Battle of Roncevaux Pass

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The Battle of Roncevaux Pass (French and English spelling, Roncesvalles in Spanish, Orreaga in Basque) was a battle in 778 in which a large force of Basques ambushed Charlemagne's army in Roncevaux Pass, a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain, that took place during Charlemagne's invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. The Basques' attack was a retaliation caused primarily by Charlemagne's destruction of the city walls of their capital Pamplona. They took the opportunity of attacking the Franks while the latter were crossing the Pyrenees to retreat back to France. The rear guard consisting of notable Frankish lords, was cut off, stood their ground, and was wiped out as Charlemagne evacuated his army. The battle remained the only military defeat suffered by Charlemagne during his reign.

Over the years, the battle was romanticized by oral tradition into a major conflict between Christians and Muslims[1] even though it is unlikely that religion was a motive[2] or that significant numbers of Basques had converted to Christianity at the time of the battle.[3] The battle elevated the relatively obscure Roland and the paladins into legend, becoming the quintessential role model for knights and also greatly influencing the code of chivalry in the Middle Ages. Since then, there have been numerous written works and adaptations of the battle, some which changed and exaggerated the events that happened. The battle is recounted in the 11th century The Song of Roland which is the oldest surviving major work of French literature, and in Orlando Furioso, one of the most celebrated works of Italian literature. Modern adaptations of the battle include books, plays and works of fiction, as well as monuments in the Pyrenees commemorating the battle.


With the rise of the Carolingians and Pepin the Short's war on Aquitaine, the Duchy of Aquitaine led by Waifer was defeated and further ensued Frankish penetration into the duchy. The Basques (Vascones, Wascones) of the Duchy of Vasconia, one of the mainstays of the Aquitanian army, submitted to Pepin in 766 and 769, but the territory south of the Garonne remained largely unscathed and self-governed. However, as of 778 Charlemagne expanded Frankish takeover of Aquitaine to present-day Gascony, by appointing trusted Franks, Burgundians and Church officials in key regional positions and establishing counties, such as Fezensac, Bordeaux, and Toulouse, on the left banks of the Garonne.

Sulayman al-Arabi, the pro-Abbasid Wali (governor) of Barcelona and Girona, sent a delegation to Charlemagne in Paderborn, offering his submission, along with the allegiance of Husayn of Zaragoza and Abu Taur of Huesca in return for military aid.[4] Their masters had been cornered in the Iberian peninsula by Abd ar-Rahman I, the Umayyad emir of Córdoba. The three rulers also conveyed that the caliph of Baghdad, Muhammad al-Mahdi, was preparing an invasion force against Abd ar-Rahman.[4]

Seeing an opportunity to extend Christendom and his own power, Charlemagne agreed to go to Spain. Al-Arabi induced him to invade al Andalus by promising him an easy surrender of its Upper March, of which Zaragoza was the capital. Following the sealing of this alliance at Paderborn,[5] Charlemagne marched across the Pyrenees in 778 "at the head of all the forces he could muster".[6] Charlemagne led the Neustrian army over Vasconia into the Western Pyrenees, while the Austrasians, Lombards, and Burgundians passed over the Eastern Pyrenees through Catalonia. His troops were welcomed in Barcelona and Girona by Sulayman al-Arabi.[7] As he moved towards Zaragoza, the troops of Charlemagne were joined by troops led by al-Arabi, before eventually putting the city in a siege.

Abd ar-Rahman of Córdoba sent his most trusted general, Thalaba Ibn Obeid, to take control of the possibly rebellious city and to prevent the Frankish invasion. Husayn and Ibn Obeid clashed repeatedly; eventually Husayn managed to defeat and to imprison Ibn Obeid. Reinforced in his autonomous position, Husayn became reluctant to yield his new privileged status to the Frankish monarch and refused to surrender the city to Charlemagne, claiming that he had never promised Charlemagne his allegiance. He seems to have tried to appease Charlemagne by giving him the prisoner General Ibn Obeid and a large tribute of gold, but Charlemagne was not easily satisfied, putting Sulayman al-Arabi in chains. Meanwhile, the force sent by the Baghdad caliphate seems to have been stopped near Barcelona. Though initially having the upper hand, the siege of Zaragoza dragged for over a month..[8][9] Eventually a deal was struck between Charlemagne and Husayn. The latter would pay gold and the release of several prisoners, while the Franks in return would withdrew their siege.


