Charlemagne (Latin: Carolus Magnus; German: Karl der Große) lived from 747 or 748 to 814. He was King of the Franks and the Lombards, and from 800 on also bore the title of Holy Roman Emperor. For his contemporaries he was already "Charles the Great", in recognition of his great significance for a Europe plagued by unrest.
By both military and diplomatic means, Charlemagne built one of the greatest empires of his times. It stretched from the Pyrenees to the River Elbe and from the North Sea to Central Italy. In the heartland of this empire was a network of palaces, royal courts and abbeys on which he based his rule. He spent a great part of his life travelling between these power bases. One of the most important palaces was called "Aquispalatium" and was situated in the town of Aachen, which had been founded by the Romans. It was here that he spent the last years of his life and his reign.
Charlemagne lived and ruled at a crossroads of different cultures. He himself stood in the tradition of Germanic kings who, since the Migration Period, had risen to power as military leaders, and whose states had usually disintegrated again fairly soon after they died. Charlemagne was aware of this problem and consciously pursued different ideals. One of them was Roman antiquity, whose heritage was still most alive in Italy. He maintained relations to the Byzantine Empire as well as to emerging Islamic culture. At his palace in Aachen, he gathered together the wisdom and knowledge of antiquity and had records made of the lore of the peoples he had subjugated.
It was against this background that Charlemagne initiated a range of wisely-considered reforms. Many of his legal, economic, religious and cultural reforms fundamentally shaped the medieval world, and their influence still prevails today. The best examples are his introduction of a common currency, a standardised, legible script and a common Christian faith with a standardised liturgy.
One of the grandest testimonies to the culture of Charlemagne's times is the St. Mary's Church that he built in Aachen, today's Cathedral. When it was built, it was the most prominent church north of the Alps. On his death, Charlemagne was entombed here, and the subsequent Roman German kings chose Aachen as their preferred place of coronation.
After his death, Charlemagne was glorified into the epitome of an ideal and holy ruler. And so the mythical figure was born of whom so many legends tell. His empire, which his successors divided and redivided among themselves in a long historical process, gave rise to the nations France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg as we know them today.
The "Legend of Charlemagne" lives on to this very day. Each century has interpreted and appropriated Charlemagne for its own purposes. Today, the two poles of this tradition of interpretation are admiration for his cultural achievements and rejection of the violent and oppressive side of his reign.
1200 years ago, Charlemagne ruled an empire that extended over vast stretches of continental Europe.
One of the centres of this empire was Aachen. It was here that he built a unique centre of religion, to here that he summoned learned scholars from all over Europe, and here that he was buried after his death. No wonder then, that Aachen has become a European memorial.