In Aachen — Confronting an Enigma.

26 Apr

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Since the early dawnings of my lifelong interest in history, I have been fascinated and bugged by another enigma. It took the shape of a mysterious, mythical figure from the Middle Ages — Charlemagne. I first encountered him in a book of famous people in history which I must have got as a Christmas or birthday present when I was still at primary school. Alongside Hannibal, Napoleon, Richard the Lionheart, Boadicea, Julius Caesar and the rest was this mysterious foreign emperor from the so-called “Dark Ages”. From the brief description in the book I couldn’t work out whether he was French, German, Roman or something else. Where was he from? What did he do? Why was he so revered over many centuries? My fascination remained dormant for many decades, until at last, in this, my 70th year, I finally visited Aachen in west Germany, the town that this enigmatic Emperor had made into his capital. It’s not the most obvious German town to visit on holiday — it’s not nationally important and not particularly beautiful. Unfortunately many of its older buildings were blasted to smithereens by the Allies in the Second World War. It is not even the biggest place in North Rhine-Westphalia, the region of Germany it sits in, for Cologne, a very large city, lies just an hour’s journey to the east. So what attracted me to Aachen?  Well, it was that irresistable combination of history and mystery. Charlamagne’s capital was at Aachen. Finally I would have a stab at unravelling the enigma of that mythical ruler. Luckily I had a friend who was happy to share in the investigation.

Well, Charlemagne is everywhere in 21st century Aachen. I’m surprised that he didn’t meet us off the train and shake our hands! He was in the foyer of our hotel, an avuncular figure welcoming us with his long, curly beard and flowing medieval robes, not forgetting the ancient, octagonal crown on his head. He looks a bit like Father Christmas. Of course it was just a statue, but it was one that was repeated constantly as we wondered through this small city. He guards shops and cafes. He appears in ginger-bread form in bakeries.  I heard a rumour that there are chocolate replicas of him in the confectioners. In the market square there is an impressive statue of Charlemagne sporting a renaissance- era suit of armour and holding an orb and sceptre. His image sits above the main entrance to the City Hall ( Rathaus) alongside that of Christ and the Pope who crowned him Emperor, so he is in exalted company. Aachen’s main museum is called Centre Charlemagne and the Tourist Office’s Heritage walk  is called — yes, you’ve guessed it — the Charlemagne Trail. We even saw his statue in the window display of a shoe shop!

So who was Charlemagne? He was the King of the Franks in the late 8th and early 9th centuries AD. The Franks were a Germanic tribe who took over the lands we now know as Germany, France and the Benelux countries. They once formed most of the Western Roman Empire. The Franks were one of the main “barbarian” tribes who swept in from the east to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman legionaries.  Charlemagne inherited the Frankish throne in 768 AD from his father, along with his brother, and when his sibling died a few years later, he ended up as sole ruler. Charlemagne is his French name. The English refer to him as Charles the Great and the Germans call him Karl der Grosse. These multiple names show what an important, international figure he became. Like many of the famous people in my little history book, Charlemagne made his name as a great war leader. For 26 years or more he ruled, not from a throne, but from the saddle. He was disciplined, determined and relentless. Through no less than 54 military campaigns he accumulated a vast Empire. It was know as the Carolingian Empire. It covered what we now know as France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, the far north of Spain and much of northern Italy. It was the greatest Empire Europe had seen since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, over 300 years before. There was not going to be another European empire like it until Napolean Bonaparte came to power in the early 19th century.

