Charlemagne’s tail gets twisted… off

For when what could be done in Spain had been carried out and they were returning after a successful campaign a misfortune was met with and certain of the rear-guard of the royal column were killed in those same mountains. Since their names are widely known, I have neglected to give them.1.Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.

He had more than thirty years of wars ahead of him, but the ambush at Roncesvalle was the greatest defeat Charlemagne ever knew. It was, perhaps, a fitting end to an ill-fated enterprise.

The army that Charlemagne led north over the pass of Roncesvalles in August was hot, tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Don’t be fooled by the Astonomer’s characterization; Charles had been enticed out of Francia with the promise to reign in Spain2.Did you see what I did just there? north of the Ebro. The summer turned out to be an exercise in nothing more than physical endurance and political patience, while Charles’ erstwhile allies ended up killing one another.

By early August the king had had enough.3.While one chronicle reports that news of Saxon activity prompted Charles’ return, more reliable sources contradict this idea. King, Translated Sources, p.48. The army packed up and headed back the way it had came, through Pamplona and over the Pyrenees. In an ironic twist Charles tore down the walls of Pamplona, even though it had been the only town of note actually ceded to Charles, when he had entered Spain in May or June. The only thing we know he brought back from Spain was a hostage, ibn al-Arabi, one of the original emissaries to Paderborn, and the son of the ruler of Saragossa that was murdered.

The pass at Roncesvalles is steep, thickly wooded, and was traversed only by the old Roman road. It was, at best, a single wagon’s width, probably with an occasional turnout for travelers bound in opposite directions. Charles’ army, tens of thousands of soldiers, farmers, wives, and other followers, would have been strung out in a long line, extending for miles of hairpin turns, and into deep hollows. At some point during the day of August 15, 778, the ambush began.

The Song of Roland, the French epic that was first written down in the eleventh century, after several hundred years of oral tradition, blames the ‘Saracens’ for the perfidious attack. While an excellent narrative device, the near-contemporaneous Franks knew who was responsible. It was the Basques who attacked the rear guard. Pamplona was the closest thing they had to a capital city, and the attack was probably in retaliation for Charles’ razing of the city walls. But don’t take my word for any of this; let Einhard tell you all about it.

[O]n his return, in the heights of those very Pyrenees, it happened that he had a brief taste of Basque treachery. With his army stretched out and advancing in a long column, for that was all that the narrowness of the area permitted, the Basques laid their ambush right on the tops of the mountains. The area is especially suited to ambushes because of the dense and very deep forests. They fell upon the last part of the baggage train and those who were protecting the troops at the very back of the column, as well as those who had gone on ahead into the valley below. Having joined with them in combat, the Basques killed practically every one of the Franks. Protected by night, which was just falling, they snatched up the baggage and as quickly as possible scattered in every direction. The Basques were much assisted in this battle by the lightness of their arms and the lay of the land, whereas the heaviness of their arms and the unevenness of the land rendered the Franks utterly unequal to the Basques. Among many others who fell in the battle were Eggihard, the overseer of the royal table, Anselm, the count of the palace, and Roland, the prefect of the Breton March. Charles could not take revenge at that time because, after the attack, the enemy scattered, leaving no hint of where in the world they might be sought.4.Einhard, Life of Charles, ch.9, in Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, pp.29-30.

I can think of several questions to ask of this account.

Why did Charles not place greater emphasis on route security? As Einhard notes, this particular Pyreneean pass was perfectly suited for an ambush. One clue may be his reference to “Basque treachery.” Collins refers back to Einhard’s comments on the end of the Aquitanian war, when in 769 Duke Lupus of Gascony “submitted himself and the province over which he ruled to the authority of Charles.”5.Collins, The Basques, p.121. Einhard, Life of Charles, ch.5, in Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p.27. It is not clear, however, that the mountain-top Basques would have felt bound by an allegiance sworn ten years before by a Frankish stooge from the plains.

As an aside, we must also note that the voices of the alleged attackers are completely silent – there is virtually nothing in the sources from the Basques themselves, for hundreds of years.

