“Charlemagne… although enfeebled by old age, went off hunting as usual, but without moving far from his palace at Aachen. In this way he passed what remained of the autumn and then returned to Aachen in the beginning of November. While he was spending the winter there, he was at some point in January attacked by a sharp fewer and so took to his bed. As he always did when he had a temperature, he immediately cut down his diet, thinking that he could cure his fever by fasting; or at least alleviate it. He then developed a pain in the side called pleurisy by the Greeks, in addition to the fever. He continued his dieting, taking liquids as his only nourishment, and those at rare intervals. On the 7th day after he had taken to his bed, he received Holy Communion, and then died at 9 o’clock in the morning on the 28th of January, this being his 72nd year of his life and the 47th year of his reign. His body was washed and prepared for burial in the usual way. It was then born into the cathedral and interred there, amidst the grat lamentation of the entire population. At first there had been some doubt about where he should be buried, for he had given no directions about this during his lifetime. In the end it was agreed by all that no more suitable place could be found for his interment than the cathedral which he had built himself at his own expense in that town for the love of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ and in hnour of Hus Holy and ever-virgin Mother. He was buried there on the day of his death and a gilded arch with his statue and an inscription was raised above the tomb.” (From: The Life of Charlemagne by Einhard. Translated with and introduction by Lewis Thorpe. Penguin Classics 1969.)
Since then, the remains of Charlemagne have lain in his cathedral in Aachen, although definitely not undisturbed. Originally he was buried in the Proserpina – sarcophagus of marble from the third century AD. Nearly 200 years later Otto III travelled to Aachen and opened his grave in secret and by night. There he found the body still dressed in its vestments. According to a chronicle he personally cut the fingernails, drew a tooth and took a golden cross plus several textiles from the grave. Obviously the young German emperor wished to lay his hand on some of the aura of what he considered his magnificent ancestor. It is reasonable to believe that he at that point was planning to get Charlemagne sanctified.
However, it took more than 150 years before this was carried through in 1165, when the emperor Frederick Barbarossa finally dug him out and placed his bones in first a wooden casket, and later (in 1182) the so-called “Karlsschrein”. Afterwards his remains were fair game. Already an arm was placed in the remarkable reliquary for an arm and in 1350 his skull was placed in the “Karlsbüste”, while further splitting up took place later on.
In 1804 Napoleon and his empress Josephine visited the Cathedral an removed some trinkets as touristic souvenirs or gifts for her, probably the now empty reliquary for the arm as well as the Talisman and some fragments of the textiles. Somewhat later – when Aachen was annexed by Germany after 1815 – a scientific approach took over. The hunt for the original grave began and in 1843 the “Schrein” was one more opened in order to inspect the bones scientifically. Further openings in 1861, 1874 and 1949 have been reported. Finally in 1983 and again in 1988 his remaining 94 bones were once more pathologically examined. This examination ended in a conclusion concerning his height: 1,82 metres (less than the 2 metres, which was formerly believed) After this examination the Cathedral decided that the casket should never more be opened.
However, the question now is of course whether a cast of his skull will be made in time for a reconstruction of his looks in order to be exhibited in 2014 in Aachen, where three huge exhibitions are planned to celebrate the 1200 years since he died. The first one – Places of Power – will be housed in the coronation hall and focus will be on the palaces of Charlemagne. The second – the Art of Charlemagne – will be organised at a new exhibition venue, the Centre Charlemagne. The last one – Lost Treasures – will be located at the treasury of the Cathedral and showcase all the lost trinkets, souvenirs, bones etc.