Battle of Roncevaux Pass

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For the later battle leading to the establishment of the Kingdom of Pamplona, see Battle of Roncevaux Pass (824).
For the battle in the Peninsular War, see Battle of Roncesvalles (1813).
Battle of Roncevaux Pass
Part of Charlemagne's campaign in the Iberian Peninsula
BLW Tapestry, The Battle of Roncevaux.jpg
The Battle of Roncevaux in a tapestry woven at Tournai, ca 1475–1500 (Victoria and Albert Museum)
Date August 15, 778
Location Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees
Result Vascon victory
Franks Vascones
Commanders and leaders
(speculated: Duke Lop of Vasconia)
3,000 soldiers who were crossing the pass (Modern est.)[1] Unknown but large[2][3]
Casualties and losses
Massacre of the Frankish rearguard Unknown

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 while crossing the Roncevaux Pass that took place during Charlemagne's invasion of Spain. The cause of the battle was Charlemagne's destruction of the Basque's defenses in the region, enraging the tribes to retaliate against him. They took the opportunity of attacking Charlemagne's army during their retreat back to France and were using the pass as a route. The rear guard, consisting of many notable Frankish lords, were cut off, stood their ground, and were wiped out as Charlemagne evacuated his army. It was fought at Roncevaux Pass, a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain.

Over the years, the battle was romanticized by oral tradition into a major conflict between Christians and Muslims, when in fact both sides of the battle were Christian.[4] The legend is recounted in 11th century The Song of Roland, which is the oldest surviving major work of French literature, and in Orlando Furioso, which is one of the most celebrated works of Italian literature.


With the rise of the Carolingians and Pepin the Short's war on Aquitaine, the Duchy of Aquitaine led by Waifer was defeated and a program of Frankish penetration into the duchy ensued under Charlemagne. 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—Duke Lupus cited. However, as of 778 Charlemagne expanded Frankish takeover of Aquitaine to present-day Gascony by appointing trusted Franks and Burgundians as well as Church officials in key regional positions and (re-)establishing counties, such as Fezensac, Bordeaux, and Toulouse, on the left banks of the Garonne. Charlemagne's colonization attempts bitterly displeased the Basques.

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.[5] 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.[6]

Seeing an opportunity to extend Christendom and his own power and believing the Saxons to be a fully conquered nation, Charlemagne agreed to go to Spain. It seems that 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,[7] Charlemagne marched across the Pyrenees in 778 "at the head of all the forces he could muster".[8] 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.[9] As he moved towards Zaragoza, the troops of Charlemagne were joined by troops led by al-Arabi.[10]

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.[11] After a month of siege at Zaragoza, Charlemagne heard news of a Saxon revolt in the North, which forced him to retreat back to his kingdom.[12]


History of the Basques
Prehistory and Antiquity
Basque prehistory
Middle Ages
Duchy of Cantabria
Duchy of Gascony
County of Vasconia
Battle of Roncevaux Pass
Kingdom of Navarre
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War of the Bands
Modern Age
Spanish conquest of Iberian Navarre
Basque witch trials
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Carlist Wars
Basque nationalism
Basque conflict
Duchy of Gascony
Kings of Pamplona and Navarre
Lords of Biscay
House of Haro
Basque law
History of Basque whaling
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Basque literature
Politics of the Basque Country
Basque portal

During their retreat, Charlemagne easily took the city of Pamplona after it surrendered to him. Charlemagne then decided to eliminate any oppositions from the natives of the region, which included the Basques tribes. He ordered the walls of Pamplona be destroyed, possibly fearing that it could be used by the Basques in future conflicts. Some primary sources suggest that he destroyed the city altogether.[13] After that, Charlemagne marched for the Pyrenees mountain pass in the hopes of finally retreating back to France. Many of his notable lords, like Roland, military governor of the Breton March, and Eggihard, Mayor of the Palace, were placed in the rearguard to protect the retreat and baggage train.[1][14]

In the evening of August 15, 778, the Franks' rearguard was attacked by the Basques in retaliation for what Charlemagne did to their city. While they weren't as well-equipped as the Franks, they held the upper ground and the terrain, giving them absolute control of the battlefield.[14] The surprise attack made Charlemagne's army fall into confusion and dissaray as they try to escape the trap. Roland and his men fought the Basque, and Charlemagne quickly tried to regroup and remove the rest of his army from the pass before they can be overwhelmed. The reaguard held for a considerable amount of time before perishing in their defense, but nonetheless succeeded in preventing the Basques from pursuing Charlemagne as the Franks evacuate.[15][3] The Basques then looted the baggage that were left behind by Charlemagne, and took advantage of the darkness to flee, leaving no trace for the Franks to follow in the following morning.[16][17]

