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Aachen, Charlemagne’s Lost Tomb

History books usually state that Charlemagne died in Aachen and was buried there in 814. The truth is, Charlemagne died at Aquisgranum, in Francia, and was buried THERE in 814, which isn’t the same thing, and which, besides, no one is able to dispute.

We should first put Aix/Aachen inside of its Belgian Gaul context. This site was included in the Tongres Belgian diocese, which was founded in the 4th century by Saint Servais. There was a spring that was used by the Celts, then by the Romans, and afterwards by the Franks who re-baptized it with the name Aachen.

Belgian Gaul has never been called Francia; with the arrival of the Franks, it became Austrasia. Aachen/Aix was in Austrasia.

The diocese was horizontally cut in two by the Celtic, later Roman, rectilinear route that linked Bavay to Cologne. Today, it is still called “Brunehaut’s Road”. The Bishop of Tongres’ seat was in Maastricht, where this road crosses over the Meuse River. The town of Liege was not yet in existence during the time of Charlemagne. It was founded by the Bishop of Tongres, who fled from Norman incursions and retreated to the foot of the Ardennes, sometime around 840. The towns of Maastricht, Tongres, Visé, Saint-Trond, Aix, Herstal, Fourons, Kornelimunster, Stavelot and Malmedy seem to have been destroyed in 881 by the Normans.

If Aix/Aachen were indeed known as Aquisgranum, one would inevitably find that information in the history of the Tongres/Liege diocese. In the history books on the Principality of Liege, whose non-hereditary prince was a bishop, one is struck by the complete absence of any mention of Aquisgranum, of Charlemagne and the Carolingians, from Charles Martel onwards. In Jean Lejeune’s book, Principauté de Liège, published in 1948, and four other times since, which is often cited as a reference, one finds two lines on Charlemagne.

The author, who cites a detailed and condensed bibliography that is twenty-six and a half pages long, states in passing that the best-known son of the diocese built his chapel in Aix/Aachen. That is all. He does not call it a “palatine chapel”, and he is right since there is no palace there. He doesn’t mention the Frankish capital city, for the same reason, and he does not write the word “Aquisgranum” a single time. Moreover, it seems Charlemagne’s empire did not play any role whatsoever in the mediocre existence of what should have been instead the empire’s first diocese.

Charlemagne’s tomb has been described as an underground chamber. We know it was beautiful, that it was built on the orders of his son Louis I, outside, under the entrance of his chapel, and that it cost quite a lot to build.

In the year 1001, Emperor Otto III had it opened so he could get inside. One of his friends, Count Otto of Lomello, wrote the following report of that event:

“We entered the room where Charles’ body was. He wasn’t laid out like other dead bodies are, but was sitting up on a throne as if he were still alive. He had a golden crown on top of his head and a scepter rested in his glove-covered hand. His fingernails had poked holes through the gloves after they had grown out. Over his head was a marble and cement vault that we had to crack apart to open up a passageway so we could get to him. Upon entering the area, we noticed a very strong odor. We fell to the ground on our knees and bestowed honor upon him. Otto III immediately covered his body with white cloths, cut his nails, and cleaned up the area all around him. His members were not yet putrefied, except for the tip of his nose, which was somewhat decomposed. But the Emperor immediately had it fixed with some gold. After the Emperor extracted one of his teeth and patched the vault back up, he left.”

Of course, all these details create a big problem for historians because there is no such tomb in Aachen. So the explanation we are given is that this description is too “bizarre” to be true—and one wonders who has the authority to decide what is bizarre and what is not—and that Count Otto of Lomello is not a credible witness.

But the tradition did indeed exist. For example, on the Isolotto of Ischia Island, in the Gulf of Naples, Italy, we find an underground cemetery under what remains of a convent of Clare nuns where the dead, all together, were set up on stonework seats around the four walls of a big room. Two similar underground cemetery sites were identified in the Picenum. Unfortunately, they were destroyed on the orders of the Catholic clergy between 1970 and 1980.

The Archeology Institute and Museum of Sofia, Bulgaria website, under Diana Guergova’s direction, published the following research: “The Eternal Burial Rite. The Throne and the Sitting Deceased.” According to the study, this relatively unusual way of burying important people started in Thrace 4,000 years ago. Over the course of centuries, this practice expanded over all of Europe, towards the West, including France and Belgium, and also towards the East, as far as India.

The historians also remark that Charlemagne’s body should have been decomposed, even if it had been embalmed. This remark might perhaps be valid, in view of Aachen’s climate, but not for that of Picene Francia, where this certainly wouldn’t have been the only such case (consider the natural mummies of the Valnerina Valley, the mummies of Urbania and those of Massapaolo Piceno, all three locations found in the Italian Francia).

