Charlemagne’s bones found in his coffin

That may seem obvious, but given how often he was exhumed and reburied and parts of him given away as relics, it’s actually quite notable that the collection of bones in the Karlsschrein, the Shrine of Charlemagne, and other reliquaries in the Aachen Cathedral all appear to come from the same person who matches contemporary descriptions of the Frankish king.

Charlemagne died almost exactly 1200 years ago, on January 28th, 814, and was buried in the choir of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen Cathedral. (See Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, written 15-20 years after his death for a description.) In 1000, Otto III, keen to present himself as the successor of the great man, had the burial vault opened. According to German chronicler and bishop Thietmar of Merseburg who was a contemporary of Otto’s, when the vault was opened they found Charlemagne’s uncorrupt body seated upon a marble throne wearing a crown with a scepter in his hand and the gospels open in his lap. Otto reportedly Helped himself to some of the relics and brought them to Rome.

Frederick I Barbarossa was the next to disinter Charlemagne. In 1165, he had the remains exhumed and displayed as holy relics at the Aachen Court festival. Again this was a means for Frederick to establish a connection with the revered leader and to position Aachen as a center of pilgrimage like St. Denis or Westminster. To curry favor with Frederick, Antipope Paschal III canonized Charlemagne that same year, although this, like all of Paschal’s acts, was never recognized by the Vatican. Barbarossa had Charlemagne’s remains reburied, this time in an elaborate third century A.D. Roman marble sarcophagus depicting the Rape of Persephone, which may seem incongruous as a topic for Christian burial, but like many ancient myths was re-interpreted as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.

He didn’t stay there for long. In 1215, Frederick II had Charlemagne exhumed yet again. He commissioned local goldsmiths to make a rich gold casket to hold the bones. That’s the Karlsschrein originally in the placed in the center of the Palatine Chapel underneath a chandelier donated by Frederick Barbarossa in 1168.

Nearly 200 years passed before the next king inserted himself into Charlemagne’s eternal rest. In 1349, some of his bones were removed to individual reliquaries by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. He had a gold reliquary made to contain a thigh bone, and the Bust of Charlemagne to contain the skullcap. Louis XI of France contributed to the trend in 1481 by commissioning the Arm Reliquary, a golden arm that contains the ulna and radius from Charlemagne’s right arm.

It was scientists who took over from the emperors and kings. In 1861, Charlemagne’s remains were exhumed again so they could be studied. His skeleton was reconstructed and a very generous estimate (1.92 meters, or 6’4″) made of his height. In 1988, scientists exhumed his remains one more time, this time in secret. This study covered the bones in the reliquaries as well, a total of 94 bones and bone fragments, and they spent years meticulously examining and testing the collection. On Wednesday, January 28th, the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death, the results of the research were announced.

One of the scientists studying the remains, Professor Frank Rühli, said: “Thanks to the results from 1988 up until today, we can say with great likelihood that we are dealing with the skeleton of Charlemagne.”

From studying the dimensions of the upper arm, thigh and shin bones, scientists have built up a picture of the man behind the skeleton, and it matches descriptions of Charlemagne.

At 1.84 metres (six feet), he was unusually tall for his time. The team also estimated his weight at around 78 kilograms, giving him a slim body mass index of around 23.

The average height for an adult male in the 9th century was 1.69 meters or 5’6″, which put Charlemagne in the 99th percentile. Einhard’s description of him fits the results of the study even in some of the smaller details, like the limp that struck him in his later years. Researchers found that the kneecap and heel bone had deposits consistent with an injury.

From Chapter 22 of the Life of Charlemagne:

Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; at the last he even limped a little with one foot.

30 thoughts on “Charlemagne’s bones found in his coffin

  1. Was it ever doubted that these bones were genuine ? As well as Karl’s coffin(s), the Carolingian Octagon and the Chandelier are indeed remarkable. In 1520, Albrecht Durer was there, and he wrote:

    ‘At Aachen I saw the well- proportioned pillars with their good capitals of green and red porphyry and granite which Carolus [the one who died 1200y ago] had brought from Rome and set up there. These are made truly according to Vitruvius’s writings. […] On the 23rd day of October [1520] King Charles [Charles V.] was crowned [Emperor] at Aachen; there I saw all manner of lordly splendour, the like of which those who live in our parts have never seen–all, as it has been described.’

