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Charlemagne’s Shame: The Battle of Roncesvalles

by William E. Welsh

Lost to history is what really occurred at the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778 when Christian Basques, thirsting for the loot in the Frankish baggage train, attacked the rearguard as it withdrew following Charlemagne’s short invasion of northern Iberia.
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Muslim governor of Barcelona Sulayman ibn Yaqzan al-Kalbi, a follower of the Abbasid Caliphate, had requested Charlemagne’s assistance against Umayyad Emir of Cordoba Abd ar-Rahman I. Sulayman traveled to Paderborn to personally beseech Charlemagne for military assistance. In return, Sulayman pledged his allegiance, as well as that of Husayn, governor of Zaragoza.

Charlemagne was drawn by the idea of a quick campaign to extend Frankish control into northern Iberia. He therefore planned a classic Frankish two-prong advance through the Pyrenees. Charlemagne led a Neustrian column through the western end of the mountain chain, while another Frankish general led a column comprising Austrasians, Lombards, and Burgundians through the eastern end of the Pyrenees.

Basques Considered Muslims and Franks as Enemies

During the Battle of Roncesvalles, Charlemagne's Franks were frustrated at their inability to punish the Basques for robbing their baggage train. Pamplona’s walls had been seriously damaged in previous conflicts, and the Neustrians quickly captured it. Although garrisoned by Umayyad Muslims, Pamplona was a traditional Basque stronghold. The Basques had no love for either the Muslims or the Franks.

The two Frankish columns converged near Roman-walled Zaragoza. Unlike Pamplona, Zaragoza was a strong fortress and the Franks lacked the siege equipment necessary to capture it quickly. What’s more, the Umayyads drove back the Franks. Unwilling to fight a protracted campaign, Charlemagne therefore withdrew with his entire army through Pamplona into the Pyrenees.

Franks Vulnerable to Basque Irregulars

In the Roncesvalles pass, the Basques fell upon Charlemagne’s rearguard. The Basque irregulars sliced up the rearguard, and then melted into the woods from which they had appeared. The Franks were furious that they could not bring the Basque guerillas to fight a traditional battle.

The stinging defeat at Roncesvalles was a deep humiliation, and marked the first time Charlemagne had been strongly defeated in battle. What is known is that three of his best commanders were slain in the hard fighting.

The slain high officials were Eggihard (official in charge of the royal table), Anselm (count of the palace), and, of course, Roland (margrave of Brittany). Roland is forever remembered in the epic poem Chanson de Roland.

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