Charlemagne gets played

In the spring of 777 a group of Arab emissaries from northern Spain arrived at Paderborn, Germany to meet with the Frankish King Charles. They had traveled more than a thousand miles, but it was worth it, for they had a proposal of continental scope to put forth. If Charles would raise his armies and march to Spain, he would be granted dominion over all of the lands from the Pyrenees to the Ebro river, if he could defend them against the depredations of the last of the Umayyad emirs, the merciless ‘Abd al-Rahman of Cordova. For a variety of reasons, thoughts of an easy conquest uppermost, Charles agreed. The word went forth throughout the realm to prepare for war.1.All of this is detailed more fully in my previous post.

No details reach us concerning the specific preparations that were undertaken for this particular expedition. The groundwork must have been immense, for the Spanish expedition was one of the larger armies Charles organized. “How big was it?” is, of course, the obvious question, and one to which much thought has been given. To no satisfactory result, it must be said. The sources give ridiculous numbers, in the hundreds of thousands, and must be taken as the rhetorical equivalent of “larger than you can imagine.”

Part of the problem is how to define the army. Is it only those men who are armed for combat? Those armed with farm implements? What about the women, children, and other camp followers? They wouldn’t have fought, but to the villagers watching the horde pass through, they must have been considered part of “the army.” Despite its size the army was not a mob. There were strict rules about what could be taken by the army on the march, generally limited to animal forage, water, and firewood. In any case, I am going with an estimate that the army numbered between 20,000 to 30,000 fighting men. This seems to be in congruence with generally accepted sizes for a large army in this time and place.

The logistics of the early medieval army are murky, and I won’t go into any detail here. Anyone interested should consult Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare. He has chapters on military organization, training, morale, etc.

The only tactical measure revealed to us is that the army traveled in two wings. Charles himself led the western wing, which advanced south through Aquitaine, via Bordeaux into Gascony, and crossed into Spain over the Roman road, at the pass of Roncesvalles. The eastern wing came through Provence, followed the coast road in Septimania, and skirted the eastern edge of the Pyrenees. The army included “men from Burgundy, Austrasia, Bavaria, Provence and Septimania, as well as a contingent of Lombards.”2.King, Royal Frankish Annals, year 778, in Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.79. It is notable that the army did not include troops from Aquitaine, which was still depopulated after Pepin’s war of conquest that had ended ten years earlier.

The city of Pamplona, just south of the Roncesvalles pass, was taken or handed over as Charles marched through. The Royal Annals don’t mention it, but the Moissac Chronicle says that Charles “captured Pamplona.”3.Ibid, p.133. The Petau Annals says, “In this year the lord king Charles came with a great army into the land of Galicia and gained the city of Pamplona.”4.Ibid, p.152. It is not recorded if he left a garrison force or any kind of political representation. The army continued to march south.

Charles’ forces arrived at the city of Saragossa, and the eastern division came to Barcelona. The sources are not clear as to what Charles expected would happen once he descended from the mountains and arrived in Spain. The revised royal annals relate that he had “conceived the far from idle hope of gaining certain cities in Spain.”5.King, Revised Royal Frankish Annals, year 778, in Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.113. That much seems certain, but did he assume that every city’s gates would be thrown open and the residents proclaim him king by acclamation? At the very least he must have anticipated a good battle. He got neither.

At Saragossa the army halted, outside the walls, but took no further action. Collected scholarly wisdom believes that the eastern division of the army came to Barcelona, and then continued along the Roman road to Saragossa. While that does make sense, nothing (that I can find) in the sources confirms the assumption.

Saragossa was the power base of Sulayman ibn Yaqzan al-Arabi, whose son had been one of the emissaries to Paderborn the previous year. Whatever agreement Charles had clinched with the emissaries, evidently Sulayman was in no hurry to honor it. PD King notes, “Saragossa is not said to have fallen by Frankish sources and is said not to have done by Arabic.”6.Ibid, p.48. What Charles did get was hostages, which the Moissac Chronicle say were handed over at Pamplona. “Abu Taher, a rex of the Saracens, came to him, handed over the cities which he held and gave him his brother and son as hostages.”7.Ibid, p.133. The Petau Annals say only, “In Spain he then received hostages from the cities of of Abu Taher and Ibn al-Arabi, called Huesca, Barcelona, and Gerona.”8.Ibid, p.152. But he got nothing else.

Exactly why the “certain principes of the Saracens” had failed to fulfill their promise to “subject themselves with all whom they ruled to the dominion of the lord king Charles” is not known. But now things took a markedly darker turn. “At some stage in 778 Sulayman ibn Yaqzan al-Arabi was murdered in Zaragoza by his associate Al-Husayn. What relationship this had to the city’s failure to co-operate with Charlemagne is not clear. It may be that the two men differed fundamentally over the Frankish alliance…”9.Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain, p.179. Unfortunately Collins doesn’t give us the quote from his source on this bit of internecine conflict.

For Charles the implication would have been clear: his expedition had failed in its objectives, and there was nothing left he could do. He had received only hostages and but one city, and the army never had a chance to come to grips with a foe. It would have foolhardy to start a fight with Al-Husayn, inside the city walls, with the feared ‘Abd al-Rahman somewhere to his rear.

Another factor must have been the weather in the Ebro valley, which is not pleasant. The average temperature in July is over 90 degrees, with more sunshine than Miami. Barely a drop of rain falls the entire summer. Compare that climate to Aachen, where it’s about 75 degrees in July, with plenty of moisture. For a northern European, a Spanish summer is trying.

The murder of Sulayman, father of one of the men who promised him northern Spain, sealed whatever faded hopes he would have had for a successful summer. Sometime in early August he sounded his trumpets and headed for home. But those that could pay, would pay. Sulayman’s son was taken “back to Francia in chains,”10.King, Translated Sources, Petau Annals, year 778, p.152. no doubt to face the wrath of the king in more secure surroundings. In another sign of a failed campaign, Charles razed the walls of Pamplona, ‘his’ city.

With this one ‘conquest’ under their belts, the army slogged over the pass at Roncesvalles, and headed back to Francia. Charles’ anger, frustration, and disappointment must have made for a difficult journey for his council and staff. No doubt they gave a great sigh of relief at the top of the pass, to see the realm stretched out before them. No one had any idea that the worst part of the campaign, and, indeed, one of the worst episodes of Charles’ entire reign, was about to transpire.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. All of this is detailed more fully in my previous post.
2. King, Royal Frankish Annals, year 778, in Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.79.
3, 7. Ibid, p.133.
4, 8. Ibid, p.152.
5. King, Revised Royal Frankish Annals, year 778, in Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.113.
6. Ibid, p.48.
9. Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain, p.179. Unfortunately Collins doesn’t give us the quote from his source on this bit of internecine conflict.
10. King, Translated Sources, Petau Annals, year 778, p.152.

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