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Valira Torrent:   Contents | Subject index

Perforation image from Serif Art Gallery. © Serif Inc, 1996

Valira Torrent - bulletin of the Andorran Philatelic Study Circle. Issue 13, pp2-5 (March 1981).

Copyright notice


Charlemagne and Andorra

by W. D. Bent.

With the recent issue of an Andorran stamp bearing a picture of Charlemagne (Charles the Great), let us have a brief look back some 1,200 years, and begin in what is now Northwestern France.

In 751 A.D. Pepin "The Short" came to the throne and over the next few years considerably increased the area of land then comprising his kingdom. This included, in 759, the capture of Narbonne and the area known as Septimania on the mediterranean coast of France adjacent to the Pyrenees, and from 760 to 768 attained the complete submission of Aquitaine.

In 768 Pepin divided his kingdom between his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman, and on September 24th of that year he died. The two brothers had no great love for each other. Charlemagne had been born in 742 as the first son of Pepin I and his mother was Bertrada. Technically, he was illegitimate, for it was not until later that Pepin and Bertrada had a marriage "sanctified in a religious ceremony", whereas Carloman, born in 751 was undeniably legitimate. Each felt themselves to be the rightful heir to the whole Frankish kingdom. However, simultaneously on the 9th October 768 both brothers were crowned kings of their respective "half" kingdoms - Charlemagne at Noyon and Carloman at Soissons.

In 771 Carloman died after only three years as king and Charlemagne quickly re-united the Frankish kingdom with himself as sole ruler.

In the next few years much expansion of Charlemagne lands occurred and large gains took place throughout Europe in what is now known as Italy, Austria, Bavaria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium etc. His domain extended to the Danish border, the river Vistula in what is now Poland and southwest to the river Ebro in Spain. It is mainly Charlemagne's exploits in the direction of the latter that concerns us.

In 777 the Frankish king was asked for aid by the governor of Saragossa in Spain against the Emir of Cordova. It should be noted that most of Spain had been conquered by the Arabs circa 711, with advances into the lands north of the Pyrenees, deep into Septimania and Aquitaine, and even to the gates of Toulouse until decisively defeated in battle by Carles Martel (Charlemagne's grandfather) in October 733. After this battle the Pyrenees again became the natural frontier between the Franks and the Islamic rulers of Spain.

However, to return to 777, it seems Charlemagne was resting at Ingelheim after a long struggle in Saxony had been resolved and peace prevailed, when a messenger arrived asking for help against Abdur Rahman, the Islamic ruler of Cordova. Charlemagne did not hesitate. He had a traditional hatred of his potential opponents and saw a chance to extend his borders and protect his south western Pyrenean flank. He soon gathered together a sizeable army, in fact some chroniclers suggest the largest he ever assembled, and moved south.

In the early spring of 778 Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees, having first divided his army into two, and each half crossed the mountains by a different route. Undoubtedly Charlemagne led his section from St. Jean de la Port over a crest in the mountains towards Pampelona, and it is recorded that "the highest point of this road, the summit Pyreneus, looked down on the wild and narrow defile of Roncevalles".

The subsequent seige of Pampelona, which was the main military action of the whole expedition, did not last long. Some of the Spanish rulers had welcomed Charlemagne whilst others sought to resist him, much to his surprise. The Spanish uprising against Abdur Rahman slowly died away, but the moslem factors were quarrelling amongst themselves and the Frankish forces were able to consolidate along the line of the river Ebro. Charlemagne received the surrender of Barcelona, Huesca, Gerona and some others without a fight, but he had to storm the City of Pampelona and could not occupy Saragossa. Although it was the Governor of that city that called for aid, he changed his mind and resisted all attempts of Charlemagne's army to enter the City. Charlemagne needed such items as seige machinery etc. which he neither had nor could easily obtain. Saragossa was a powerful fortress and without the capture of this key centre, he decided he would go no deeper into Spain. Chronicles are somewhat uncertain as to precisely what happened next, but it seems that agreements were reached and treaties signed with the main centres already occupied but further occupation in Spain was deemed unprofitable.

The Frankish army regrouped around Pampelona and destroyed the walls and defences of the city to teach the inhabitants a lesson for resisting. Then, with much seized wealth, they retreated the way they had come, through Navarre.

On the 15th August 778 occurred one of the most famous defeats in world history, in the narrow pass of Roncevalles. The main force passed through, heading home, but the rear of the column, with most of the wealth and the armies baggage, was ambushed by mountain basques. The wooded mountainside had been excellent cover and the narrowness of the pass gave the Frankish rearguard no chance, and every last man was slain. The baggage and wealth was seized and, under cover of darkness, the basques dispersed.

Hearing of the disaster the following day Charlemagne returned to bury the very many dead as well as the terrain allowed, and then "with a sad and heavy heart" continued homeward with all speed. This battle gave rise to many legends and over the years much has been written, both on the victories of either side or the losses of either side, depending on the nationality of the author, and the famous Chanson de Roland (song of Roland) was composed. The mighty Count Roland was Charlemagne's closest friend and they had gone through many battles together. Roland was among the many dead, as were many other notables. When a biographer was writing on the battle some sixty years later it was still declared that there was no need to mention the numerous men killed in the battle by name as they were so well known.

This was, indeed, a tragic defeat for Charlemagne and there is no recorded evidence that he ever again crossed the Pyrenees.

On his return home after the Spanish expedition he discovered he had become a father of twin sons. One named Lothar, who was to die in infancy, and the other baptised Louis and destined to succeed Charlemagne to the throne.

