It’s strange to think that more than 1000 years ago Nijmegen was more than a sleepy town in Eastern Netherlands. However, at that time it was a city of great importance: a former Roman town, one of the largest in the area, it was situated close Aachen, the center of power of Charlemagne’s empire. The emperor stopped in Nijmegen at least four times with his itinerant court. He had a palace built there, on the Valkhof hill, and his successors would enlarge it, keeping it as an imperial residence for a few hundred years. Due to the regular visits of the imperial court, the city was much more connected to the world (and to the international politics of the time) than in later centuries.
Let’s look for instance at the biography of a member of the imperial family with a very special destiny, whose life was connected the Imperial palace in Nijmegen. Her name was Theophanu, she was a byzantine princess born around 955 in Constantinople, and she had been sent in 972 to marry emperor Otto the 2nd of the Holy Roman Empire. His empire was one of the successor states of Charlemagne’s empire, based in Germany, but which also included most of Central Europe, from Eastern France to Austria and large parts of Italy. Through this political marriage, peace was finally cemented between the Byzantines and the Germans, after a few decades of sporadic conflicts.
Theophanu was not very popular when she arrived at the German imperial court. The sophisticated byzantine culture that she represented was still centuries ahead of the one she found in her new home. Her contemporaries were shocked to discover that she insisted to have a bath every day, and that she ate her food using a fork (apparently she was the first person in Western Europe to do that). They also disliked her taste for luxury. However, when her husband died suddenly a few years later, she proved to be a very capable leader: for 6 years, she ruled the Holy Roman Empire as a regent for her son. She styled herself emperor and issued decrees in her own name, quite unusual in an age when women had a mostly subordinate role, but keeping up with the byzantine traditions of that time. Theophanu passed away in Nijmegen, one of her favorite residences, in June 991, at less then 40 year old. Through her skills, she managed to keep together her unruly subjects, preserving her son’s heritage.
Unfortunately not much is left in Nijmegen to remind us of this rich history. The imperial palace was damaged in the 17th century by the invading French army, and almost completely dismantled after 1795. Today, only a small chapel and some ruins remain to remind us of a world so different from our own. However, the city is worth a visit, and a great view of the Waal river should convince you to climb the small hill that used to be the castle’s site.
You can find more details about Theophanu and her unusual destiny here: