Front Matter Gauls Defeat Romans Vercingetorix Saints of France Attila, Scourge of God Story of Clovis Sons of Clovis Mayors of the Palace Charles the Hammer Pepin the Short Charlemagne in Lombardy Defeat at Roncesvalles Emperor of the West Louis the Pious War of Three Brothers Louis the Stammerer Paris defies the Sea Kings Rollo the Viking Hugh Capet Becomes King Bishop Betrays the Duke Robert the Pious The Peace of God Harold Visits Duke William William Sails to England The Battle of Hastings Peter the Hermit First War of the Cross Louis the Fat and Laon King Fights his Vassal Second War of the Cross French Queen of England How Normandy Was Lost Albigenses War Battle of Bouvines Story of Hugh de La Marche Reign of St. Louis St. Louis's last Crusade Peter the Barber Knights vs. Weavers Pope vs. Philip the Fair Sons of Philip the Fair Philip VI vs. Flanders Battle and Plague King vs. Charles the Bad The Jacquerie Stephen Marcel Betrays Paris Charles V and du Guesclin Du Guesclin Fights for France The Madness of Charles VI The Battle of Agincourt The Maid of Orleans End of Hundred Years' War King vs. Charles the Bold Troubles of Duchess Mary Charles the Affable Knight Without Reproach Battle of the Spurs Francis I, Gentleman King King Taken Prisoner Duke of Guise Defends Metz Calais Returns to France The Riot of Amboise Huguenot and Catholic St. Bartholomew Massacre War of the Three Henries The Protestant King Edict of Nantes Reign of Favorites Taking of La Rochelle Power of the Cardinal-King Reign of Louis XIV The Man in the Iron Mask The Height of Power Edict of Nantes Revoked War of Spanish Succession

History of France - H. E. Marshall

The Defeat of Roncesvalles
Charlemagne [768-814]

But besides the Saxons there were other heathen foes to fight. All the way from Spain there came a man named Ibn-al-Arabi to beg the great King's help against the Saracens. Charlemagne remembered the deeds of his grandfather, Charles the Hammer, and promised Ibn-al-Arabi the help he sought. Ibn-al-Arabi on his side promised to open the gates of Saragossa to the Christian King.

So Charlemagne gathered a mighty host, and took his way toward Spain. He crossed the Pyrenees by the Valley of Roncesvalles and at first his march was one long triumph, the people submitting to him and giving him hostages of peace as he passed. It seemed as if the religion of Mohammed w T as doomed in Spain. But Ibn-al-Arabi either could not or would not fulfil his promise. The gate of Saragossa did not open to the Christian King, and the Arabs and Saracens, forgetting their quarrels among themselves, joined to resist the invader.

For this Charlemagne was not prepared. He could not face a siege of Saragossa. Food for his great army was already growing scarce, disease was thinning the ranks, besides which rumors that the wild Saxons had again risen reached him. Charlemagne resolved to give up the war. But he made the Saracens pay a large sum of money, and taking hostages with him to ensure the peace, he turned home again.

This was the first check in his triumphant career. It was a mere check, but, as the army journeyed back to France, so terrible a disaster fell upon it that all France was filled with woe and lamentation.

Slowly the great host wound along through the narrow pass homeward. Charlemagne led the main part of the army, while the rear was commanded by his nephew, Roland. In the rear-guard was all the baggage with much rich booty. The most tried soldiers were here, also many of the nobles. Charlemagne and his part of the army had safely reached the top of the pass and begun to descend the other side into France, when suddenly, to the ears of Roland and his host, there came the noise as of a great army advancing toward them.

"Sir Comrade," said Oliver, Roland's friend, "I believe that we shall have battle with the Saracens."

"God grant it," said Roland proudly, "we are here to fight for our King."

Then Oliver climbed to a height and looked backward. The sky was blue and the sun shone gloriously, and in the clear distance Oliver saw all the hosts of Spain. Helmets and bucklers inlaid with gold gleamed in the sunshine, pennons waved, and, rank behind rank, a forest of spears moved onward

Oliver's heart was filling with boding fear, and coming down from the hill he went to Roland. 'I have seen the heathen," he said, "with their lances and gleaming swords. Such an army was never seen before. Friend Roland, sound your horn so that Charlemagne may hear and return to help us."

For Roland carried a marvelous horn of ivory, the sound of which could be heard many miles afar. But Roland would not sound his horn. To ask for help seemed to his proud spirit a disgrace. Again and again Oliver begged it of him. Again and again he refused.

"I will not sound my horn," he said, "but I shall strike such blows with my good sword Durendal that you shall see it dyed red in the blood of the heathen."

And so the battle began. From the dark, tree-clad heights above, the enemy rushed upon the Franks in the narrow pass beneath. Rocks came crashing down, showers of arrows fell from unseen foes.

[Illustration] from History of France by H. E. Marshall


It was a terrible battle. Roland and Oliver and Archbishop Turpin fought as never heroes fought before, But the Franks were far outnumbered by their foes. Crushed together in the narrow valley, they fell man after man. Their heavy armor weighed them down, and their sharp swords and lances were useless against an enemy who rained darts and arrows on them at a distance.

The massacre was terrible. Hardly a Frankish soldier was left alive, when, late in the day, proud Roland did at length sound his horn. But it was too late. When the sun sank not one man of all the rear-guard was left. Night came and silence fell upon the valley broken only by the groans of the wounded and the sighs of the dying. For the victors fled as soon as the fight was done, carrying with them much rich spoil.

Roland was the last to fall, and ere he died he tried to break his trusty sword Durendal, so that it should not fall into the hands of the heathen. Again and again he dashed it against the hard rock. The steel, far from breaking, showed neither scratch nor dint. Then, seeing he could by no means break his sword, Roland laid it beneath him, together with his ivory horn, and, turning his face to the enemy, he died.

Such was the combat of Roncesvalles of which, century after century, the poets of France have sung, until the story of Roland is to the Frenchman somewhat as the story of Arthur is to us. And you remember that when, three hundred years later, Duke William of Normandy came to our shores, his minstrel sang the Song of Roland as his soldiers marched against the English.

But I must tell you that much of the Song of Roland is a fairy tale. We know nothing really of the famous Roland of which it sings, except that he was Warden of the Marches of Brittany, and that he was killed in this battle. From history, too, we learn that the foes which fell upon Charlemagne's army were not treacherous Saracens, but Gascons and wild robber people who lived on the borders between France and Spain.

The Song of Roland tells us that when Roland at length sounded his horn Charlemagne heard it. Returning he pursued the Saracens and avenged the death of his favorite knight with fearful slaughter. But, that, too, is fairy tale. Charlemagne never returned to Spain, and the remembrance of his defeat there greatly darkened the joy of his later days. He could not help his soldiers at the time: he could not avenge them later. For as soon as the blow was struck, the enemy disappeared so quickly, and scattered themselves so widely among the forests that it was impossible to know where to attack them. To punish them would have meant a long and troublesome war. And Charlemagne had no soldiers to spare. For, knowing that their conqueror was far away, the Saxons had risen in rebellion once more, and were laying waste with fire and sword all the northern boundaries of his kingdom.