It is recorded that the Roncevalles defeat had aged Charlemagne and made him more conscious of human mortality, and as he now had four sons he decided, like his father before him, to make ready his successors. Gradually his kingdom was made ready to be divided into three sub kingdoms with one son to govern each (one son, Lothar, having died). After due passage of time, the remaining twin, Louis, was to take over all of Aquitaine and lands to the south including all the regions along the Pyrenees. After the retreat from Spain there is no record of Charlemagne again visiting the Pyrenees, much of his time was spent to the east and in troubles in Italy. In fact, as a result of a long expedition to the latter, and loyal support to the Pope, much ground was gained in Italy. As a reward it was Pope Leo III who crowned Charlemagne Emporer on Christmas Day 800 in St. Peters Basilica in Rome.

He travelled less and less and delegated much of his work to his family and nobles of his court.

On the morning of the 20th January, 814, the great Charlemagne died in his capital city of Aachen, after having caught a severe chill while horse riding a week earlier. He was buried at sunset on the same day, which, for so powerful a person, was in great haste. Although the general opinion is that he died of Pleurisy, it had been suggested that he suffered, as did his father, Pepin the short, with dropsy.

Before night had fallen, messengers were sent to take the news to the sole remaining son, Louis, in Aquitaine, who, on learning of the death of his father, quickly made his way to Aachen to claim his heritage.

Coming back to Andorra's connection with Charlemagne it is important to sift through the facts and read the various chronicles of the times, and on doing so, one is most likely to reach the conclusion that, in all probability, Charlemagne never visited Andorra in person. Consider that he crossed the Pyrenees in early spring with an army. Roads would be little more than tracks or non-existent, and the passes from France would be snow bound. He certainly returned via Roncevalles, very many miles to the north-west. His targets were Pampelona and Saragossa and his total stay on Spanish territory was one of months rather than years. It must therefore be questioned as to what reason he could possible wish to visit a mountainous valley, consisting at that time of little more than one or two hamlets, virtually no population to render arms, and no resources. There were certainly no roads in Andorra, so why or how would a visit be necessary or even possible with so much to do in so short a time?

The Frankish empire retained strong links for a great many years with the Spanish territories between the Pyrenees and the river Ebro, and no doubt Officials of the Court, Counts and other dignitaries, together with Army and civilian personel, crossed and recrossed the mountains both through Andorra and other passes.

No doubt Louis, possibly in Charlemagne's lifetime and afterwards, went to Andorra or at least passed through the Valleys.

In 793 the Saracens invaded and overran much of Catalonia. They crossed the Pyrenees into what is now south-western France until eventually repulsed and pushed back (with all the lost territory recaptured) by the Franks, but this was by Count Guillaume de Toulouse, not Charlemagne. It appears that there were troubles in Brittany, Saxony and Italy at this time to keep Charlemagne fully occupied, and the Frankish kingdoms' south western flanks were left in the hands of others such as the Count of Toulouse. From chronicles recorded later in French monasteries and elsewhere, it is written that the inhabitants of Gerona "delivered their town and its territories to Charles in 785". About the same time something similar happened in the "Pyrenean territories of Urgel, Cerdagne and Besalu". For this, special privileges were granted for their loyalty. Later evidence shows that Charlemagne, through his emmissaries, recognised the different legal and judicial traditions of the Gothic territories incorporated in his kingdom, and granted exceptional privileges to the magnates and others who had offered him their allegiance - privileges that were extended to the inhabitants of Barcelona after its recapture from the Saracens in 801. All this happened when chronicles show Charlemagne to be engaged elsewhere.

Andorra has many legends and stories involving Charlemagne. One suggests a Foundation Charter was signed by him at Escaldes. On the way to Ordino there is alleged to be a stone hollowed out by sword thrusts to hold grain for his horse. At San Julia was a house which has, over the years, been rebuilt, but which is claimed to have housed Charlemagne during his stay in Andorra, and is today still called La Casa de Charlemany (The House of Charlemagne).

There is an ancient document known as the "Foundation Charter ceded to the Valley of Andorra by Charlemagne and Ludovico Pio in 784". Although many specialists question this document's authenticity, it is kept securely in the Parliamentary archives (the cupboard of the six keys).

Charlemagne crossing Andorre Foundation by Louis le Debonnaire

It is most likely that the 1fr French P.O. issue in the Andorran History issue of 1963, described as "The Foundation of Andorra by Louis le Debonnaire", is based on fact. No doubt Louis, carried out his father's wishes in recognising the loyalty to the Frankish cause against the Saracens as mentioned earlier, but the 50ct stamp of the same issue described as "Charlemagne crossing Andorra" is based on folklore and old legends and should not be taken too seriously. The recent issue showing Charlemagne and Napoleon are certainly appropriate as two persons who have played a great part in the formation and independence of Andorra, but the former's personal journey to the country cannot be substantiated in any accepted chronicles or based on any historian's findings. However, legends make for romantic reading and wonderful attractions for the tourist - but not for the serious philatelic specialist!

Napoleon re-establshes the statute Pareage of 1288


"Andorra" by Domenech de Bellmunt - printed in Andorra

"Charlemagne - A Study" by B. M. Almedingen - Bodley Head Ltd.

"Life in the Age of Charlemagne" by Peter Mung - B. T. Batsford Ltd.

"Charlemagne - From the Hammer to the Cross" by Richard Winston - Eyre and Spottiswoode

"Mohammed and Charlemagne" by Henri Pirenne - Unwin University Books

"The Feudal Monarchy in France and England" by Ch Petit - Dutaillis - Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd

"The Reign of Charlemagne" by H. R. Loyn and J. Percival - Edward Arnold Ltd

"The Age of Charlemagne" by Donald Bullough - Elek Books Ltd

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Andorran Philatelic Study Circle / Hon. Librarian: E. J. Jewell / apsc@free.fr /
Updated 2nd January 1999