Sitting at the bedside of a newborn struggling against death was a young barbarian king. His head in his hands, his face half-covered by the long hair that symbolized the superiority of his origin, he did not hide his despair at the fate of his son:
“Of course this child, too, will die. Baptized in the name of Christ, his fate will be the same as that of his brother: death! He lacks the protection of the gods.”
In fact, the child, recently regenerated by the waters of Baptism, had been struck by strong feverish convulsions and seemed about to follow the path of Ingomer, who two years before had died still dressed in white.
On her knees, her faith only strengthened by the tragedy, the young queen remained firm. In her soul, maternal affection allied to her awareness of the grandeur of her mission compelled her to accept this suffering with resignation, but furthermore to “demand” a miracle from Providence. Yes, it was not only her son who was at risk, but the salvation of a people that depended on her supplications; it was not only her child who needed to live, but the Firstborn Daughter of the Church who needed to be “baptized”!
This was the mission that Clotilde had assumed with the dignity of queen. And she was ready to obtain every miracle to accomplish it.
Princess from Lyon
Clotilde was born in the Kingdom of Lyon, a territory which her father, Chilperic, a barbarian prince of the Burgundian tribe, had inherited.
Despite the kingdom’s small size, it was holder of a great spiritual and cultural legacy. Lyon had been an important city under the Romans and had become a powerful centre of Catholicism in Gaul. In its arenas the blood of countless martyrs had flowed – including that of St. Blandina and St. Pothinus and his companions – and in its episcopal see St. Irenaeus preached against heresy with wisdom and eloquence.
The material splendour of the region had, it is true, been all but obliterated by the barbarian invasions, but its spiritual splendour had not been extinguished by the years of warfare, and shone like a beacon of hope for victory.
The bishops of the nation, as princes of the Church Militant, were well aware of how much Christ counted on their combat to triumph. And an arduous combat it was, for it was not restricted to destroying the paganism of the barbarians but also the Arian heresy which had taken strong root among them.
St. Avitus, Bishop of Vienne, had already obtained a great victory in arranging marriages for the Burgundian kings with young women of Catholic confession. To this end, Clotilde and her elder sister Chrona were baptized at birth. However, as their parents died in a fratricidal war, the little ones passed into the guardianship of their uncle. The prelate was not discouraged by the tragic event, but applied all his efforts to the education of the two princesses.
The mission among the Franks
At the end of the fifth century little remained of the Roman power. The triumphs won by the Church since the Edict of Milan in 313 seemed to crumble under the advance of the barbarian hordes and the perfidy of heretics.
In Lombardy, the Ostrogoth and Arian leader Theodoric the Great dominated a large part of Italy; in southern Gaul and in the Iberian Peninsula, under Visigoth and Vandal reign, heresy prevailed and the persecution of true Catholics was renewed. In the West, no kingdom officially professed the true Catholic Faith. A desperate situation? Perhaps. But above all, it was the eve of a divine intervention!
In northern Gaul, the Salian Frank tribe remained pagan. They were ruled by Clovis, son of Childeric, whose sympathies for the customs of the empire had earned him the title of patrician. In 486, he conquered Romania – what remained of the Roman province in Gaul – defeating Syagrius, a clearly pusillanimous governor, unable to stand up to the Arians. At this juncture, Clovis became the focus of hope for the Catholic bishops. St. Remigius, Bishop of Reims, had written to him on assuming the government: “Do what is good. Be chaste and honest. Show yourself full of respect for your bishops and always have recourse to their advice. If you get on well with them, your country will do well. […] If you want to reign, show yourself worthy.”1
However, the conversion of the Frankish monarch was indispensable if Christianity was to have a kingdom. A Catholic wife seemed the best means of inclining his heart to the truth. Clotilde, who was about twenty years old, was sent for this mission by the Bishops.
The task was not an easy one. Who could guarantee that a young girl would succeed among a barbaric people in whose customs were ingrained murder and pagan savagery?
Clotilde, whose name means glorious warrior, understood the challenge well and, like Mary, gave her “fiat”. She would no longer live for herself but for the triumph of the Catholic Faith.