  2. The 1520 coronation of Charles V was as “king of the Romans”, the title traditionally awarded on election. Until his reign, the title “Holy Roman Emperor” was awarded only to those rulers whose election was confirmed by coronation by the pope. Charles, who was crowned at Bologna by Clement VII in February, 1530, was the last emperor crowned in this tradition. His successors, all but one Habsburgs or members of the house of Habsburg-Lorraine, assumed the imperial title on election.

  3. Hi Roger, good the to know about the official investiture of the ‘king of the Romans’ as HRR Emperor. However, hasn’t been the ‘pope’ also been the ‘bishop of Rome’ (in theory) ever since ?

  4. I’m sure that his DNA has already been examined. Whether they are going to tell you that is different question. Making famous people’s genomes publicly available would raise some issues, I suppose.
    What would you do if you found out that you are one of Charlemagne’s descendent?
    Some people would surely make odd requests, like claiming rights, goods, land or money that belonged to him.

  5. We in the United States, by virtue of being genetic Europeans, are too. King Edward I Plantagenet is my 25th great grandfather twice over, for example.

  6. review to the end ok:
    Dont get too exited about Charlemagne in your blood line.…/charlemagnes-dna…/

    this is probably why: HIS many Children:

    Alpais Armoudru van Parijs (geboren der Franken),

    Adaltrudis van Karolingen der Franken,

    Karel de Jongere KONING van Neustrië,

    Adelais van Karolingen der Franken,

    Pepijn I. de Gebochelde Karloman KONING van Italië / van Karolingen der Franken,

    Rortrude Hrotrudis van Karolingen der Franken,

    Lodewijk I. de Vrome Keizer van het Romijnse Rijk van Karolingen der Franken,

    Lotharius der Franken,

    Bertha Prinses van Ponthieu (geboren der Franken van Karolingen),

    Bertha van Karolingen der Franken,

    Gisela van Karolingen der Franken,

    Hildegarde van Karolingen der Franken,

    Drogo Dreux Bisschop van Metz Prins der Franken (Bastaardkind van Karel de Grote),

    Hugo de Abt van St Quentin de Châtillon Prins der Franken (Bastaardkind van Karel de Grote)
    this is 14, but there are surely more as guessed below.

    Charlemagne’s Family
    In his personal life, Charlemagne had multiple wives and mistresses and perhaps as many as 18 children.

    each generation is average of 30 years, that is 2015 minus 772 (in his case) = 1243 years divided by 30 that makes 41 generations from then to now.
    If on average all his 18 kids had only 2 kids,
    that is 36 grand kids in generation 2 (right)
    72 gen 3
    144 gen4
    288 gen5
    576 gen6
    1152 gen7
    2304 gen8
    4608 gen9
    9216 gen10 (remember there are 41 generations total) (still there?)
    18,432 gen11
    36,864 gen12
    73,728 gen13
    14,456 gen14
    294,912 gen15
    589,824 gen16
    1,179,648 gen17
    million mark and we’re not even halfway!
    2,359,296 gen18
    4,718,592 gen19
    9,437,184 gen20 halfway there, at around the year 1400…
    with 21 generations LEFT to 2015.
    I ‘think’ I got it right 9.5 million x 2 x 21 =
    396,361,729 yes, nearly 400 million of us have Charlemagne’s dna in us
    but belief me its pretty watered down ;))))
    and nothing to write home about, other than that Charlemagne, with all his visionary prowess, probably didn’t see that coming either…

  7. During WW2, the Allies bombed a number of German churches and cathedrals (plus towns that were of no strategic importance), and the cathedral at Aachen was one of them. At some point, German citizens removed the bones of Charlemagne from the cathedral and hid them in the woods. The Americans found them, and a soldier was told to bring them to a commanding officer. Upon arriving with the sack of bones, the soldier allegedly asked, “Where am I supposed to dump this?” So much beauty and history damaged or destroyed by all sides in this conflict, things that connected us long before twisted political ideologies separated us.

