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Category Archives: Emperor and Apostle


Turpin’s account of Charlemagne’s conquest of Spain presents us with a seemingly arbitrary succession of victories and defeats.

After winning Pamplona, the whole of the peninsula is opened up and liberated by Charlemagne.

The emperor then travels to Compostela where he orders the construction of a new basilica.

However, with total dominion seemingly assured, a new Saracen leader, Aigolandus emerges from North Africa and proceeds to recover the lands Charlemagne had previously conquered.

In 1085, the Christian armies of Spain finally broke the seven year long siege of Toledo and took back the ancient Visigothic capital from the Saracens.


This appeared to be the decisive turning point in the centuries old reconquest of Spain, which had begun with Pelayo’s first victory at Covadonga in 722.

Buoyed by this success, Alfonso VI endowed the church of Saint James at Compostela with the funds to build the great Romanesque cathedral, which still stands there today.

However, the Moorish principalities turned for aid to North Africa and appealing to the Berber fundamentalist tribes of the Almoravids, invited them to invade the peninsula. In 1086, the Berbers landed in Spain and led by Yusuf-Ibn-Tashfin, reversed Alfonso’s victory by inflicting a crushing defeat on the Christian forces at Sagrajas.

The tide of Christian advance had been checked and a stalemate remained for a generation.

alfonsovi_of_castileThis is the most obvious and striking of the numerous parallels to be found in Turpin’s History between the account of Charlemagne’s campaign and the actual historical conflict between the Christians and Moors in eleventh century Spain.

From 1077, after a period of intense conflict with his two brothers, Alfonso VI emerged as the sole ruler of Christian Spain and was dubbed emperor. On his death in 1109, he was buried at the Cluniac monastery at Sahagún.

It seems to have been the intention of the authors of the History, a text compiled a short time after Alfonso’s death to conflate the personalities of the two emperors.

Just like the Charlemagne of Turpin’s History, Alfonso was an assiduous promoter of the pilgrimage to Compostela, contributing greatly to its infrastructure by means of numerous charters for the improvement of bridges, the establishment of hostelries, hospices and monastic endowments for the benefit of pilgrims.

Rio-PisuergaIn 1085 Alfonso had famously dreamt of the Milky Way and the narrative of Turpin’s History begins with Charlemagne’s own dream of that same celestial phenomenon, followed by a visitation from Saint James the Apostle who explains its significance. The dream was an injuction to the emperor not only to liberate the shrine at Compostela but also to establish the road leading to it.

The similarities continued. Following his victory at Toledo, Alfonso had descended to Gibraltar and symbolically dipped his lance in the sea to signify his complete dominion over the Hispanic peninsula.

Rio-CeaTurpin’s account records that Charlemagne after liberating Compostela had journeyed the short distance to the ocean at Padrón and placed his lance in the water in similarly symbolic gesture.

Finally, the conflation of the two emperors is confirmed by the long and detailed list of Charlemagne’s conquests and victories, a list almost identical to the one Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo had provided for Alfonso’s campaigns.

By associating Alfonso with the most revered of all medieval figures, those who worked on the production of the manuscript were not merely performing a simple exercise in aggrandising the reputation of a recently deceased monarch. They were placing the recent past in a mythological and legendary context.

San-Zeno-Roland-2-WPIn the same way that Biblical exegesis determined that narratives from the Old Testament were precedents and prefigurations of those, which were recounted in the New Testament, so the wars of Alfonso against the Saracens were by inference, assumed into an ongoing teleological process, which had originated in the time of Charlemagne.

This notion is encapsulated in chapter four of the History, which is devoted to a description of what was presumably the antique statue of Hercules which still stood in those times at Cadiz and held a key in one hand.


Turpin attributes the statue to Muhammad. To the Saracens, Turpin also attributes the prophecy that the “certain key, so the Saracens themselves say, would fall from his hand in the year that a future king would be born in Gaul who would subjugate the whole land of Spain to the laws of the Christians in the end times”.

This is a clear invocation of the Apocalyptic thrust of the Reconquistá and evocation of the legend of the Last Roman Emperor who was to defeat the forces of the Antichrist before depositing his imperial crown on the Mount of Olives, an act which would herald the Apocalypse.

