As I was researching the invasions of the Germanic tribes, several resources mentioned Clotilde of Burgundy. Though she was mentioned only in passing, she struck me as a woman who would have lived a very intriguing life.
Princess Clotilde was born in 475 AD at the Burgundian court at Lyon. She was born into a world of political upheaval and religious controversy, where democracy of the empire was on the verge of fading and the feudal system of the middle ages had yet to emerge. Kings were warriors, kingdoms were battlefields and women were pawns in a worldwide game of domination.
Little is said about Clotilde’s Early life. She was the eldest daughter of Chilperic the II, raised Roman Catholic in a society that had adopted Arian Christianity. She did not live the life of a pampered princess. The days of chivalry and knights in shining armor were centuries in the future. Clotilde had responsibilities in her home as well as the duties of a woman of royal birth. She would have had her struggles as well as hopes and fears as she grew from a child to an adolescent to a young woman in the turbulent years that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.
Whatever her life had been growing up, tragedy struck and sent her headlong into the dawning of a new age.
In 493 AD, when Clotilde was still in her teens, her uncle, Gundobad, murdered her parents and ascended her fathers throne. Orphaned and mourning the loss of their parents, Clotilde and her sister Chrona fled nearly a hundred miles from Lyons to Geneva. There Chrona sought refuge in the solace of a convent and Clotilda was taken into the home of another uncle, Godegisel. Clotilde’s future did not remain uncertain for long. Rumors of her beauty, talent and wisdom spread across the kingdoms of Gaul and into the ears of the most eligible bachelor on the continent.
At 27 years old, King Clovis I had already united most of the Frankish kingdoms of Gaul and defeated the last remaining Roman ruler of the Western Roman Empire. He was a formidable warrior, strong, powerful and intelligent, an amazing catch for any barbarian woman. By all accounts the marriage was one of political motivation, the couple never having met until the nuptials were arranged, but I would like to think that a union between a beautiful barbarian princess and a legendary warlord would be quite a passionate affair. Unfortunately there are no historical references about their personal relationship.
Whatever her relationship with her new husband, Clotilde had many challenges to face in her new home. She was far away from friends or family, except for any servants she may have brought along, and belonged to a religious minority. But, she was a strong woman. She had her faith and she had her new position as Queen of the Franks.
Devoted to her Roman Catholic, Clotilde was determined that her new, pagan husband would convert. Clovis was not cooperative. When their first son died in infancy, shortly after being baptized, he was even more adamantly against the the Roman Catholic Church. Clotilde did not give up. She continued to practice her religion, have her children baptized and try to convince her husband to change his faith.
Clotilde’s hopes of her husband converting were finally realized a couple of years later. In a fierce and unsuccessful war against the Alenmeni kingdom Clovis ran out of patience with his pagan gods and, as a last resort, turned to Clotilde’s God for aid. The battle turned to his favor and Clovis was victorious. He was soon baptized into the Roman Catholic church, as were many of his soldiers and subjects. By all accounts, Clotilde’s influence was a large part of the conversation of Clovis. He became the first of the barbarian kings to convert to Catholicism thus gaining the a strong alliance and support of the church.
The next several years were relatively quiet for Clotilde. The royal family began to grow as Clotilde gave birth to four more children, Chlodomer, Childebert, Clothair and finally a daughter, Clotilde. Her husband continued to expand his empire, now with the backing of the Roman Catholic church. Over the years Clotilde watched her sons grow into men that would someday rule their own kingdoms and her daughter become a young woman destined to be a queen. Fate did not have happy endings in store for this new generation, but in their early years there was hope and potential for greatness.
King Clovis I died in 511, leaving Clotilde a widow at the age of 36 With three sons still in their teens and the younger Clotilde barely an adolescent. The loss of Clovis was deeply felt. His kingdom was divided by the Frankish laws of inheritance, with Chlodomer, Childebert, Clothair and their half brother Theodoric each inheriting roughly one fourth.
Clotilde did not stay to help her sons rule. Instead she chose to withdraw from court life, retreating to the abbey of St. Martins in Tours. There she dedicated her life more fully to religious and charitable pursuits. Her reputation for kindness and charity grew and she continued to influence many.
The following years were not easy. Clotilde was preceded in death by her oldest son (killed during a war with her native Burgundy), her daughter (died of unknown causes very shortly after escaping from her abusive husband) and two young grandsons (murdered by their uncles, the two younger sons of Clotilde). She spent her her life assisting the Roman Catholic religion advance throughout the Frankish kingdoms, funding funded the building of churches, monasteries and schools. Clotilde passed away near the age of 80 and buried beside her husband at the Church of St. Peter in Paris.
Queen Clotilde of the Franks was venerated as a saint for her role in converting Clovis and his kingdom, and and for the charity she performed throughout her life. St. Clotilde is the patron saint of queens, brides, widows, and exiles. Her descendants ruled the Frankish Kingdoms for over two hundred years.
- Clovis’ first son, Theodoric was with a previous wife or concubine.
- During this time period it was customary to split a kingdom between all male children instead of only the oldest child succeeding. This was the case in Burgundy, where the kingdom was split between Clotilde’s father and uncles and in Gaul where the kingdom was split between all four of Clotilde’s sons. The practice tended to cause a lot of contention.
- Dates of events are approximate. I found several discrepancies during the research process and have used the most agreed upon information available.
- The most comprehensive information about St. Clotilde, her family and her contemporaries comes from Gregory of Tours. Though his contribution has been invaluable, it is now believed that he wrote with bias toward the Frankish royal family and the Roman Catholic.