In 492, the city of Soissons received the Queen, who was to be united to Clovis in a monogamous2 and indissoluble marriage, based on the promise to baptize the children in the maternal religion. The first battle had been won!
The trial of faith
But then, in the next moment, the victory seems to pass to the pagan side. Ingomer, the first son of the union and the bearer of the hope of a Christian dynasty, died soon after his Baptism, and the second, Chlodomer, born in 495, seemed to be heading for the same fate. It is here that the episode narrated at the beginning of our story takes place.
After a night of tense interior struggle, without allowing her spirit to waver, the queen obtained the miracle: the child became tranquil, the fever dissipated and he slept peacefully and soundly. Through fortitude, heroic resignation and unshakeable faith, she had wrested the life of her son from Heaven, but above all she had imprinted in the king’s heart an image of true courage and supreme power of the one God.
Clotilde had transformed what could have been a definitive defeat for Catholicism in the Frankish kingdom into a victory for the Faith. Thus opened the way that would lead Clovis and France into the bosom of the Church.
The vow of Tolbiac
In 496, the Alamanni – a Germanic tribe – invaded the lands of Sigobert, king of Cologne and an ally of Clovis. The latter, faithful to the alliance between the two monarchs, came to their rescue.
The battle was fought in the ancient Roman camp of Tolbiac, today Zülpich. The ferocity of the combat was tremendous. After a few hours, the massacre sustained by the Franks had reached an extreme and Clovis’ army was on the verge of extermination.
The Frankish leader found himself in a terrifying situation. He was well aware of the fate of the vanquished and knew that if he was defeated he could expect no clemency for himself, his people or his reputation, for he would go down in history as an unworthy king. Amidst the din of battle and the terror that began to overwhelm his army, the only figure he had ever seen face disaster with audacity and dignity and, in a hopeless situation, achieve the impossible, came to mind: Clotilde! Clinging to her example, as to a lifeline, the barbarian exclaimed:
“God of Clotilde, come to my rescue!”
Suddenly, the arrow of a Frankish warrior mortally struck the leader of the Alamanni and reversed the outcome of the battle. The adversaries, panic-stricken, began to retreat with the Franks in hot pursuit.3
The victory had been obtained, but above all the battle of Christ in Clovis’ heart had been won through Clotilde’s mediation. That same afternoon he wrote to her that he wanted to receive Baptism.
Baptism of Clovis and of France
Great was the zeal of Bishop Remigius and Clotilde in preparing the longed-for ceremony. The hermit St. Waast, who had also passed from Germanic beliefs to Catholicism, helped to complete the king’s instruction, while the queen provided the finest cloths and incense to make those still rude people feel the unique grandeur of the act.
Accompanied by his sisters, his son Theuderic from his first marriage, and three thousand subjects, Clovis was finally admitted to the family of God on the feast of the Nativity of the Lord. Catholic France, the seed of Christendom, was born in the cathedral of Reims. “Regnum Galliæ, regnum Mariæ, nunquam peribit,”4 says an expression from the Merovingian era. Clotilde was forever associated with Mary, mother of the Church, in giving birth to her first kingdom.
To confirm the “divine filiation” of this people, tradition tells us that a dove brought the anointing oil, used ever since for the coronation of all the kings of France.
“The Faith you have confessed is our victory! […] A new light shines for us in the person of a king of the West. […] The Nativity of the Lord is also the Nativity of the Franks; you were born for Christ on the day He was born for you,”5 St. Avitus wrote to the king, celebrating the success of so many efforts.
Unification of the Gauls
Mission accomplished? Not yet. The queen knew it was only the beginning. The grace that had been infused into her husband and into those people had yet to transform an uncultured and savage human nature. This process would not take years, but centuries! It was up to her, however, to take the utmost care of this seedling, so that the tree might grow tall and verdant.
To this end, she advised Clovis to undertake the unification of all Gaul in the true religion, expelling the Arian Visigoths from the south. This enterprise took place in 507, the king fulfilling a vow he had made when he fell ill. Beginning the campaign by conquering the city of St. Martin of Tours, it ended with the Battle of Vouillé, which forced the Visigoths to retreat to beyond the Pyrenees.
