WHO IS THAT German KING? Poised on his charger, his hand raised in a warning or a salute — this is Charlemagne, one of Christendom’s great heroes. A Frank — forerunners of today’s Germans and French — Charlemagne died 1200 years ago, in 814 AD. His name in Latin was Carolus Magnus. For the Germans, he is ‘Karl Der Grosse;’ ‘Charles the Great’ in English and ‘Carlo Magno’ in Spanish.
A GREAT, TALL MAN: The skull of Charles the Great is preserved in this reliquary in the Treasury of the great Cathedral built in his capital, today’s Aachen, Germany (Aix-La-Chapelle in French). From his remains, we know he was heavily built, sturdy, and of considerable stature. He had a round head, large and lively eyes, and a slightly larger nose than usual. His hair was prematurely white and he bore a characteristically bright and cheerful expression. He enjoyed good health. Charles the Great stood 1.84 meters (slightly more than 6 feet) making him a very tall person for his time.
‘CAROLUS PRINCEPS’ — Latin for ‘Charles the Prince,’ inlaid in marble in Aachen Cathedral. His father was the Frankish leader Pepin the Short, mayor of the palace under the Merovingian dynasty of Frankish kings. His grandfather was Charles Martel, aka ‘Charles the Hammer.’ (In Germany today, people still use ‘Der Hammer’ to describe a man they admire.)
CROWNED EMPEROR OF THE ROMANS BY POPE LEO III ON CHRISTMAS DAY in A.D. 800 and ruled until his death in January, 814 at the age of 71. He started the custom whereby Christmas Day became a traditional day of crowning Emperors and Kings. It took 32 years before Charlemagne completely conquered the Saxons from 772 to 804 AD. He also conquered the Bavarians, Slavs and Avars and obliged them to pay him tribute and also defeated and ruled the Lombards of Italy in 773 and northern part of Spain in 778 AD.
THE EMPIRE THAT CHARLEMAGNE built included almost all of western and central Europe. He presided over the cultural and legal revival of the West known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Modern-day France and Germany emerged from Charlemagne’s empire, the former as West Francia and the latter as East Francia.
CHARLEMAGNE INVITED THE MONK ALCUIN OF YORK, ENGLAND to his capital at Aix-la-Chapelle (today Aachen, Germany) to set up the first Christian Cathedral School. Though he was illiterate, Charlemagne recognized the great power of education, and ordered bishops and abbots to set up schools for the training of monks and other clerics throughout the Empire.
CATHEDRAL WINDOW AT CHARLEMAGNE’S TOMB He made Latin the standard written and spoken language in his huge empire of several languages and dialects, thus making it possible for Europeans to communicate across cultures. Charlemagne also played a key role in preserving much of the literary heritage of ancient Rome.
WORTH MORE THAN $100 MILLION, this coronation cross was made for Charlemagne and carried at every Coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor for almost a thousand years. His warrior-king image was the inspiration for all subsequent empire builders in Europe during the Middle Ages. The word for “king” in several modern Slavic languages such as Krol in Polish and Kral in Czech are based upon the German name of Charlemagne, Karl.
CORONATION CLOAK for the Holy Roman Emperor is still intact and on display in the Cathedral Treasury. In a great historical irony, this may well be the very spot where Charlemagne founded his famous school.
CHARLEMAGNE THE MAN For German Catholics who don’t think they can have a marriage annulled — apparently a widespread misconception in modern times — it may be interesting to note that Charles the Great was married four times. His first marriage was annulled, and he went on to have eleven legitimate and nine illegitimate children.
GOLDEN RELIQUARY FOR A SIMPLE KING He wore a blue cloak and always carried a fancy jeweled sword to banquets or ambassadorial receptions, though in the main he despised elaborate, expensive clothes and usually dressed like the common people. His favorite food was roasted meat. He wanted to build a canal that connected the Rhine and Danube Rivers via the Main, which in fact wasn’t accomplished until the 19th century.
CAESAR AUGUSTUS WITH A SCEPTER BEARING THE ROMAN EAGLE at the center of the Coronation Cross of the Holy Roman Empire.
CHARLEMAGNE’S FIRST TOMB After a funeral Mass, he was buried the same day he died, in this stone sarcophagus. According to medieval legend, Charlemagne was said to have risen from the dead to fight in the Crusades.
THE BONES OF CHARLEMAGNE now repose in this ornate, solid gold reliquary in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral at Aachen, where they miraculously emerged unharmed, despite the devastation of Allied bombing of the city during World War II. According to Charlemagne’s legend, he sleeps until Christendom — the Empire he forged –has need of him once again.
CHARLEMAGNE AND THE IDEAL OF THE CHRISTIAN KNIGHT For centuries, Germany and all of Christendom believed in a knightly ideal — the gallantry of a Christian warrior devoted to his Lord, defending his lands and deferential to women, children, the poor, the sick and the elderly. All of this arguably derive from the example that this great king, Charlemagne, set 1200 years ago.