  8. Hello!

    Very interesting article.
    The last picture you published (showing Charlemagne in majesty holding the orb).

    Do you know from where that picture comes ? And were it is kept ?

    Thank you very much,
    Serge Dewel

  9. Many are related although there are no statute of limitations I doubt anyone would be foolish to try to do what you suggest.
    I am related to Charlemagne and to several of Charles Martel’s sons.
    I don’t think I’ll be pressing any cases soon though.

  10. Just got back to the UK from a terrific 4-day trip to see Aachen, as Charlemagne is my 33rd great-grandfather, and I’m descended from him through at least two different lines. I’m originally from Texas;there must be millions of Americans directly descended from him.

  11. Almost every person living today with any European ancestry is a direct descendant of every person in Europe alive at the time of Charlemagne who has living descendants today. That includes the Emperor himself as well as peasants, monks, nobles, serfs—anyone and everyone. Anyone that long ago who has any living descendants has an enormous number of them—about 87% of us.

    Claiming decent from any individual so far back is about the same as saying someone in your family tree came from Europe. Even though we are almost all descendants of the guy, it is unlikely that anyone today has any DNA directly inherited from any individual that far back—with the exception of direct the male line all the other DNA is randomly mixed up and recombined at every generation. It doesn’t take many generations for the % of DNA from a given ancestor to approach zero.

  12. I wonder what the surnames are today that are from a direct male line back to Charlemagne? I think people didn’t commonly use first and last names like we do today until sometime later. Charles the Hammer was the father of Pepin the Short, right? No surname passed on. Just descriptive or place names? So, if by 1400 there were +9 million descendants (according to a previous post), what percent of those would be direct male I wonder and what names did they establish that have been passed down to today? That would narrow the field a bit. Well, it looks to me like 7 of those children of Charlemagne listed in the past post were male, so only 7 direct male lines. It is possible they are all extinct. Lincoln had 4 sons and I think there are no living direct male descendants from him. I have noticed that great men of the world often do not have a direct male line. I think that would be interesting to know. But if any one son or grandson or male descendant had a large number of sons, that would take the number of possible direct male lines to a higher number. I guess we will never really know, but I would think a good amount of the information was documented early on at least.

  13. Charlemagne is my Grandfather 45 times. At least that is when I gave up counting how many times he was traced back to in my pedigree. But I am related to about every king and queen, Emperor and even Pharaohs from every country in Europe it seems. Its crazy. Clovis 1,Childeric, Clothar etc are also in there over 25 times. 6 Times so far to Rollo Duke of Normandy and Viking leader, as well as Ragnar Lodbrok 4 times. LOTS and LOTS of inbreeding . It seems almost impossible for Charlemagne to be my grandpa over 45 times, yet its all traced out in black and white and correct. He did have a over 20 kids. So with that much of his DNA in my line I wonder if there could be any left in some of us today.

  14. They can estimate with vague accuracy what a person’s weight was, even without the presence of soft tissue, by the stress produced on the bones as pressure of carrying said weight….by comparing similar stress on bones with known weight distribution.

  15. I just watched a YouTube special on his bones and the certainly didn’t mention that. They are in a Gold Coffin n the Cathdral at Aachen

  16. Actually there is apparently a society of people who claim descent from Charlemagne, and as stated below by David Leach, basically all Europeans are related to him one way or another. After a few generations, “related to” doesn’t mean much.
    New book “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh” by Carl Zimmer discusses this.

  17. all the comments are very interesting ruminations. We history buffs all seem to be on the same page! We’re curious!

  18. does anybody know what is written on the scroll thats in the reliquary golden hand sculpture of Charlemagne? Its between the bones on the inside of the gold. I tried to contact the museum, but nothing yet.

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