On August 15, 778 the rearguard section of Charlemagne’s retreating army was ambushed and annihilated by a Basque force at the Orreaga Pass in Navarre. The event has gone down in history as Charlemagne’s only defeat in an otherwise successful military career as well as being, interestingly, the source of two great epic poems: the eleventh-century La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) in French–the oldest surviving work of French literature–and the sixteenth-century Orlando Furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando) in Italian.
The Muslim rulers of the northern Iberian areas of Zaragoza and Huesca had risen up against Abd ar-Rahman I, the Emir of Cordoba in southern and central Iberia, and appealed to Charlemagne–King of the Franks and later crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800–for support in return for submitting to his rule. Sensing an opportunity to extend Frankish rule into the Iberian Peninsula, Charlemagne duly accepted the offer, mustered up as large a force as he could, and marched across the Pyrenees in 778. On arriving in Zaragoza, however, the Muslim leaders changed their mind and engaged in battle with Charlemagne’s force instead. The Franks lay siege to the city and captured key prisoners.
But the siege dragged on and Charlemagne, wary of getting stuck in a futile struggle, accepted a tribute of gold from the Muslim rulers, returned the prisoners, and decided to retreat from Iberia, leading his forces away from Zaragoza back toward the the Pyrenees via Navarre. On his way back, though, his forces sacked Pamplona-Iruñea, destroying the Basque city as well as several nearby towns, brutally subduing the local population. Part of the reasons for doing so may have been because many Pagan Basques had proven to be a constant thorn in the side of the Christian Frankish Kingdom south of the Garonne River. Whatever the case, as Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees at Orreaga (Roncesvalles in Spanish; Roncevaux in French) in northern Navarre, the Basques took their revenge.
On the evening of August 15, 778, a surprise attack caught the rearguard of Charlemagne’s forces by surprise. This part of the army was cut off and isolated from the main body of the army. Though not as well armed, the Basques knew the terrain much better and used this local knowledge to their advantage. The entire rearguard, including Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and several other Frankish lords, was massacred. The Basques then disappeared into the night, leaving no trace for the Franks to follow the next day.
According to Philippe Veyrin in The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre (pp.119-20):
This episode had an unprecedented echo; the memory of it endured long enough to inspire, three centuries later, a prodigious flowering of legends, of a luxuriance quite out of proportion to the event itself. In it, the Basques appear, quite misleadingly, as Saracens. Despite a host of other anachronisms, the local topography of the Chanson de Roland is in some respects quite accurate. The old epic poet and several of his imitators had certainly gained a precise knowledge of the places involved, and were able to turn them into a grandiose setting. Nonetheless, most historians agree that the real site of the defeat was on the Roman road, on the wooded sides of the Astobizkar, rather than on the open plain of Orreaga (Roncesvalles/Roncevaux) where, following the rules of chivalry, most of the legendary epic victoriously unfolds.
Interestingly, the Spanish name for Luzaide, near the site of these events, is Valcarlos, “the valley of Charles” or Charlemagne.