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Charlemagne’s 778 invasion of Spain, commemorated inaccurately in The Song of Roland, is often portrayed as a type of Crusade. In fact, it was a Muslim who convinced the Frankish king to cross the Pyrenees.

A year earlier, Sulaiman Yaqzan ibn al-Arabi, a Saracen emir; his son Yusuf, and his son-in-law trekked along the steep, narrow passes of the Pyrenees and journeyed all the way to Saxony, seeking an alliance with the Frankish king and close friend of the pope.

Why would a Muslim ask for the assistance of a devout Christian?

Abd al-Rahman

Abd ar-Rahman

Ibn al-Arabi, wali (governor) of Barcelona, was part of the Abbasid cause to overthrow Abd ar-Rahman, the emir of Córdoba and the last of the Umayyads. The Abbasid caliph, Al-Mansur, had tried to defeat ar-Rahman in 763 and failed. In the 770s, the Abbasids and Berbers from Africa were planning to unite their forces and try again. Ibn al-Arabi must have thought they would need help and decided on a king with a reputation as a conqueror.

At this time, Charles had never lost a war during his nine years on the throne. He had subdued Aquitaine and Lombardy and so secure was he in his belief he had pacified the Saxons—beaten them in submission—that he held an assembly in his brand new palace in Paderborn, east of the Rhine. Ibn al-Arabi put his territories under King Charles’s protection.

What ibn al-Arabi told Charles is a matter of speculation, which I have included in The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. However, judging by a 778 letter from Pope Hadrian, he might have told the Frankish king that Abd ar-Rahman wanted to extend his realm north into Francia:

“Your royal and God-constituted power has sent us word through your letter that, God opposing them, the people of the Hagarenes are intent on invading your territories to make war. This news has caused us to become greatly troubled and distressed; may our Lord God not permit such things to occur, nor also Saint Peter, prince of the apostles!”

Charlemagne and his knights

1910 illustration by Charles Copeland in Page, Esquire, and Knight: A Book of Chivalry by Marion Florence Lansing

A Truce

Charles invaded Spain with a huge army from all over his realm, but things did not go so well. At Pamplona, the fiercely independent Basques (also called the Gascons) apparently did not want a foreign king, even if he was a fellow Christian. In response, the Franks destroyed the city. When they reached Zaragoza, ibn al-Arabi tried to turn the city over to Charles. But the Muslim populace did not want Charles as king, either.

So Abd ar-Rahman and Charles reached a deal: the Umayyad would give Charles gold and hostages if the Frankish king went home. Apparently, the alliance with the Abbasid had fallen apart because ibn al-Arabi gave hostages, too.

A hostage in this era, usually the son of a nobleman, was a form of insurance. If Abd ar-Rahman and ibn al-Arabi behaved themselves, the hostages were treated as guests. If the Muslims broke the treaty, Charles could do whatever he wanted to the hostages, including execution.

This allowed Charles to claim victory. He got booty and assurance that Abd ar-Rahman would not invade.

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.

Aftermath

But disaster struck on the journey home. Perhaps in retaliation for the destruction of Pamplona, the Basques ambushed the rear guard at the Pass of Roncevaux, killing high court officials and Hruodland (Roland) of the March of Brittany. The blow to Charles was so great that the events were not recorded until after his death.

On top of that, Charles found out the Saxons were not pacified after all. Back in Francia, he learned they had revolted, killing and burning indiscriminately. One of the casualties was the palace in Paderborn.

Charles was able to recover and conquer more lands. Crowned emperor in 800, he reigned until his death at age 65 in 814.

Ibn al-Arabi was not as fortunate as Charles. One annal has him being taken to Francia in chains. But I am inclined to believe the grimmer fate described in the footnotes of Carolingian Chronicles: ar-Rahman, the Umayyad, recaptured Zaragoza, and ibn al-Arabi was killed as a traitor to the Muslim cause.

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Bernhard Walter Scholtz with Barbara Rogers

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

This was originally published Aug. 20, 2012, on author Jessica Knauss’s blog. Her latest release, Seven Noble Knights, takes place in medieval Spain a couple of centuries after my book. If you enjoy tales of family, betrayal, revenge, and honor, read this novel.

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