In his 46 year reign as the king of the Franks and emperor of the Romans, Charlemagne engineered glorious military victories but, on 15 August 778, he suffered one stunning defeat. This great battle—the Battle of Roncevaux Pass—is best remembered through the oldest extant piece of French literature, the Song of Roland. The Song of Roland was written several centuries after the actual battle and greatly mythologizes the real events of 15 August 778.
By the eighth century, the Muslims had gained a strong foothold in Europe on the Iberian Peninsula, with the Umayyad capital at Córdoba. In 711, Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel routed the invading Muslims in southwest France at the Battle of Tours (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Poitiers). Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne and son of Martel, assured Frankish control north of the Pyrenees by subduing Aquitaine in 759. Charlemagne later assumed the title Duke of Aquitaine.
It was against this backdrop that around 777 the anti-Umayyad governor of Barcelona and Girona, Sulayman al-Arabi, requested military help from Charlemagne in return for his submission as well as that of the governors of Zaragoza and Huesca. The Umayyad ruler, Abd ar-Rahman I, had the upper hand in Iberia and there were indications that another anti-Umayyad force would soon arrive from Baghdad.
Charlemagne the Opportunist
Charlemagne, ever the savvy opportunist, saw a chance to expand the bounds of Christendom (and his own power) into Spain. He turned his attention away from the Saxons and prepared to head west. He marched across the Pyrenees with an amassed force—one portion going south through Catalonia and another going north through Gascony and the Basque Country. From there, al-Arabi added his own forces to those of Charlemagne. At about the same time, the governor of Zaragoza made an advance of his own against the Umayyads and decided his position of power had increased such that he did not need an alliance with the Franks and claimed to never have pledged allegiance to Charlemagne. Charlemagne then laid siege to Zaragoza and, after a month of the siege, decided to turn back and head home.
So, the Frankish retreat began and on the way Charlemagne ordered the defensive walls of Pamplona to be destroyed. Enemies of the Franks began to form together. When the task at Pamplona was complete, the Franks again entered the Pyrenees proceeding through the narrow and heavily wooded Roncevaux Pass. It was here, on the evening of 15 August 778, that Charlemagne’s army was attacked from behind by a force composed mainly of Basques. The heavy arms and armor carried by the Frankish army put them at a further disadvantage in the cramped situation at Roncevaux.
The Death of Roland
The Franks were caught so off-guard and unready that the ambush became a slaughter of the rearguard. Among the many killed were a number of noble military commanders including Roland, the governor of the Breton March, and Eggihard, an important mayor of the palace (a high-ranking Frankish government official). The Song of Roland turned this rout into an epic battle between 400,000 Muslim Saracens and Charlemagne’s substantial army. The Basques were, in fact, a Christian people and certainly not Saracen and there were almost certainly not 400,000 of them present that day at Roncevaux. Pictured is the moment of Roland’s death, Le Mort de Roland, by Jean Fouquet (1420-1480)
Nonetheless, the loss was large and embarrassing enough for Charlemagne to remain absent from the Iberian Peninsula for a number of years following. The chroniclers of Charlemagne’s life often avoided detracting from his remarkable reputation, but they did not remain silent about this defeat. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass did blemish the reign of Charlemagne somewhat, though perhaps not as much as purported by the Song of Roland. Nevertheless, the military career of “Father of Europe” before and after Roncevaux is no trifling matter and the Frankish army stands as one of the most dominant forces the world has ever seen.
Sarah Jane Bodell
See also Charlemagne’s Daughters