There was an actual Roland. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard mentions him. He is referred to by his Frankish name, Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus (Roland, Prefect of the borders of Brittany). Chapter 9 of the account records Roland’s death in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D.
Charlemagne was relentlessly engaged in the Saxon Wars (772 – 804). After he had placed large garrisons at selected points along the border, Charlemagne marched into Spain (778) with as large an army as he could mount. He passed over the Pyrenees Mountains and the Basque territories of Upper and Lower Navarre, assaulting Pamplona, his men pillaging the town and having their way with the women. The Basque was not amused.
As Charlemagne moved his army back into Gaul, he encountered these Basque, who had armed themselves and sought to punish Charlemagne for his abusive treatment of the people of Navarre. The location of their attack was the pass-through Roncesvalles, an area covered with thick forests and narrow and treacherous pathways. At the pass, high in the mountain, the Basques assaulted the Franks. The Basque were lightly armed, light on their feet, and familiar with the land. The Franks were disadvantaged by their heavy armor and the narrow track. It was where Roland, Lord of the Breton March, Anselm as Count of the Palace, and Eggihard, overseer of the King’s Table, were all killed.
When the killing was done, the Basques disappeared, and Charlemagne’s force could not pursue them without endangering the army further.
Roland was the first official appointed by a king to direct the affairs of the Bretons; none of the previous Merovingians had established any relations with the people of Brittany. It is believed that Roland’s body was laid to rest at the basilica at Blaye, near the citadel of Bordeaux.
Medieval Europe’s minstrel culture transformed Roland from a functionary under Charlemagne into a popular and iconic figure. Some tales made him out to be a nephew of Charlemagne; others transformed his life into an epic tale of the noble Christian killed by hostiles — a story of how some wanted Francia remembered. And in one aspect, it is. The story of Roland’s death is told in The Song of Roland. In this fictional account, Roland is equipped with the olifant, an unbreakable sword, and protected by Christian relics (which, it would seem, did not protect him from the Basque). Roland’s death was celebrated at Charlemagne’s Court for many years.
The Minstrel’s Story
From a historical perspective, the minstrel’s account of the Battle of Roncesvalles was impossible. The verses, written in the late 8th century, tell the tale of how the Basques were incited to attack Charlemagne to avenge the sacking of Pamplona. The story, which does not equate to actual history, tells us that Charlemagne has been inside Spain for seven years, fighting the Moslems. The last city standing is Saragossa, held by the Emir Marsile. Marsile worried about the might of Charlemagne, consults with his advisor Blancandrin, who urges him to surrender and offer hostages. In addition to offering Charlemagne treasure, Marsile promises to convert to Christianity if Charlemagne returns to France.
Charlemagne, tired of fighting, accepted Marsile’s offer of peace. Charlemagne tasked Roland with finding a suitable messenger to carry the agreement to Marsile, and Roland chose his stepfather, Ganelon. Ganelon, fearing for his safety, accuses Roland of perfidy and takes revenge by informing the Saracens of a way to ambush the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army. In this account, the Moslems attack the rear guard at Roncesvalles, and the Christians are quickly overwhelmed.
In the thick of the fighting, Roland’s companion Oliver urges him to blow his horn to call for help, but Roland refuses because he feels that calling for help is a sign of cowardice. Archbishop Turpin intervenes and instructs Roland to blow the horn because the battle will be fatal to them anyway.
Charlemagne hears the horn and, in the company of his knights, rides to the scene of battle. By the time he arrives, it is already too late. The battle is over, and Roland, Oliver, and Turpin are dead. As Roland breathes his last, Angels appear and escort his soul to Heaven.
Note: I have made the journey on foot from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, across the Pyrenees Mountains into Roncesvalles, Spain, on two occasions (2016 and 2018). The journey is roughly twenty miles, ascending 1,491 meters (4,892 feet) and descending 950 meters (3,118 feet) into the Roncesvalles Valley. The artist’s rendition of the death of Roland (shown right) correctly depicts the terrain and vegetation type found in the Roncesvalles Pass. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela pathway is mostly good, but the area at the top of the mountain is frequently dense with fog. Storms rapidly form in this area, and it is not uncommon to find yourself in a heavy rainstorm with summer temperatures dropping from around 85° F to 50° F within minutes. The down-mountain track is treacherous in many places because the ground cover is loose rocks and shale. I can attest to the fact that the pathway into Roncesvalles is exactly as described by those who told the story of Roland; steep and narrow tracks, thick forests, and if a hiker experiences sudden rain storms, flash flooding occurs on and across the hiking trail.
History and the Battle of Roncesvalles
Before leaving the Iberian Peninsula, Charlemagne decided to further secure his hold on the Basque territory, which may have been referred to as Wasconia. Believing the Basque tribes were aligned with the Moors, Charlemagne sought to eliminate them; he ordered Pamplona sacked, and in the process, many surrounding villages were pillaged as well. No female was safe during these times.
