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The Saintly Queen Who Changed History

If not for his saintly wife, Clotilda, history would not remember Clovis as the first Christian king in Western Europe

This month the Church remembers one of the most important women in Church history. It is unfortunate that her cult and memory in the modern world are mostly limited to France, since St. Clotilda’s life is worthy of emulation. If not for her holiness and heroic virtue, the history of France, Europe, and the Church would have been quite different.

France is traditionally known as the “Eldest Daughter of the Church” because of the conversion of Clovis, the King of the Franks. The praise should go not to Clovis, however, but to his saintly wife, Clotilda, who led her husband to the Faith.

By the end of the fifth century, much of the Western Roman Empire had been lost to various Germanic tribes. One of these, the Burgundians, came from Scandinavia to settle in the Rhône valley in Gaul (modern day France) in the early fifth century. Their king, Chilperic, was Arian, as were most of the Germanic tribes in Western Europe at the time. Yet, his wife, Caretena, was Catholic. Their daughter, Clotilda (474–545), was promised in marriage to Clovis (466–511), king of the Franks in order to strengthen the alliance between the two peoples. Unlike the other Germanic tribes, the Franks resisted Arianism and held fast to their pagan beliefs and customs. Raised in her mother’s Catholic faith, Clotilda was concerned about her marriage to the pagan Clovis, but she trusted in God’s providence and prayed for her husband’s conversion.

In the beginning of their marriage, Clotilda not only prayed for Clovis’s conversion but also tried to show him by way of reason the falsehood of the pagan gods made of stone, wood, and metal. The one, true, living God was not created by men—he created everything, she argued. Clovis was unmoved, but his intransigence only motivated Clotilda all the more. She continued to present arguments for the Faith, but—most importantly—she prayed for her husband, knowing that God would one day answer her prayers for his conversion.

One prayer was answered when Clovis agreed to allow the baptism of their first-born son, but the boy died shortly after receiving the sacrament. Clovis viewed his son’s death as proof that Clotilda’s God was false, arguing that the pagan gods would not have allowed his death. His reaction and the death of her son were not enough to dampen Clotilda’s faith; rather, they only strengthened it. For years, Clotilda carried on a holy campaign of persuasion and prayer for Clovis rooted in love for God and concern for her husband’s eternal salvation. Despite setbacks and heartaches, the saintly Burgundian princess remained steadfast, knowing that God would answer her prayers in his time.

Clotilda’s patience and prayer produced fruit when Clovis led his army in a campaign against a neighboring tribe, the Alemanni. In the pivotal battle of the campaign, the Franks were in a desperate situation, prompting Clovis to turn to Christ. The warrior king prayed to his wife’s God in his hour of need, promising his baptism if his prayer was heard and the battle turned in his favor. His plea was answered as the Franks defeated the Alemanni, which allowed for Clovis’s consolidation of power in Gaul. When he returned home, Clovis told Clotilda how God answered his battlefield prayer. The queen quickly dispatched a message to Bishop Remigius (437-533) at Reims, asking him to come and instruct Clovis in the Faith so he could receive baptism. After a period of instruction and preparation, Clovis was baptized by St. Remigius on Christmas Day at Reims in the year 496, along with 3,000 of his warriors.

Legend holds that the cathedral was so full that the cleric holding the sacred chrism for the anointing could not get through the crowd. Miraculously, a dove descended from heaven with a vial of oil, which St. Remigius used to anoint Clovis. This holy oil was used for the next 1,300 years to anoint the kings of France. After his baptism, Clovis worked to establish a strong relationship with the Church, instituting reforms and recognizing the independence of the Church in his territory. Clovis died in November 511 and, per Frankish custom, his kingdom was divided among his four sons. Sadly, the brothers fought each other in a deadly game of domination witnessed by their saintly mother.

Clotilda outlived Clovis by thirty-four years. She spent the decades of her widowhood financing the construction of churches and monasteries and living a penitential life of prayer, first in Paris and later at the Shrine of Saint Martin of Tours. Clotilda approached her marriage and life with humility and grace and never looked for recognition but rather rejoiced in the conversion of her husband. She profoundly shaped the course of human events and yet she remains obscure: remarkably, her feast day (June 3) is not on the universal liturgical calendar. Clovis became the first Catholic king in the West at the beginning of the sixth century and his Franks would become the dominant force on the continent for centuries. The conversion of the Franks sounded the death knell of Arianism in the West, ensured the triumph of the Catholic Faith in Europe, and ushered in the era of Christendom. None of these historical events would have occurred without the heroic faith and life of St. Clotilda.

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