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Charlemagne's Church at Aachen

Janet L. Nelson looks at the history of this church in the small town in the North-Rhine Westfalia region of western Germany.

Aachen today is a delightful small town in the North-Rhine-Westfalia region of western Germany. It was, and still is, much visited because of its associations with Charles the Great (Charlemagne) and the Holy Roman Empire. At Aachen, Charles’ favourite residence in the latter part of his long reign (768-814), are preserved memorials of the great man himself and of the empire he founded. Visit, and you feel the centripetal power of a myth-history which has dominated European imaginations for well over a thousand years.

It all started, according to Einhard who was a member of the court during the Aachen years, because Charles loved swimming: there were thermal springs and old Roman baths at Aachen, and Charles ‘swam whenever he could. He would invite not only his sons to bathe with him but his magnates and friends, and sometimes his retinue as well. Sometimes a hundred men or more would be in the water together’.

Aachen was one of many estate-centres belonging to the new Carolingian dynasty which had seized power in the Frankish realm in 751. Charles wintered there in the first year of his reign, 768-69, but is next recorded there again only in 789, at a realm-wide assembly to which he announced an extraordinary programme of collective, institutional and personal reform. Though he stayed at Aachen increasingly often from 794, he resided there more or less permanently only after returning to Francia following his coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 as the first emperor of a ‘renovated Roman Empire’.

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