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Strike on, my lords, with burnished swords and keen; contest each inch your life and death between, that never by us France in shame be steeped. When Charles my lord shall come into this field, Such discipline of Saracens he'll see, for one of ours he'll find them dead fifteen; he will not fail, but bless us all in peace.
— Count Roland

Count Roland was a Frankish military leader under Charlemagne who became one of the principal figures in the literary cycle known as the Matter of France. The historical Roland was military governor of the Breton March, responsible for defending Francia's frontier against the Bretons. His only historical attestation is in Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni, which notes he was part of the Frankish rearguard killed by rebellious Basques in Iberia at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. His name later became famous however, when he became the chief protagonist of Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland), a highly fictionalized story of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass.

In the story, Count Roland was said to be a paladin who wielded a sacred sword called Durandal, and died fighting when he and the Frankish rearguard numbering 20,000 held 400,000 Saracens as they tried to attack Charlemagne's army in Roncevaux Pass. In the actual historical battle, Roland and the Frankish rearguard did not fought 400,000 Muslim Saracens, but actually fought a smaller force of Christian Basque troops. Roland also never wielded any legendary sword and was never a paladin or a nephew of Charlemagne. Also, his defense of Roncevaux Pass was not because he was too confident, but because he and his men were trying to delay the Basque as the main Frankish army escaped.

Nonetheless, Roland and the Frank's sacrifice saved Charlemagne's army from total annihilation. In the centuries following his death, Roland's name became an inspiration for Medieval knights and monarchs who were trying to follow the code of chivalry, like William the Conqueror. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass itself is one of the greatest and most well-known last stands and delaying tactic in military history.

Battle vs. Harold Godwinson (by El Alamein)[]

"What shall I tell them, sire?"

Count Roland looked down from his horse, the noble Veillantif, onto the messenger standing anxiously below. The runner's face was pale and drawn tight--sweat trickled plainly down his face. Though Roland sympathized with the man's fears, he himself remained composed and resolute. His eyes flickered up, up past the treetops that dared span over the road and swallow up the sunlight. 

"When the time comes, you will know precisely what to say."

Nodding to his messenger, Roland watched as he bolted off, back for friendly lines, back for safety... back for his life.

Urging his steed onward, the count noted that even his mount seemed uneasy. A looming pall of uncertainty had plagued his endeavor thus far, but riding alone, Roland knew that he must honor the arrangements he had made previously. Letting his hand drop to rest on the hilt of Durendal, the sword imbued with the righteous strength of the saints looking down from Heaven above, he relaxed.

The dirt road was crudely made but well-maintained. It led out into a clearing, where sunlight streamed down in bright, proud shafts. Roland squinted, shielding his eyes as he adjusted to the light. His horse's speed dwindled to a stop. Dismounting, Roland froze when he heard the sound of rustling behind him. There was a slight quivering as Roland turned--followed by a sharp twang. Rolling to the side, he evaded the arrow fired his way and looked up at an imposing mustachioed figure blocking his path, clad in armor and holding a bow. A smile played across the face of King Harold Godwinson as he cast the hunting bow aside and beckoned to a figure who emerged into the clearing, holding a massive two-handed axe. The soldier gave the king the weapon and just as quickly retreated.

Roland turned and sprinted back to his horse as Godwinson watched, advancing slowly. Grabbing his Francisca axe, Roland turned and hurled the weapon wildly, interrupting the Saxon's advance and forcing him to jump sharply to the side to avoid the attack. Just as quickly, Roland had retrieved his Angon spear, holding it out defiantly with two hands. Harold broke into a charge, gaining momentum as he raised his Dane axe overhead. Roland slid under the swing and turned with a grunt, jabbing the spear-tip at Harold. It nicked off his mail armor, but the tip got stuck and bent.

Breathing heavily, Harold stood up, encumbered by the useless weapon now protruding from his backside. Shaking himself in an effort to dislodge the Angon, he quickly ran backwards, turning sharply, swinging the shaft of the spear against a tree. The wooden shaft splintered with the force of the blow, but Roland was now on top of Harold with his longsword, swinging forcefully with an attack Harold only just managed to avoid by raising his axe's handle in front of his face. The blade got stuck halfway through the wood--Roland struggled to pull it out right as Harold, holding the weapon by the shaft, pushed forward forcefully and slammed the shaft into Roland's face. Durendal fell to the grass, but there was a crack as the blow shattered the Frank's nose. Blood streamed freely as Roland grunted in pain, reaching a hand up to the injury and gingerly touching it, before holding it out in front of him to see the extent of the bleeding.

Picking up Durendal, Roland turned as Harold unsheathed his own longsword. The Saxon king laughed as Roland spit blood in his direction, before the two charged. Harold's forward thrust hit Roland's mail and failed to pierce the armor, while Roland's sideways swing winded the king through his byrnie. Stumbling backwards, Harold reached a hand out as he fell to the ground. Roland held his sword out and knelt, keeping it pointed at Godwinson's throat. Before the Frankish count could react, though, Harold had reached out, picking up a rock that lay nearby, and swung it up at Roland's helmet. With a clang, it was now Roland who was at the mercy of Harold, his ears ringing and his vision spinning.

By the time he had recovered, it was all but too late for Roland. Disarmed and with Godwinson blocking the path to any of his weapons, Roland had but one course of action left. His faithful steed had remained, standing calmly while the duel had raged, and Roland had enough strength to make it back to Veillantif and search his satchel. Finding what he needed, Roland ran his hand down his horse's mane. "Vigilant until the end," whispered Roland, and he turned and faced Harold Godwinson, the king of England, face-to-face, raising his oliphant to his lips in a last act of defiance as the Saxon warrior swung his sword full-force.

The melancholy sound of the oliphant danced across the treetops, sending birds flying and overpowering the desperate, ragged breathing of the sweat-drenched messenger, as he burst, wild-eyed and frenzied, into the tent of his commander. The captain inside looked up, concerned, as the runner took one enormous gulp of breath before crying out.

"Captain! The count! He is dead!"

Expert's Opinion[]

Harold Godwinson's superior battlefield experience, weapons, and tactics enabled him to prevail over Roland. The bow vastly overpowered the throwing axe at a long range, but also (and perhaps most importantly), Harold's defeat at Hastings, while just as catastrophic a loss as Roland's defeat at Roncevaux Pass, was a much closer call and not as much a strategic blunder. Roland fought valiantly, but in the end, Harold Godwinson hit harder and hit smarter, giving him the victory.

To see the original battle, weapons, and votes, click here.

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