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After the negotiation at Zaragoza, Charlemagne heard news of a Saxon revolt in the North, which forced him to retreat back to his kingdom. But before leaving Spain he decided to further secure his hold on the Vascone territory.[9] Charlemagne first eliminated any possible oppositions from the natives of the region (including the Basque tribes), believing that many of them were allied with the Moors. He gave orders to tear down the walls of the Basque capital Pamplona, possibly fearing that it could be used for future conflicts. Some primary sources suggest that he destroyed the city altogether,[9] and many towns in the region were also razed.[10] Garrisons and military outposts were placed throughout the territory, and there were accounts of the Franks' harsh treatment of the Basques during their occupation.[11] After securing the region, Charlemagne marched for the Pyrenees mountain pass in the hopes of finally getting back to France. Many of his notable lords, such as Roland, military governor of the Breton March, and Eggihard, Mayor of the Palace, were placed in the rearguard probably to protect the retreat and the baggage train.[12][8] Unbeknownst to Charlemagne, the enraged Basques sent their warriors in pursuit of him and the Franks in retaliation for what he did to their city, and the Basque's knowledge of the region helped them easily catch up to his army.[13]

In the evening of August 15, 778, Charlemagne's rearguard was suddenly attacked by the Basques as they crossed the mountain pass. The Franks were caught off guard by the surprise attack, spreading much confusion and disarray to the whole army as they try to escape the ambush.[14] The Basques managed to cut-off and isolate the Frankish rearguard and the baggage train from the rest of the escaping army, and while the Basques weren't as well-equipped, they held the upper ground and the knowledge of the terrain that gave them a huge advantage in the skirmish.[8] As Charlemagne tried to regroup and evacuate his cluttered army, Roland and the others held for a considerable amount of time, before the Basque finally massacred them completely. Though killed to the last man, the rearguard nonetheless succeeded in allowing Charlemagne and his army to continue to safety.[11][8][15] The Basques then looted the baggage that was left behind and took advantage of the darkness to flee, leaving no trace for the Franks to follow in the following morning.[13][15] The second version of the historical accounts of Annales Regii reads:[14]

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Having decided to return, [Charlemagne] entered the mountains of the Pyrenees, in whose summits the Vascones had set up an ambush. They attacked the rearguard, causing confusion which spread to all the army. And, while the Franks were superior to the Vascones both in armament and in courage, the roughness of the terrain and the difference in the style of combat made them generally weaker. In this battle were killed the majority of the paladins that the King had placed in command of his forces. The baggage was sacked, and suddenly the enemy vanished, thanks to their knowledge of the terrain. The memory of the injury so produced overshadowed in the King's heart that of the feats done in Hispania.

The Basque army

One of the principal units of the Vascones were the guerrilla army of the Basques.[4] A later source, the anonymous Saxon Poet, talks of the Basque spears, which fits with the Pyrenean and Basque tradition that would be present much later among the almogavars.[16] A typical Basque mountain warrior had an arsenal of two short spears and a knife or short sword as his main weapons, bows or javelins for missile weapons, and would not normally wear armour. Pierre de Marca, a Béarnese author, suggests that the attackers were a reduced number of mostly local Low Navarrese, Souletines, and Baztanese, whose main motivation may well have been plunder.[14] The Vascones themselves have a long history of resisting Carolingian rule since the incursion of Frankish king Pepin the Short that saw the defeat of Waiofar; the last independent Duke of Aquitaine.[17]

Many accounts, such as those of Einhard and Pierre de Marca, suggest that the main culprit of the attack was Lupo II of Gascony.[18] He holds the territory of the Pyrenees, giving him responsibility to the tragedy that happened in his realm. Neighboring regions that surrounds his kingdom such as Bordeaux were under the control of the Carolingians. While the Duke did paid homage to Charlemagne by offering Hunald II (a rebel leader and a possible heir to Waiofar) and his wife to him, there were disputes over the trans-Pyrenean Basques lands ruled by Lupo and those under Carolingian suzerainty.[14] The authors of the General History of Languedoc also believed in the same theory that the Duke was the leader of the attack. Their reasons were that he and the Vascones opposed Carolingian expansion into Vasconia after the Franco-Aquitanian war (760–769).[19]


