According to the chronicler William of Malmesbury, as the Norman knights prepared to do battle at Hastings in 1066, a poet declaimed an epic tale of the death of the Frankish hero Roland at the battle of Roncevaux.
At about the same time, monks of the Spanish monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla in Navarre wrote down a record of the same legend as though it were a historical event.
San Millán was then an important stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela.
In modern times the historic account of the battle of Roncevaux which has tended to prevail derives from the mention in Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne which was composed some time between 817 and 836. In Book Two of Einhard’s biography entitled “The Wars and Political Affairs of Charlemagne” which is a summary catalogue of Carolingian foreign affairs during the emperor’s reign, there is an entry which details the Spanish expedition.
This was within seventy years of the Arab conquest of the Iberian peninsula.
According to Einhard, although preoccupied at that time with his war against the Saxons, Charlemagne, for reasons unexplained, amassed “the largest force he could muster to invade Spain”.
Having forced the surrender of every town and castle he could attack, the Frankish rearguard was ambushed in the Pyrenees as the army returned to France.
This attack is ascribed to “treacherous Basques” and among the many killed, three names are mentioned, Eggihard, Anselm and Roland, Lord of the Breton March. The actual site, Roncevaux is not mentioned by Einhard.
From other sources we learn that in 777 a Moslem embassy came to Paderborn in Saxony, requesting Charlemagne’s aid in an internal division between competing interests in the Cordoban caliphate. They would combine their forces to defeat this enemy by taking the city of Saragossa
Other accounts from the same period suggest that Roncevaux and Charlemagne’s campaign in Iberia were rather more important and the impression is that Einhard wished to gloss over a painful memory. Some documents exist which present a different picture of Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition suggesting that it was in reality, a proto Crusade.
According to the Frankish Annals of Metz of 805, Charlemagne had long been beseeched by the Christians of Spain to come to their aid. As it is recorded in the Annals of 805 a mere twenty-seven years after the events which it relates, “Charlemagne, driven by the demands and pleas of the Christians oppressed in Spain under the yoke of the cruel Saracens, led his army into that country. Faced with these legions without number, the whole of Spain trembled”.
The Annals of 805 and 829 also tell us that the Navarrese and Basques had formed an alliance with the Saracens. It was in order to keep these forces in check that Charlemagne chose to destroy the city walls of their stronghold, Pamplona.
Writing to Elipandus, Archbishop of Toledo in 794 during the Adoptionist heresy dispute, the King of the Franks wrote:”We have prayed for you throughout our whole kingdoms and we have always remembered you, with the desire to deliver you from your temporal servitude with the grace of God’s help and following the opportunity afforded by circumstance according to your exhortations”.
In 840 the Limousin monk Astronome wrote in his life of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious that “Charles prepares to cross the rugged Pyrenees and enter Spain to bring succour with the aid of Christ to the church crushed beneath the cruel Saracen yoke”
Charlemagne himself wrote to Pope Hadrian in 778 the year of his expedition to Spain. Although his letter has been lost, the Pope’s reply in May gives an indication of the tenor of their exchange. Deploring the danger posed by the “Hagarenes” he promises to pray that “The angel of the all-powerful Lord march before the king and causes him to return victorious to his kingdom as well as his army safe and sound of Franks, beloved of God”.
All of these historical documents point strongly to the notion that Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition was not a minor affair but had all the hallmarks of a Crusade before the term was invented. Roncevaux was the location of not just the famous battle of 778 but a series of subsequent defeats which were suffered there by Charlemagne’s successors in the century to come.
Biblio: André de Mandach Naissance et Origines de la chanson de geste en Europe Vol. 1 La Geste de Charlemagne et de Roland Genève, Droz, 1961. Barton Sholod. Charlemagne in Spain: The Cultural Legacy of Roncevalles, Geneva Droz 1966