The Battle of Roncesvalles

Who has not heard of the Battle of Roncesvalles, with Charlemagne and the knight Roldán? This is one of the most studied fights in the history of man, that gave rise to the singing of heroic deeds, known as the Song of Roland. The battle has been called into question by the historian Vicente José González García for several decades. Although he began by trying to validate his intuition that the character of Bernardo del Carpio was real, the Asturian researcher ended up causing the greatest discovery of medieval historiography of the last century. There were many inconsistencies between the heroic songs, the documents of the time, and the archaeological samples, which led to the realization that there was not one battle in that area of the Hispanic Pyrenees, but two. They took place 30 years apart and a few kilometers apart, but on opposite sides of the mountain port of Ibañeta (Navarra).

The so-called ‘Dark Years’ is the alternative way in which European historiography refers to the High Middle Ages (from the fall of the Roman Empire to the year thousand of the Christian era). This limitation has generated many doubts about the authenticity of stories and even historic figures. This lack of certainty even reaches the data that is well-collected, such as the dates of birth and death of kings. In the case of the Battle of Roncesvalles, the French literary text of the song of Roldán has been discredited because it does not match the documents of the time and the archaeological pieces of evidence.

The investigation of Vicente José González García was explained in an international congress that convened to analyze his discoveries. His investigation managed to fit the documented history, the archaeological evidence, and the famous song of ‘gesta’ or heroic deeds, strengthening the likelihood. The result is a story of slightly different dates that happened close by, with the defeat of the troops of the Emperor Charlemagne in both battles. Is it possible that there was not one Battle of Roncesvalles, but two?

On August 15, 778, the army of the young Charlemagne returned from his first campaign in Hispania. We know that during his absence, his son, the new heir, was born: Ludovico Pio. Charlemagne had traveled southward with his army to assist his ally, the Moro king of Zaragoza. During his return, he defeated the Basque ‘Spaniards’ and the Navarros (modern denomination of the Basques), destroying their stronghold in Pamplona.

After passing through the town Roncesvalles and overcoming the port of Ibañeta, the powerful Frank army descended through the valley, heading to the town of Valcarlos and the current French border. The great army was not on guard, as it had just left the hostile Vascón territory and was already in Gascon. Because this area was to the north of the Cordillera, there were tributaries of the empire here, but they shared ethnicity and ethnic language with the Vascones located to the south. The Franks were not aware that Gascon and Vascon troops had allied themselves and that they were following them. Both tribes wanted to take over the great loot that Charlemagne had managed to snatch from the Basques in Pamplona and other Navarran towns, as well as all that the Franks had come to accumulate during the years of war in Hispania. In the case of the Navarros, the economic interest was paired with their desire to get revenge for the destruction of Pamplona and other locations.

The documentation of the following events is concise as it relays the fundamentals of the drama. Once they had passed the plain of Roncesvalles and the mountain port of Ibañeta, the Frank Army broke out of their war formation and dispersed in the narrow valley. In the narrows of the gorge, they were attacked by surprise from the steep slopes. With great heroism, the Frank Knights Eginardo and Anselmo led the resistance, but they ended up succumbing to a number of superior enemies. Once  the Franks lost, the loot they brought with them was taken by the Gascon and Vascon troops, who then dispersed. This battle is documented in the Vita Caroli, the epitaph of Agggiardo by the Saxon poet and in Annales.

The Battle of Roncesvalles itself, described in the Song of Roldán, took place on June 16th. But about 30 years later, there was no unanimity about whether it happened in the year 808 or 809. As in the previous incursion in Hispania, Charlemagne and his army returned to their home on the same route. The old emperor had already been ruling for seven years in the north of the peninsula, and in his campaign he had consolidated his dominance over the so-called ‘Marca Hispánica’; They also had an important loot from the conquest of the city of Kodres (a place not identified until now).

The events of the Battle of Roncesvalles took place when the mighty Army was crossing the mountain range, with the troops spread between the two slopes of the port of Ibañeta. Charlemagne, the knight Ganelón and the cavalry were at the forefront. They had already descended the port of Ibañeta and were at the start the most dangerous area: the gorge around Valcarlos where 30 years before Charlemagne was defeated.

As they were approaching, an army of peninsular Muslims and Christians attacked the rearguard of the Frank Army, which was several kilometers away, on the plain of Roncesvalles (on the south side of the port of Ibañeta). The attackers consisted of a combined army with the Muslims of the Kingdom of Zaragoza -led by Surey Marsilio, with the Navarros led by their king, Fortún Garcés, and with the Asturians commanded by the famous Knight Bernardo del Carpio, nephew of King Alfonso II of Asturias, ‘The Chaste’.

At that time, it was common for Christians and Muslims to be allied against other Christians or other Muslims; For example, most of El Cid’s military career (a famous hero of the reconquest) was in the service of the King Taifa of Zaragoza. The rearguard in the Battle of Roncesvalles was composed of the most famous warriors of France: the feared Roldán (winner of innumerable strifes, and considered the best Frank knight), as well as the rest of a select group of paladins known as ‘The Twelve Peers of France’: Olivier, Gérin, Gérier, Beranger, Otón, Sansón, Ivón, Ivoire, Girart, Ansels and the Archbishop Turpín.

batalla de roncesvalles
Monument to Rolan in Roncesvalles

There were hard individual battles between the Knights; Roldán cut off the hand of Moorish King Marsilio. But the fight soon turned against the Imperials, and the Twelve Peers of France were defeated. At one point, Roldán took a break in the fight to loudly blow  the Oliphant (a horn of high sonority) that he carried with him to alert the troops on the forefront. The Emperor Charlemagne heard the distress call from afar and set out to go, but the knight Ganelón delayed him with his doubts. Historians have interpreted Ganelon’s caution as treason, to the point that this character has become the paradigm for traitor in traditional French historiography.

Through careful analysis of the events, it is also possible that Ganelón thought that the attack on Roland’s group could be a distraction, and that the troops on the forefront would then be attacked more forcefully in the most dangerous place (the narrow gorge where they were). The truth is that when Charlemagne arrived with his reinforcements to the plain of Roncesvalles, his troops had been defeated. One version of this tale proclaims that Roldán threw his famous Durantarte sword into the river so that it would not be captured, while another version says that Bernardo del Carpio took it as a trophy and that almost all the French were dead.

According to the song of ‘gesta’, the Archbishop Turpín made a strong effort to bless his fallen companions before he died as well. The text mentions that Charlemagne and his men managed to arrive in time to avenge the attackers, who retreated with the loot. Therefore, this Battle of Roncesvalles should be exclusively known as the second, and the first should be the ‘Battle of Valcarlos’.

About the author