On 15th August 778, the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, returning from an expedition to Saragossa and after dismantling the city walls of Pamplona, was attacked and defeated by the Basques at the mountain pass of Roncesvalles. This event (which was the first time the great Charlemagne had ever suffered a defeat) deeply affected the French nation. Subsequently altered, mythologized and then converted into an epic poem by the Song of Roland, this defeat has become the most popular legend in western Europe. To summarise the song: Charlemagne, awaiting the surrender of the city of Saragossa, receives envoys sent by Marsil, the king of the city, with offers of peace. In response, Charlemagne sends Ganelón, Roland's stepfather who subsequently allies with Marsil and plans to betray Charlemagne in order to take revenge on his stepson, Roland, whom he hates.
On Ganelón's return, it is decided that the Christian army will return to France. Charlemagne gives Roland the standard accrediting him as leader of the rearguard. As the rearguard passes through Roncesvalles, the Moors make a surprise attack and Archbishop Turpín blesses his army: "If you die, you will be holy martyrs and you will have a place in the highest paradise":
The battle does not go favourably for the French troops. Finally, the only remaining fighters are Archbishop Turpin, the valiant Roland and the cautious Oliveros (or, in other versions, Gualter del Hum). Roland then decides to blow his horn Olifant to summon help. The message carried by this call is heard too late by Charlemagne who is already some distance away. The traitor, Ganelón, calms Charlemagne and tries to dissuade him from returning. The Moors kill Oliveros and Turpin. Roland, feeling close to death, tries to break his sword Durandart (which, amongst other relics, has a tooth of St Peter incrusted in the handle) against a rock, however the sword does not break, and it is the rock that cracks. When Roland finally dies, with his face pointing towards Spain, God takes his soul to heaven. Charlemagne returns and pursues the enemy army until it is completely slaughtered (God helps him by stopping the sun and lengthening the day). Then, to take his revenge, Charlemagne defeats Baligant, the Emir of Babylon, in personal combat at the gates of Saragossa. Marsil is wounded and also dies. Saragossa surrenders and queen Bramimonda, Marsil's wife, is taken to France where she is baptised with the name of Juliana.
From the book "Curiosidades del Camino de Santiago". by Juan Ramón Corpas Mauleon. Published by Edilesa