I thought we said goodbye to Charlemagne in Aachen when we jumped into Dan Flynn’s Volvo and headed west to Belgium. But Charlemagne’s spirit must have stayed with us to Henri-Chapelle, Verviers, Brussels and all the way to Nivelles when I discovered at the beginning of our tour of Ste Gertrude’s with George DeCat that this is the home of Charlemagne’s ancestors.
Charlemagne’s great great great grandfather Pepin of Landen (also known as Pepin the Elder) built a villa here in Nivelles while he was serving as Mayor of the Palace for the Merovingian King Dagobert I. When Pepin died (640 AD) St Amand advised his widow Itta to turn the villa into an abbey. St Itta followed this advise and turned the abbey over to her daughter Gertrude who with the aid of Irish monks prospered both spiritually and materially. Ste Gertrude’s sister Ste Begga (lots of saints in this family) married the next Frankish Mayor of the Palace, Ansegisel (son of St Arnulf, Bishop of Metz). Their son Pepin the Middle continued the family role of Mayor of the Palace and their grandson (and Charlemagne’s grandfather) Charles Martel vanquished the Moors at Tours in 732, thus ending the Muslim threat to Europe north of Spain. The Moors retreated to the other side of the Pyrenees and never returned.
The northeast portion of the Frankish kingdom at the time of Pepin the Elder was a land they called Austrasia. All of the places we visited in the last couple of days — Cologne, Aachen, Henri-Chapelle, Verviers and Nivelles — are in Austrasia. It consisted of most of present day Belgium and Luxembourg, parts of France and Netherlands and the Middle Rhine area of Germany. The land Charlemagne inherited in 768 from his father Pepin the Short covered all of Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Switzerland and most of Germany, Czech Republic and Austria and the northern part of Italy. Pepin the Short was the last of the Pepinids to serve as Mayor of the Palace for the Merovingian kings. He deposed the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, and had the Pope declare him King of the Franks. Charlemagne expanded the kingdom even further and he became Emperor of the West in 800. He is also sometimes called the Father of Europe, an honorary title bestowed on him because of all of the customs and rules he established during his reign that are still standing. He had several wives and concubines and at least twenty children, though, and about half of the population of Europe can probably claim that they are descended from him. So perhaps that title isn’t just honorary!
Our tour of Ste Gertrude’s included the crypt underneath the eastern choir, one of the largest in Belgium. It was discovered during excavations in the 1940s and 50s. Pepin the Elder is buried here along with his wife Ste Itta. And so is their daughter Ste Gertrude, the great great great aunt of Charlemagne.
Tomorrow’s posting will be a detailed account of our tour of the Collegiate Church of Saint Gertrude.