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In order to enter Spain, pilgrims had to cross the Pyrenees. The most popular route was the Cize Pass. The ascent beganroncevalles-19 at Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port and passed over the mountains to Pamplona on the Spanish side.

As the descent into Spanish territory began, the road led through a narrow and heavily wooded defile called Roncevaux. It was here that in the long distant and mythical past, the mother of all battles had taken place between the Christian Franks and the Moors of Spain.

roncesvalles-9The legend was epic. It told of the betrayal of Charlemagne’s Frankish army by the Judas-like Ganelon and the subsequent ambush of the rearguard led by the heroic knight Roland.

They were surprised and overwhelmed by a massive Saracen force and Roland tried to recall the main body of the army by sounding his horn, the Olifant made of elephant tusk, blowing so hard that he burst the vessels of his temple.

In a dying gesture, Roland tried to smash his great sword Durendal against a rock rather than have it fall into enemy hands but finding that his stroke was so powerful and the sword so well made that it split the boulder in two. Roland died a martyr’s death.


At Blaye, not far from Bordeaux, pilgrims could visit the tomb of Roland in the church of Saint Romanus. A little further south at Belin was the burial ground of the fallen Frankish warriors. At the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux, the Olifant was displayed on the altar. All along the pilgrim roads jongleurs would recite the epic poem known as the Song of Roland which was but the most famous of a huge repertoire of popular legends centered around Charlemagne and the heroic feats of his twelve paladins.

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8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] to follow. It was when returning victorious but exhausted to France, that the misfortune at Roncevaux took […]

  2. […] Conques became a vital station on the pilgrimage road to Compostela and its monks  were installed as abbots and bishops in monasteries and towns recently recovered from Saracen rule by the Crusaders of the Spanish Reconquest. Its territory and possessions grew and included numerous establishments along the pilgrim road such as the monastery at Roncevaux. […]

  3. […] place of Roland, the most famous hero of the medieval world. The attributes of his martyrdom, the sword Durendal and the Oliphant horn were also displayed there. The sight of Roland’s tomb would have been an important visit as the […]

  4. […] considered to house the relics of many illustrious martyrs, notably the fallen Frankish warriors of Roncevaux. Moreover, another legendary battle had  taken place on the very site when forces led by the […]

  5. […] the location of Estella, though not mentioned by name features in the History of Charlemagne and Roland as the likely setting for the celebrated combat between Charlemagne’s heroic paladin and the […]

  6. […] and that of the head of John the Baptist at Angely. At Saintes the tomb of Eutropius, at Blaye; Roland and Romanus, at Bordeaux; the Olifant of Roland and the tomb of Seurin. At Belin, a single grave […]

  7. […] great battles along this pilgrimage road; in the Saintonge, at Agen and most famously of all at Roncevaux in the […]

  8. […] only did the Song of Roland and the History of Charlemange and Roland draw on this legendary material, but so too did the […]

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