Duchy of Vasconia

Duchy of Vasconia
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The Duchy of Vasconia (Basque: Baskoniako Dukerria, Spanish: Ducado de Vasconia, French: Duché de Vasconie), or Wasconia, was originally a Frankish march formed by 602 to keep the Basques (Vascones) in check. It comprised the former Roman province of Novempopulania and, at least in some periods, also the lands south of the Pyrenees centred on Pamplona.[1]

In the ninth century, civil war within the Frankish realm led to the permanent loss of control over the transpyrenean territories and several competing claimants to legal authority in Vasconia. After the chaos of Viking raids affecting the whole Basque area from Bordeaux to the coastal areas of Biscay and the decline of central Carolingian power, a strong regional political dynamics developed that was to become Gascony when the territories south of the Pyrenees shook off Frankish suzerainty (Pamplona) and other counties were created in the Pyrenees.




The western Pyrenean hill country was the refuge of the Basques in the period of barbarian invasions. Both the Visigoths of Spain and the Franks of Gaul sought to subdue them, but neither power ever fully brought them into the orbit of their realms. In 602, the Merovingians created a frontier duchy to their southwest during the tripartite wars between Franks, Visigoths, and Basques. At the same time, the Visigoths created the Duchy of Cantabria as a buffer against the Basques of the Navarre.

Around 580, both kingdoms had respectively launched major campaigns against the Basques - in 587 Basques are cited as raiding the plains of Aquitaine maybe to the west of Toulouse. Chilperic I sent his duke Bladastes but was defeated, while Leovigild also attacked from the south, founding a fortress called Victoriacum (dubiously Vitoria-Gasteiz).


The Duchy of Vasconia (or Wasconia) was on its creation (AC 602) a polity created by the Franks meant to hold sway over the Basques in Novempopulania and its bordering lands north of Hispania where they inhabited up to Cantabria. Confusion can arise with its later follow-up geographical term called Gascony, since the Duchy Vasconia comprised all Basques areas north and south of the Pyrenees at least until the definite detachment of Pamplona from the Duchy in 824. In some documents of the 8th century, Vasconia stretches out to the Loire and Basques at either side of the Garonne are cited in the last independence years of the Duchy (up to 768). The territory of Vasconia went through feudalization and divided into counties and small realms, while Basque language lost ground to the rising Romance language Gascon. By the end of the 11th century, Vasconia developed into a mainly geographical entity, Gascony, lacking its former ethnic significance.

Social organisation

Unlike neighbouring regions, counts didn´t play a role in Vasconia's power share. Moreover, they were absent, and dukes are mentioned as the main figures of the Basques, immediately followed on the hierarchy by tribal chiefs and families, at least until the rise of the Carolingian dynasty. As for the judicial system, nor the Visigothian law neither the Roman law seem to have been in use in the Duchy of Vasconia, and a native order may have prevailed until the Carolingian takeover in 768-769.

As of 781, Charlemagne started appointing counts (Bordeaux, Toulouse, Fezensac) on the bordering lands of Vasconia along the banks of the river Garonne, so undermining the grip on power of the dukes of Vasconia.

Early Frankish period (602 – 660)

By the year 602, the duchy of Vasconia, under Frankish overlordship, was consolidated in the areas around the Garonne river but did not seem to have extended to the southern regions around the Adour. In the years 610 and 612 respectively, the Gothic kings Gundemar and Sisebut launched attacks against the Basques. After a Basque attack in the Ebro valley in the year 621, Swinthila defeated them and founded the fortress of Olite.

In 626, the Basques rebelled against the Franks, with the bishop of Eauze being exiled on the accusation of supporting or sympathising with the Basque rebels,[2] while in 635 a gigantic Frankish expedition led by the duke Arnebert and 9 more dukes launched an attack against the Basques, but was defeated in Subola, maybe near Tardets. In 643, there was another rebellion in the north and in 648 battles against the Visigoths in the south. From the 589 to 684, the Bishop of Pamplona was absent from the Visigothic Councils of Toledo, which is interpreted by some as the result of this city being under Basque of Frankish control.

Personal union with Aquitaine (660 – 768)

Vasconia at the time of Odo the Great. The area to the north formed the duchy of Aquitaine over which Odo ruled. Whether or not he maintained control of Vasconia is open to debate, as the primary records are mostly silent.

In the year 660, Felix of Aquitaine, a patrician from Toulouse of Gallo-Roman stock, received the ducal title of both Vasconia and Aquitaine (located between the Garonne and Loire rivers), effectively ruling independently over Vasconia and at least part of Aquitaine. Under Felix and his successors, Frankish overlordship became merely nominal. It did become a most important regional power.

Independent dukes Lupus, Odo, Hunald and Waifer succeeded him respectively, with the last three belonging to the same lineage. Their ethnicity is not certain, since records and their names are not conclusive.

But the Muslim invasion of 711 effected a complete shift in trends. Hitherto the duke Odo the Great had been independent, refusing to recognise the authority of either the Merovingian king or his mayor of the palace. In 714, Pamplona was captured by the Moors. In 721, Odo defeated the Moors at the Battle of Toulouse. In 732, however, he was utterly routed at the Battle of the River Garonne near Bordeaux, after which the Muslim troops under Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi plundered the country and captured Narbonne. Only by submitting to the suzerainty of his Frankish archrival, the mayor Charles Martel, could they decisively defeat the Muslim invaders at the Battle of Tours. Aquitaine and its attendant marches were then united to Francia, but Odo probably kept ruling the Duchy of Vasconia and Aquitaine about the same as before until his death.

