Joined: Nov 2010
Who killed Roland? 15th August 778
Of course I've always heard the legends, normally based on the 'Song of Roland', but recently came across a very detailed and interesting study on the Kingdom of Asturias, from it's tiny roots after the original Moorish conquest of Spain. One chapter deals with the side-issue of the Carolingian incursion into Moorish Spain and subsequent death of Roland. The book dismisses the Song of Roland as literature with very little historical value, and looks at available evidence. I will attempt to precis the chapter, and wonder if anyone else has any thoughts or evidence on this? The book is "La Gran Aventura Del Reino De Asturias", by José Javier Esparza (apologies for some names in Spanish version):
At this time Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was building a strong frontier in the Pyrenees to protect himself from the Muslims - the 'Spanish Mark'. At the same time the Muslims has established their own mark, to the south of the Pyrenees, in the north of the Ebro valley. On the face of it 2 empires face to face, but the Muslims were undergoing extremely convulsive times, which is how Charlemagne came to get involved in this misadventure.
Abderramán I came to power in Córdoba in 756, but had to face many problems. The triple whammy of a) chiefs and generals who didn't accept an Omeya, b) ethnic factions (berbers, yemenis, arabs, syrians etc, and c) local governors who saw themselves as exercising autonomous power, all came together in Barcelona in 776.
Around 776 an embassy arrived in Paderborn, now Germany, to see Charlemagne with a proposition - they were from Zaragoza and Barcelona. Charlemage wanted to consolidate his power in the southern mark of the Pyrenees, whilst the Muslims of that area wanted protection and independence from Córdoba. So in return for the protection of the Carolingian Empire the Muslims would cede several important places to Charlemagne, most notably Zaragoza. The head of the embassy was Suleyman ibn Al-Arabí, yemeni governor of Barcelona and enemy to the death of the Omeyas. He gave his personal word to hand over Zaragoza, taking the southern mark of the Franks to the Ebro, and on paper everybody would win. An offer Charlemagne coudn't refuse.
During 777 2 large armies were prepared, one to approach Zaragoza from the east and one from the west. This was to be in the Spring of 778 when the snows had cleared from the Pyrenean paths. Suleyman would ensure that Zaragoza opened it's gates, and once Charlemagne held the city the eastern Muslim territories would declare independence from Córdoba and pledge allegiance to Damascus.
All went well and the Franks advanced without much resistence, Charlemagne taking the precaution of destroying the walls of Pamplona on the way in case of problems on the way back. They arrived before Zaragoza but the gates remained firmly shut.
Husayn al-Ansari was another important yemeni and controlled Zaragoza. Suleyman had thought him an ally, but he now showed himself hostile. Obviously the Franks would've won any open battle, but the Muslims stayed shut behind the walls to await events force a siege. Charlemage was not prepared for a siege, with supply bases far away and no siege equipment. To forgage off the land would've meant dispersing troops far and wide and expose him to a possible counter-attack. As a smart chap Charlemagne decided to cut his losses and go home to deal with urgent problems in the east of his empire. He decided to return by the shortest route, through Navarra. He had already destroyed the walls of Pamplona and took the failed Suleyman with him as hostage for additional insurance.
The tradition says that it was in Roncesvalles, but it's likely it must have occurred somewhat to the north, in the pass of Valcarlos, on the same road which today links Navarra with France. They found themselves accosted by hostile troops, and there was unusual agitation all the way. It wasn't such a good idea to carry Suleyman, as his sons Aysun and Matruh had whipped up feelings and Muslim columns were roaming the locality. To avoid further problems he decided to give up Suleyman.
Nobody would dare to stand in front and block the path of the most powerful army of the VIIIth century, but between the hill of Ibañeta and the hollow of Valcarlos a hostile force appeared on the summits, and a rain of arrows and rocks fell on the Carolingian rearguard.
Who were they? This is an affair which is still the subject of discussion. Some say Basques. Others say a combination/alliance of Basques and Muslims. Others still say they were Gascons from Aquitaine, whose independence was menaced by the power of the Empire. the Duke of Aquitaine, Loup, would've been aware of the Carolingian expedition and may have waited on the summits to anihilate them.
The 3 hypotheses - Moors, Basques, Aquitainians - have been argued with equal probability.
But the fact is that the rearguard found itself in a terrible ambush without possibility of escape, and it must've been a bloodbath. The Carolingian chronicles give as dead there, among others, the great leader Egiardo, the count Anselmo and the prefect of the frontier with Brittany Hruodlandus, that is to say ROLAND. From this point the epic tradition constructs a legend about horns, hundreds of thousands of moors, 12 peers etc.
But the battle was real. Because we know of the epitaph of Egiardo, and 50 years later we see it reflected in the Royal Annals. Curiously the annals dont mention it until after the death of Charlemagne, which indicates that it must have been a very hard blow both militarily and politically. What seemed an easy prize had turned into a disaster, both at Zaragoza and on the return, in that wretched pass between Ibañeta and Vincarlos, a little to the north of Roncesvalles. A humiliation which Charlomagne would undoubtedly rather forget.
As far as the other protagonists go, Suleyman ordered his son Mutrah to take control of Barcelona and Girona. Husayn (in Zaragoza) later organised the assasination of Suleyman around 780. Then Multah adopted the contrary politics to his father and aligned himself with Abderramán to besiege Zaragoza and put paid to Husayn.