Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The skeleton guests

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX  (1863) 
Legends of Charlemagne's city
No. III. The skeleton guests
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 his return from the Saxon wars, Charlemagne brought Sigrick to Aix-la-Chapelle. He had beaten that valiant heathen in many battles, and now Sigrick, and a number of the chief men of his people, declared themselves ready to receive the Christian faith from their victor.

The good folk of Aix were expecting their Emperor with as much pleasure as he himself felt in returning, now that his desire had been accomplished by the finishing of the Minster. He had already magnificently supplied it with the greatest abundance of sacred vessels of gold and silver for the service of God, and with the costliest vestments of silk and velvet. In his own royal palace he was plain and homely in his mode of life and attire, caring little for festive banquets and gorgeous raiment; but when God was to be honoured, no outlay was too great, no sum of gold or silver too excessive. He gave all with a willing heart. And now that his costly temple was finished, he wanted to have it consecrated with fitting splendour.

For this purpose, in the year 804, Pope Leo III., at Charlemagne’s request, came to Aix-la-Chapelle.

All the high dignitaries of the realm, chieftains and counts, the flower of his Frankish nobles, bishops and prelates, came thronging from far and near to share in the great festival. The Emperor had set his heart on securing the presence of as many bishops as there are days in the year, but all in vain. Mighty and hospitable as he was, he failed. On the very eve of the festival, there were but 363 in the town, and there was not the least apparent chance of the two more coming to complete the number. But the Lord would not disappoint his servant’s harmless wish, and worked a miracle in his behalf.

Miles away, in the church of St. Gervais, at Maestricht, two saintly bishops, Monulph and Gondulph, slept in their coffins of stone. The night before the consecration of the Minster of Aix-la-Chapelle, an angel appeared in St. Gervais’ Church, and called with a loud voice, “Monulph and Gondulph, arise, and go to Aix to the consecration of the Minster.” And the dead men arose, and set out on their journey. They were clad in their vestments, but though their souls had for the time returned to their earthly tenements, the flesh had not grown on their bones, and they stalked onward, two skeleton forms, as they had started from the grave. Gliding rapidly along, they reached the street close by the Minster, then called James’s Street, but as they drew near the noble pile a thrill of joy made their dry bones rattle and rattle again. The people rushed out and saw the awful sight of the moving skeletons, and heard the awful rattling of their fleshless bones. But heedless of the horror-stricken crowd they went their way, entered the Minster gate, and took their places. Then in good truth there were as many bishops as there are days in the year. It would be idle to tell the Emperor’s delight at this miraculous fulfilment of his wish, or the awe which fell upon the stately assembly of the mighty ones of Church and State, at the sight of these holy but ghastly guests from the world beyond the grave. Suffice it to say that Pope Leo himself consecrated the new Minster, and that the ceremony was magnificent and imposing beyond the power of words to tell.

When the service was ended, Monulph and Gondulph went their way as they had come, and then these men of God laid themselves down in their resting-place in the vaults at Maestricht, their mortal remains to rest in peace thenceforth until the angel’s summons on the Last Day. So great an impression did their mysterious coming produce, that the street through which they had passed on that momentous night when the rattling of their bones was heard was at once called the “Klapper-Gasse,” the street of the rattling, a name which it bears even unto the present day.

In Maestricht, also, the memory of the miraculous rising of the two bishops has not been suffered to pass away, and in token of it there is the image of an angel over the very spot in the vaults of St. Gervais’ Church. It bears in its hands a scroll, with the uncouth rhyme, in old Dutch:

Monulphe, Gondulphe, staat ober, vaart,
Wit Aken dat Münster, seyt God en gepaart.


The Minster of Aix completed, its lofty belfry rose majestically above all the towers of the city, visible from all the country round. Well pleased as Charlemagne was with it, still he cherished another wish, namely, that instead of its petty bell, the only one which he had then succeeded in procuring, he might crown his stately tower with a great, deep-toned bell, worthy of the building. But in those days bell-founding was anything but a flourishing craft, and messengers had vainly scoured the Emperor’s vast dominions in search of a skilful master-founder. Judge then what must have been his joy when at length tidings were brought to him that among the austere brotherhood of St. Gall, in Switzerland, there dwelt a monk, named Danko, a master of the craft, and of whose skill the messenger had seen good proofs. Forthwith word was sent to Brother Danko to hasten to the Emperor. Highly honoured by the royal mandate, the monk lost no time on the road, and soon reached the royal palace at Aix, where Charlemagne was then staying.

He greeted the monk most cordially, for he was overjoyed at the prospect of so speedily carrying out his pious desires; and he promised Danko a rich reward when his task should be completed, and the bell hung in its place. He told him no expense should be spared, and bade him at once set up his foundry; adding that he destined this great bell to be the crowning gem of his Minster, which for thousands of years should summon with mighty voice the faithful to prayer, and peal or toll for all the joys and sorrows of the city. My author gives no further details of this interview; but one can imagine it well enough: the Emperor’s frank liberality, the monk’s secret pride. We can fancy them as they stand speaking earnestly together. Charlemagne’s open, noble face beaming with pleasure; his gigantic form—its mighty proportions displayed by his short tight kirtle—towering above the monk; the latter, a slender figure, shrouded in flowing dusky robes, standing before him with bent head and folded hands, partly feeling, partly feigning, awe. Nor is Charlemagne, with all his kingly bearing, quite free from some touch of the same; for the rude wielders of sword and sceptre, despite their barbaric pride, could not always shake off a certain involuntary deference for those skilled in lore and arts which were mysterious to themselves.

Danko set to work immediately, the open-handed Emperor supplying him with workmen, tools, and metal in abundance. That the tone of the bell might be clear and sonorous, Charlemagne sent the master one hundred pounds’ weight of silver from his treasury. He little knew that the cunning monk was a base and sordid man, who preferred iniquitous gain to his honour and to his sworn vow of poverty. Danko hid the silver for himself, and replaced it in the casting by a hundred pounds of lead. Still so great was his skill, that when the mould was broken before the Emperor and his followers, to their wonder and delight the new bell shone as if it were made of the purest silver. It was raised to its lofty tower with all possible speed. Great crowds of people waited in the square below to hear its first peals, and Charlemagne had determined that he should be the first to ring it. He issued forth from his palace, decked with all the magnificence he could assume so well on great occasions, despite his usual homely habits, and went in state to the belfry, attended by the thief, Danko. The first thing the Emperor did was to ask God and Our Lady graciously to accept his gift; and then amid breathless silence he seized the bell-rope, and pulled it with all his might; but lo! it gave but one faint, dead sound.

“Holloa, Danko!” cried; he “try thy masterpiece thyself, for I have sweated in vain to knock out some sound.”

Trembling, and ghastly pale, Danko tugged at the rope with the strength of despair; but not a sound was heard, save the creaking of the rafters, as they groaned beneath the weight of the swaying mass of metal. Suddenly the rope fell from Danko’s hand, and he sank at the Emperor’s feet stone dead. Horror and awe palsied high and low, except Charlemagne. He stood unmoved, and calmly spoke thus: “God hath righted himself.”

Danko’s dwelling was searched, and there, sure enough, were the hundred pounds of silver for which he had damned his soul. The Emperor would not have it back in his treasury, but gave it all to the poor.