Clovis I, king of the Franks, r.481-511

War against the Romans
Wars with Alemanni
Burgundian Civil Wars
Wars with the Visigoths
Elimination of his Frankish Rivals

Clovis I (r.481-511) was the founder both of the Merovingian dynasty and of a powerful Frankish kingdom. During his reign he turned his kingdom from a small power in Flanders into a major kingdom that stretched from Aquitaine to the Rhine and English Channel.

Clovis inherited a small Salian Frank kingdom from his father Childeric, who had fought for the Romans. His father is buried at Tournai, and Clovis's inheritance was centred in that area. Our main source for the events of Clovis's reign is the chronicle of Gregory of Tours. Frustratingly most events are dated with relation to start of Clovis's reign, which isn't dated. The standard chronology, which we will use here, is based on the tradition that Clovis was baptised at Rheims in 496, the fifteenth year of his reign. He was said to have come to the throne when aged sixteen, so would have been born in 466.

In 481 Gaul was divided between a number of new barbarian kingdoms and the remnants of the Roman Empire. Clovis inherited a small Salian Frank kingdom in the area of modern Flanders, although he was only one of many kings of the Salian Frank. To his south was a Roman enclave based on Soissons, ruled by Syagrius. To the south-east the Ripuarian Franks had a kingdom based around Cologne.

In the south the most important power was the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse, which ruled part of Spain, Aquitaine, Septimania (the western part of the Mediterranean coast of France) and Provence. The Burgundians held an area in the Rhone Valley, to the north-east of the Visigoths and south of the Franks. To their north-east the Alemanni, a group of German tribes, held Alsace and threatened to move west against either the Franks or the Burgundians.

Our main source for the life of Clovis is the chronicle of Gregory of Tours. It is clear that Gregory of Tours misses out many of Clovis's campaigns, while others are only mentioned in passing. One of the shortest references is to a campaign against the Thuringi, which took place in 491 and resulted in their conquest. His main aim was to portray Clovis as a great Christian king, and as a supporter of the Catholic church.

Clovis was related by marriage to many of his fellow kings. He married Clotilda, the daughter of Chilperic II, one of four brothers who ruled Burgundy (Chilperic was dead by the time of the marriage, possibly murdered by his brother Gundobar). Clovis's sister Audofleda married Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths and ruler of Italy.

War against the Romans

Clovis' first recorded war came five years into his reign, when he was about twenty, and was against the 'Roman' kingdom ruled by Syagrius. This was a last enclave of Roman rule in Gaul, and consisted of the area between the Loire and the Somme. Syagrius had ruled the area since 465, and for the first ten years of his rule was the official representative of the Western Emperor. After the Goths deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last of the Western Emperors, Syagrius remained in power, ruling the area with the support of the local bishops. In 486 Clovis invaded Syagrius's kingdom, and defeated him at the battle of Soissons. Syagrius escaped to the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse, but was returned by King Alaric II and executed. Clovis took over his kingdom (possibly only after a number of further campaigns), greatly extending the size of his kingdom, which at the end of this process reached the Loire.

Wars with Alemanni

Clovis was involved in at least one war against the Alemanni, but the details are frustratingly obscure. The standard view is that the Ripuarian Franks called for help after being attacked. Clovis responded and defeated the Alemanni at the battle of Tolbiac (496). Although Gregory of Tours does mention a battle against the Alemanni at that location, he doesn't place Clovis there, and he gives no location for the battle he does mention between Clovis and the Alemanni. To Gregory the main significance of this battle was that during it Clovis called for help from Christ, and promised to convert to Christianity if he won. After his victory Clovis and 3,000 of his men were baptised at Rheims, an event traditionally dated to Christmas 496.

There are some hints that Clovis may have fought a second war against the Alemanni ten years later, or even that the events allocated to 496 actually took place in 506, and that all of Clovis's dates need revising.

Burgundian Civil Wars

In 500 Clovis became involved in a civil war between the brothers Gundobar and Godegesil, kings of the Burgundians. Clovis entered the war in support of Godegesil, and defeated Gundobar's army at the battle of the Ouche (500). Gundobar retreated to Avignon, where he was besieged. He was able to hold out for long enough to convince Clovis to agree to accept an annual tribute in return for recognising him as co-ruler of Burgundy.

Once Clovis had left Burgundy Gundobar turned on his brother, and besieged him at Vienne (c.500-501). Vienne fell after Godegesil expelled the civilian population. Amongst the victims was the man in charge of the aqueduct, who showed Gundobar a way into the city. Godegesil was killed, leaving Gundobar as the sole king of the Burgundians.

Gundobar and Clovis appear to have come to terms after this period of hostility. According to Isidore of Seville the Burgundians supported Clovis during his war with the Visigoths (407), and occupied Provence (before being expelled by the Ostrogoths).

