Emperor Charlemagne, in his final years of ruling, legislated and ruled more, and campaigned and warred less, than his previous self as King Charlemagne. The increase in Charlemagne’s governing activity may have reflected a new and greater sense of responsibility that came with the imperial title. However, the natural life cycle likely played an even more powerful role in determining how Charlemagne spent his final fourteen years.
Increased Legislative Activity
While Emperor Charlemagne did less traveling and campaigning than his younger self, he did much more legislating, ruling, and governing. From Charlemagne’s first decade as king of the Franks and Lombards, just one capitulary survives today—and the dating of that lone capitulary is somewhat uncertain. However, for the single year of 802, fourteen capitularies survive.
Three times as many capitularies survive for his fourteen years as emperor, from 800 to 814, than for his more than three decades as king, from 768 to 799. Chance survival may affect these numbers somewhat; nonetheless, the discrepancy is so large that Charlemagne’s increase in legislative and administrative activity during his final fourteen years seems securely established.
New Titles, New Expectations
Even if Charlemagne later expressed regret over the imperial coronation, his new status as emperor seems to have raised his expectations for himself and for his subjects.
Back in 789, Charlemagne had required all of his subjects to swear an oath of loyalty to him as their king. The oath was modest in its demands—subjects were not to harm the person of the king, not to introduce his enemies into the kingdom, and not to shelter his enemies within the kingdom.
In a capitulary of 802, however, Emperor Charlemagne demanded that his subjects take a new oath, a much more expansive and demanding oath. The oath of 802 extended the list of prohibited activities: subjects were not to impede the emperor’s orders, not to shelter the emperor’s runaway slaves or serfs, and not to ignore the emperor’s summons to war.
The oath of 802 also required Charlemagne’s imperial subjects to do certain things; indeed, it required nothing less of them than to “strive…to live entirely in the holy service of God in accordance with the precept of God”.
This is a transcript from the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Charlemagne’s Final Years and Death
Governance kept Charlemagne busy into his final few years, but in his early sixties, his physical decline was noticeable.
He took a bad fall from the back of his horse. He also experienced severe pain in his legs while hunting, so that a favorite pastime became a source of frustration. Even simple walking became difficult for him.
He participated in his final military campaign in 810; in 811, he made his last substantial trip away from Aachen. It was a journey to the mouths of the Rivers Seine and Scheldt, where he examined recently built defensive works intended to keep Viking raiders at bay. That same year, 811, Charlemagne arranged for the division of his movable property after his death. He died on 28 January 814.
Earlier in his life, Charlemagne had indicated that he wished to be buried at the monastery of St. Denis, the traditional burial place of Frankish kings. However, either that wish had been forgotten, or it was ignored. Charlemagne was buried in a crypt beneath the west entrance of the palace church at Aachen.
Charlemagne’s Burial Site
Charlemagne may, MAY, have been buried in a marble Roman sarcophagus located at Aachen, called the Proserpina Sarcophagus. However, it is also possible that Charlemagne’s bones were moved to that sarcophagus later in the Middle Ages, and it is also possible that his bones were never in that sarcophagus at all.
Certainly no sources contemporary with his burial mention Charlemagne being buried in a Roman sarcophagus. And bones believed to be Charlemagne’s were moved to various locations at several points during the Middle Ages. For example, a famous Aachen reliquary, a golden bust depicting Charlemagne himself, created in the 14th century, was later said to contain part of Charlemagne’s skull.
Still, on several occasions since 1988, scientists have X-rayed, poked, and prodded bones taken from the Proserpina Sarcophagus. The Sarcophagus bones belonged to a tall, thin, elderly, male with a gimpy knee and heel. The researchers’ conclusion: it’s Charlemagne!
But while the findings do not rule out Charlemagne, the uncertainties surrounding where Charlemagne was initially buried, and whose bones were being moved in later centuries, means that the case is far from airtight.
Common Questions about Charlemagne’s Final Years, Death, and Burial Site
The number of capitularies that remain from Charlemagne’s final years as emperor is three times more than that of over three decades of him as king. Though this might just be by sheer luck, to a certain amount it guarantees that Charlemagne’s legislative activity had increased as emperor.
In a capitulary of 802, Emperor Charlemagne demanded that his subjects take a new and a much more expansive and demanding oath than before. The oath of 802 extended the list of prohibited activities: subjects were not to impede the emperor’s orders, not to shelter the emperor’s runaway slaves or serfs, and not to ignore the emperor’s summons to war. The oath also required Charlemagne’s imperial subjects to “strive…to live entirely in the holy service of God in accordance with the precept of God”.
Charlemagne‘s physical decline was noticeable in his early sixties. He took a bad fall from the back of his horse. He also experienced severe pain in his legs while hunting, and even simple walking became difficult for him.