Emperor Charlemagne is often regarded as the “Father of Europe”, and many people claim to trace their family origins back to him. You would think that such a pillar of European history would have been investigated in the most intimate detail, and that virtually everything about him would be known, despite the fact that he died in 814 AD.
He controlled, what today is, France, Germany, the Low Countries and northern Italy, and his coronation in Rome in the year 800 was a spectacular challenge to the traditional leaders of Christianity in Constantinople. How is it possible, therefore, that the location of his capital, and his final resting place, are now being challenged?
Tradition holds that his capital, and his final resting place, are both the current German city of Aachen. In modern times, it has suited the founders of post-World War II institutions to showcase Aachen. The town sits close to the intersection of Germany, France and the Benelux countries; a nice, central location befitting of Charlemagne, the perennial symbol of peaceful European unity.
However, the church of San Claudio, just outside the town of Macerata in central Italy, has long laid claim to be the real final resting place of Emperor Charlemagne.
Guidebooks describe San Claudio as a Romanesque abbey, built in the 11th century, but many local people claim the building is really at least two centuries older. They also believe that the spot was the headquarters of the conquering monarch – a place where he held court between wars, built a personal chapel, and where his earthly remains were interred.
The people of Macerata, the town close to San Claudio, do not question that Aachen became the capital of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, but they do question what came before, in Emperor Charlemagne’s life. In the 12th century, another roving warrior King, Frederick Barbarossa, established a cult of Charlemagne as a saint, and affirmed the relationship of Charlemagne and Aachen. However, all the evidence seems to be based on a town called “Aquisgrana”.
Tradition has it that “Aquisgrana” was Aachen, but Giovanni Carnevale, a learned and charismatic Italian priest who spent his last four decades studying Charlemagne (Carnevale died in 2021), believed differently. Drawing on Latin, French and German sources, as well as on oral history and archeology, he found scores of reasons for his claim that San Claudio was the first “Aquisigrana” before that place-name, along with Charlemagne’s body, and other artefacts, were moved by Barbarossa to Aachen.
The accounts in Latin describe “Aquisgrana” as a place prone to earth tremors, where vines and olive trees were cultivated, and where you could go hunting by the sea. All these details fit San Claudio perfectly, and do not fit Aachen at all.
Other evidence cites a couple of other medieval churches, which were described by their founders as copies of “Charlemagne’s chapel”. One is in Hereford, in England, and the other is in France, near Orléans. They both uncannily resemble San Claudio, but bear no resemblance whatsoever to the octagonal chapel in Aachen.
Somewhat inevitably, over the years, many places have claimed to be the birthplace of Charlemagne. Even Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler tried to assume the mantle of Charlemagne as the unifying force for Europe, so San Claudio could just join the list of other fanciful ambitions and claims. However, there might be something to its claim.
The people of San Claudio are unbowed by criticism of their claim.
Charlemagne’s coronation was in Rome in late 800 AD. A Latin text puts Charlemagne in Aquisgrana in March 801 and in the Italian town of Spoleto in April of the same year. “Is it really possible that he dashed over the Alps to Germany and then hastened back to Italy, all in a matter of weeks?” asks Marco Rotunno, a present-day guide to the church of San Claudio. He then smiles, and adds, “but if his capital was really here……..?”
An interesting footnote to this blog is the fact that today, Sunday, President Zelensky of the Ukraine, is in Aachen to receive the “Charlemagne Award”, which is given for unification of European values and principles. Charlemagne lives on!