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 was 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.

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 a child’s answer to how many stars there are, “jillions!”

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.