Enveloped in the silence of the deep, green valley on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees Mountains where it nestles, the Royal Collegiate Church of Nuestra Señora de Roncesvalles (Our Lady of Roncesvalles) is one of the most important hospices on the pilgrim’s road to Santiago.
For more than 1,000 years it has weathered the storms of both these towering peaks and the march of history, while providing refuge to weary pilgrims and travellers alike.
Roncesvalles (Roncevaux in French, and Orreaga in the local Basque language) is one of the most memorable halts along the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela. It no longer houses anywhere near the number of canons it did at the height of the pilgrimage’s popularity in the Middle Ages, nor does it possess the wealth it did—once holding land, churches, hospices and entire villages from Spain and Portugal throughout Europe to France, Germany, England and even as far away as Scotland.
Its influence and power today, is a much humbler, spiritual one, consecrated by the prayers of centuries of pilgrims from all lands.
Upwards of some 50,000 – 60,000 pilgrims or more have their pilgrim’s credentials stamped in the Pilgrims’ Reception Office of the monastery each year. Many of these have chosen this as the starting point for their pilgrimage. Others arrive from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, having struggled over the formidable mountain pass separating Spain and France, either via the Valcarlos route and the 1,057-metre high crossing at the Ibañeta Height, or the still more formidable Route Napoléon (so-named because it was the route used by the Emperor’s armies to invade Spain during the 1807-1814 Peninsular War) that crests the mountain at the Lepoeder Col, 1,432 metres above sea level.
By whichever route they arrive, exhausted contemporary pilgrims still find Roncesvalles a place of much-needed spiritual renewal and physical relief from the ordeals of the difficult mountain crossing. The few canons living at the church may no longer wash the feet of pilgrims or act as barbers (cutting their hair and trimming their beards, as described in the 12th-century hymn La Pretiosa), nor do they personally serve them meals in the monastery’s refectory, but they still offer the spiritual counsel, the Sacrament of Penance, and Mass.
Each evening, the 13th century Gothic church is packed with pilgrims from every corner of the globe for the liturgy and traditional pilgrims’ blessing.
For their meals these days, pilgrims eat at one of the two inns adjacent to the monastery, both of which offer a simple-but-hearty set-price menu including dessert and wine for around €12. Recent renovations, subsidized by the regional government of Navarre, have transformed one of the monastery wings into a comfortable pilgrim’s hostel with 183 bunk beds and all the necessary mod-cons, including a library, kitchen and dining area, laundry room, vending machines, and a computer room with Wi-Fi internet access. Another wing houses a comfortable and stylish modern hotel for other travellers or pilgrims desiring more privacy and comfort.
The kings of Navarre recognised Santa Maria de Roncesvalles’ spiritual, economic and strategic importance, collaborating with the bishops of Pamplona to promote and support the monastery’s development from the monastery’s earliest days. It was King Alphonse the Battler of Navarre who, together with the bishop of Pamplona, Sancho de Larrosa, ordered the construction of the present church and a pilgrim’s hospital on this site in 1132, replacing the earlier monastery and pilgrim’s hospice of San Salvador, which had stood atop the Ibañeta Height since sometime in the late ninth century. (A small, modern chapel and a towering cross commemorate the monastery’s original location.)
Of all the royal figures who have visited, endowed or otherwise favoured the monastery, there are two that stand out above all others: the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and King Sancho VII el Fuerte (the Strong) of Navarre.
The fortunes of these two monarchs could not have been more different. In the narrow defiles of the nearby Valcarlos Pass, Charlemagne suffered his most resounding and humiliating defeat. Sancho not only ordered the construction of the actual church, he was also the mastermind who led the forces of Christian Spain to victory over the Almohad Muslim forces at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. That victory paved the way for the eventual re-conquest of Andalusia by Spain’s Christian kingdoms.
On 15 August, AD 778, the Emperor Charlemagne was returning from an unsuccessful campaign to expand his empire over the Pyrenees and into northern Spain by wresting the city of Zaragoza from the hands of its Umayyad Muslim governor. Somewhere between the Ibañeta Height which towers above the church and the narrow defiles of the valley leading to France, the rear guard of the Frankish army, commanded by the Emperor’s nephew Roland, the Duke of Brittany, was ambushed and mercilessly slaughtered.