Saragossa had been the goal of Charlemagne’s campaign of 778 when he crossed the Pyrenees in his failed bid to take the city.

Three centuries later, Saragossa also successfully resisted the armies of Alfonso VI. The city was eventually captured in 1122 by a combined Crusader force led by one of Alfonso’s successors, Alfonso el Batallador, who also dubbed himself “imperator”.

Sources and Biblio: History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812. The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014. 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. Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003. Barton Sholod. Charlemagne in Spain: The Cultural Legacy of Roncevalles, Geneva Droz 1966

The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela as well as linking so many reliquary shrines along its highways and byways, was also the source of numerous legends of a mystical nature and the terrestrial road itself, was invested with an inherent and immanent sacred character. This is perfectly expressed in the legend of the Milky Way, wherein the road to Compostela could be traced by following the course of the stars of that galaxy across Europe to its furthest edge in northwestern Spain.lsj-milky-way-1

The legend of the shrine of Saint James at Compostela familiar to medieval pilgrims is most likely the one described in the History of Charlemagne and Roland which originally was included in the Codex of Calixtus, the twelfth century manuscript devoted to the cult of the Apostle.

According to this story, Charlemagne was visited in a dream by Saint James who urged him to liberate his forgotten tomb from the Saracens who then occupied the land. Follow the course of the stars of the Milky Way, the emperor was counselled by the apparition of the Apostle, to its end in Galicia and there he would there find the abandoned burial ground containing the saint’s body.


The pilgrim road mirrored the heavens on earth. The stars of the night sky representing the saints ascended to the celestial realm, were reflected on earth by their shrines where the remains of their physical bodies were kept as relics. Conduits between Heaven and Earth. The myriad numbers of reliquary shrines along the pilgrim roads corresponded to the Milky Way, which Charlemagne was ordained to follow so that it might lead him to the lost tomb of one of the mightiest saints of the heavenly firmament, James the Apostle.

charlemagnes-dreamHeeding the call of the Saint, Charlemagne set forth for Spain. The Holy Roman Emperor’s army took the road over the Pyrenees and besieged the Saracen town of Pamplona. Echoing the feats of the Israelites  at Jericho, the thunder of the Frankish trumpets caused the walls of the city to crumble to dust.

Charlemagne, his twelve Paladins and his army of Frankish warriors, liberated the road to Compostela and took possession of Saint James’ tomb at Compostela, the emperor constructing the first church above it.

Roncevaux-19-WPThe Cize mountain over which pilgrims passed was believed to be the highest mountain in the whole of the Pyrenees. According to the Pilgrim’s Guide, from the summit one could see as far as the Atlantic ocean.

The Guide tells us that on the summit there was a cross which had been placed there by Charlemagne when he entered Spain on his way to liberate the shrine of Saint James at Compostela. Eyment-Bridge-1A papal bull of Paschal II in 1106 decreed that this cross designated the boundary between the dioceses of Bayonne and Navarre, thereby making it a de facto marker between French and Spanish territory.

The custom grew that pilgrims having made the ascent would erect their own crosses so that, as the Guide puts it, “one can find there up to a thousand crosses”, affirming that it was the first station of prayer on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

Angoumois-Road-1The Cross of Charlemagne was one of a number of sites on the pilgrimage road associated with the legend of Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition and which are indicated in the Pilgrim’s Guide.

On the northern slopes of the mountains was Valcarlos “where Charlemagne encamped with his armies” while the battle was raging in the heights above at Roncevaux.

After descending from the pass, there was a hospice and a church built over the rock “that Roland, the great hero, split with his sword in the middle from top to bottom with three strikes of his sword.”

Landes-Road-1Following this, the pilgrim reached Roncevaux, “the place where for sure, the great battle took place in which were slain King Marsile, Roland and Olivier and others together with forty thousand Christians and Saracens”.

It was a part of the intention of the Pilgrim’s Guide to direct pilgrims towards the reliquary sites that were considered essential on the road to Compostela.

Among the list of the tombs of saints advocated by the Pilgrims Guide were those of the fallen heroes of Roncevaux. “Next to Blaye on the seashore one must ask for the protection of the Blessed Romanus in whose basilica” the Guide informs us, “the remains of the Blesses Roland the martyr rest”. We are told that the Olifant was held at the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux.