But Charlemagne didn’t merely conquer land, he forced all the people in these territories to give up their pagan gods and convert to Christianiaty.  This is why the Pope in Rome liked him so much. He may have been a devout Christian but that does not mean that he paid much attention to the teachings of Jesus.  For example, he fought many bloody battles against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe of pagan worshippers. After defeating them at Verden in 782 AD, he ordered 4500 Saxons to be massacred! He eventually forced the Saxons to become Christians by declaring that anyone who refused to be baptised or follow Christian ways would be put to death! As with so many of these so called “great” figures of history, the accolade was awarded for the “end” result not the “means” by which it was achieved. Yes, Charlemagne created a great Christian Empire, uniting much of western Europe under his control, but one can also say that he was a ruthless murderer and ego-maniac. So how did he end up becoming an Emperor instead of a mere king and why was such a violent, bloodthirsty man feted by the head of the Christian Church? As is often the case, power and wealth won out against peace and love. Charlemagne used his military might to rescue Pope Leo III from a rebellion in Italy. Leo thanked him by crowning him  “Charles Augustus, Emperor of the Romans”  in Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica, on Christmas Day, 800 AD. This I believe, was the beginning of the “cult ” of Charlemagne. Not only was he a very powerful,  early medieval ruler but he was now being hailed as the natural successor to the  great Roman Emperors of the past. His achievements were being ranked alongside all the glories of the ancient Roman Empire. He was in effect, the first Holy Roman Emperor, a prestigious title for the honorary ruler of the numerous states of what we now call Germany. Subsequently 30 German kings or Holy Roman Emperors were crowned in Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen.

It has to be said though that Charlemagne’s glittering reputation rests on a lot more than his soldiering exploits and vast conquests. Ambassadors, scholars, legal experts, scribes and artists were encouraged to come to Aachen, his capital. Culture flourished under his rule such that this period has been dubbed the ” Caroligian Renaissance.” The arts and intellectual pursuits were encouraged. Roman and Ancient Greek knowledge was preserved and advanced. Significant detailed attention was applied to laws and precedents, so that a uniform legal system was established across much of Europe. This had not been seen since the days of the actual Roman Empire. Charlemagne introduced administrative reforms and standardised weights, measures and custom duties throughout his territories. All this created stability and encouraged commerce , which led to prosperity for many. So after all that slaughter, the peoples of western Europe eventually reaped the considerable benefits of Charlemagne’s enlightened rule. He encouraged eminent scholars to attend his court in Aachen and he established a library of Christian and classical works. He held a General Assembly  there every year. So although he was a dictator, Charlemagne did make some small steps towards democracy by consulting representatives of the people he ruled. His mission was to unite all Germanic peoples into one kingdom. So one could confidently claim that he was the founder of modern Germany. His Empire also laid the foundation for modern France as well. In recognition of this, his statue stands right outside the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Charlemagne was the source of inspiration for such leaders as Napoleon and Adolf Hitler who also had visions of ruling a united  Europe . In fact Emperor Charlemagne is referred to by some as the “Father of Europe.” Not surprisingly his achievements are heralded today by the European Union, an ambitious modern project to unite much of Europe in peaceful trade and co-existance. Not surprisingly, the 2 major players in the E.U. are France and Germany which were the 2 main parts of the Caroligian Empire all those centuries ago. It seems that throughout European history, everyone, good or bad has tried to get a piece of Charlemagne , to legitimise their own rule and to bask in his immense reflected glory. Charlemagne was not merely a king and emperor from the distant past. He is now a cult, a legend and a myth. He is a symbol of civilisation and European unity.  He is an icon of the Catholic church. However so many people have tried to hitch a ride on his coat-tails, distorting the truth to suit their own agendas, that it is now very difficult to untangle fact from fiction. To quote Winston again, you could say he is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Big C is also a massive tourist attraction of course even though he died and his great empire disintegrated more than a thousand years ago. Afterall, this was why my friend and I were visiting Aachen and not some more obviously picturesque location. Despite a great fire in the 17th century and 74 consecutive nights of British and American bombing in 1944, the crowning glory of Aachen remains Charlemagne’s magnificent cathedral, the Dom. After an orientation stroll and our first sampling of Aachen’s excellent coffee and irresistable cakes, we inevitably ended up at the entrance to the Dom. It’s not everyday that one can stand in front of a building that was established at the start of the 9th century. In Britain that would be the Anglo-Saxon era and few buildings have survived from that time. Charlemagne’s Palace-Chapel was completed in 800 AD. It is an unusual octogan shape, not the cross-shape we are used to seeing in cathedrals. The ancient, octagonal chapel is topped by a cupola. To our surprise, it is free to go in. 1 euro is requested to take photographs but there were no offertory boxes and no one seemed interested in collecting any money. A few laid- back security guards kept a casual eye on things. As we wondered in, our jaws dropped. This was one of the most extraordinary buildings we had been in. Sorry to be so corny!

