07 May 2014

Great Buildings: Charlemagne’s Palace at Aachen

Charles the Great did more than conquer a large part of Europe to earn his moniker. In addition to his support of church reform and education, he financed a lot of construction. His most famous is the palace at Aachen, part of which still stands more than 1,200 years later.

What became a complex on approximately 50 acres was a modest royal villa when Charles started his reign in 768. He likely would have stopped at the site at least to rest the animals as the court and the two hundred people that went with it moved from place to place. The royal family typically stayed at a residence for only a few months, the amount of time pastures and crops could sustain all those extra humans and beasts.

Construction of Charlemagne's most famous palace
At some point, Charles wanted a residence that would rival a palace in the Byzantine Empire, and he chose a villa in the heart of Austrasia, his ancestral lands. By 788, some construction apparently had taken place at Aachen. Instead of a villa, the Royal Frankish Annals call it a palace. The author does not specify why.

Could it have been the secular buildings on the northern side of the complex, where Aachen’s city hall now stands? Adjoining the royal residence was an audience hall, about 154 by 66 feet, with a curved end and a tower for the archives and treasury. Possibly decorated with images of heroes, this was the place to hold assemblies and receive foreign delegations, demonstrating Charles’s wealth and might.

Interior of the octagonal chapel at Cathedral of Aachen.
Photo by Tobias Helfrich.
The best known feature of the complex is the religious buildings on its south side, including the octagonal chapel, perhaps modeled after San Vitale in Ravenna by architect Odo of Metz. Its construction was started in 792 and took four years.

Charles’s biographer, Einhard, says the monarch’s devotion to Christianity “is why he built the beautiful basilica at Aachen and decorated it with gold and silver, candelabras, lattices, and portals of solid bronze. Since he was unable to get the columns and marble for the structure from anywhere else, he had them brought from Rome and Ravenna.”

From his throne on the west side in the gallery, Charles must have been greeted with an opulent sight amid the marble columns. He faced the altars of the Savior and the Virgin, and overhead was a mosaic of Christ in majesty with the 24 old men of the Apocalypse.

The ceiling of the octagonal chapel.
Photo by Lokilech.
The complex had special amenities for its guests. Up to 100 people could fit into the bathhouse fed by a hot spring. The guests could marvel at the animals in the menagerie (which at one point was home to an elephant) or pursue a favorite medieval recreation, hunting, in a walled park.

The palace at Aachen was to become Charles’s favorite. From 794 until his death in 814, he would often spend the winter and part of the spring there. His frequent stays at the palace might have had an impact on the folk who lived near its four gated walls. Merchants set up their houses, and a market was established. The area later had a bishop and an abbey. Even after the emperor died, Aachen remained an important site as the Church held councils in the basilicas flanking the chapel.

Perhaps the most important thing about the palace at Aachen was not how Charles impressed his own subjects and foreigners with a show of power. The chapel that stands today tells us something important about medieval times, especially the so-called Dark Ages. Through it, we have physical proof that the yearning for beauty and escape from the ordinary is universal.

Images via Wikimedia Commons, public domain or used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.


Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché

The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe, Pierre Riché

Aachen is merely a royal villa in Kim Rendfeld’s novels, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press), both set in 770s Francia, but she needed to research the site for her work in progress, a story about Queen Fastrada, Charlemagne’s fourth wife who was so influential she attracted enemies. For more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com, her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.