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The Baptism of Europe: Christmas Day, 496

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

In 481, Clodevech, the 16-year-old chief of one of the Frankish tribes, secured his father’s claim to kingship by exterminating all his cousins and rivals. At age 21, this chief, known to history as Clovis, led his tribe into the Seine valley. He killed the Roman governor there, taking the towns of Soissons, Rouen, Reims, and Paris. Then he marched through the Loire River valley to the borders of Brittany and secured his western border. Safe on one front, he moved against his cousins along the Rhine and killed them one by one. By 491, Clovis held all the Frankish princedoms except Cologne. He slew every prince of Meroving blood who fell into his hands, and he did his best to exterminate all other members of rival families who could lay claim to his throne.

A late 15th, early 16th century depiction of the baptism of Clovis by the Master of St. Giles

Clovis’ conquests brought him into contact with the Burgundians, another Germanic invader nation, to the south. He sent ambassadors and married their princess, Clotilde, the Burgundian king’s niece. Clotilde, a devout Catholic, was determined to convert her new husband to the Christian Faith. According to legend, when Clovis was awaiting a battle with the Germanic Alamanni, his wife said he would conquer only if he agreed to serve the one true God, the Lord of Hosts and Judge of all battles. Clovis cried out, “O Christ Jesus, as a suppliant I crave your glorious aid; and if you grant me victory over these enemies, I will believe in you and be baptized in your name!” The Franks then drove the Alamanni from the field in defeat.

In fulfilling his contract with the Christian God, Clovis had himself baptized at Reims by Bishop Remigius (St. Remi) on Christmas Day, 496. Referring to Clovis’ ancestor, Sigambris, a legendary Frankish villain, Remigius declared, “Bow your neck, Sigambrian, and adore that which you have burned and burn that which you have adored.”

Clovis was the first Germanic king who adopted the faith of his Roman subjects; they and their clergy from then on served him with a loyalty no Arian Visigoth, Ostrogoth, or Vandal could ever win from his Roman subjects. The Catholic bishops, who had kept all local government from disappearing, gave Clovis a working governmental organization along with their faith. Their loyalty reinforced his sword. Bishop Avitus of Vienne declared, “Your faith is our triumph. Every battle you fight is a victory for us.”

A medieval depiction of St. Clotilde, surrounded by her royal sons

Clovis’ conversion moved the rest of his people to follow him. In a single generation, the old Frankish paganism disappeared, and the Franks became Catholic. However, even after his baptism, Clovis remained as cruel, unscrupulous, and treacherous as he had ever been. In his later years, Clovis persuaded his cousin, the prince of Cologne, to kill his own father and claim the throne. For this crime (to which Clovis had pushed him), Clovis marched on the son and put him to death as a father-slayer. Thus he disposed of his last Meroving rival.

In 511 Clovis died, dividing his kingdom among his four quarrelsome sons. They followed their father’s treacherous example more than that of their Catholic Faith. One of Clovis’ sons ordered his own son burned alive for offending him. Another of Clovis’ sons was killed by his conspiring sons, who then fought among themselves until only one was left. Clovis’ last surviving son, Clothar, divided the Frankish realm between his two sons. For more than a century two Frankish kingdoms—Austrasia, the east kingdom along the Rhine Valley, and Neustria, the west kingdom comprised of northern Gaul—warred and plotted against each other and with their neighbors, the powerful Frankish dukes of Burgundy and Aquitaine.

Ancient German Music Reborn

Corwen Broch, an early music performer, demonstrates how to play a lyre — a stringed instrument from the age of Clodevech.

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