Every king knows that his kingdom cannot last forever. Emperors know better than anybody else that they are all too mortal and will one day turn to dust, just like everybody else. Each ruler dreads the day when their regal name will no longer be revered by their admirers and flatterers, and their portrait is taken from the gallery wall and relegated to the storeroom of history. It happens to the best of them, and to the worst of them.
Even the greatest of Europe’s kings, Karolus Magnus (Karls des Grossen, Charlemagne, Charles the Great) is a king without modern kingdom. The vast kingdom that Karolus Magnus once ruled, eventually splintered into countless nation-states and is now spread out all over Europe. Crumbling first at the edges then splitting down the middle, all that remained in the end was the capital city of Aix-la-Chappelle, or Aachen before it too was annexed. Charlemagne’s capital city survived for some time as a politically protected island of Imperial autonomy after a grand devolution of power, but was eroded further with each passing year in an ever changing landscape of political shifting and subversion.
Every western school kid knows the name “Charlemagne”. With a vague understanding of who he was, where he lived, or what he did, most reference him in historical contexts hoping that nobody will ask any further details about him and his kingdom. Neither history or geography class ever taught me where Austrasia was located on a map, let alone that it ever was a thing! The year Karolus was crowned the Emperor of the Romans, 800, is a year too long ago for a young school boy on the west coast of the USA to process and comprehend.
They say that ‘Rome was not built in a day’. It is also true to say that Rome did not fall in one day. For hundreds of years Rome slowly lost control of the furthest reaches of its Empire and eventually fractured. The western kingdoms of the Roman Empire struggled to find their identity and fought among themselves for many decades, trying to come to terms with lost glory. The Franks united in a productive way, centered around Austrasia, (around the Maas and Rhine Rivers) creating a stronghold from which a leader wearing a crown of common consent could reunite the splintered kingdoms into a strong block. Charlemagne’s grandfather, Karl ‘the Hammer’, succeeded in this endeavor and left the Kingdom of the Franks to his son, Pipin the Short and his grandson Karolus, who would later become known as Charles the Great. Yet, the details around this tremendous achievement remain strangely vague in the school history books.
We know that Pipin the Short established a castle in the Frankish city of Aachen in 760 near the hot springs which the Romans had discovered and exploited. But history cannot tell us when Karolus was born, nor where. It is believed he was seventy-two years old when he died in 814. Does that mean he was born in 742? If so, he was born of unwed parents who only later married each other. This would not bode well for king hoping to gain the blessing of the church. The historical records are too few and incomplete to tell us for sure.
At the (supposed) age of twenty-six, at his father’s death in 768, Karolus inherited the title of King of the Franks, and continued his family’s quest to reunite the former Roman Empire under one crown. Campaign after conquest lead from his base in Austrasia, Karolus succeeded like nobody else and reestablished a single kingdom that stretched from the North Sea coast of Saxony to Rome and from the Danube River to the Galician coast of Iberia. In 774 he won the title of King of the Lombards (Italy) and, in 778 he campaigned in Iberia to send the Moors packing, liberating Christian lands all over Spain. In 800 he was crowned the Emperor of the Romans, and became the political leader of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 790, Karolus Magnus declared Aachen to be the permanent capital of his kingdom and empire, established a modest palace there and built a chapel in memory of the Virgin Mary, for his family and court to worship in. By 806, after a lifetime of most successful military campaigns, Karolus settled into Aachen to rarely leave the city again until his death in 814.
For hundreds of years even after Karolus Magnus died, the German kings entrusted with the title of Holy Roman Emperor were crowned in Aachen as late as 1531. Karolus was so revered for centuries in Western Europe for benefiting the cause of a united Europe, that Napoleon Bonaparte, after capturing Aachen in 1794, seriously considered having himself crowned Emperor in Aachen to help underpin his claim of legitimacy to being Europe’s God-given ruler.
But after eleven hundred years, what has become of Aachen?
Over the centuries the city has been destroyed by both fire and bombs. After each destructive event the city has rebuilt and renewed itself. Buildings that Charlemagne would recognize as “his city” have all been pulled down and replaced several times over, except for his octagonal Palatine chapel. It stands still today, and it is still glorious!
Aachen is a heavy city. It is not a city of bright, sandstone and adorned facades like Paris or Barcelona. The pedestrian streets in the city enter are narrow and lined with widely spaced and uneven cobblestones of gray granite.
Alleyways are narrow, set between squat, leaning houses. Public squares are cramped with buildings of varying widths, heights and colors stacked next to each other; different centuries standing shoulder to shoulder.
The stones in the ancient tower walls from 1300 are not uniform in anyway, nor laid in orderly, fortifying rows. Mismatched by color and size, the raw stones are turned at all angles and direction designed to withstand a medieval barrage of flaming arrows and catapulted boulders. The mosaics these stones weave are dark, brooding and overbearing–yet breathtaking.
Charlemagne’s influence and fame was not confined to only his European homelands. During the second world war in Europe, Aachen was the first city in Germany to be captured by Allied forces in October 1944. Local legend has it that American airmen were given orders to avoid dropping bombs on Charlemagne’s historic chapel-Cathedral. While the city was heavily damaged, and parts of it leveled in the fighting, the Cathedral was largely left undamaged; a sign of reverence and respect to the king who shaped and inspired many of the greatest civilizations and rulers in western tradition.
His cathedral, now a UNESCO World Heritage Monument, holds the secrets of the Emperor’s fears, prayers and heavenly inspiration. Did God whisper to him the secrets of conquest and kingly governance here in this place?
To shuffle over the ancient inlaid marble floors and wonder at the twinkling patterned mosaics overhead is to reflect on the interconnected relationship of the Earth and the heavens.
To pace the eight sides of the original octagonal chapel is to ponder the miracle of God’s salvation and eternal life.
The city’s residents have not let the memory of the resident king fade with the years, or become eroded by the friction of modern politics; Karls des Grossen in an unimpeachable historical figure. Coffee shops, gymnasiums, pharmacies and sports clubs all purport to have Charlemagne as either a loyal customer, a silent partner or their patron saint.
Highlights of regal gold are seen in architecture and decoration of public and private buildings alike.
From behind dark, sober stonework, the warm glow of golden accents in a door frame or the highlights on a wrought-iron window screen signal to visitors that there is history to be discovered in this town, as if proclaiming: We were once royalty!
If Karolus Magnus were to rise and walk among us again, through the streets in Aachen, he most likely would not recognize his old neighborhood in Aix-la-Chappelle after twelve-hundred years of modern city planning.
Should he venture further than the Domhof or the Marktplatz am Rathaus and into the far corners of his kingdom, to Santiago de Campostela, Vienna or Hanover, he would surely recognize the desire for today’s Europeans to unify and find strength and protection in their common history, values and culture. What Rome was, Charlemagne worked to restore. What the European Union is, as imperfect as it may be, Charlemagne would work to preserve. While he may never be able to rule over it all again, he would certainly be proud to see that the spirit of his kingdom today has lived on in the hearts of the people, bringing them together despite their differences and past conflicts.
Long live Charles the Great!