Wars with the Visigoths

Clovis's victories in the centre of France brought him into direct contact with the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse. This was a sizable kingdom that included parts of Spain as well as Aquitaine and much of the Mediterranean coast of Gaul (Septimania in the west and Provence in the east). This kingdom had been ruled by Alaric II since 484, and suffered from a division between its Arian Gothic rulers and largely Catholic population. Although Alaric appears to have been more tolerant than his predecessors, this gulf did cause some conflict with his bishops, several of whom were forced into exile.

The first conflict between Clovis and Alaric is only recorded in the Chron. Caesaraugustanorum, a collection of marginal notes found in another chronicle. This conflict was apparently focused in Aquitaine, and began in c.494-495. The Franks captured Bordeaux in 498 but were unable to hold onto it. Gregory of Tours, who doesn't mention this conflict, does record a meeting between Alaric and Clovis on an island in the Loire in 502, at which the conflict was probably ended and the border restored at the Loire.

The second and better documented war with the Visigoths broke out in 507, despite the best efforts of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths to preserve the peace. Clovis was supported by Sigibert, the king of the Ripuarian Franks, who sent his son, and possibly by the Burgundians. He was also aided by the Eastern Emperor Anastasius, who sent a fleet to raid part of Theodoric's Italian coast, preventing him from interfering in Gaul.

The two armies clashed at Vouille, near Poitiers (507). Clovis was victorious, and Alaric II was killed during the battle. The Franks advanced into Aquitaine, plundered Toulouse and spent the winter at Bordeaux. Part of their army began a siege of Arles (507-508), but in 508 Clovis himself returned north to Tours. He was awarded an honorary consulate by Anastasius, probably at this period, and celebrated that and his victory at Tours.

Despite the defeat the Visigoths retained a foothold in southern France. Theodoric sent an army across the Alps in 508, and lifted the siege of Arles. He kept Provence for himself, but the western part of the Mediterranean coast remained part of the Visigothic kingdom, which was eventually ruled by Theodoric's grandson. Clovis and Theodoric were the main winners from this war.

Elimination of his Frankish Rivals

After his victory over the Visigoths Clovis moved his capital to Paris. In the last few years of his life he concentrated on eliminating his fellow Frankish kings, regardless of any previous relationship between them.

First to go was Sigibert the Lame, king of the Ripuarian Franks on the Rhine. Clovis convinced Sigibert's son Chloderic to murder his father, promising to support Chloderic's claim to the throne. After the deed was done Chloderic sent a message to Clovis promising to pay him whatever he wanted. Clovis's agents took their chance and murdered Chloderic in turn. Clovis then turned up, claimed ignorance of the entire plot, and convinced the Ripuarian Franks to accept him as their king. Rather amusingly Gregory of Tours ends this tale of treachery with the claim that Clovis was gaining extra land because he 'walked with an upright heart before him, and did what was pleasing in his (gods) eyes'.

Next to go was Chararic, the relative of Clovis's who had stayed neutral during the early war against Syagrius. Clovis captured Chararic and his son, gave then tonsures and forced them into holy orders. Famously the Merovingian kings had long hair, and so the tonsured men would be unable to threaten Clovis until their hair had grown back. Chararic's son was overheard threatened to kill Clovis once his hair had regrown, so Clovis had them both killed.

Ragnachar, king of Cambrai, another relative had actually helped Clovis during the battle against Syagrius, but he wasn't spared. Clovis bribed his men with gold-plated armlets and belts and then invaded Ragnachar's territory. Only after Ragnachar had been killed and Clovis had seized his land did his men discover that they had been conned.

Rignomer, yet another relative of Clovis and the brother of Ragnachar and Sigibert, and king at Mans, was also killed on Clovis's orders and his kingdom absorbed. After all of this family strife Clovis had the nerve to mourn his lack of close relatives!


By the time of his death in 511 Clovis had won control of most of western and northern France along with a sizable chunk of land east of the Rhine. Brittany remained outside his control, as did Burgundy and the south coast. His ruthless attacks on his fellow Franks meant that his sons were his only serious heirs, but in line with Frankish traditions Clovis's kingdom was divided between them.

All four got part of the area around Paris, and their capitals were all in that area - Theodoric I was based at Reims, Clodomir at Orleans, Childebert I at Paris and Chlotar I at Soissons. Their dominions were scattered around Clovis's vast kingdom, and the inevitable result was a prolonged period of instability. The kingdom was briefly reunited under Chlotar I, the last surviving son, but was split between his four sons in 561.

Despite the division of the kingdom after his death Clovis was acknowledged as the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, named after his (possibly legendary) grandfather Merovech. His squabbling descendants eventually lost power to the Carolingians, but the legacy of Clovis's conquests, a Frankish kingdom that included most of Roman Gaul and parts of western Germany, survived long after his death.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 January 2013), Clovis I, king of the Franks, r.481-511 ,

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