How Clovis and Charlemagne Shaped Today’s France

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How Clovis and Charlemagne Shaped Today’s France
Imagine coming face to face with two of France’s ancient rulers, Clovis and Charlemagne. You can if you go to the Musée Grevin, the wax museum in the 9th arrondissement. They are both there, large as life, right at the beginning of the History of France section. To look them in the eye, as I did recently, is to be transported back in time, before France was even France, and to wonder exactly who they were and whether they have left a legacy for the 21st century. First, comes Clovis (466-511) whose blue-grey eyes stare reflectively into the middle distance and whose long blond hair and beard give away his Frankish (Germanic) roots. He became king of the Salian Franks, ruling over land which is today in Holland and Belgium, on the death of his father when he was only 15. He was such a fierce and ambitious warrior that by the end of his 30-year reign he had unified the various Frankish tribes, won decisive victories over the Romans and conquered much of Gaul. He ruled over more of what is now France than anyone had before him. Clovis tomb at the Cathedral of Saint-Denis near Paris. Credit: Arnaud 25/ Wikimedia Commons He was certainly ferocious, as the story of the “Vase of Soissons” shows. After defeating the Roman Syagrius at Soissons, in what is now northern France, Clovis allowed his men to plunder riches from the local church, but when the bishop pleaded to keep one particularly beautiful silver chalice, he relented. The soldier holding it was so furious he smashed the vase to the ground, rather than handing it back. A year later, Clovis met the same soldier on parade, remembered the incident, took an axe to his head and killed him. The troops watching this presumably quickly grasped the message that Clovis was to be obeyed without question. St Remy, Bishop of Reims, begging Clovis for the restitution of the Sacred Vase taken by the Franks in the Pillage of Soissons. Credit: Maksim/ Wikimedia Commons Clovis was highly effective. The historian John Julius Norwich writes that “he was a monster, often cold-blooded in battle,” and it is said that he was willing to assassinate even his own allies in his bid for power. But his rise was also thanks to other factors, such as marrying some of his children to leading members of rival tribes, thus drawing them into his orbit. As his position as the single ruler of the Franks became clear he was astute enough to declare the role hereditary, thus founding the Merovingian Dynasty which ruled for the next two centuries. Clovis 1, King of the Franks. Credit: British Library / Flickr

Lead photo credit : Clovis (left) and Charlemagne (right) wax works at the Musée Grevin. Photo credit: Marian Jones

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.


  • Louise Stevens
    2023-02-03 05:08:03
    Louise Stevens
    Two such fascinating characters, Marion. Thank you for your articles and your podcasts on City Breaks which are really marvellous. A good balance of history, quotes from other writers, and snippets of amusing information.


    • Marian Jones
      2023-02-03 12:49:56
      Marian Jones
      Why, thank you very much for extremely kind comments. I've been working on other cities of late - there will be a new series on Bordeaux starting in March - but I keep thinking about possible new episodes to add to the Paris series. And, inspired by your feedback, perhaps I will look into it soon. Merci, Louise.