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What happened at the Pass of Roncevaux in 778 was so traumatic no one wrote about it for decades, not while Emperor Charlemagne was alive. Yet a heavily altered version of the event became the basis of a poem to inspire Crusaders.

First, a little backstory: Three Saracen emirs from Hispania (Spain) visited King Charles, as he was known at the time, during his assembly in 777 at Paderborn to ask for his aid is overthrowing the Muslim ruler of Cordova. Perhaps the emirs told Charles Christian cities would welcome a Christian king. Perhaps they said the emir of Cordova would encroach on Frankish territory, as evidenced by a letter from Pope Hadrian referring to Charles’s fear of invasion. Saracens had invaded Francia in the past.

The original Royal Frankish Annals, Charles’s official record, say everything was hunky-dory. Charles marched into Hispania with a vast army, got hostages at Zaragoza, destroyed Pamplona (a Basque Christian city), subjugated the Basques (also called the Gascons), and returned home.

No mention at all of the Pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees.

Roland at Roncesvalles

Roland at Roncesvalles, Odilon Redon, c.1869 (public domain image via Wikipaintings)

What was so awful that Charles wanted it omitted? The earliest account of the battle, written in the Revised Royal Frankish Annals between 814 (the year Charles died) and 817, provides clues. The Reviser writes about the Basque ambushing the rear guard from the heights of the Pyrenees. Many high-ranking court officials died, the baggage train was plundered, and the enemy scattered in all directions. “To have suffered this wound shadowed the king’s view of his success in Spain,” the Reviser writes.

However, Einhard, writing a biography of Charles about 830-33, more than 50 years after the event, gives the most detailed description of the attack, which took place as the sky was darkening: “In a densely wooded area well suited for ambush, the Basques had prepared to attack the army from the highest mountain. As the [Frankish] troops were proceeding in a long column through the narrow mountain passes, the Basques descended on the baggage train and the protecting rear guard and forced them into the valley. In the ensuing battle, the Basques slaughtered them to a man.”

Einhard also provides three names: Anselm, the count of the palace, Eggihard, the seneschal, and Hruodland (Roland), prefect of the March of Brittany. Einhard’s work is the only historical reference to Hruodland, the hero of my first novel, The Cross and the Dragon.

A 14th century depiction of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass

A 14th century depiction of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, as portrayed in The Song of Roland, which took many creative liberties (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).

Fast forward to the 11th century, and you get a different take in The Song of Roland. A very different take. The poem says a lot about courage in the face of overwhelming odds and betrayal. But don’t look to it for historical accuracy. The most notable change is the enemy, Muslim Saracens, just like the Crusaders were fighting. The poem makes no mention of the Basques or of the Franks destroying a Christian city.

It was propaganda before the term existed.

This post was orginally published May 22, 2012, at Unusual Historicals.

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