In 486, King Clovis led the forces of the Franks in the conquest of Soissons, France. Prior to Clovis’ invasion, the city (and the lands surrounding it) had been dominated by a family with vague links to Rome. The short-lived Kingdom of Soissons was said to have been founded by a Roman general or allied chieftain, named Aegidius. By the time that Clovis marched on Soissons, control of the region had passed to Aegidius’ son, Syarius. According to Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), King Clovis destroyed the army of Soissons and Syarius fled to the lands of the Visigoths. Nevertheless, King Alaric II (r. 484-507) of the Visigoths decided to hand the refugee king back over to Clovis, presumably as a gesture of goodwill. Ultimately, Clovis executed Syarius and absorbed Soissons into his own Frankish kingdom.
According to tradition, King Clovis was still pagan when he conquered Soissons in 486 and would not openly convert to the Roman version of Christianity for another ten years. Whatever the case, Clovis’ warriors were given free rein to loot the wealthy churches in the newly conquered region. Yet, perhaps the king was already gaining interest in Christianity, for when he received a message of complaint from a local bishop, the king did not disregard the letter or punish the priest. Instead, he reportedly decided to help the troubled bishop. Gregory of Tours recorded an interesting bit of folklore about this event in book II of his History of the Franks.
As the story goes, a bishop complained to Clovis that his church had been ransacked by Frankish warriors and everything of value had been stolen. Although an abundance of precious metals, jewels and rare relics had been plundered from his sanctuary, the bishop apparently was only concerned about a single sacred ewer (a pitcher or vase). The distraught clergyman said that he cared not for the rest of items that were stolen from the church. Everything else could be kept by the Franks as spoils of war; the bishop only wanted his precious ewer to be returned. This bold bishop is often identified as Saint Remigius, the bishop of Rheims, yet Gregory of Tours never made that connection and did not offer a name.
Clovis apparently sympathized with the bishop, or otherwise sensed an opportunity for some good public relations work. He brought the bishop’s messengers to Soissons, where Frankish troops were reportedly still plundering the region. Once there, Clovis had the warriors responsible for the sacking of the church lay out their plunder before the messengers. The agents of the bishop, who had been briefed on the size and workmanship of the ewer, quickly found the wondrous treasure—it was a huge piece of masterful design and magnificent decoration.
Clovis asked his warriors if they would consent to the ewer being handed over to him, their king, so that he could do with it as he wished. All of the warriors, except one, gave the king their approval. Of course, the man who refused was the one who had laid claim to the ewer when the Franks had initially ransacked the church. As the ewer was the greatest treasure from his share of the loot, the warrior who possessed it was loath to see it go. When Clovis persisted and the other Franks in attendance lent support to their king, the lone warrior became overcome with anger and frustration. The enraged Frank eventually let the ewer be taken away, but not before he struck the treasure with a mighty swing from his axe, splitting or shattering the relic. The messengers gathered the ewer, in whatever shape it was in, and returned to their bishop with the bittersweet news.
King Clovis reportedly spared the insubordinate warrior, yet he held a deep grudge against the man. By the end of the year, however, the king had come to the decision that letting the man live was a mistake. After mulling over these thoughts, Clovis called his army to appear on a parade ground for inspection. The king made his rounds, strolling through the ranks and checking the weaponry and armor of his warriors. He finally found the man who had stuck the ewer months earlier. As the story goes, Clovis singled the man out, claiming that his equipment was in horrible condition. As the king belittled the man’s weapons and armor, he threw the warrior’s gear to the ground. When the embarrassed Frank bent down to gather his gear, Clovis reportedly grabbed an axe and split the man’s head in two with a great swinging chop. According to Gregory of Tours, some warriors standing on the parade-ground heard King Clovis shout, “That is what you did to my ewer in Soissons,” as he bashed in the warrior’s head (History of the Franks, Book II, 27).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Still life with an ewer and other objects, by Willem Kalf (1619–1693), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.