In AD 774, Charlemagne became sole ruler of the Frankish kingdom and immediately began numerous campaigns to re-establish order in the chaos surrounding Europe after the collapse of the Roman system. One of these campaigns involved the reconquest of Spanish territories lost to the Muslims. It was Charlemagne's leadership and organizational skills that ultimately brought victory to the Franks in the "Reconquista" of Spain.
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In 777 Ibn al Arubi, the governor of Barcelona and Gerona, sought the aid of Charlemagne to combat the Umayyed Caliph of Cordova and his Moslem forces. Thus, in the spring of 778, Charlemagne summoned forces from all parts of his kingdom to invade Spain. Once assembled, the army was sent in two separate divisions, one across the East Pyrenees and one across the West Pyrenees, into Spain. Resistance was first encountered at Pampleluna, a city of Christian Basques from the kingdom of Asturias. Despite Charlemagne's support of the Christian church, his forces were ordered to besiege and capture the city. His victory in Pampleluna is significant because it shows that Charlemagne's march was not religiously motivated.
As they continued on, many well-fortified cities began to yield to Charlemagne's forces, recognizing his strength and military supremacy. The army marched to Saragossa, where another attack was made by Charlemagne. The city's defenders gave a heroic defense, but in the end fell to Charlemagne's forces. With the victory came rich spoils, which Charlemagne and his forces shared. This marked a great victory over the Umayyed Caliph of Cordova, or the Emir of Cordova. Also notable is the fact that this was the first phase of the Reconquista, or the "reconquest" of Spain from the Moslems.
As Charlemagne and his army made their return march through the Pyrennes, very narrow columns in the mountains forced the men to march in such a way as to render them unable to make any military maneuvers. This was a perfect spot for an ambush. While the Franks had been destroying Saragossa, the Christian Basques (who had their fortifications razed at Pampleluna), had united with the Moslems to fight Charlemagne. The newly united force took advantage of the situation and set up an ambush as the Franks marched through the Pyrennes. The ambush destroyed the Frank's entire rear guard. The prefect of the rear guard was Charlemagne's nephew, Roland. His death was elegized in the epic poem "Song of Roland."
Outraged by the death of Roland, Charlemagne blamed the disastrous outcome of the ambush on Ibn al Arubi, for he felt deceived since the Arab opponents of the Umayyed Caliph were not united. Thus, to take revenge, the Franks then marched to Barcelona where Ibn al Arubi was taken as a prisoner of war. In the end, the ambush was seen as more of a set-back than a defeat, since Charlemagne continued to expand his empire, including the taking of land from the Austrias and becoming the emperor of Rome.
Duncan, Marcel. Larcousse Encyclopedia of Ancient & Medieval Histroy. (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, Publishers,1963.)
Gwatkin, H.M. and J.B. Bury. The Cambridge Medieval History. vol 2. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913.)
Langer, William L. An Encyclopedia of World History. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1968.)
Edited by: Henrik K Kihlstrom
Researched by: Aaron D Whitmer
Written by: Erik M Strom
April 2, 1998
Text copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.