Clotilda, Queen of the Franks (470–548)

(This biographical sketch was deleted from the 11th edition, but it is available to you here.)

Clotilda’s life wove together old worlds and new, for she was born when the last Roman emperor ruled in the West, was married as a young woman to the Frankish king Clovis, and was recognized as a Christian saint after her death.

Clotilda’s mother, from the old Roman aristocracy of Gaul, was a Catholic Christian, but her father represented a rougher sort. He was son of the king of Burgundy, a Romanized barbarian, and like most Burgundians, he was an Arian Christian. Clotilda was raised in her mother’s faith. When she was in her teens, her uncle Gundobad murdered her parents, exiled her sister (who became a nun), and kept Clotilda in his home, perhaps because her intelligence and beauty promised a good marriage.

If her uncle had hoped to marry her to an ally, he was to be outfoxed. Clotilda secretly began to arrange her own marriage. It was no love story. When Clovis, king of the Franks, heard about the unmarried niece of the powerful Gundobad, he sent an envoy to offer marriage. The envoy disguised himself as a pilgrim and secretly presented Clotilda with a ring and other gifts. Clotilda hid these and sent a message back to Clovis. She appreciated his proposal, but she asked him to keep it secret. And, although she expressed concern about Clovis’s paganism, she added, “Whatever my Lord God orders, I will do.”

A year later, Clovis made his move. He asked Gundobad to send Clotilda to him so that their marriage could be finalized. Gundobad, still in the dark about the proposal, reacted with fury. But when he found Clovis’s gifts stashed away in a corner of his treasury, he considered these to be evidence of an irrevocable betrothal and angrily allowed the marriage to go forward. Clotilda probably first met Clovis just before they were married in Soissons in 493, when she was no more than 20 years old. All told, this was a hardheaded match. Made more through negotiation than courtship, it was a common arrangement for the aristocracy of the day.

Brought up in a court of Arian Christians but faithful to Catholic Christianity, Clotilda now found herself married to a pagan. She is said to have started converting Clovis on their wedding night, with a well-timed lecture on Christianity. (With somewhat less charitable intent, she also harangued him about the importance of avenging her parents’ murders.) When their first son was baptized as a Catholic Christian and soon thereafter died, Clovis blamed his wife’s faith, but Clotilda was soon pregnant with another heir. That son, too, was baptized, and he lived, a fortunate turn for the future of Catholic Christianity among the Franks. Clotilda continued to press her husband to convert, and after three years of marriage, Clovis finally gave in.

He chose a strategic moment. Losing a disastrous battle against the Alemanni, he raised his eyes to heaven and invoked the god of his wife, shouting “Jesus Christ, you who Clotilda maintains is the son of the Living God . . . if you will give me victory over my enemies, then I will be baptized in your name.” In the next instant, the Alemanni turned and fled. Clovis accepted baptism, along with 3,000 of his men. He thereby achieved domestic peace (no more late-night lectures from his wife) and also ensured that the Franks—first among the barbarian tribes—accepted Catholic Christianity. At Clotilda’s further urging, Clovis became a firm ally of Catholic Christianity, destroying pagan shrines, building churches, and funding a variety of religious projects.

This story of female persuasion and Catholic triumph comes from later Frankish histories that weave together fact and fiction. Historians today would tell the tale differently. Clovis’s battlefield conversion recalls Constantine at the Milvian Bridge too neatly to be credible, and it now seems that Clovis might have been an Arian Christian, not a pagan, before Clotilda persuaded him to accept Catholic Christianity. In any case, Clovis had good political reasons to accept his wife’s faith, for his Franks had to coexist with a Gallo–Roman population faithful to Catholic Christianity. And because his choice of Catholic Christianity distinguished the Franks from all other barbarian tribes, Clovis positioned his dynasty as champions against the Arian Christianity embraced by the Burgundians, the Visigoths, and others. Yet, although Frankish histories might have emphasized Clotilda’s pious work over Clovis’s political savvy, both seem to have worked together to the same end: the conversion of the Franks to what eventually became orthodox Christianity in the West.

Like many aristocrats of her day, Clotilda lived between barbarian and Roman cultures and among many different faiths. Like many aristocratic women, Clotilda forged active links between these diverse traditions, and her work as a domestic proselytizer was not unusual. Both the Lombards and Visigoths eventually abandoned Arian Christianity thanks to pious Catholic queens married to Arian husbands. The later conversions of Bohemia, Poland, and Russia would also come about, in part, by the marriages of Christian women to pagan kings. But Clotilda would have likely taken most pleasure in the efforts of her great-granddaughter Bertha, Christian wife of the pagan King Ethelbert of Kent. When Queen Bertha welcomed Christian missionaries to Kent in 579, she nurtured a fledgling faith that would eventually take hold throughout Britain, as it had almost a century earlier among the Franks.