Dolmens around Roncesvalles, such as the Dolmen de Soroluce, attest to prehistoric presence and settlement in the general Valcarlos area, but Roncesvalles’ most famous association is as the place where Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, and his men were defeated.
La Chanson de Roland, The Song of Roland, is an epic poem written in the 12th century that was sung and recited for centuries after. It tells a heroic and knightly tale of Roland who was in the rear guard of the Charlemagne’s retreating army of Franks. Pushing over the Pyrenees for conquests in Iberia, they were returning from a battle in Zaragoza. They had also launched an attack on Pamplona, which very likely agitated locals against the imperialistic invaders.
Near Roncesvalles, Muslims attacked the rear guard—according to the poem—and defeated it. The real event, which took place in CE 778, was more likely a defensive skirmish among locals, in this case Basques, who were perhaps assisted by allied Iberian Muslims. They banded together to defend their territories against the land-grabbing Charlemagne.
In turn, Charlemagne may have justified his expansion into Iberia as a means to defend against the North African Muslim invasion. It was an invasion that had reached as far north as Poitier in CE 732. But that Charlemagne’s forces could secure southern France and the Pyrenees for the Franks, had also to have been alluring.
In the end, Roland and his men were defeated. Roland became the epitome of the knightly hero. Charlemagne had already retreated far ahead and could not return to their aid.
Poetry and song were the Middle Ages’ form of media, broadcasting events far and wide, both to inform and entertain but also to influence a particular interpretation and outcome. The Chanson de Roland is a great example of this. It turned a battle that had a bad outcome for Charlemagne but a good one for locals and spun it into a different story depending on who told it and why.
Centuries later, in a Christian Europe that was growing more confident and polemic in its
religion and politics, the story was bent to incite popular support for this emerging world. It was a time defined by the Crusades, both in the Holy Land and at home in southern France, and the continued competition over territory and control in southern and northern Iberia.
It’s a big song and a lot of political agenda for what is in fact a small village. Serene and beautiful, set against the backdrop of the surrounding forest and Pyrenees, Roncesvalles’ enduring fame is more as the most popular passageway into Spain and an important pilgrim’s rest stop ever since the Middle Ages.
The most important sites in Roncesvalles are the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria, the Chapel of Sancti Spiritus, and the Chapel of Santiago.
The Collegiate Church, consecrated in CE 1219, is a great example of early Gothic architecture in Spain. Its most sacred element however is the 13th century Gothic statue of Nuestra Señora de Roncesvalles, Our Lady of Roncesvalles. She was made in Toulouse and transported here, how and by whom is unknown.
What you see here is the original icon. It is most likely a donation made in honor of a miraculous visitation of Our Lady some time earlier. During the French Revolution, and then soon thereafter with the dissolution of monasteries and churches, many church treasures were destroyed, including numerous carved icons. It is considered something of a miracle that this one survived.
No one knows when Mary appeared in Roncesvalles but it must have occurred before the early 1200s when the devout built the collegiate church to commemorate her visit. The most popular telling of Mary’s appearance is that she miraculously appeared to a child one day at the very spot where the collegiate church was built.
Pilgrims arriving in Roncesvalles who are not from the Pyrenees, southern France, or northern Spain, may not realize how important Our Lady of Roncesvalles is regionally. She is known as La Reina del Pirineo, the Queen of the Pyrenees and she has quite a following among the communities of the Pyrenees, on both the French and Spanish sides.
Roncesvalles is one of the most important Marian sanctuaries, along with Lourdes, of these mountains. French and Spanish pilgrims come to Roncesvalles in September to celebrate Mary’s nativity on September 8.
The 12th century Capilla de Sancti Spiritus is where the bones of pilgrims in the same century were buried if they died during the Valcarlos crossing. The chapel is built over their bones and is a somber reminder of the fleeting nature of life and how intertwined we are with death every step of the way. A step at a time, savoring the present, seems to be a potent message that comes from walking the Camino and visiting such places.
The Capilla de Santiago is a 13th century Gothic building, like the Collegiate Church. Since that century its bell has been wrung at night to help delayed or lost pilgrims make their way to Roncesvalles in the dark.
A few kilometers further along the Camino leads through enchanted forest to Burguete.