But there is an even bigger problem as far as the official history is concerned: the building we are presented with as being Charlemagne’s chapel, built around year 780, is really a Gothic cathedral, that is to say, it could not have been built before year 1050. If we do not know who was its architect (some say it was a certain Eudes of Metz, but we don’t know when he was born and when he died), there is, nonetheless, an artifact that points to a date: a huge octagonal bronze chandelier, which was a votive gift from Emperor Barbarossa (1122-1190). It was anchored to an enormous 4.43-foot thick rock that serves as the keystone. Naturally, this anchoring requires perforation right through the stone block before it is lifted up and put in place to finish off the cupola. Therefore, the Barbarossan chandelier is indicative of the entire structure’s age.

But what is the description several Latin texts gave of Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel?

  1. It was constructed prior to 790.
  2. It was built in a countryside covered over with grape vines, all in rows (Alkuin of York).
  3. It was built on a square plan, with 4 pillars in the center that made up 9 bays (conversation between Alkuin of York and Queen Liutgarde, written in a letter to Charlemagne).
  4. It had two levels, the center being opened up to the cupola.
  5. It was built by architects, stonemasons and artisans who came from the Middle East.
  6. It was covered by a flat, terraced roof that surrounded a cupola (Notker Balbulus).
  7. One gained access to the roof terrace by using two magnificent tower staircases (Einhard, Notker, Widukind von Corvey).
  8. Using those spiral staircases, one could also reach a solium extractum, a kind of terrace built against the façade that the bishops and the Emperor got up on to receive the acclaim of the people (Einhard, Widukind von Corvey, Annales Quedlimburgenses for the year 1000, Wipo). This terrace was built by Emperor Louis the 1st, Charlemagne’s eldest son.
  9. The Germigny-des-Prés oratory was built on the model of the Palatine Chapel (Theodulf), perhaps by the same builders. It is situated in the center of France, in the Department of Loiret, near Orleans. It has a square plan, with 4 pillars in the center that make up 9 bays.

This description does not correspond to the Aachen cathedral. Some historians have tried to say that this last building was constructed in two phases and that Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel is the central part of it. But it is an octagon formed by 8 pillars, and the huge chandelier that Emperor Frederic Barbarossa donated hangs right in the middle of it.

Do all historians and archeologists say that the Aachen Cathedral is Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel? No.

Let see what three of the dissenters, Professors Heribert Illig, Arnold Nasselrath, and Giovanni Carnevale have to say. It should be mentioned that authors who write history books often just replicate one another’s work (all one has to do to be convinced of this is read their bibliographies). On the contrary, Heribert Illig carried out serious research with a catastrophic result: there are little or no traces that point to Charlemagne’s presence in Aix/Aachen. The courageous Illig has written books to present the serious possibility, not that Charlemagne lived elsewhere, but that the Emperor never lived at all! Heribert Illig’s theories are obviously a bit extreme, but his analysis of Aachen’s cathedral in the book Hat Karl der grosse je gelebt? [tn: Did Charlemagne Ever Live?] is, in any case, very detailed, pertinent and, at times, even impertinent. He gives 24 excellent reasons why one is forced to consider the possibility that this is an Ottonian-style cathedral that was not built prior to the year 1050.

The most recent doubts about the construction date for this cathedral were carefully formulated in the catalogue prepared for the Charlemagne exhibit, Carlo Magno a Roma, which was presented at the Vatican in 2002. To be more specific, the German expert Arnold Nasselrath writes, on page 103:

“There are growing doubts about the attribution of the perfect stage (the Aachen cathedral) to Charlemagne. It is more likely that it was built during the Ottonian period, but attributed to Charlemagne to sustain the myth that was created around him. In that case, the symbolism chosen and expressed by Charlemagne’s successors would have been transformed into historical truth, without anyone realizing what was actually taking place.”

Giovanni Carnevale states:

“The similarity between the octagonal building at Aachen and a smaller edifice at Ottmarsheim in Alsace, France, is astounding: one might say that Ottmarsheim represented its prototype. Not the opposite, because in the past, architectonic models passed slowly from one style to another, based on forms that can be traced throughout history. And the structure at Aachen shows the accentuated verticality of the Gothic style that Ottmarsheim did not, and could not have since the church dates back to 1030 when Gothic was still something that was off in the future.

The structure of Saint Mary at Aachen (the Aachen cathedral) dates back, completely, to the time of Barbarossa. The technical examination of the building does not allow for any other conclusion. It is a massive, stone block octagonal structure meant to support the weight of a cupola, itself of massive masonry. To neutralize the enormous push of gravity, the basic masonry of the octagon was fortified with iron bands, which measured 3.15 inches x 3.15 inches, placed at different heights. An analogous support system was reserved for the cupola’s masonry, also fortified by iron bands, at diminishing intervals. Furthermore, there are many other technical reasons that exclude Carolingian authorship. In Das erfundene Mittelalter [tn:The Middle Ages, Invented], published in 1996, author Heribert Illig enumerates a good twenty of them.