Circa 735, Odo died, leaving his realm to his son Hunald, who desiring the former independence which had been his father's, attacked Martel's successors, starting a war which was to last for two generations. In 743, the situation was further complicated by the arrival of Asturian forces attacking Vasconia from the west. In 744, Hunald abdicated to his son Waifer, who repeatedly challenged Frankish overlordship. After a campaign against the Muslims in Septimania, the king Pepin the Short turned his attention to Aquitaine and Waifer, unleashing a devastating war on Aquitaine (Vasconia included) that was to have dire consequences on its population, towns and society. Waifer and his Basque troops confronted Pepin several times but were defeated thrice in 760, 762, and 766, after which Aquitaine and Vasconia pledged loyalty to Pepin and Waifer was eventually murdered by his desperate followers.

Vasconia in Carolingian times

The Carolingian empire and the caliphate of Cordoba were great threats for Vasconia during this period but the Basques soon found a pivotal ally in the south on the Basque Muslim realm of the Banu Qasi (early 9th century), and enjoyed some safety from the west, as the Asturians were immersed in continuous dynastic conflicts.

The time of Charlemagne's reign is rife with conflicts between Basques, Franks and Muslims. Most famous is the Battle of Roncevaux in 778: after the Frankish destruction of the walls of Pamplona, Basques ambushed and slaughtered Charlemagne's rearguard. Heavily mythologised starting in the 11th century as a combat between Christians and Muslims, this battle became the most celebrated event in one of major bodies of legendary literature in Europe, the Matter of France.

Muslims attacked Vasconia as well, taking possession of Pamplona for some time, but they were expelled by a rebellion in 798-801 that helped to create the Basque Muslim realm of the Banu Qasi around Tudela. In 806 Pamplona, still under Cordovan rule, was attacked by the Franks, and the Pamplonese led by a certain Velasko pledged allegiance to Charlemagne again, but his tenure on power proved feeble. At about 814, an anti-Frankish faction led by Enecco, allied of the Banu Qasi, seems to have taken over again. A Frankish army was sent to quash the revolt, to little effect. Furthermore, on their way north through Roncevaux an ambush attempt took place that ended in stalemate, due to the greater precautions taken by the Franks, i.e. Basque women and children taken as hostages.

Northern Basques, organized in the Duchy of Vasconia, collaborated with Franks during campaigns such as the capture of Barcelona in 799 but after the death of Charlemagne in 814, uprisings started anew. The revolt in Pamplona crossed the Pyrenees north and in 816 Louis the Pious deposed the Basque Duke Seguin of Bordeaux for failing to suppress or sympathising with the rebellion, so starting a widespread revolt, led by Gartzia Semeno (according to late traditions, a near-kinsman of Eneko Aritza, to be the first monarch of Pamplona) and newly appointed duke Lupus Centullo (c. 820). Meanwhile, in Aragon the pro-Frankish Count Aznar Galindo was overthrown by Enecco´s allied Count Gartzia Malo, with Aznar Galindo in turn seeking refuge in Frankish-held territory. Louis the Pious received the submission of rebel Basque lords in Dax, but things were far from settled.

In 824 took place the third Battle of Roncevaux, when counts Eblo and Aznar Galindo (identified as Aznar Sánchez too), Frankish vassals and the latter appointed Duke of Gascony, were captured by the joint Pamplonese and Banu Qasi forces, strengthening the independence of Pamplona.

In the early 9th century the lands around the Adur river were segregated from the Duchy under the name of County of Vasconia. Count Aznar's successor, Sans Sancion, fought against Charles the Bald, as Charles didn't recognize him as legitimate.

In 844, Vikings invaded Bordeaux and killed Duke Seguin II. His heir William was killed trying to retake Bordeaux in 848,[3] though some sources say he was only captured and later deposed by the king. By the year 853, Sans Sancion, the Basque leader, was recognised as duke by Charles the Bald. During that same year, Muza of Tudela, relative of the Basque princes, invaded Vasconia and made Sans prisoner. In 855, Sans died and was succeeded by Arnold, who died fighting against the Norse in 864.

Later history

After Sans' death, the Duchy of Vasconia, between the Adur and the Garonne, gradually became the Duchy of Gascony, moving away from the history of the Basque Country as the romance language (Gascon) took hold in the 'greater Gascony', so stripping the name of its former ethnic connotations and taking on a political one. By the 11th century Basque language is believed to extend on the north-east onto the upper reaches of the Adour river, way short of its extension 300 hundred years before.

The Duchy of Gascony would fall under Pamplonese influence during Sancho the Great's reign. In 1032, it was inherited by the heir of Aquitaine and became personally united to that duchy thereafter. It thus became a part of the Angevin Empire in the 12th century. The ducal title was reemployed by Edward Longshanks and it formed a base of support for the English during the Hundred Years' War. It has been called England's first foreign colony.

England lost Gascony as a result of its defeat in the Hundred Years' War, and the region became a permanent part of France.


  1. ^ Collins, relying on the Vita Hludowici. Louis the Pious crossed the Pyrenees and "settled matters" in Pamplona, implying that it fell within his realm, obviously within the Gascon march.
  2. ^ Fredegarius. IV, 54.
  3. ^ Monlezun, 342.


See also

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