The Basque army[edit]

One of the principal units of the Vascones were the unknown guerrilla army of the Basques.[18] 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. A typical such mountain warrior would have two short spears and a knife or short sword as his main 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. Nevertheless he also suggests that the Duke of Vasconia, Lop, may have been their commander.[19] This opinion is also held by the authors of the General History of Languedoc who claim that Duke Lop was the leader of the Gascons (cited always as Wascones) that attacked Charlemagne,[20] who had serious reasons to oppose Carolingian expansion into Vasconia after the Franco-Aquitanian war (760–769).[21]

The presence of people from other areas beyond those mentioned by de Marca is very likely anyhow. It is difficult to imagine why Bazatanese were there and not, for instance, the people of the nearby Aezkoa or Salazar valleys. There are even attributions to Guipuzcoans, such as a dedication in a chapel of Pasaia that gives thanks to Our Lady of Piety because of her support to their alleged participation in this battle (although the date mentioned (814) may be that of the Second Battle of Roncevaux: see below).


Map of the Roman roads in Hispania. A suggested location for the battle is on the road Via Caesar Augusta that led from Caesaraugusta to Benearnum and joined another to Burdigala. This crossed the Pyrenees through the valley of Hecho. On the other hand, the pass of Roncesvalles is located on the Ab Asturica Burdigalam road that started in Castra Legiones and went on to Benearnum, where it met the first-mentioned road to Burdigala.
Ibaneta (Roncevaux) pass

There have been many different theories as to where this battle actually took place, some suggesting various places in the High Pyrenees 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. Several authors (Narbaiz, Jimeno Jurio) have pinpointed the actual scene of the clash in the narrow passages of the above spots.[22] By taking out the vulnerable rear, the Basque gains access to the baggage trains that the former were trying to protect.[23]

Another possible location for the battle is the Selva de Oza pass, in the valley of Hecho, on the border between Aragon and Navarre. The old Roman road called "Via Caesar Augusta" that led from Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza) to Benearnum (Béarn) crosses the Pyrenees there. Since Charlemagne was retreating from Caesaraugusta, it has been seen as a possible location. Other than tradition, that points towards Roncesvaux as the place of the battle, the main argument provided against the Selva de Oza location is that according to some of the chronicles, Charlemagne retreated from Pamplona after arriving there from Zaragoza. This would suggest that he took the "Ab Asturica Burdigalam" road which passed through Pamplona, and not retrace his way back to the east, where Hecho lies. However, when physical descriptions of the battle site are taken on account, the Selva de Oza location seems to fit descriptions that tell about gorge-like passages wide enough for an army to pass easily and with several high vantage points from which to attack the enemy. Roncesvaux and Selva de Oza passes are only about 30 kilometers apart, but the complicated orography of the Pyrenean foothills, full of deep valleys and gorges, would have made it difficult for Charlemagne's army to reach Selva de Oza from Pamplona without having retreated first via Iaca (modern day Jaca).


The death of Roland and his men.

Charlemagne biographer Einhard stated that the men in the rear were "massacred to the last man." The Vita Karoli mentions the names of the most important lords killed among many others: Eggihard, Mayor of the Palace, Anselmus, Palatine Count and Roland, Prefect of the March of Brittany.[24] 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. The second version of the Annales Regii (falsely attributed to Eginhard) reads:[25]

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.

Today, historians believe that the battle was nothing more than a minor skirmish. While it was a just a small setback, Charlemagne did lose huge quantities of treasure and good men.[17][26] The attack did however, delayed the Franks from invading Spain once again. During the campaign, the Franks failed to capture Zaragoza and suffered significant losses at the hands of the Basques. They would only be able to establish the Marca Hispanica a decade later, when Barcelona was finally captured. Zaragoza remained an important Muslim city, capital of the Upper March and later of an independent emirate, until the 11th century. Charlemagne did return to take back much of Spain from Muslim rule. In the 780s he slowly extended Frankish control south. In 795, Charlemagne finally built the Marca Hispanica in the newly captured territory, to serve as a buffer region between the Christian empire and the Muslims to the south.[17]

