7 Charlemagne (Charles the Great)

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Monks and knights
Three hundred years after the collapse of the Roman Empire the Frankish king Charlemagne established his West European empire. It stretched from the Pyrenees and central Italy in the south, to the West Frisian and Danish borders in the north. Charlemagne had imperial palaces built in several parts of his empire, one of which was Nijmegen.

In 777 Charlemagne had the Nijmegen imperial palace erected at Valkhof where Roman fortifications had once stood. These imperial palaces also had buildings for court staff and military personnel, perhaps as many as a few hundred people. A church or a chapel was an integral part of an imperial palace. The most important buildings were usually within a fortification. Outside the imperial palace were farms which had to provide food for the monarch and his retinue. In the case of Nijmegen these farms were spread out over the entire Rijk van Nijmegen (Realm of Nijmegen). The Imperial forest between Nijmegen and Xanten also belonged to the palace. This was used for hunting and forestry. On the banks of the river Waal immediately outside the Nijmegen imperial palace was a settlement where merchants, boatmen, artisans and farmers lived. However, not much is known about this.

During the Middle Ages monarchs were constantly travelling with their retinue from one palace to another. They would stay in Nijmegen for a couple of weeks at a time to discuss government issues with counts, military personnel, officials and clergy from the surrounding districts. Following Aachen, Nijmegen was one of Charlemagne’s favourite abodes. However, he also visited other imperial palaces while waging war against the Saxons in the east and the Saracens in Spain. He subdued the Lombard Kingdom and in the year 800 he had himself crowned emperor by the pope in Rome. The latter resulted in him being considered the successor of the Western Roman emperors.

Louis the Pious, son and successor of Charlemagne, regularly held meetings at the imperial palace in Nijmegen. After his death the empire was split between his three sons. Nijmegen and the rest of modern day Netherlands then came under the authority of the kings of the East Frankish kingdom, which was soon to be known as Germany.

During the Middle Ages the kings of Germany were elected. The German kings had inherited the right to the emperor’s title through Charlemagne. After being elected they had to travel to Rome in order to be crowned emperor by the pope. Until a king was made emperor he was called an emperor-elect.

Royal castles and palaces attracted Vikings, who had been raiding the areas along the North Sea since the ninth century. They attacked anywhere valuable loot could be found, particularly trading towns such as Dorestad (southeast of what is now Utrecht). In the autumn of 880, following a raid along the Rhine, a group of Vikings set up their winter camp at the imperial palace. In the spring of 881 they left, but not before burning down the buildings on Valkhof hill. For this reason there are few remains of Charlemagne’s Nijmegen palace and we do not know what it looked like. The palace was rebuilt after the Vikings left.
An Imperial Palace on the Valkhof
St. Nicolas chapel (1030) on Valkhof; the oldest building in Nijmegen (SV)

07 fotonicolaaskapel.JPG

Source: Jan Kuys, in: De Canon van Nijmegen, Uitgeverij Vantilt (Nijmegen 2009)