The first things that hit you are the rich, dazzling mosaics. They adorn a sixteen sided arcaded walkway that surrounds the central octogan. Separating this walkway from the central worship area are a series of Arabic style archways in alternate dark and light blocks of stone. The whole area is adorned in shining marble. The original impact of the spectacular mosaics is only slightly reduced when you find out they were done as recently as the late 19th century and early 20th century in neo-Byzantine style. Inside the octogan, one’s view is drawn inexorably upwards. It is a spectacular 3 storey space. Above is a 2 tiered gallery with 8 arcades of classical columns originally brought from Ravenna and/or Rome in Italy. Some of these ancient columns were hacked off and carted to Paris by French revolutionary troops when they took possession of Aachen in the Napoleonic wars. Not all of them have been subsequently returned so some of the ones seen today are replicas. Up above in the cupola is an enormous fresco ( or mosaic) representing heaven. The original mosaics were cracked and badly damaged by the installation of a colossal  12th century brass chandalier hanging from a powerful iron chain donated by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. He too wanted to verify his rule and gain prestige by connecting himself with Charlemagne. The great chandalier hovers dramatically above the worship area. It is so huge that it had to have been constructed inside the Dom. It is a place to sit down in silence and simply be awed. All around us tourist cameras were clicking away as if there was no tomorrow, but although we had taken some pictures ourselves, it seemed to be a time to sit in quiet contemplation.

Subsequent kings and emperors added their chapels , artefacts and expensive adornments. There is a gold-plated altar and a jewel encrusted pulpit. The most wonderful addition in my opinion, is a 14th century Gothic chapel based on the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It has huge, spectacular, glowing, stained glass windows. The original medieval windows were blown out  by the wartime Allied bombs but excellent replicas were quickly made and installed between 1949 and 51. From this magical chapel comes Aachen’s French name :Aix- la- Chapelle. The wondrous chapel was built in 1355 to help accomodate the tens of thousands pilgrims who were flocking to Aachen. They were coming to see Charlemagne’s gilded shrine, finished in 1215 . By then many regarded him as a saint although he has never officially recognised by the Catholic Church. The pilgrims also came to view 4 important Christian relics which had been brought to Aachen and kept in the golden Shrine of Mary, also in the chapel. They are: the apparel of the Virgin Mary, the swaddling clothes and loincloth of the baby Jesus, and the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist. These are put on view every 7 years, and if you want to go and join the pilgrim throngs, the next viewing is in June 2021. It seems strange to me that objects like this still have such a powerful hold over  religious people today. Fancy coming all that way to see an ancient nappy and a bloody rag? Surely such blind faith and deep superstition belong back in the middle ages before the age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century? But who am I to argue with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims?

Charlemagne originally wanted to transform Aachen into a new Rome. It had previously been a Roman town but on the northern edge of their Empire. The Romans were attracted there by a series of hot springs which they tamed and turned into a luxurious bath complex. They did the same in Bath, England. The word “Aachen” simply means “water.” There is still a thermal spa complex in Aachen but we didn’t go in because it looked expensive, and anyway, we had forgotten out trunks.

It was an interesting and very enjoyable holiday. Aachen lies on the border of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, so it a great place for trips on the excellent rail network. We went to Cologne in Germany and Maastricht in the Netherlands as well as passing the Belgium cities of Brussels and Liege on our rail journey from England using the Eurostar. It was a great trip around a fascinating part of the European Union, the organisation that the United Kingdom has now voted to leave. Obviously the “leave” voters in the UK are that rare breed — people who don’t know or don’t care about Emperor/Saint Charlemagne’s legacy. Many others through the centuries have been desperate to be part of it such that he has reached mythical, superstar status. For me, I am really pleased that I have at last  visited Aachen/Aix-La-Chapelle to unwrap the enigma and understand a bit more of my continent’s rich history and culture. Never again will I say “Who’s Charlemagne?” He meant many things to many people. Like Heinekin, he reached the parts that other emperors couldn’t reach!





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