The builder of Aachen’s Saint Mary certainly had seen the Carolingian Saint Mary in the Chienti Valley (San Claudio church), Le Marche, Italy, and most likely, but not necessarily, San Vitale in Ravenna. The emperors named Otto favored octagonal buildings because, as some say, they are an allusion to their name (“Otto”= 8). The Chienti Valley offered, and still offers, octagonal structures with an Ottonian influence, like the towers, the walls, and the powerful bastion next to the Palatium, Charlemagne’s palace, in the curtis of Pieve Favera (Province of Macerata, Italy), a complex of extraordinarily beautiful buildings from that same period.

The octagonal design of Aachen’s Saint Mary might also have been conceived to celebrate the memories of both Charlemagne and the Otto’s, who were the Saxon reformers of the Frank empire. It was a strong argument, in opposition to Saint Denis, the symbol of the French royal house’s imperial ambitions.

Apart from the octagonal design, Aachen’s Saint Mary (Aachen’s cathedral) shows the same structural elements that are characteristic of the Carolingian Saint Mary in the Chienti Valley: the atrium in front of the church, the solium, the terrace above the portico’s entrance, the two staircase towers at each side of the façade, and inside, the lower-level plan and gallery above, all crowned by the cupola.”

Therefore, all three experts arrive at the same conclusion: that this building is of Ottonian and/or Gothic style. Its construction could not have begun before 1050, that is to say, at least 250 years after Charlemagne’s death!

The imperial remains are, today, in a very beautiful silver gilt box. Nevertheless, one would think that in order to get a man who was 6.40 feet tall, with all of his imperial gear into this shrine, he must have been “reduced down” quite a bit. The official history relates that Charles’ body was transferred into this box from another box. That is possible, but when emperors died, they were not placed directly into a box, for the obvious reasons—it does not seem necessary for me to spell them out. The little Chinese boxes game does not resolve the issue, and the reasoning I give for the first shrine is just as valid for the second. There should have been, somewhere, a tomb for Charlemagne, even an empty one.

Then, let’s at least look for Otto III’s tomb. The Saxon emperor was also buried at Aquisgranum in the Palatine Chapel, in front of the altar, in the year 1002. According to the official history, Charlemagne’s and Otto the 3rd’s tombs are under the choir at Aachen. And there is, in effect, a tombstone bearing the name of Otto III. Unfortunately, it has to be considered a dummy slab because there is nothing underneath. Some archeological digs were carried out to discover what was under the choir; tunnels were even dug. The result was that there is nothing there. Nevertheless, the archeologists found, in front of the entranceway, an empty space that was large enough to hold the very beautiful Roman white marble sarcophagus from the 2nd century that is a representation of the abduction of Proserpine, in which Charlemagne’s body would have been transferred from the Italian Picenum, most likely to Cologne first, then to Aachen when the cathedral would have been ready.

A strange object is exhibited as Charlemagne’s throne, lit up by spotlights. It is presented on top of several steps. I would rather have expected to find a refined, decorated, finely worked, golden throne. Instead, we are shown a very simple Roman marble armchair, an outdoor seat which could have been found in theaters or amphitheaters; one could almost say it is a piece of Roman garden furniture.

But there could be more than just one throne: the one Charlemagne had in his council room, and the one on which he was buried, sitting upright. The Roman armchair that is presented to us in Aachen could indeed be the one on which the Emperor was sitting in his tomb. What is described as “Charlemagne’s throne” at the National Library in Paris, which would have been brought to Paris in 870 by Charles the Bald, could therefore be authentic.

Next to the palatial chapel, there must have been a palace. If you ask a guide where Charlemagne’s palace was, you will be told under the city hall. Now, the city hall stands on the other side of the big square, too far away from the cathedral to be connected with an elevated wooden corridor, as indeed it was during the time of the Carolingians. And if you ask where Charlemagne’s capital city was, the answer will be that it was under the town of Aachen. Except that, over the centuries, when sewers were dug up, and roads, underground parking, tunnels, and what not were built, the remains should have been found. They were not.

Where is the first chapel, the one built by Pepin the Short? It was never officially found. Neither were the Frank military camps, that is to say, May Camp and the Permanent Camp.

Here is what was left of Pepin the Short’s chapel in 1981. Today, it is in an even worse state.

Then, where were Charlemagne and Otto III actually buried?

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