Charlemagne's defeat in the Pyrenees


Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
Having posted about Roland and Roncesvalles a few years ago, I've just read a rather exhaustive study on this debacle in the year 778


(The defeat of Charlemagne - Investigation on the Battle of Roncesvalles, by Inaki Sagredo)

Made famous of course by an epic (and largely fanciful) poem about 3 or 400 years later (Chanson de Roland), the unfortunate thing is that we don't actually know too much about it. Not only is it classic 'Dark Ages', but Charlemagne, who had a few chroniclers, a job for which positivity was an essential requirement, banned all mention of it during his lifetime. Even so there is at least one allegedly witness account written after his death.

Despite the lack of material I found the investigation interesting and certainly throwing more light on event for which I had only picked up info and speculation in passing from a few lines in history books.

Chanson de Roland was written at a much later time, when being anti-islamic was in fashion (it wasn't in 778) and also amid the nonsensical imaginary chivalric era. It also appears that this was the first mention (or just before it) of the actual place name of Roncesvalles as a location, where it probably wasn't!.

The background is that in the chaos of 8th century Spain (lets call it) the central power was the Omeya Emirate of Cordoba. Yet for a number of reasons control over many areas of the country was tenous or non-existent mainly for reasons based on race and ethnicity. It's well documented that many former Visigothic Lords had maintained their lands and converted to islam and kept a certain independent-mindedness (eg Toledo, Merida, Ebro). Also with different immigrant clans (eg Berbers, Yemenis) carving out their own little territories and also muladi rebellions, nothing was ever very stable until the Caliphate of Abderraman III, roughly 150 years after this episode. In the area in question, the key city of Pamplona was an interesting blend of rule by the Banu Qasi, former Gothic rulers of the Ebro valley area, and the Arista clan, possibly also Gothic and or Vascon. The Pamplona/Navarra area was nominally Vascon as they diffused more to the mountain areas and even to Gascony (Vascony). The Banu Qasi and the Aristas would inter-marry considerably and the Pamplona area was an alternated or shared area for many decades.

The Yeminis controlling a large part of NE Spain were in revolt against the Cordoba Omeyas, being more Abassid in loyalty. Sulayman Al -Arabi led a delegation all the way to to paderborn to have audience with Charlemagne. They convinced Charlemage that if he sent an army across the Pyrenees, the cities of Zaragoza and Barcelona (and dependent towns) would open their gates and allow the Franks to establish on the other side of the Pyrenees, also freeing said governors of Cordoba interference. In probably one of his worst decsions, Charlemagne agreed to do this.

From what we can gather from sources - Charlemagne's army crossed the Pyrenees in two forces, probably about 5 or 6,000 strong each and also probably spilit along lines of origin - for example Roland would have his Breton contingents with him. One force took the eastern route via Barcelona and Huesca, the other through the Pyrenees somewhere above Pamplona or Jaca, with a view to converging on Zaragoza. The eastern force seemed to have transited without much incident and be welcomed in Barcelona and Girona. The more western force MUST (by the options available) have had a more challenging geogrphical passage and passed through Pamplona - it isn't entirely clear whether they dismantled the walls of Pamplona on the way out (traditinally thought) or, as one source says, on the way in.

To summarise, when the army got to Zaragoza the governor had changed his mind, whether down to sheer duplicity or Cordoban influence. The army had not brought any siege equipment and, despite several weeks stay, was unable to make any progress, beset with all the problems that armies in such situation traditionally get - morale, food, disease etc. To cut short a bad job Charlemagne ordered a retreat back to their own lands. They passed through Pamplona and (probably) dismantled the walls then, either out of spite or as an (unsuccessful) attempt at stalling any problems in the retreat

It's likely that there were also 2 forces on the march back but it isn't known whether Charlemagne's followed the same tracks or another route - sources do speak of Charlemagne and his force turning back when they heard the other/rear force in danger, so it's possible the 2 forces were in one long line. The ambushed contingent seemed to be led by Roland, contain much of the looted treasure from Pamplona and had 12 of the best/strongest knights (12 peers), whose names are documented among the dead and their places of burial (at home) in the sources, and their troop contingents. Possibly it was half the force again, possibly a numerically weaker rear/baggage guard

The book goes into very exhaustive studies of every possible location in the northern Pyrenees and also all old Roman (semi-functional) roads and medieval tracks where it would be possible. Sources speak of - and in this it reminds me of the Romans in Teutoberg forest - steep wooded ravines/valleys where barely one cart can pass at a time. They speak of (conflictingly) either being harrassed from the forests all the way from Pamplona to the eventual battle site, or lightning attack by many warriors, devastating the column from the unseen forest and (consistenty) late in the day just before dusk. By the time Charlemagne's force turned back and discovered the massacre the attackers had disappeared into the forests and into the night

The main culprits were undoubtedly the Vascons of mountain Navarra, out of desire for plunder and/or antagonism against an invading force or revenge for things done to them. It's where they lived and their descendents for centuries to come - the partly pagan people of the woods and the mountains. It's possible they had support from their cousins in Pamplona, Vascon and or Banu Qasi or even a force from Cordoba. But the timescale means that, without considerable planning and foresight, a force from dismantled Pamplona or around would not have been able to get up and around. Whereas the topography of the area means that the mountain people would have been able to watch the great lumbering column from the mountain tops almost all the way from Pamplona.

Within a short time the Carolingians had occupied what is now largely Northern Catalonia including Barcelona in what became known as the buffer of the Spanish March - a mutually benficial buffer zone that eliminated small and troublesome Pyrenean war lords for both the Franks and Cordoba - largely due to the aforementioned chaos and inertia rather than military conquest. They flirted with Pamplona but mostly unhappily and the Banu Qasi/Arista status quo would remain for another century until the Caliphate of Cordoba and the later Kingdom of Sancho El Mayor confined the muslim territories back to Zaragoza and Tudela and evicted them from little Aragon and Ribagorza.

If anyone finds the location of the Battle of Roncesvalles (or Roncevaux, or Orreaga) one day, which they surely must (?) they will become famous!!! It will certainly be in a very confined area.