Ibaneta (Roncevaux) pass
Map of the roads in Hispania. The pass of Roncesvaux is located on the Ab Asturica Burdigalam road that started in Castra Legiones to Benearnum and meets Burdigala.[14]

The Pyrenees are a mountain in southwest Europe that forms a natural border between France and Spain, extending about 305 miles from the Cap Higuer on the Bay of Biscay, to Cap de Creus on the Mediterranean Sea. It is also the site of the small country of Andorra located in between the two countries. The pass also separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Western Europe. Beyond the Northern part of the pass lies much of the French frontier and wilderness. The mountains are older than the Alps and has an elevation of 3,862 feet (1,177 metres).[10][20] These descriptions have suggested various places from which the battle could have taken place, ranging from Navarre and Aragon to as far as Catalonia.

The mainstream opinion is that the battle took place somewhere not far from Roncevaux itself, as it is not just on one of the easiest routes but also the traditional one. Indeed, the Roman road "Via ab Asturica Burdigalam" which started in Castra Legiones (current León) and went to Benearnum, crossed the Pyrenees through Roncevaux. However, the traditional Roman road (also called the Route of Napoleon) followed a route different from the modern one, not crossing at Ibañeta (the traditional location) but heading up eastwards and crossing instead the Lepoeder and Bentartea passes—next to the mount Astobizkar—not far from the mount Urkulu, identified as the Summum Pyreneum of the classic Roman sources.[14][20][21]


The death of Roland and his men.

Charlemagne biographer Einhard stated that the men in the rear were "massacred to the last man."[22] The Vita Karoli mentions the names of the most important lords killed such as Eggihard, Roland and Anselmus; the Palatine Count.[23] The battle caused numerous losses among the Frankish troops, including several most important aristocrats and the sack of the baggage, probably with all the gold given by the Muslims at Zaragoza.

While the skirmish was a small setback, Charlemagne did lose huge quantities of treasure and good men.[13][22] It has since been the only significant defeat that Charlemagne ever suffered in his otherwise successful military career.[22][24] Never again would Charlemagne take it up to himself to lead an army to battle in Spain, having to rely instead on his generals for future campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula.[14] The Franks failed to capture Zaragoza and suffered a significant lose at the hands of the Vascones, but Charlemagne would return to take back much of Spain from Muslim rule. He would establish the Marca Hispanica, to serve as a buffer region between the Christian empire and the Muslims to the south, a decade later when the Franks finally capture Barcelona.[13] He would also later establish the Kingdom of Aquitaine with the son of Louis the Pious as its first king. Land in the Pyrenees would be directed upon by Carolingian officials, and distributed among colonisers and to the Spanish Church who are allied to Charlemagne. A Christianization program was put on place across the high Pyrenees. The Basque would continue their rebellion to Carolingian rule until the appointment William of Orange, who would dissolve their rebellion after capturing and exiling Lupo's son and Basque leader Adalric in 790.[25]

Zaragoza however, remained a Muslim city and capital of the Upper March, and later of an independent emirate until the 11th century. Pamplona itself, would still remain in the hands of the Muslims and held until a rebellion in 798–801 expelled them as well. The Vascones would finally consolidate the Banu Qasi realm and eventually the constitution of the independent Kingdom of Pamplona in 824 after the birth of a new resistance to Carolingian rule. In that same year, the Basque army defeated another Carolingian army in the same mountain pass. The second Battle of Rocenvaux Pass was almost similar to the first, with the Basques again taking advantage of the terrain, but against a much larger Frankish force. Unlike the first battle in which Charlemagne's army managed to escape, the Carolingians led by Count Aeblus, were trapped, routed and a larger number of men were slaughtered than that of Charlemagne's.[19] Frankish vassals Aeblus and Aznar were captured by the joint forces of Iñigo Arista's Pamplona and of the Banu Qasi, consolidating the independence of both realms.[26]


Monument of the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass.

