Take a walk back in time to 745AD. Who knew the child born to Pepin the Short and his wife, Bertrada, would unite the western world?
When his father died, and elder brother followed soon after, Charles, or Charlemagne as he became known, inherited a split kingdom. Tactically brilliant, he out-maneuvered his opponents and, empowered by his pious beliefs, went on to subdue many of the pagan tribes across Europe. Christianity was enforced; options were limited – submit or die. Many thousands perished in the process.
A favourite of the Pope, Charles was seen as a protector of the Catholic faith and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800AD. A powerful, handsome, athletic man – tall, bull-necked, round-bellied …these are some of the descriptions applied to him. He must have towered over his subjects, dominating them by his physical prowess and ruthless reputation.
But here we also see a different side to his character.
Being somewhat of a renaissance man, he favoured education, written reforms and diplomacy in his later years. With his grasp of languages and fluency in Latin and Greek, he developed schools to educate the clergy to become administrators, ensuring stability across his kingdom, covering much of what we know today as France, Germany and Belgium.
With multiple wives and mistresses, he fathered sixteen or more children and was by all accounts a devoted father. From his family tree, many branches spread across Europe into England and up into Scotland through dynastic royal marriages.
Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, had a passionate love of swimming, and enjoyed the warm springs of Aix-la-Chappelle, a town of Belgian origin: now in Germany, and renamed Aachen. If you’re exploring the glories of the nearby Rhine and Moselle Rivers, take a short drive to this western German border town, your efforts will be well-rewarded.
Look down, and you will see the king’s emblem – K for Karolus – embedded in the cobbled streets.
Grab a coffee; munch on some of the spiced biscuits, a regional delicacy, from the local bakery, and head to the museum.
On display in a massive vault, lies a breath-taking wealth of golden treasure.
Around the corner, you’ll find the cathedral – a miracle of design, filled with intricate mosaic patterns over the walls and ceilings, and curved trails of marble flooring. My neck ached from staring up at the spectacle of zillions of tiny glass mosaic pieces fashioned into swirling patterns glittering in the lamplight.
This is Charlemagne’s enduring legacy, and his resting place. A grander tomb would be hard to find for the man, some might call, the Father of Europe.