Battle of Roncevaux Pass: Franks Beaten by Basques, Immortalized in "Song of Roland"

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Battle of Roncevaux Pass: Franks Beaten by Basques, Immortalized in "Song of Roland"

"Battle of Roncevaux Pass, Sir Roland's Death"
14th century illustrated manuscript, artist unknown
Image courtesy of; in the Library of the Arsenal, Natl. Library of France
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 15, AD 778

For today's Walk Through History, I return to my comfort zone – the so-called "Dark Ages" – to an event that could be termed the only defeat suffered by Frankish ruler Charlemagne during his reign (768-814). It occurred in the Pyrenees Mountains of northeastern Spain, and has been immortalized by the French epic poem, La Chanson de Roland ("The Song of Roland"), the oldest surviving example of French literature, written in the early 12th century.


Charlemagne, from a mosaic in the Cathedral of Strasburg, Germany
Charlemagne, from a mosaic in the Cathedral of Strasburg, Germany

Charlemagne – originally named Carolus (Charles) – and his brother Carloman became joint rulers of the Frankish kingdom in September 768 upon the death of their father, Carolingian monarch Pepin "the Short" or "the Younger." Charles and Carloman ruled jointly until his brother's death in 771 (from natural causes at age 20, supposedly). After assuming the throne of the Franks, Charles began to consolidate power, and made plans to expand his kingdom.

The new Frankish monarch began a piecemeal occupation of neighboring lands. Between 771 and 778, the Frankish kingdom acquired the Lombard Kingdom of northern Italy, the north German area known as Saxony, and a greater portion of Thuringia in east-central Germany. [See map below] He also began exerting political and military power in southwestern France, as well as south of the Pyrenees Mountains.

Prelude to the Battle

In late 777, a delegation from several Muslim provincial governors in northeast Spain was sent to Charlemagne. They offered their submission to the Frankish king, in return for military aid. The emir of Cordoba, who ruled most of Spain, was exerting pressure on these Muslim rulers. In addition, an invasion force sent by the third Abbasid caliph in Baghdad was expected soon. Seeing an opportunity to expand his growing kingdom into Spain and strike a blow to recover territory for the Catholic Church, Charlemagne gathered an army to accomplish both of these objectives. [Spain had fallen to the Muslims about 75 years previously, after the defeat of the Visigoths at Guadalete in AD 712.] The Frankish monarch commanded one wing of his army, which entered Spain via Roncevaux Pass; the other portion of his army entered Spain farther east, skirting the Pyrenees and marching through Catalonia.

Charlemagne's western force captured the city of Pamplona, the capital of Basque territory. The Franks were initially welcomed in Barcelona by the rebel Muslim governors. Charlemagne was urged to attack the city of Zaragosa, the capital of the Upper March of the Emirate of Cordoba. Expecting a friendly welcome from the governor of the city, the Frankish monarch was shocked when the governor, Husayn, refused, saying he had never pledged his allegiance to Charlemagne. Finding this answer unacceptable, Charlemagne placed Zaragosa under siege.

Map of Carolingian Empire, from AD 481-814, showing gradual expansion; Image created by Sémhur and courtesy of Wikipedia
Map of Carolingian Empire, from AD 481-814, showing gradual expansion
Image created by Sémhur and courtesy of Wikipedia

Husayn held out for a month, and eventually prevailed on the Franks to accept some hostages (one of them a general of the Emirate of Cordoba) and a large sum of gold as the price of leaving Zaragosa alone. Soon after, Charlemagne received information that the newly-conquered Saxons were in revolt. [The Saxons were a constant thorn in the Frankish monarch's flesh from 772 until 804, as he launched annual campaigns to convert the pagan Saxons to Christianity.]

On his way out of the country, Charlemagne decided to use a stick – not a carrot – to remind the native Basques who was in charge, as he firmly believed the Basques were allied to the Muslims. His western army razed a number of local towns, and pulled down the city walls of Pamplona, fearing it might be used as the center of future unrest. Some contemporary chronicles say the Frankish king ordered the city burned to the ground, but that is still not proven. Frankish outposts and garrisons were placed in a number of locations. By mid-August, the western Frankish army was approaching Roncevaux Pass, in an effort to return to France as quickly as possible to address the Saxon problem.

Basque Army

The size of the Basque force that ambushed Charlemagne's rearguard is unknown, but modern scholars believe it greatly outnumbered the Frankish rearguard. It consisted almost entirely of local tribes who fought a constant guerilla war against any power that disturbed their land. They knew the terrain well, knew where and when to hide from their foe, and only attacked when they perceived they had the advantage. There were likely almost entirely foot infantry, with some mounted men who knew the terrain well.

