Skip to main content

History of the Pays Basque

Basque culture is one defined by pride; having inhabited the region of southern France and northern Spain for millennia, there is a passion among the people of the area that is distinctive in the traditions, customs, and even language that continue to be practiced. The sense of identity here is strong, and retained with an enthusiasm rarely seen in other regions.

Basque origins

While little is known regarding the beginnings of the Basque people, the earliest recordings of the inhabitants of the region are found during the Roman incursions of ancient Gaul. For the next four centuries, the area would form part of the Aquitania province, with the Basque people falling under the sovereignty of Rome. When the time came for an uprising against Roman feudalism, and the might of the Empire began to wane, Pays Basque would be subsumed by the independent Duchy of Vasconia.

Stretching from the coast to the banks of the Garonne River, the Duchy of Vasconia would itself come undone during the eighth and ninth centuries, replaced instead by the County of Vasconia (later Gascony), formed from the areas surrounding the Adour River. It was, of course, around this time that the Basques would experience one of the great victories of their history. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass is recounted in The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving work of French literature, and describes the victories of the Basque armies over the Frankish troops of Charlemagne.

Middle Ages

At the dawn of the 11th century, control of the province of Labourd, including what would become Pays Basque, passed to Sancho III of Navarre, who proceeded to make it a Viscounty. Such status was short-lived, however, with disputes over the territory leading to Richard the Lionheart dividing the land between the Angevin of France and the Navarrese.

In the centuries that followed, incursions and disputes over the region would continue, until the Hundred Years’ War saw the territories of the French Basque Country – the Lower Navarre, Labourd, and Soule provinces – united under the French crown. 

Independence and autonomy

For the next few centuries, Pays Basque would be afforded a level of autonomy under the French rule that provided a sense of independence to the people. An anomaly of the French Revolution, however, would see this level of freedom diminish substantially, centralising government responsibilities and leading to a mass deportation of civilians and fear of persecution. The region was thus reshaped in the Basses-Pyrénées department that, in 1969, would be renamed the Pyrenees-Atlantiques.

Recent history has seen the Basque people of both Spain and France seek independence from their sovereign states and a growth in separatist activity. For the present, however, the cultures and traditions of the Pays Basque remain a part of French history.