[R]eaders now inured to authorial laments on the lack of evidence will not be surprised to learn that the Basque regions of the western Pyrenees and upper Ebro have provided us with no chronicle sources at all and very little of anything else over a period extending from the fall of the Visigothic monarchy to the turn of the millennium. Once more knowledge has to be gleaned from the pitiful scraps that outsiders have provided in their all too brief notices of events in these regions.6.Collins, The Basques, p.115.

Why did the Frankish army, which had enjoyed an almost unbroken string of successful engagements for decades, crumble so utterly when faced with simple hill-folk? Here again I think we can trust the sources. The revised Royal Annals offer more detail on the assault. “[A]lthough the Franks were manifestly superior to the Basques in both weapons and courage, yet they were rendered their inferiors by the steepness of the terrain and character of the battle, which was not fought fairly.”7.Revised Annals, year 778, King, Translated Sources, p.113. Modern analogues to the ambush might be the tactics of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, or of the Viet Minh during the French and American occupations of Vietnam.8.In those conflicts as well, some on the losing side lamented the ‘unfair’ tactics of their poorly armed but opportunistic opponents.

In the Song of Roland, Charles hears Roland’s horn and rides back to wreak extensive vengeance. But that passage was not an example of life imitating art. Charles, faced with the impossibility of finding anyone to fight in the trackless hills, licked his wounds and continued the long trip back to Aachen. He had lost more than just soldiers and baggage. The three casualties mentioned by Einhard were significant figures of the realm.

Eggihard was the court seneschal, “originally just the name for the head steward in charge of royal meals, developed into a supervisor for the crown properties…”9.Berbero, Charlemagne, Father of a Continent, p.153. Anselm’s role was even more vital. “The most important minister was now possibly the count palatine who was responsible for examining the judicial appeals that arrived at the palace in great number.”10.Ibid. “The count of the palace was the chief judicial officer and performed various other duties.”11.Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p.30, n.27. Roland ruled the Breton March, an area that comprised several counties, and served as a check against the wildness of Brittany. The fact that the Astronomer mentions others who were “widely known” decades later, must indicate that many notables were killed. Why it was Roland who achieved immortality is unknown.

It must be said that Charles’ Spanish expedition had little impact on the political and military situation south of the mountains, despite the prominence in received in the Frankish sources. ‘Abd ar-Rahman I, the Umayyad leader whose fearsome character had first inspired the Abbasid rulers of Pamplona, Saragossa, and Barcelona to seek aid from Charles, conquered the territories within a year. “Thus by the end of 779 Umayyad authority had become a reality for the first time in the Ebro valley.”12.Collins, Arab Conquest of Spain, p.180. Charles would never again walk under the Spanish sun, and his armies had to wait another generation before returning to finally establish a Frankish Spanish March.

In fairness I should note that not everyone looks at the campaign of 778 as an abysmal failure. “Even so, it is difficult to see why the expedition is so often judged a fiasco or disastrous failure; indeed it looks from the razing of Pamplona’s walls and the taking of hostages (though Ibn al-Arabi was rescued according to an Arabic source) as if Charles intended to return.”13.King, Translated Sources, p.48. If you say so, Dr. King. Charles spent a year abroad and gained nothing, lost his last hostages, some of his most valued men and a large chunk of his army, didn’t return for decades, and you have a hard time seeing why everyone thinks this was a failure? Maybe it’s just me…

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.
2. Did you see what I did just there?
3. While one chronicle reports that news of Saxon activity prompted Charles’ return, more reliable sources contradict this idea. King, Translated Sources, p.48.
4. Einhard, Life of Charles, ch.9, in Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, pp.29-30.
5. Collins, The Basques, p.121. Einhard, Life of Charles, ch.5, in Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p.27.
6. Collins, The Basques, p.115.
7. Revised Annals, year 778, King, Translated Sources, p.113.
8. In those conflicts as well, some on the losing side lamented the ‘unfair’ tactics of their poorly armed but opportunistic opponents.
9. Berbero, Charlemagne, Father of a Continent, p.153.
10. Ibid.
11. Noble, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, p.30, n.27.
12. Collins, Arab Conquest of Spain, p.180.
13. King, Translated Sources, p.48.

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