Clovis I was a king of the Franks who ruled from 481 to 511. He is considered the first French king and is famous for his military conquests and for being the first Catholic king in history. Clovis’ conversion to Catholicism in AD 496 was a key event in the history of the Catholic Church and the spread of Christianity in Europe. It is believed that Clovis was around 30 years old when he was baptized at Reims Cathedral.
Fun fact: his name, Clovis, evolved and resulted in the very popular name Louis (and Ludwig), given to 18 Kings of France.
The Roman Empire
In the first centuries of our current era, the Roman Empire covered most of western Europe, including Gaul, encompassing all territories that would later become continental France.
The Migration Period, or the Barbarian Invasions
In the 300s, many different people started invading the Roman Empire, coming from the East and North. Among them, the most notable were the warlike Huns, causing havoc wherever they happened to pass, and in part pushed by them, the old-german speaking Goths, Franks, Lombards, Burgundians, Vandals, Saxons, Frisians and Anglos. The Roman Empire was then very difficult to govern, and was split and some pieces for different emperors to manage each part. But the internal disputes and the tension with the new arriving tribes was too much, and the Western Empire slowly disintegrated in a series of battles, revolts and coups, with 476 being a significant year when the city of Rome was conquered by the Ostrogoths.
One of those people, the Franks, were divided in many clans, from which the Salians ultimately became the dominant one through marriage, force and politics. They helped one of the last official Roman Generals in Gaul to defeat Attila the Hun in Champagne, in the Catalauni Fields, in 451. Little by little, working for the Roman Empire, the Salians established a territory in the Rhine region. Clovis was born around AD 466 in the city of Tournai, in the Belgian region of Wallonia, son to Childeric I, and probably was the grandson of Merovech, who gave the name to the Merovingian dynasty.
Clovis I, the First French King
Continuing what his elders had already started, Clovis conquered more and more land from his native Rhine region all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, always seeking to stay under the good graces of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Franks had already adopted Latin, the Roman Law and the Roman measures and money. There was only the matter of religion left. Clovis, his wife Clothilde and his father were friends with one the most important and popular Bishops of Gaul, Saint Remi of Reims, whom he chose to baptise him and accept into the Church around AD 496. Remi was a member of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy and was known for his intelligence, wisdom, and eloquence.
According to Gregory of Tours, who lived some decades after Clovis death, Remi would have asked him to “adore now what you have burned, and burn now what you have adored”. You can visit the actual site where this happened if you come to one of my tours to the Reims Cathedral. This act set a strong base for the development of the French Monarchy, thus turning Clovis into the “real” First French King, and also the first Catholic King ever (because the other Christian kings back then followed Arianism), giving to France the title of “Church’s oldest daughter”.
After his baptism, Clovis chose Paris as his capital. Paris was a strategic location that was more central to his newly founded kingdom, and was well-situated for trade and commerce, due in part to its location at the confluence of the Seine and the Marne rivers, and the old gallo-roman city developed into a major political and cultural center in Europe. When he died in 511 he left a vast kingdom to be divided by his four male sons: Theodoric I, King of Reims, Childebert I King of Paris, Clodomir I King of Orleans, and Clotaire I King of Soissons.
Although his dynasty would eventually come to an end with the advent of the Carolingians (whose ascent to power came through their position as sort of “Prime-Ministers”), Clovis is a strong symbol in French History, and his saga will be forever associated with the Cathedral of Reims. Because of his baptism, this church was later used for most of the French coronations, from Louis I in 816 to Charles X in 1825.