Like the Arthurian Knights, the Paladins strove to outdo each other in acts of valor and chivalry. They also participated in several notable battles alongside the emperor.
The term ‘paladin’ is derived from the Latin word ‘palatinus’ which in turn was derived from Palatine Hill of Rome. Among the Franks, paladin roughly translated as ‘of the palace.’
As per the legends, the paladins played an important role in helping Charlemagne counter the onslaught of the Umayyad forces during the Umayyad invasion of Gaul.
During the early 8th century, the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate initiated a conquest of Iberia. The Muslim forces were rapidly able to overrun the present-day regions of Spain, bringing the Visigoth kingdom to an end.
However, the remnants of Visigoth forces sought refuge in Gaul or present-day regions of southwestern France. These regions bordered the Frankish realms of Charlemagne who was seen as a champion of Christianity. Charlemagne and his forces played an important role in halting the Umayyad advance.
The twelve paladins were the twelve knights who were close to Charlemagne. These paladins performed various tasks at the behest of the king.
The names of these paladins as given in the legends include Roland, Olivier, Gerin, Gerier, Berengier, Ogier, Samson, Engelier, Ivon, Ivoire, Fierambras, and Girard.
Of these, Roland was the nephew of the emperor. Olivier was his close friend. Ogier was a Danish prince while Fierambras was the son of the king of Spain.
Roland was the most famous of the twelve paladins. This was also because he was also the nephew of Charlemagne.
Roland played a central role in many of the exploits involving the paladins. His most notable performance was at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass which was fought between the Basques and Frankish forces.
Roland’s role in the battle was immortalized by the ‘Song of Roland’, a famous 11th-century French poem which details his exploits and his heroic death.
The Battle of Roncevaux Pass
The Battle of Roncevaus Pass was fought in 778. The Frankish forces had arrived in Spain to extend the Frankish hold on the region. After the campaign, Charlemagne was returning with his forces to his court.
When the Frankish army reached a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees Mountains, known as the Roncevaus Pass, they were ambushed by the Basques.
These were a local ethnic group that had previously fought the Franks. The rearguard of the Frankish army was isolated during the fighting and made a last stand so that they were killed almost to a man.
However, in the legendary ‘Song of Roland’, it is claimed that the Muslim forces attacked the Frankish army. In this French poem, the paladin Roland is leading the rearguard. Roland fights off the Muslim forces valiantly and is eventually killed after all the men alongside him are slain. He famously dies while blowing an ivory horn.
While the Battle of Roncevaux Pass marked the high point of Charlemagne’s paladins, it was by no means the only major exploit on their record.
Subsequent legends from French and non-French sources associated many adventures and exploits with the twelve paladins. One of these involved a Saracen knight Fierabras, who would later become one of the paladins.
As per the legends, Fierabras had stolen holy relics from Rome and the paladins retrieved these. Fierabras later converted to Christianity.
In another episode, the paladins went on a pilgrimage with the emperor. During this pilgrimage, they traveled to Jerusalem and Constantinople, seeking to protect the emperor.