Charlemagne deferred the burial of Roland till he came to Blaye. His body was laid upon gold tapestry on two mules, covered with a pall, and at length honourably interred in the church of Saint Romanus
Video: The Tomb of Roland at Blaye
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Music by Martin A Smith
The tomb of Roland was one of the most prestigious shrines in Western Christendom. On the pilgrimage road to Compostela, the greatest relic of the Carolingian past was to be found on the Gironde estuary at the abbey church of Saint Romanus of Blaye on the Tours Road.
It was there that pilgrims were able to venerate the mortal remains of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew who was martyred at the battle of Roncevaux. This event was the narrative climax for both the Chanson de Roland and the History of Charlemagne and Roland, the Latin text of which was included in the Book of Saint James.
During the Carolingian period, the abbey of Blaye was the first significant monastic establishment to be reached on Frankish territory after traversing Gascony. This explains why it was deemed that Charlemagne would have deferred the burial of his most important paladin until he had crossed the estuary.
Turpin’s History relates that, after the battle Charlemagne himself had arranged for Roland’s body to be swathed in a tapestry of gold and transported on two mules to Blaye.
Blaye was an Augustinian abbey dedicated to Romanus, a saint who had been entombed there by none other than Martin of Tours, the original patron of the Frankish monarchy.
Hugh of Fleury in 1109 attests to the existence of the tomb of Roland at Blaye and we can presume that pilgrims, who preferred passage over the Gironde by boat rather than negotiate the separate crossings of the great rivers downstream, would have made the tomb of Roland an important pilgrimage site.
The Chanson de Roland, held that Roland was entombed there with his companion Olivier. Charlemagne, the poem relates “Crosses the Gironde in the great ships found there and brought his nephew as far as Blaye, and Olivier too. In white coffins he has the lords placed.”
The History of Charlemagne tells us that “His sword was placed above his head, and his ivory horn at his feet.” The hero of Roncevaux was buried with the emblems of his martyrdom, the sword Durendal and the ivory horn, the Olifant.
Subsequently, the Olifant was to be ceremoniously translated to Saint-Seurin at Bordeaux.
Others of the Paladins were entombed at Blaye; Garin of Lorraine, Ogier of Denmark, Aristagnus of Brittany and Galdebode of Frisia.
According to Turpin’s History the emperor endowed the town with twelve thousand pieces of silver for the poor of the region as well as the liturgical rituals which were now to be devoted entirely to the memory of Roland and the Paladins.
Blaye was a “Joyful town, graced with the sepulchres of so many heroes”.
The abbey of Saint Romanus was razed in the seventeenth century to make way for new defensive fortifications. Today the foundations of the church are still visible, revealing the original Merovingian crypt where Roland was supposed to have been entombed. These remains are evidence of a church of vast proportions.
Biblio: Blaye à grands traits – Du promontoire à la citadelle: 7000 ans d’histoire, Marie-Ange Landais, Les Cahiers du Vitrezais, Revue Archéologique, Historique et Littéraire des Hauts de Gironde No.92. The Interaction of Life and Literature in the peregrinaciones ad loca sancta and the Chansons de Geste, SG Nichols Speculum 44 1969 51-77. Les sépultures des Français morts à Roncevaux, André Moisan, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1981 Volume 24 pp. 129-145
With thanks to Marie-Ange Landais of the Musée de Blaye