A typical Basque mountain warrior was armed with two short spears and a knife or short sword as his main weapons, and bows or javelins for missile weapons. He would not normally wear armor, other than a thick sheepskin coat if the weather was not cooperating, or carry a shield. One author suggests that the attackers' main motivation may have been plunder, plain and simple. However, the destruction of their capital and a number of their towns was probably just as great a motivation. The locals had a history of resisting Carolingian rule since an incursion by Charlemagne's father Pepin the Short, which saw the defeat of the last independent Duke of Aquitaine (a province in southeastern France which formed alliances with the Basques from time to time).

Frankish Army

Most armies on the march in the Dark Ages were large, unwieldy entities. Depending on the terrain traversed, whether the country was friendly or not to the marching army, and any number of other factors, a retiring army was generally arranged in three or four general groups:

  • The vanguard, usually mounted men used to guard the front of the army and scouts to detect enemy activity;
  • The main body of the force, in the case of the Franks usually infantry; spearmen, archers, and the like;
  • The baggage train, all the equipment of the army – wagons, carts, tents, extra armor and weapons, and any treasure/ransom/plunder/prisoners/hostages taken – with hopefully a strong force to guard these valuables; and,
  • The rearguard, to insure that the retiring army was not ambushed or attacked.

Again, we have no solid numbers for the size of the Frankish rearguard, but modern historians believe it was about 2000 soldiers strong. It probably consisted primarily of heavy cavalrymen. According to the Song of Roland, a number of high Frankish officials were assigned to the rearguard to boost the morale of the soldiers. They included: Eggihard, Charlemagne's Mayor of the Palace (the chief minister) of the Carolingian kings; Anselmus, Palatine Count (a lord of the Frankish court probably with legal as well as military functions); and Roland, military governor of the Breton March (in what is today northwestern France).

Battle of Roncevaux Pass

Late in the day (perhaps close to sunset) on August 15, AD 778 the Basques sprang their ambush of the Frankish rearguard emerging from the thick forests on either side of the Frankish line of march. It is believed that the actual battle took place either just prior to entering Roncevaux Pass or possibly just on the other side in Carolingian territory. The sudden onslaught of the Basques threw the entire Frankish army into confusion.

The Basques managed to cut off and isolate the Frankish rearguard and the baggage train from the rest of the escaping army. Although the Basques were not as well equipped, they held the upper ground and the knowledge of the terrain that gave them a huge advantage in the skirmish. As Charlemagne tried to regroup and evacuate his army, Roland and the others held the enemy at bay for a considerable amount of time, before the Basques finally surrounded and massacred them completely. Though killed to the last man, the rearguard nonetheless succeeded in allowing Charlemagne and his army to continue to safety.

In the aftermath of the fight, in the early evening darkness, the Basques looted the baggage train, taking the gold given the Franks by the governor of Saragosa.

"The Death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, 15th century illustrated manuscript
"The Death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, 15th century illustrated manuscript

The description of this battle in the Song of Roland is much more grandiloquent. The guerilla force of Basques (who were generally pagans) is transformed into a huge army of 400,000 Saracens. Roland is armed with a sword named Durendal, which supposedly contained within its golden hilt: one tooth of Saint Peter; blood of Saint Basil; hair of Saint Denis; and a piece of the raiment of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to be the sharpest sword in all existence.

In addition, the poem said Roland carried an oliphant, a large hunting horn supposedly constructed from the tusk of an elephant. A blast on the horn could be heard from miles away.
When the Basques attacked, one of Roland's companions urged him to sound the horn and recall the Frankish army to aid them against the enemy. Roland refused at first; but, when he was one of the last remaining Franks in the ambush, he blew the horn. The Song of Roland states he blew it so long and hard that his temples burst, killing him.


As with many battles of the Dark Ages, casualty figures are unavailable. Basque losses were probably very light, while the entire Frankish rearguard (estimated at about 2000 men) was utterly wiped out.

Footnote #1: The origin of Pepin's cognomen "the Short" has led to historical speculation that he was a diminutive individual. A few sources state he was only 3'6" tall. The prevailing modern opinion is he was one of the first Frankish monarchs to wear his hair at a shorter length than his royal predecessors.

Footnote #2: Charlemagne was the grandson of Charles Martel – known to history as "The Hammer" – who led the Frankish army which defeated a Spanish Muslim invasion force at the battle of Tours (or Poitiers) in AD 732.

Footnote #3: Though not a complete debacle, the loss at Roncevaux Pass weighed heavily on Charlemagne for the rest of his life. In the future, Charlemagne never led another army into the Iberian Peninsula; he assigned other generals to take care of the military affairs in Spain.

Footnote #4: The Song of Roland is considered the greatest of the chansons de geste, a "song of heroic deeds," an epic poem written sometime between 1040 and 1115. It is sometimes compared to the Poem of The Cid, a similar epic poem devoted to Spanish hero Rodrigo Dias de Vivar, "The Cid." Both Roland and The Cid are considered paragons of heroic knighthood.

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