Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The building of the Minster

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX  (1863) 
Legends of Charlemagne's city
No. II. The building of the Minster
by Morgan John O'Connell

Part of the series "Legends of Charlemagne's City." The introduction to these translations states that they are from stories collected by "a learned professor from Aix-la-Chapelle."



On none of the many buildings which the Emperor Charlemagne erected, did he bestow greater care than on the minster of Aix-la-Chapelle, and none did he carry on with more zeal and love. He brought thither marbles and pillars from Rome and Ravenna, and huge blocks of cut stone from Verdun; while from the quarries of the surrounding country, from the site of the present Cornelimünster, and from Breinig, from Mastricht, and from Valkenburg, day and night, materials were conveyed for this edifice.

To Eginhard, his true friend and secretary, Charlemagne entrusted the direction of the building, for which Ausigis, abbot of Fontanelle, in Normandy, drew out a plan.

The Emperor frequently appeared amonst the masons, and roused them to greater diligence and activity. The best workmen of every country were invited to Aix-la-Chapelle, while many artists from Italy and England were associated in their labours. Thus the building advanced rapidly.

But ere half the Minster was completed, the war with the Saxons called Charlemagne to a great distance.

Before his departure he spoke to all the workmen, urging them to lose no time. And, speaking particularly to the town council, he ordered them to have the building completed by his return. He foresaw that the Saxon war would not soon be ended. And, in fact, it lasted so long that the Emperor’s treasury was drained, and the wealth of the municipality well-nigh exhausted. The coffers being empty, the building was at a standstill, and there was no likelihood of finding means to finish it. The town-councillors were in woeful plight; all the skilful workmen were quitting the city, and their worships had promised the Emperor that the Minster should be finished against his return. They knew, too well, this redoubtable liege lord of theirs was not a man to be trifled with, and on their offending heads would fall his dread displeasure, when he should see the half-raised walls of his church abandoned to decay and overgrown with grass. In their perplexity they held meeting after meeting, listened to the wisdom of this and that oracle, but all to no purpose; no one had wit enough to find a way to complete the building without money. Dire necessity stared them in the face, until at last one, bolder than the rest, spoke out, saying, “Money they must, should, and would have, though they had to borrow it from the Devil himself.”

It is still a disputed point whether Satan had slipped into the meeting and prompted the speaker, or whether he merely overheard the speech. Be that as it may, it certainly came to his ears, as will be sthown by the sequel.

One evening the councillors were discussing the never-ending theme of the building of the Minster, the spent money, and the terrible anger of their Sovereign, when a stately lord, in gorgeous attire, entered the council chamber. He greeted their worships with easy dignity, saying, “Masters mine, the whole city is in trouble, and, even did I not know it before, I could read in your rueful countenances that ye lack gold. Each day, owing to the duration of the war, it grows scarcer and rarer, and were you to resort to the usurer, you would have great difficulty in raising a good round sum. I alone can help you, and get you stores of gold to finish the building.”

All the long faces brightened as his hearers drank in these words of comfort. The head of the council then inquired the terms, and the interest on the loan.

“The interest,” replied the Unknown, “is not worth mentioning, and on one condition I shall give you the sum for good, namely, that the first soul which enters the Minster be mine.”

The words had scarcely passed his lips, when their worships sprang from their seats and ran to seek shelter under the table; for, to their horror, in their courtly visitor they recognised the Devil.

“Worshipful councillors,” quoth he, composedly, “truly I deemed ye not so faint of heart; you desired some money from me, and now that I good-naturedly offer it ye, you hide like a pack of boys. Fie, fie! Are ye councillors? are ye bearded men that ye are scared by the Devil’s courtesy? He will not go back of my bargain, and for a like sum, which He counts as naught, I could buy half-a-dozen souls. For gold hath ever been, is still, and will be to the end of time, the bait with which we angle for souls. Besides, He is no stingy reckoner. How many souls will be freed from His clutches by means of this very church which he will give ye the means of building, in return for one poor soul. You must all see that ye, not I, have the best of the bargain, and truly it was silly of me to make ye so fair an offer. Soon your abandoned Minster will be a bonnie resting-place for my bats and owls; so, my masters, take what is offered ye while ye can get it. The gold on my terms, or I leave ye to the vengeance of your Emperor."

