Charlemagne’s Chair
Charlotte F. Otten

In these days when international relations totter on the brink of suspicion and mistrust, I recall an incident from nearly sixty years ago in Aachen, Germany, when a mysterious peace captured my heart—and the hearts of two men who had fought on opposite sides in World War II.

In 1960, my husband and I and our two young sons were living in the Netherlands, where my husband was a Fulbright senior research scholar in Early Christian Studies at the University of Nijmegen. He had been in Europe fifteen years earlier as a U.S. Army serviceman during World War II, and he had participated in the inevitable damage of war. He particularly remembered driving over the scattered, broken pieces of church towers that had been turned to rubble, and seeing the fragments of church windows in the ruins.

As American forces battled their way into Germany in 1944, Nazi forces held tenaciously to the western border city of Aachen. It took American bomber pilots and ground troops nearly three weeks of relentless fire to wrench Aachen out of the hands of the Germans, causing great devastation to the city.

Through his work as a communication specialist for a colonel in the artillery, my husband had heard that the Aachen Cathedral had survived the battle, but that the cathedral looked more like a skeleton than a healthy building. He had also heard that the Throne of Charlemagne—nicknamed Charlemagne’s Chair—was still standing in the cathedral. We couldn’t believe it.  So finally, one spring day in 1960, we four Americans jumped into our little Renault and drove from Nijmegen to Aachen to find out.

The Cathedral itself dates back more than eleven centuries. Charlemagne the Great knew that in order to promulgate Christianity in the newly unified Europe, he had to build a meeting place where people could worship the true God. He began building a chapel in 796, which was consecrated in 805. Over the centuries, to accommodate the many Christian pilgrims who would visit, Charlemagne’s chapel grew into the large, beautiful Aachen Cathedral with many side chapels, a choir, cupola, and steeple. This sacred space has endured the battering and devastation of war and time.

My husband breathed a sigh of relief when he pulled open the doors of the cathedral. The cathedral was still standing, and it was open to visitors. That day in 1960, though, I remember that we were the only visitors. We had the cathedral to ourselves, and its riches were ours.

The octagonal shape of the center drew us in. As my husband and I looked up at the ceiling and the pillars and the windows, our sons were more interested in what met them at eye level. They were only seven and five years old, but they had already seen cathedrals in France and the one in Cologne, Germany—which, in their estimation, surpassed all others. Once they had bounded up the 533 steps to the Cologne Cathedral’s bell tower, they were greeted by the largest cathedral bell in the world, St. Peter’s Bell, which began to ring while they were standing next to it. Naturally, it caused them to put their fingers in their ears and open their mouths in wonder.

In Aachen, my husband told them to look for Charlemagne’s Chair in the cathedral. They found it. They pulled us by the hands to see it, which is how it came to be part of my life’s story.

The throne, which served as the coronation throne for thirty-one kings of Germany, stood regally high. It rested on four stone pillars. Six marble steps led up to the throne, which was formed from four marble plates held together with bronze clamps, two side plates, and a back plate with an image of the crucifixion. All of this was enclosed and protected by an attractive fence, and was guarded by a person our sons called “a nice man we talked to.” He was a nice man, and, although his English was minimal and our German was barely adequate, we had the best “guard-talk” of our lives. He was amazed that Americans had come to visit Aachen Cathedral. He said he had no bad feelings about the attacks on the cathedral, and we assured him that we did not hold him responsible for the war. Once we dispensed with those greetings, he began telling us about the steps.

Probably the most accurate account, he told us, was that Charlemagne had taken the marble from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in the year 800. Another story, he said, was that the steps were from Pilate’s palace, which Jesus climbed after being flogged.

As the guard told us more about the chair, our sons interrupted him by asking, “Wasn’t it bombed?” The guard explained to them that it was too heavy to be moved out of the cathedral, so it was covered with tarpaper and buried in sand. When the war was over, the sand was carefully shoveled out, and the layers of tarpaper were removed. The only war-wounds were some dark yellow stains in the marble left over from the tarpaper.

Our sons walked around it many times, looking longingly past the protective fence. Eventually they stood still in front of the throne, gazing up from the bottom of the stairs. Right then, the guard opened the gate, took each boy by the shoulder, and marched them up the stairs. Before we could blink, he lifted them up and put them on the throne. There they sat in the chair of the great ruler, Charlemagne. I think he would have been pleased to see two young pilgrims sitting there, the throne being used as an instrument of reconciliation between two enemy soldiers all those centuries in the future.

There is no official documentation of this event. We didn’t get a photo. It’s off the record. It remains in our hearts and in the hazy memories of two grown men. But something else important happened in that moment: the deep-seated animosity that my husband and I had felt toward a country that had killed so many of my husband’s fellow soldiers disappeared in the arms of a German guard. It was in the cathedral where ninth-century Europeans worshiped that we felt the Peace of God reaching us from the past, wiping out all boundaries, and filling our hearts with hope for the future. That was nearly sixty years ago, but that peace has lingered, and memory has brought new joy to Time’s shadows.


Charlotte F. Otten is the author of A Lycan-thropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture and English Women’s Voices, 1540-1700. Her poems have appeared in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Agenda, Poems from Aberystwyth, The Healing Muse, and Southern Humanities Review.

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