Saintonge-Road-1A paragraph in the Guide is dedicated to providing a list of those paladins martyred at Roncevaux who were buried near the town of Belin. Among these was Roland’s companion, Olivier.

The passage of Charlemagne’s armies in Spain is again evoked when the Guide describes the Cluniac abbey of Sahagún in Castile. Pilgrims were directed to visit the remains of its saints, Facundus and Primitivo, and that their tombs were contained in a church built by Charlemagne. St-Jean-Pied-de-Port“Next to their town,” the Guide continued, “there are wooded fields where it is related, the lances of the warriors which were planted in the ground, grew leaves again”. This was a reference to the miracle of the lances recounted in Turpin’s History.

The great events of the historic past which themselves were reiterations of sacred events from the Biblical past were authenticated by these hallowed places that pilgrims visited on their way to Compostela. Visible and tangible evidence directly linked to the goal of their journey and the legendary material which surrounded it, was an integral part of medieval pilgrimage.

Biblio: Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003, The Pilgrims’ Guide to Compostela, Melczer, Italica Press New York 1993,  The Interaction of Life and Literature in the peregrinaciones ad loca sancta and the Chansons de Geste, SG Nichols Speculum 44 1969 51-77

limousin-sunsetIn 732 the new emir of Cordoba Abd ar-Rahman, so it was written, led a massive Saracen army of between 30-50,000 men over the Pyrenees into France. His intention was to overrun France as his predecessors had done Spain, twenty years earlier.

Eudes, duke of Aquitaine met the vast army but was considerably outnumbered.

The Arabs had already made several previous incursions into France with mixed success. In 721 they had been defeated at Toulouse, but four years later had managed to come within a hundred miles of Paris, setting fire to the city of Autun as they retreated. In 732 however, the invading force was a great deal more substantial and threatening.

According to a Spanish chronicler of the time, Abd ar-Rahman “joined battle with Eudes on the other side of the rivers Garonne and Dordogne”, leaving the Aquitanians “disastrously bloodied” and the city of Bordeaux ravaged.

The mighty Saracen force advanced north from Bordeaux towards Poitiers. There they plundered the basilica of the patron of the city, Saint Hilaire. The army moved on towards Tours the greatest Frankish city and the shrine of their most venerated guardian, Saint Martin.

“Abd ar-Rahman decided to despoil Tours”, the chronicler continued, ”by destroying its palaces and burning its churches. There he confronted the consul of Austrasia by the name of Charles”.

limousin-4On a flat plain somewhere between Poitiers and Tours, by the side of the old Roman highway, the two armies met. Eudes of Aquitaine had made an oath of fealty to the Frankish leader Charles Martel who led their joint forces.

“The northern peoples remained as immobile as a wall, holding together like a glacier in the cold regions. In the blink of an eye they annihilated the Arabs with the sword”. Thus, the Spanish historian, writing just thirty years after the event, described the battle which put an end to Arab plans of extending their hegemony over the whole of  Europe.

Out of this victory, a new dynasty emerged, the Carolingian. Charles, whose victory earned him the name Martel, the Hammer, was nominally the so-called Mayor of the Palace at the court of the weak Merovingian king. His victory at the battle of Poitiers sealed his power base and paved the way for his son Pepin to become king of the Franks and his grandson Charlemagne, to becoming Holy Roman Emperor.

Historians are divided as to the real significance of the Battle of Poitiers but it nevertheless, entered the annals of legend. History and mythology became entwined and difficult to separate, each acting on the other.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Chansons de Geste, the epic poems estella-ferragut-killed-wswhich recounted the great deeds of the Carolingian monarchs and their heroic knights, painted the Franks as the defenders of Christendom. They were cast as the Chosen People and their Christian struggle against the pagan Saracens explicitly linked them to the Israelites of the Old Testament, the Moors now become Ishmaelites and Chaldeans.

Not only did the Song of Roland and the History of Charlemange and Roland draw on this legendary material, but so too did the Pilgrim’s Guide. All three  placed the Compostelan pilgrimage firmly within this mythological tradition.