Pamplona however, was in the hands of the Muslims and held until a rebellion in 798–801 expelled them as well, and helped to consolidate the Banu Qasi realm and eventually the constitution of the independent Kingdom of Pamplona in 824. In that same year, the Basque army defeated another Carolingian military in the same pass. The battle was almost similar to the first, with the Basque taking again the advantage of the terrain and ambushing a larger force. Unlike the first battle, the Carolingian army were routed and a larger number of them were slaughtered.[27] Counts Eblus and Aznar, Frankish vassals, were captured by the joint forces of Iñigo Arista's Pamplona and of the Banu Qasi, consolidating the independence of both realms.[28]


Over the years, this battle was romanticized by oral tradition into a major conflict between Christians and Muslims although in fact, the Basques were Christians. In the tradition, the Basques are replaced by a force of 400,000 Saracens.[29] 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.[30] 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. It is also commemorated in the Italian literary classic Orlando Furioso.[31] 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.[32]

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.[33]

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, recalls the Chanson de Roland, and Roland's companion Oliver.[34] There is a tombstone near the Roncevaux Pass commemorating the area where it is traditionally held that Roland died.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Butt, John J. Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne. Greenwood (November 30, 2002). pp. 40-51. ISBN 978-0313316685
  2. ^ Hunt, Janin. Mercenaries in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. McFarland (July 3, 2013). p. 32. ISBN 978-0786472741
  3. ^ a b Hamm, Jean Shepherd. Term Paper Resource Guide to Medieval History. Greenwood (November 25, 2009). pp. 88-90. ISBN 978-0313359675
  4. ^ Murrin, Michael (1994). History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226554031. P. 25
  5. ^ Lewis, p. 244
  6. ^ Lewis, p. 244
  7. ^ Lewis, p.245
  8. ^ Lewis, p.246
  9. ^ Lewis, p.253
  10. ^ Lewis, p.246
  11. ^ Lewis, p.249
  12. ^ Lewis, p.249
  13. ^ Lewis, p.249
  14. ^ a b "This Day In History: August 15, 778". History. 
  15. ^ Hickman, Kennedy. "Charlemagne: Battle of Roncevaux Pass". Military History. 
  16. ^ Hickman, Kennedy. "Charlemagne: Battle of Roncevaux Pass". Military History. 
  17. ^ a b c Cline, Austin. "Charlemagne's Commander Roland Killed by Basques at Battle of Roncevaux Pass". Skepticism in History. 
  18. ^ Lewis, p. 244
  19. ^ Pierre de Marca, Historie du Béarn (quoted by Narbaitz, op.cit.)
  20. ^ Devic and Vaissette, Historie Genérale du Languedoc, 1872 (quoted by Narbaitz, op.cit.),
  21. ^ Lewis, Archibald R. (1965). The Development of Southern French and Catalan Society, 718–1050. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 38–50. Retrieved March 26, 2013. 
  22. ^ Narbaitz, Pierre (1979). Orria o la batalla de Roncesvalles: 15 de Agosto del 778. Pamplona: Ediciones Vascas. ISBN 978-84-400-4926-1. OCLC 7435876. 
  23. ^ Collins, Roger (1990). The Basques (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell. p. 122. ISBN 0631175652. 
  24. ^ Thorpe, Lewis Two Lives Of Charlemagne ISBN 0-14-044213-8
  25. ^ Narbaitz, Pierre. Orria, o la batall de Roncesvalles. 778. Elkar, 1979. ISBN 84-400-4926-9
  26. ^ Baker, Patrick (January 23, 2014). "A legend grows". Karwasaray Publishers. Retrieved November 4, 2015. 
  27. ^ Lewis, Archibald R. (1965). The Development of Southern French and Catalan Society, 718–1050. Austin: University of Texas Press. Retrieved June 15, 2012. 
  28. ^ Ducado de Vasconia (Auñamendi Encyclopedia)
  29. ^ Lewis, p.249
  30. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England, New York Burt Franklin,1963 p. iii
  31. ^ The Orlando Furioso and English Literature in Reynolds, Vol. 1, pp. 74–88
  32. ^ "Time Vaults". Van der Graaf Generator. Retrieved 2013-03-27. 
  33. ^ John Rockwell (December 20, 1981). "Opera: Handel's 'Orlando' At American Repertory". The New York Times. 
  34. ^ Brown, Lesley, ed. (1993), The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 2, Clarendon Press, p. 2618 

Further reading[edit]

  • Lewis, David L. (2008). God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393064728. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 42°59′22″N 1°20′02″W / 42.98944°N 1.33389°W / 42.98944; -1.33389