Neither the precise location of the attack nor the true identity of the attackers is known clearly. In the greatest epic poem of French medieval literature, La Chanson de Roland, it is the traitorous count Ganelon, conspiring with the Muslim governors of Zaragoza, whose treachery leads to an army of some 50,000 Saracens catching Frankish knights unawares.
For contemporary Basque nationalists, it was the local Basque population, furious at the Emperor’s destruction of the fortified walls of Pamplona, hoping to minimise the possibility of enemy resistance when he and his army returned. Other historians posit an alliance between pursuing Saracen armies and vengeful locals with detailed knowledge of mountainous terrain.
Whatever the case, the legend of Charlemagne and Roland have been inextricably bound to the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago and the collegiate church of Roncesvalles ever since.
Medieval legend held it that the monastery’s ossuary, nicknamed the Silo of Charlemagne, holds the bones of Roland’s soldiers. In reality the centuries of bones beneath the main altar of the modern chapel (constructed to replace an earlier one) are those of the residents of the valley and pilgrims who died in the monastery’s hospital over the course of the centuries. Further up the pass, a monument to Roland’s memory was erected near the church and cross atop the Ibañeta Height in 1967, nearly a thousand years after the infamous battle.
King Sancho’s connection to Roncesvalles is a happier one. It was he who in AD 1200 ordered the construction of the Gothic church pilgrims see today. The church is one of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture built in Spain. He also ordered the construction of Pamplona’s magnificent Gothic cathedral and a larger hospital for pilgrims.
He rests in the Chapel of St. Augustine, in the monastery cloister. A giant of a man, even by today’s standards, King Sancho stood between 2.28-2.31 metres in height. At the Battle of Las Navas, it was Sancho who led the charge that broke through the defences surrounding the tent of the Almohad commander Muhammed al Nasir.
The story goes that the Muslim commander had bound a group of slaves with chains in a defensive perimeter around his tent, in order to prevent them from fleeing. Sancho, spurring his horse to vault the wall of terrified slaves, broke through the perimeter and captured al-Nasir. A section of the chains from the battle rest on a cushion at the feet of Sancho’s tomb, and both the chains and an image of the enormous emerald the king took as part of the booty adorn the shield of Navarre.
Impressive though the mighty deeds of the emperors and kings associated with the church’s history certainly are, it is Roncesvalles’ role as the spiritual heart of these Pyrenean valleys that has allowed the church to endure, and that leaves the deepest impression in the hearts of locals, pilgrims and tourists alike. The church’s canons provide pastoral care for a number of parishes in nearby villages, and the it is also the centre of a profound Marian devotion to Our Lady of Roncesvalles, the patroness these green valleys.
Each year in May, dozens of traditional romerías — popular, local pilgrimages — wend their way along the roads leading to her church on foot from the villages scattered throughout the surrounding valleys, and even as far away as Pamplona.
And topping it all off, overlapping with the celebration of this year’s Holy Year in Santiago de Compostela, Roncesvalles has been celebrating its own Jubilee Holy Year, granted by Pope Francis on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the consecration of her church in July 1220. Pilgrims visiting the church through July 2021 can gain a plenary or partial indulgence under the usual conditions (repentance of sin, sacramental confession, receiving Holy Communion, and praying the Apostle’s Creed in communion with the Church for the intentions of the Holy Father.
It is impossible to visit Roncesvalles as a pilgrim and remain unmoved by the presence of those, who have left their mark here through the centuries by their faith and prayers, or by their deaths, or by the deeply rooted tradition of Christian charity with which they have been received. Whether contemplating the sweeping beauty of God’s creation from the heights of the Pyrenees soaring above this place, or praying in the silence of her magnificent Gothic church, the presence of God feels very near indeed.
Curtis Williams is a longtime resident of Spain and veteran leader of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, who is writing a monthly series of articles taking readers on a jaunt to the crossroads of history, legend, and devotion during the Jubilee Year of St James, underway in 2021.
(The author would like to express special gratitude to Fr. Bibiano Esparza, the current prior of the Royal Collegiate Church of Roncesvalles, for generously taking time to share his knowledge of the church and her history for this article.)
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