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The Duchy of Vasconia (also Wasconia) was originally a Frankish march formed in the seventh century to protect the Aquitanian frontier from the Basques (Vascones). 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. The settling of these political matters ended with the creation of a largely Basque (Gascon) state, de facto independent, known as Gascony.





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. Chilperic I sent his duke Bladastes, who was clearly defeated in Zuberoa, while Leovigild also attacked, from the south, founding a fortress called Victoriacum (dubiously Vitoria-Gasteiz). The brief mentions of these campaigns in the Frankish and Visigothics chronicles clearly use the term Vasconia or Wasconia for the territory extending at both sides of western Pyrenees.

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, Chintila defeated them, razing the fortress of Olite.

In 626, the Basques rebelled against the Franks and in 635, they launched an attack on Toulouse. In 643, there was another rebellion in the north and in 648, battles against the Visigoths in the south. In the year 633, the Bishop of Pamplona was absent from the Fourth Council of Toledo, which is interpreted by some as the result of his city being under Basque control. In 626, the bishop of Eauze was exiled on the accusation of being in connivance with Basque rebels.[2]

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 received the ducal title of both Vasconia and Aquitaine (located between the Garonne and Loire rivers). Under Felix and his successors, Frankish overlordship became merely nominal. It did become a most important regional power.

But the Muslim invasion of 711 effected a complete shift in trends. Hitherto the Frankish duke, Odo the Great, had been independent, refusing to recognise the authority of either the Merovingian king or his mayor of the palace. In 719, 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 Battle of Tours. Aquitaine and its attendant marches were then united to Francia. It has been said that had Odo been victorious at Bordeaux, he would have usurped the eminence eventually to go to Martel as the defender and preserver of Christendom.[3]

In 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, being defeated thrice by Pepin the Short in 760, 762, and 766. He was eventually murdered by his desperate followers, who pledged loyalty to Pepin.

Vasconia in Carolingian times

The Carolingian empire and the caliphate of Cordoba were great threats for Vasconia during this period but the Basques 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, 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 812 there was a second Battle of Roncevaux that ended in stalemate due to the greater precautions taken by the Franks.

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. In 815 Louis the Pious deposed the Basque Duke Seguin, starting a widespread rebellion, led by Gartzia Semeno (who was the brother of, or is otherwise confused with semi-legendary Eneko Aritza, first monarch of Pamplona).

In 824 took place the third Battle of Roncevaux, where counts Eblo and Aznar Sánchez, Frankish vassals and the latter 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,[4] 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, came to be known as the Duchy of Gascony. Moving away from the history of the Basque Country as the romance language (Gascon) took hold in the northern plain and the Basque tongue stayed confined to the Pyrenees mountains. Still, the Duchy of Gascony would fall again under Pamplonese influence in later periods, especially 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. ^ Oman.
  4. ^ Monlezun, 342.


See also


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