The Devil was so courteous, so persuasive, he gave such excellent reasons, and his offer was so tempting, the councillors forgot all their scruples; and, on condition he paid down the money, agreed to give the soul, and the Devil departed with the deed of surrender bearing their hands and seals.


No sooner had the Devil got hold of the compact, than money began to shower down from all sides of the hall; every piece fresh from the mint, and none of less value than ducats or golden guilders. All the coffers were filled to the brim, and the councillors chuckled over their good luck. They talked the matter over very earnestly; gave utterance, doubtless, to many excellent opinions; and, before the meeting broke up, agreed, with seeming unanimity, to keep the matter a profound secret.

But, alas for the feebleness of man's good intentions! One of their worships let his wife draw the secret from him. Somehow it then got wind; the news spread like wildfire; soon young and old knew of the mysterious compact.

However, that business once settled, the work progressed so rapidly and so successfully that the building was soon nearly finished. The question then was—should their worships, after all, really get the worst of their bargain with the Devil?

Now that the whole story was bruited, no one could be got even to cross the threshold of the Minster. Still, the Devil had the treaty signed and sealed by the councillors, and the promised soul he must get, by fair means or by foul. It was natural enough that these worthy citizens, having to supply him with the worth of his unhallowed money, should pass many a sleepless night. Besides, it was very possible that finding his prey so long coming, the Devil might lose his temper, and lay his claw on one of their worships.

The matter had thus been at a standstill for some time, when at last a townsman proposed that a councillor should walk into the Minster, and by thus freely giving himself up to the Devil, prove that they had not been trying to make game of him.

This counsel not pleasing any one, their worships were still in a state of utter helplessness, when a crafty monk came to their aid. He stated clearly the particulars of the bargain, that they had pledged themselves to give up a soul to the Devil, and give it they must; but the compact did not specify that it was to be a human soul; and they ought therefore to be ready to redeem their word by giving the soul of some animal. The councillors again breathed freely, and, it is needless to add, resolved to follow this good advice.

At last the Minster was finished from top to bottom, and the Devil brought the great entrance gate of beautifully wrought bronze, and set it on the hinges with his own hands.

On the morrow it stood wide open; the foul fiend skulked behind it, shrewdly reckoning that curiosity would draw crowds to the church, and then the first who entered would be his prey.

In this case he reckoned without his host. The councillors had had a wolf snared in the forest—no difficult task then, when the woods were alive with them. The cage containing the wolf was placed near the portal, and the assembled populace lent their aid that he might be the first soul to enter the Minster, for they hunted him with such good will that he soon crossed the fatal threshold.

Lightning flashed forth as the Devil, wreaking his vengeance on the wolf, tore out his soul. He showed his rage and fury at the cheat men had inflicted on him, by fearful howlings, and, gnashing his teeth, he rushed from God's new temple. In his passion he banged to the door; it slammed on his hand, and his right thumb remained fastened in one of the handles, and there the bone still is in the mouth of the brazen lion's head.

Folks from far and near have vainly tried to get it out. When they think they have nearly succeeded, and the thumb is all but out, back it slips into the very cranny where the Devil left it. Whoever shall succeed in extricating it, and shall present himself with it before the canons in chapter assembled, shall receive a golden robe as his reward.

As a lasting memorial of the memorable occurrence just related, the magistrates had a bronze statue, representing the wolf with a hole in his breast, cast, and erected on the spot where the Devil rent away his soul.

As the soul of a wolf was popularly supposed to be somewhat of the form of a pine-apple or an artichoke, it was likewise cast in bronze and erected outside the Minster. The statue of the wolf, on a low pillar, with a richly carved capital, now stands on the right hand of the great gate; his soul, on a similar pedestal, at the left hand; and the massive portal itself is called the "Wolf's-gate."

He who leaves Aix-la-Chapelle, and has not seen the captured wolf, his soul, the Wolf's-gate, and the Devil's thumb, has seen nought of Charlemagne's city.