Over the years, this battle was romanticized by oral tradition into a major conflict between Christians and Muslims although in fact, the Basques of the period were mainly Pagans. In the tradition, the Basques are replaced by a force of 400,000 Saracens, and mythical objects such as durendal and oliphant were also added.[9] Although Roland died in the battle with little information about him, the battle popularized him as a chivalric hero of honor in the Middle Ages.[27] The Song of Roland, which commemorates the battle, was written by an unknown poet of the 11th century. It is the earliest surviving of the chansons de geste or epic poems of medieval France in the langue d'oïl, in what would become the French language. Together with the Knights of the Round Table in Britain, the story of Roland and the paladins have become the archetypal icons of chivalry in Europe; greatly influencing knightly culture and inspiring many Christian warriors that came after. During the Battle of Hastings in 1066, knights and soldiers under William the Conqueror, chanted the poem to motivate themselves before their victory over the English.[28] The English expression, "to give a Roland for an Oliver", meaning either to offer a quid pro quo or to give as good as one gets, which is referenced directly from the companionship of Roland and Oliver during the battle.[29] One example was said during the Combat of the Thirty in 1351; a judicial combat between two groups of knights during the Breton War of Succession. The knights were described by the French author Jean Froissart as "if they had been all Rolands and Olivers," which admired their honor and companionship in battle.[30] Memorials have also been erected to commemorate the battle, such as the Roncesvalles Pass Monument in Navarre, Spain.[31] The La Brèche de Roland, situated in the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, is a gap thought to have been caused by Roland while fighting.[32] At the summit of the Roncevaux Pass are the remains of an early chapel of San Salvador also known as Charlemagne's Chapel and the Charlemagne Monument built in 1934; both built to commemorate the Emperor's campaign in the region.[10]

The song is also commemorated in the Italian literary classic Orlando Furioso.[33] The battle is also referenced in the song "Roncevaux" by Van der Graaf Generator, originally recorded in 1972 but only released in rather rough form many years later on the album Time Vaults.[34] The battle and Orlando's sacrifice inspired several composers, amongst whom were Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel, who composed an Italian-language opera with Orlando.[35] Modern adaptations of the battle drew heavily on the romanticized versions. A 1978 French film La chansom de Roland features an adaptation of the Song of Roland and features the battle as depicted in the poem.[36] The battle is also featured minimally in the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, in which Roland is named Orlando, an amalgamation of fictional characters that were named Roland and Orlando.[37] In Stephen King's award-winning fantasy series of novels The Dark Tower, the main protagonist is Roland Deschain, and the story features many characters inspired from medieval legends such as King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, as well as battles including Rocenvaux Pass.[38]

See also


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  2. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  3. Trask, L. The History of Basque Routledge: 1997 ISBN 0-415-13116-2
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Lewis (2008) p. 244
  5. Lewis (2008) p.245
  6. Lewis (2008) p.246
  7. Lewis (2008) p.253
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Lewis (2008) p.249
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Hamm, Jean Shepherd. Term Paper Resource Guide to Medieval History. Greenwood (November 25, 2009). pp. 88–90. ISBN 978-0-313-35967-5
  12. Butt, John J. Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne. Greenwood (November 30, 2002). pp. 40–51. ISBN 978-0-313-31668-5
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 Narbaitz, Pierre. Orria, o la batall de Roncesvalles. 778. Elkar (1979). pp. 105–114. ISBN 84-400-4926-9
  15. 15.0 15.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  16. 9th Century Spain
  17. Lewis (1965) p.30
  18. Lewis (2008) p 38
  19. 19.0 19.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  21. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  23. Einhard, Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives Of Charlemagne. (January 1, 2010). General Introduction. ISBN 978-1-4209-3811-1
  24. Kearney, Milo. Further Studies in Rio Grande Valley History. University of Texas at Brownsville (2006). ASIN: B000NLBN3Y.
  25. "William of Aquitaine, St.". Retrieved on 2014-01-17.
  26. Ducado de Vasconia (Auñamendi Encyclopedia)
  27. Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England, New York Burt Franklin,1963 p. iii. ISBN 978-0-8337-2144-0
  28. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
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  30. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  31. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  32. "Parque Nacional Ordesa y Monte Perdido", retrieved 2013-08-20
  33. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
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Further reading

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External links

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