Charlemagne stationed guard detachments throughout the region — men who caused much suffering and insult to the Basques. Believing he had secured Upper and Lower Navarre, Charlemagne led his army back into Gaul (also Francia). Not knowing the Basques, the 31-year-old Charlemagne was unaware that he had ignited a firestorm by razing Basque villages and raping their women. Basque tribes united their effort to punish Charlemagne.
On the evening of 15 August 778, Basques suddenly and viciously attacked Charlemagne’s rear guard element. The assault confused the Franks, and they were soon in complete disarray. The Basque fighters were lightly armed, lethal in their enthusiasm and blood-lust. They cut off the rear guard from the main body, isolated the Franks, and began a systematic slaughter. No Frank fared well if he was caught trying to escape — nor was the Basque merciful in their retribution.
As Charlemagne tried to regroup and evacuate his army, Roland and the others held their position for a considerable time before the Basques massacred them. There were no survivors. After raiding the baggage train, the Basques disappeared into the mountains as if they were never there.
In 778, the Basque were tribal groups. The warrior was armed with two short spears, a long blade knife or a short sword (perhaps a gladius), and bows and javelins used for artillery. The Basque warrior was highly motivated — first as retribution, and second because the Basque had never enjoyed much affection for the Franks. Some historians believe that the leader of the Basque attack was Lupo II of Gascony (d. 778). Lupo may have been a Basque because the name is widespread in Basque culture. Lupo II’s realm extended from St. Jean Pied de Port to Gascony, just below Bordeaux.
The Pyrenees Mountains are a range of mountains in southwest Europe that form a natural border between France and Spain. The range extends 309 miles from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea. The range also separates Spain and Portugal from the rest of Western Europe. The northern slopes are the French frontier and wilderness. The mountains are older than the Alps; the highest elevation is 5,862 feet.
Charlemagne’s biographer, Einhard, stated that the men of the rear guard were massacred to the last man. Of course, the most important (highest ranking) were Roland, Eggihard, and Count Anselmus. By sacking the baggage train, the Basques made off with Charlemagne’s gold and silver treasures — which was no small loss. We can admit that the battle was a minor setback for Charlemagne, but it was nevertheless a stinging blow and, as important, the only significant defeat Charlemagne ever suffered. Charlemagne never again personally led a campaign into Spain — a task he relegated to his generals. It took Charlemagne ten additional years to seize Barcelona and pacify Aquitaine.
Meanwhile, because the Basques would not be pacified, Charlemagne set his son up as king of Aquitaine and then, in cooperation with the Catholic Church, initiated a program of Christian pacification throughout Lower Navarre and Aquitaine. Despite these efforts, high Pyrenees Basques continued their rebellion until 790, when William of Gellone captured and exiled Lupo II’s son, Adalric. Pamplona remained in Moslem hands until 801 A.D., when Basques decided they hated Moslems more than they hated the Franks.
In 824, the Second Battle of Roncesvalles Pass resulted in an even more significant defeat of Franks by Basques, who used similar tactics but extracted far more death and destruction to the forces led by Count Aeblus and Count Aznar — both of whom were captured by Iñigo Arista. Iñigo was a Basque leader and the first king of Pamplona who rose to prominence after the Battle of Pancorbo in 816. Historians are unsure of the name of his father but agree that he is likely Enneco filius Simeonis (Iñigo, son of Jimeno (ergo, Jiménez) or Enneco Garceanes que fuit vulgariter vocas Areista (Iñigo Garcés (son of Garcia) who was commonly called Arista).
- Chisholm, H. The Legend of Roland. Encyclopedia Britannica V.23 (1911)
- Collins, R. The Basques. Blackwell Publishing, 1990.
- Gorrochategui, J. The Basque Language and its Neighbors in Antiquity. Bilbao, 1995.
- Lewis, A. R. The Development of Southern French and Catalan Society, 718 – 1050. Austin University Press, 1965.
- Lewis, D. L. God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 – 1215. Norton Press, 2008.
- Xabier, I. Charlemagne’s Defeat in the Pyrenees: The Battle of Roncesvalles. Amsterdam University Press, 2021.
 The Basques living in present-day Spain referred to themselves as Vascones or Wascones; Basques living in ancient Aquitaine referred to themselves as Gascones (of Gascony)
 Olifant was a horn. The word is reputedly ancient for elephant, as an elephant’s tusk made into a horn.
 The Basque are mentioned by Greek and Roman historians (Strabo and Pliny) as Vascones, Gascones, and Aquitani.
 The Basque land and territories included all of the Kingdom of Navarre, extending from Pamplona, Spain into Aquitaine, France, generally regarded as Upper Navarre (Spain) and Lower Navarre, Aquitaine, the capital of which was St. Jean Pied de Port..
 The origin of the Jimenéz (also, Jimenes) dynasty is believed to have been the 9th century man known as Ximeno el Fuerte (Jimena the Strong, the father of Garcia and Iñigo Jimenéz).