Buying the future
Her husband having died on November 27, 511, a new phase began in Clotilde’s life.
France had been baptized, but how many centuries would it take for it to become the Regnum Christianissimum? Clotilde had, as far as she was able, encouraged Christian principles in the King of the Franks; however, she still had to patiently watch veritable slaughters, including the killing of relatives, in the conquest of neighbouring kingdoms for their sons.
She witnessed the murder of her Burgundian cousin Sigismund and his family, carried out by her son Chlodomer. When the latter died, she followed the ambitious disputes of her sons Chlothar and Childebert over the inheritance, which culminated in the brutal extermination of her grandchildren. She held in her arms the lifeless body of her daughter, upon the latter’s return after a long martyrdom at the court of Toledo trying to convert her husband, Amalaric. Later, she could only intervene with her supplications and prayers to prevent Theuderic and Childebert from slaughtering Chlothar in a dispute…
Whether in seclusion at the monastery of Tours, or in Paris obeying the call of duty, the holy queen no longer lived for the present; through prayer and penance she prepared the future of the nation. She would not contemplate a Charlemagne, a St. Louis IX, a St. Joan of Arc, or a St. Therese of the Child Jesus, but she was convinced that she could contribute to future wonders and be, in a certain sense, the mother of such great men and women.
Clotilde was able to use her intercessory power once again during the very year of her death.
Chlothar, who had murdered his brother’s children and, despite being baptized, practised pagan polygamy, decided to take as his fifth wife a young Thuringian princess whom he had taken prisoner when she was still a child. The princess accepted the proposal with the intention of saving her brother, who shared her captivity. However, after the union was made, Chlothar assassinated him. The young woman fled and took refuge in a convent; the king pursued her, prepared to violate even the sacred right of asylum. The Queen Mother intervened for the last time and saved the one who, within the monastic walls, would continue her task of watching over France: St. Radegund.
On June 3, 545, Clotilde gave up her soul to God and her body joined that of her husband and St. Genevieve in the Basilica of the Apostles in Paris.
A strong woman
On great ladies who became reflections of Mary Most Holy, one Pontiff said:
“Catholics of France, your history, the whole fabric of which is woven by Mary’s graces and favours, confers on you an altogether special duty to watch over the integrity and purity of your Marian heritage. […]
“An admirable role is played by ladies in the history of France. Clotilde frees her from paganism and heresy, and through the Baptism of Clovis she is given to Christ! Blanche of Castile is the educator of St. Louis, ‘the good lieutenant of Christ’! Joan of Arc restores to France her place in the world, and her standard bears the name of Jesus and Mary! […]
“These providential heroines fulfilled their [mission] by the wisdom of their spirit, the strength of their will, the holiness of their life, the generosity of their complete self-sacrifice, and above all, by imitating the virtues of Mary, throne of Wisdom, strong Woman, Handmaid of the Lord, sorrowful Virgin whose heart was pierced with a sword, Mother of the Author of peace and Queen of peace.”6
There is no doubt that St. Clotilde was a strong woman like the one praised by Scripture. She did not prefigure the Virgin in the manner of Abigail, Judith or Esther, but she followed her example, perpetuating a vein of Marian souls on earth. These souls save the world with their “fiat” and, through their faith, obtain grandiose resurrections. ◊
1 BERNET, Anne. Clotilde, épouse de Clovis. Histoire des Reines de France. Paris: Pygmalion, 2006, p.64.
2 The pagan custom of the time admitted polygamy. Clovis had a first wife, but she had already died when he married Clothilde.
3 Cf. ST. GREGORY OF TOURS. Histoire ecclésiastique des Francs. L.II, c.30; BORDONOVE, George. Clovis et les Mérovingiens. Paris: Pygmalion, 2006, p.92.
4 From Latin: “The Kingdom of France, the kingdom of Mary, will never die.”
5 BERNET, op. cit., p.161-162.
6 PIUS XII. Speech to French pilgrims in Rome for the canonization of St. Joan of Valois, 29/5/1950.