A bit of Romance does no-one any harm, and the story of Roland, his famous horn, and the conflict at Roncesvalles is the very stuff of medieval romance.
777 B.C. Several Muslim ambassadors present themselves at Paderborn in Saxony, to have words with Charlemagne. The Moors represent governors of three Muslim-held cities in occupied Spain. They are Barcelona, Zaragoza, and Huescar. They carry with them a definite proposal: why not establish a military alliance strong enough to stand up to the Emir of Cordoba, Abderraman, notorious for putting down revolts against Muslim authority in the north-east of Al-Andalus.
One of the envoys suggests to Charlemagne that his soldiers can use Zaragoza as a base for launching attacks against Abderraman. He implies that the Frankish emperor would be able to incorporate some territory at that time under Moorish control, situated at the base of the Pyrennies.
Charlemagne does not bother with second thoughts. If all went well, he could extend his dominion over the antique kingdoms of the Visigoths, and be able to release Christian prisoners existing in prisons in Islamic lands. Booty might be tremendous. Quickly he bids farewell to the ambassadors, and organises a great military expedition, formed by forces from Burgundy, the area now called Austria, Bavaria, Provence etc. Historians agree that Lombardy was included too.
The grand army would be divided in two; the first division under Duke Bernard, would cross the Pyrenees from the east. Both forces would meet at Pamplona, where the great majority of the populace was Christian. At the same time, the main army under Charlemage himself would advance towards Zaragoza. Having laid siege, they would await for capitulation.
Everything went roughly according to plan until Charlemagne reached Zaragoza, whose governor refused to surrender or open his gates. He relied upon the vast Moorish walls of the city to withstand any attack. The River Ebro was also a natural barrier of considerable importance. The Frankish emperor had to resign himself to maintain a long siege. News was brought however, that the Saxons had chosen this moment to launch new assaults in his territories! He ordered an immediate move, via Pamplona, to retire to what is now France/Germany etc. At Pamplona, to Charlemagne’s surprise, the people of the town refused to open the gates. It is not to the emperor’s credit that he ordered a general assault. When it proved successful, the men were permitted to sack the town with the usual appalling consequences for the town and people..
Charlemagne’s expedition to Spain is considered a failure. It took years for the Frankish hordes to occupy certain regions south of the Pyrenees. They occupied Gerona in 785, and took Barcelona in 801. They founded the County of of Aragón in the Hecho Valley around 806. The Franks would probably have preferred to forget the whole thing, but something happened during the withdrawal which created a whole new romance, one which has been sung right down through the centuries. It shines today, thanks to The Song of Roland.
On the long march home, the armies of Charlemagne were protected at their back by a small rearguard of warriors commanded by one Hruodland (that is to say Roland) a cavalry commander. While Charlemagne and the rest of the armies descended the French side of the mountains into Aquitaine, Roland and his men had entered the mountain passes when they were ambushed by hordes of Moors. It was 15 August, 778. The place was (probably) Roncesvalles.
In the ensuing battle (historians are not all in agreement over the actual geographical site), the commander Roland was twice requested to send to Charlemagne for help – and twice refused. The great poem says, “he sounded the great horn he always carried again and again, and blood came from his lips and from his temple”. Roland blew the horn to enthuse and encourage his soldiers, but it was in vain. Roland saw his (mythical) friend Oliver cut down, and doubled the fury of his attack on the Moors who had ambushed him. Waving his famous sword Durandarte before him, he attacked all comers, but it was useless. The Franks fought like tigers but they were outnumbered. Mortally wounded, he crept and crawled to a hiding place where (according to the Song) Charlemagne later found him dead. His sword and his horn lay beside him.
The Song of Roland was a fine piece of propaganda which came into greater use in the eleventh century, when determined efforts were made by devotees to remove the Moors from Christian lands. Indeed, Roland and his sword and horn had to wait three centuries for the composition of the great romance. The Franks had become the French, and French help was needed in the wars against the Muslims. In 1118, crowds of Frenchmen rode to Zaragoza to join in the expulsion of the Moors. Among them were Duke William of Aquitaine, and Count Gaston de Bearn, who had already fought in a Crusade. Both fought in the Battle of Cutanda (1120), with their private armies, in support of King Alfonso I of Aragon. It seems certain that both gentlemen had The Song of Roland ringing in the head as they fought, and won.