Battle of Soissons, 486

The battle of Soissons (486 AD) was the first recorded victory won by Clovis I, king of the Franks, and saw him defeat Syagrius, the ruler of the last Roman enclave in northern Gaul.

When Clovis came to the throne in 481 AD he inherited a small kingdom based in Flanders. To his west was a significant area of Roman territory, left behind by the collapse of Roman power in the west. This area had been ruled by Syagrius since 465 AD, at first as the chief Roman official in the area. After the removal of the last Roman emperor in the west Syagrius held on to power, and ruled what was effectively a Gallo-Roman kingdom with the aid of the local bishops.

Clovis didn't move against Syagrius for five years. Gregory of Tours, our main source for these events, gives us a very brief account of the actual fighting. Clovis demanded that Syagrius meet him in battle. Syagrius, who was confident in his ability to defeat the Franks, offered battle but his army was crushed. The defeated general escaped from the battlefield and was able to reach King Alaric II, the Visigothic king of Toulouse. Clovis demanded the return of his enemy, and Alaric handed him over (Gregory doesn't give a timeframe for these events, so they may have happened immediately after the battle or several years later. Syagrius was held captive until Clovis completed the conquest of his kingdom and was then executed. Again we don't know how long this conquest took, although there are some hints that Paris may have resisted his first attacks.

Throughout his military career Clovis preferred to fight with allies. During the campaign against Syagrius he called upon his fellow Frankish kings for aid. Two are recorded as responding, both relatives of Clovis  - Ragnachar, king at Cambrai and Chararic.

Chararic brought his army to the campaign, but didn’t take part in the final battle, preferring to wait at a distance and support the winner. Unsurprisingly Clovis was furious and at some point after the battle he captured Chararic and his son. At first Clovis was happy to force them into the priesthood, potentially eliminating them as rivals. Only after Chararic's son hinted that he was only biding his time and would soon turn on Clovis were they both executed. Clovis seized their kingdom.

Ragnachar actually took part in the battle, but this didn't preserve him from betrayal. Clovis bribed some of Ragnachar's supporters and they in turn invited Clovis to attack Ragnachar. Ragnachar was defeated in battle and executed by Clovis, who seized his kingdom. The bribes had been paid in gold armlets and belts, but after the battle the traitors discovered that these were only gold plated.

Gregory of Tours includes a story about the aftermath of the conquest. Clovis had not yet converted to Christianity, and his army plundered a number of churches. From one they took a large and beautiful vase. The bishop of that church sent messengers to Clovis asking if that particular vase could be returned, even if the other items were lost. At this date the Franks had not had kings for very long, and the young Clovis was restricted by a number of traditions. One was that the items from any plunder were to be divided by lot. During the meeting to divide up the treasure Clovis asked if he could have the vase as well as his normal share. Most of his men grovelled rather abjectly, but one young warrior disagreed with this attempt to break from tradition, and broke the vase with his axe. Clovis kept quiet, but a year later, at a review of his men, he insulted this warrior's appearance, seized his axe and threw it to the ground. When the young man leant down to pick up his axe Clovis drove his own axe into the man's head, saying 'This is what you did at Soissons to the vase'. Gregory includes this story partly to demonstrate Clovis' ruthlessness and partly to show the respect he already had for the church even when still a pagan.  

As well as expanding his borders, this victory gave Clovis several new neighbours, most importantly the Visigoths in the south, and the Alemanni and Burgundians in the south-east. These contacts would soon lead to further wars and with them further expansion.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 December 2012), Battle of Soissons, 486 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_soissons.html

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