The legends of Charlemagne and Pamplona resonated in medieval epic poetry. Pamplona was such a vital location, as well as being one of the first cities to be reconquered by the Christians from the Moors, that it was inevitable it should become the locus of legendary material.
In the epic poem known as l’Entrée en Espagne, Pamplona is described thus: “From one side it views the way to Gascony, from the other gate one sees towards Aragon, another guards the way towards Spain and the fourth faces the Ocean”.
Pilgrims to Compostela were directed to cross the Pyrenees using the Cize Pass and the first major station after the mountains was Pamplona.
The Royal Frankish Annals of 805 and 829 tell us that the Navarrese and Basques had allied themselves with the Saracens to form an enclave in the city.
Having been repulsed at Saragossa, Charlemagne and his army razed Pamplona, destroying “the walls of this city down to its foundations so that it might not rebel”.
Like Joshua at the siege of Jericho, it was the impregnable strength of the walls which prevented him from taking the city.
So it was with Charlemagne before the city of Pamplona, “The first city Charlemagne besieged was Pamplona, he invested it for three months, but was not able to take it, through the invincible strength of its walls.”
Like Joshua, Charlemagne enlisted divine aid to bring down the walls. Where Joshua blew his horn, Charlemagne invoked the intercession of Saint James who, ”hearkening to his petition, the walls utterly fell to the ground of themselves”.
According to Archbishop Turpin’s account, such was the vital importance of the city, that once captured, the rest of Moorish Spain surrendered totally and the emperor proceeded unhindered to Compostela and then to Padrón, where he dipped his lance in the ocean in a symbolic gesture of dominion over the whole of the Hispanic peninsula.
After the military reversals which followed the arrival in Spain of the African Saracen leader Aigoland, battle was once more joined in the field outside Pamplona where one hundred and thirty-four thousand Franks faced a hundred thousand Saracens.
The second battle of Pamplona now assumed not merely Biblical, but Apocalyptic proportions.
“So great indeed was the effusion of blood that the Christians waded in it to their knees”, declared the History of Charlemagne and Roland, of the slaughter of the Saracens at Pamplona.
This description echoed the chronicles of the taking of Jerusalem in 1099. The Gesta Francorum told of “such a slaughter that our men were wading up to their ankles in blood”. The other medieval descriptions by Fulcher of Chartres and Guibert de Nogent repeated the same, almost identical, trope to emphasise the brutality of the carnage.
All these writers, whether describing the capture of Jerusalem or Pamplona, were making a calculated reference to the Book of Revelation, which in chapter fourteen tells of the winepress of the wrath of God, whose wine would be reserved for those who worship the Beast.
“And the wine press was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the wine press even unto the horse bridles”.
The Apocalyptic signification attributed by the chroniclers of the First Crusade to the capture of Jerusalem and of the authors of the Turpin manuscript in describing the taking of Pamplona, were made with the same intention. It was to incorporate the twelfth century conflict against the Saracens into an eschatological mythology.
After his victory at Pamplona, the emperor made his way towards Puente la Reina, “Charlemagne then regrouped his armies, greatly rejoiced at this victory and marched forward, and came to the bridge of Arge on the Compostela road”.
Sources and Biblio: Jean Passini, Sur le chemin de Saint Jacques, Cahiers de Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, XXX 2000 pp. 75-83
Thomas F Madden Saint Louis University, Revista Chilena de Estudios Medievales Número 1 enero-junio 2012, 25-37, Rivers of Blood: An analysis of one aspect of the crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099
History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812
The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014
André de Mandach Naissance et Origines de la chanson de geste en Europe Vol. 1 La Geste de Charlemagne et de Roland Genève, Droz, 1961
Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003