It’s the middle of august of the year 778. The Frankish army is returning home after a half-year long campaign on the Iberian Peninsula. A long line of riders, footmen, baggage carts and camp followers stretch out through the valley somewhere in the Pyrenees. King Charles rides in the van, among his most important vassals, talking about the new Saxon threat that has emerged on the other side of the realm. Then, the sound of unexpected upheaval somewhere from behind grabs the attention of the riders. An unforeseen battle that would make its mark on medieval culture has just begun. This video is sponsored by Raid: Shadow Legends! If you ever wished to know the thrill of commanding champions into battle, then we strongly recommend you check out the mobile game, Raid: Shadow Legends. Free to play, Raid: Shadow Legends places you in Teleria, a land beset by darkness. 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Among those that attended the funeral were two of the heirs to the late King Pepin – ambitious brothers Charles and Carloman, who, according to Frankish custom, were both to inherit their father’s throne and jointly rule the kingdom. The modern consensus is that Pepin’s sons barely tolerated each other, and soon this lack of brotherly affection proved to be a threat to the unity of the Frankish kingdom. Shortly after the change to the Frankish throne a revolt broke out in Aquitaine, which was under the joint rule of both brothers. Both were expected to react to this issue, yet Carloman retreated back north in the wake of his quarrels with Charles. From that point on, their relationship deteriorated even further, requiring their mother to mediate between them. Unsurprisingly, this lack of unity between rulers was to the detriment of the Frankish state, and internal crisis loomed on the horizon. But in 771, the younger brother, Carloman suddenly died, apparently from natural causes, which was certainly suspicious, as he was only 20 at the time. Shady or not, the death of Carloman was all too convenient for Charles, who became the sole King of the Franks and immediately began to consolidate his power along with making plans to expand his kingdom. It’s fair to say, that Charles was a right man in the right place. A man of impressive physical presence, quick-witted and energetic, strong willed, but also jovial at the banquet table. These traits secured the loyalty of many Frankish nobles across his broad kingdom. Fortunate to inherit a relatively stable domain, Charles undertook a number of military campaigns to extend his political reach and satiate personal ambitions. He answered the appeals of the newly elected Pope Adrian, a convenient excuse to invade and subdue the neighbouring Kingdom of the Lombards. Although it took him several years to fully incorporate the northern Italian region into the Frankish realm, Charles simultaneously campaigned on the eastern frontier, pitting himself against pagan Saxons, long-time opponents of the Franks. The Saxon’s unbending attitude and heavily wooded lands between the Rhine and Elbe rivers didn’t make the task any easier, and the war to the East preoccupied a good part of Charles’ military potential for many years to come. In late 777 a Frankish Diet met in Paderborn to discuss the issues concerning the subdued Saxons and other tribes. Apart from regular law-making duties, King Charles had received envoys of discontented Muslim provincial governors of Al-Andalus seeking military assistance against the rising power of the Emirate of Cordoba, the biggest and strongest state on the other side of the Pyrenees. Charles saw this as a promising opportunity to expand his rule into northern Iberia and agreed to help. Early the next year, a two-prong Frankish invasion crossed the Pyrenees. While the eastern contingent marched to capture the city of Barcelona, Charles personally led the second army, aiming to take Pamplona, a traditional Basque stronghold, currently occupied by an Umayyad garrison. The attack was hardly a challenge, as the city’s defences were in poor condition, and in no time Charles’ men overwhelmed the garrison. The campaign went smoothly and both Frankish armies were to rendezvous near Zaragoza, a much more formidable fortress. Upon reaching the outskirts of the city, Charles realised that the local governor was not going to submit to the Franks, and thus a siege was laid. Despite having enough men to fully encircle the stronghold, Charles had little siege equipment at his disposal to soften the Muslim governor and take the city in a timely manner, so the siege and entire campaign in Northern Iberia stalled. Yet after a month of maintaining a fruitless blockade, Charles was offered a considerable amount of gold and hostages in exchange for the Franks leaving the city. At first, he hesitated to accept this offer, but upon hearing reports that the Saxons were on the verge of another rebellion on the other end of his kingdom, he hesitated no longer, lifted the siege and departed on his journey back home. On the way back, Charles’ path once again led through Pamplona, where he took fairly harsh measures to subdue the disobedient Basque population, as he had heard rumours of collusion between locals and the Umayyad officials. The already damaged city walls were razed to the ground to prevent Pamplona from being used as a centre of possible future unrest. In addition, upon leaving the region, some nearby Basque towns and villages were set ablaze, undoubtedly enraging and antagonising the local population. The consequences of these actions were to hit the Frankish king far sooner than he might have imagined. In the middle of August, the Frankish army was travelling the narrow passes of the Pyrenees, looking forward to finally setting foot in Gaul. Due to their large numbers, the column stretched over several kilometres throughout the mountains. The heavily loaded baggage train lagged slightly behind the main body, also slowing down the rear-guard which consisted mainly of well trained and heavily armoured cavalrymen meant to defend the loot stored on the carts. Eventually, in an inopportune moment of rest, hundreds of javelins, arrows and other missiles rained down upon the exposed Frankish rear-guard, caught completely by surprise. Countless Basque tribesmen stormed down the hills and struck the stretched line of the unprepared Frankish cavalrymen, immediately causing chaos among their ranks. Basque mountain warriors, wearing virtually no armour and wielding little more than short spears would ordinarily pose no threat to Frankish mounted units on an open field in a traditional battle, but thanks to the extensive knowledge of the local terrain and using the element of surprise, they quickly gained an upper hand over the nominally superior Franks. In a matter of minutes, the battle turned into a slaughter. Gradually, Frankish warriors tried to force their way out of the onslaught and save their very lives. Yet out of roughly 2,000 men in the rear-guard, only mere dozens survived. King Charles was immediately informed about the ambush, but he could do nothing to save his rear-guard, which was virtually wiped out. Many Frankish nobles and some high officials perished in the narrow mountain passage. Moreover, the majority of war supplies and all of the gold he had acquired from Zaragoza was lost. In the span of a few hours, Charles’ moderately successful campaign in Iberia turned into deep humiliation. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass was a rare example of a setback in the otherwise brilliant military career of Charles the Great. In fact, it remained the only major defeat he suffered throughout his reign, and probably because of that, he avoided leading any campaigns on the other side of the Pyrenees in the years to come. He relied more on his generals instead, whose military efforts eventually led to the creation of the Spanish March, a buffer zone between the Frankish Kingdom and the Emirate of Cordoba.