CLOTILDA OF BURGANDY: THE GIRL OF THE FRENCH VINYARDS
(Afterward known as "St. Clotilda," the first Queen of France.) A.D. 485.
It was little more than fourteen hundred years ago, in the year of our Lord 485, that a little girl crouched trembling and terrified, at the feet of a pitying priest in the palace of the kings of Burgundy. There has been many a sad little maid of ten, before and since the days of the fair-haired Princess Clotilda, but surely none had greater cause for terror and tears than she. For her cruel uncle, Gundebald, waging war against his brother Chilperic, the rightful king of Burgundy, had with a band of savage followers burst into his brother's palace and, after the fierce and relentless fashion of those cruel days, had murdered King Chilperic, the father of little Clotilda, the queen, her mother, and the young princes, her brothers; and was now searching for her and her sister Sedelenda, to kill them also.
Poor Sedelenda had hidden away in some other far-off corner; but even as Clotilda hung for protection to the robe of the good stranger-priest Ugo of Rheims (whom the king, her father, had lodged in the palace, on his homeward journey from Jerusalem), the clash of steel drew nearer and nearer. Through the corridor came the rush of feet, the arras in the doorway was rudely flung aside, and the poor child's fierce pursuers, with her cruel uncle at their head, rushed into the room.
"Hollo! Here hides the game!" he cried in savage exultation. "Thrust her away, Sir Priest, or thou diest in her stead. Not one of the tyrant's brood shall live. I say it!"
"And who art thou to judge of life or death?" demanded the priest sternly, as he still shielded the trembling child.
"I am Gundebald, King of Burgundy by the grace of mine own good sword and the right of succession," was the reply. "Trifle not with me, Sir Priest, but thrust away the child. She is my lawful prize to do with as I will. Ho, Sigebert, drag her forth!"
Quick as a flash the brave priest stepped before, the cowering child, and, with one hand still resting protectingly on the girl's fair hair, he raised the other in stern and fearless protest, and boldly faced the murderous throng.
"Back, men of blood!" he cried. "Back! Nor dare to lay hand on this young maid who hath here sought sanctuary!"(1)
(1) Under the Goths and Franks the protection of churches and priests, when extended to persons in peril, was called the "right of sanctuary," and was respected even by the fiercest of pursuers.
Fierce and savage men always respect bravery in others. There was something so courageous and heroic in the act of that single priest in thus facing a ferocious and determined band, in defence of a little girl,—for girls were but slightingly regarded in those far-off days,—that it caught the savage fancy of the cruel king. And this, joined with his respect for the Church's right of sanctuary, and with the lessening of his thirst for blood, now that he had satisfied his first desire for revenge, led him to desist.
"So be it then," he said, lowering his threatening sword. "I yield her to thee, Sir Priest. Look to her welfare and thine own. Surely a girl can do no harm."
But King Gundebald and his house lived to learn how far wrong was that unguarded statement. For the very lowering of the murderous sword that thus brought life to the little Princess Clotilda meant the downfall of the kingdom of Burgundy and the rise of the great and victorious nation of France. The memories of even a little maid of ten are not easily blotted out.
Her sister, Sedelenda, had found refuge and safety in the convent of Ainay, near at hand, and there, too, Clotilda would have gone, but her uncle, the new king, said: "No, the maidens must be forever separated." He expressed a willingness, however, to have the Princess Clotilda brought up in his palace, which had been her father's, and requested the priest Ugo of Rheims to remain awhile, and look after the girl's education. In those days a king's request was a command, and the good Ugo, though stern and brave in the face of real danger, was shrewd enough to know that it was best for him to yield to the king's wishes. So he continued in the palace of the king, looking after the welfare of his little charge, until suddenly the girl took matters into her own hands, and decided his future and her own.
The kingdom of Burgundy, in the days of the Princess Clotilda, was a large tract of country now embraced by Southern France and Western Switzerland. It had been given over by the Romans to the Goths, who had invaded it in the year 413. It was a land of forest and vineyards, of fair valleys and sheltered hill-sides, and of busy cities that the fostering hand of Rome had beautified; while through its broad domain the Rhone, pure and sparkling, swept with a rapid current from Swiss lake and glacier, southward to the broad and beautiful Mediterranean. Lyons was its capital, and on the hill of Fourviere, overlooking the city below it, rose the marble palace of the Burgundian kings, near to the spot where, to-day, the ruined forum of the old Roman days is still shown to tourists.