians.
Clovis was a very earnest and fervent convert. One day the bishop of Rheims, while instructing him in the doctrines of Christianity, described the death of Christ. As the bishop proceeded Clovis became much excited, and at last jumped up from his seat and exclaimed:
“Had I been there with my brave Franks I would have avenged His wrongs.”
On Christmas day a great multitude assembled in the church at Rheims to witness the baptism of the king. A large number of his fierce warriors were baptized at the same time. The service was performed with great ceremony by the bishop of Rheims, and the title of “Most Christian King” was conferred on Clovis by the Pope. This title was ever afterwards borne by the kings of France.
Like most of the kings and chiefs of those rude and barbarous times, Clovis often did cruel and wicked things. When Rheims was captured, before he became a Christian, a golden vase was taken by some soldiers from the church. The bishop asked Clovis to have it returned, and Clovis bade him wait until the division of spoils. All the valuable things taken by soldiers in war were divided among the whole army, each man getting his share according to rank. Such things were called spoils.
When the next time came for dividing spoils Clovis asked that he might have the vase over and above his regular share, his intention being to return it to the bishop. But one of the soldiers objected, saying that the king should have no more than his fair share, and at the same time shattered the vase with his ax. Clovis was very angry, but at the time said nothing. Soon afterwards, however, there was the usual examination of the arms of the soldiers to see that they were in proper condition for active service. Clovis himself took part in the examination, and when he came to the soldier who had broken the vase he found fault with the condition of his weapons and with one blow of his battle-ax struck the man dead.
The next war that Clovis engaged in was with some tribes of the Goths who occupied the country called Aquitaine lying south of the River Loire. He defeated them and added Aquitaine to the kingdom of the Franks.
Clovis afterwards made war upon other people of Gaul and defeated them. At last all the provinces from the lower Rhine to the Pyrenees Mountains were compelled to acknowledge him as king. He then went to reside at the city of Paris, which he made the capital of his kingdom. He died there A.D. 511.
The dynasty or family of kings to which he belonged is known in history as the Merovingian dynasty. It was so called from MerovŠus (Me-ro-vŠ’-us), the father of Childeric and grandfather of Clovis.