Guillaume d’Orange: Duke, Saint, Legend

By Minjie Su

You’ve learned about Charlemagne. You’ve listened to the Song of Roland. But here’s another warrior who is from about the same era, and is just as loyal, brave, and legendary. His deeds have been put in songs and, in the centuries to follow, enriched and expanded. He is Guillaume d’Orange.

But who is Guillaume d’Orange? What has he done (or is believed to have done) to gain such attention? Indeed, he is mostly fictional – that he is Guillaume is plausible enough; but there is no way he is actually d’Orange. Nevertheless, this does not rule out there is a real person behind the legend – for behind every legend hides some truth, buried in memory and in time, fading yet rising over and over again in songs and stories.


In this article, we will embark on a journey through those songs and stories. We will meet the man himself, neither as a strictly historical person, nor an entirely fictionalised one, but as he is remembered and represented with the passage of time.

Guillaume of Toulouse, or Saint Guilhem le Désert?

Although the great French scholar Joseph Bédier has identified sixteen Guillaumes or Williams as the possible model for Guillaume d’Orange, one fits the profile particularly well. This is Saint Guilhem le Désert (755–812), or St. William of the Desert, who founded an abbey in a town that now bears his name in the Gellone Valley, in southern France. This William is believed to be a cousin of Charlemagne’s. He had fought many wars against the Moors in Spain before he retired to a religious house in 806. The earliest written record of him comes from Ermoldus Nigellus’s elegiac poem Carmina in honorem Hludowici Caesaris (In Honour of Louis the Caesar), composed around the late 820s. Ermoldus lived in the court of Pepin, son of Louis the Pious, therefore he was almost a contemporary to Guillaume and the deeds attributed to him.

Guillaume preaching, a helmet at his feet – miniature from folio 088rfrom the Book of Hours of Simon de Varie – KB 74 G37

According to In honorem Hludowici, Guillaume is made Duke of Toulouse by Louis the Pious (778–840) and aided the king in the siege of Barcelona in 801 against the ‘Saracen’ ruler Zado. Duke Guillaume is known and greatly admired for his faith, loyalty, and bravery. When Louis summons his barons to court, it is Guillaume who suggests that the king direct the Frankish army towards Barcelona, and offers to lead it:

“I have often taken note of their (the Saracens’s) fortifications, camps, locations, and the rest. I can lead you by a sheltered path. There is also an especially wicked city over in the frontier region, the cause of so many evils, which remains allied to them. Should it be seized by God’s grace, with you undertaking the work, there will be peace and quiet for your people. Head there, king; take along the gifts of Mars; and William will be your guide, O kind one.”

When facing the well-guarded walls of Barcelona and the taunting of his enemy, the duke holds his ground calmly and proudly, sending fear into the heart of the enemy camp. ‘We never give up a battle once begun.’ Eventually, Guillaume won the battle for Louis and retired to an abbey a few years later.

Other sources, too, mention a Guillaume who was first a duke and then a holy man. The Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis (1075 to c. 1142), for instance, sings of Saint Guillaume’s military deeds against the Saracens and unwavering piety towards God. In particular, he locates Guillaume’s tomb on the way to Santiago de Compostela, a must-visit holy site for pilgrims.


However, it is more than likely that the chanson de geste tradition has already found its way into Vitalis’s account, due to the late date of the composition of his Vita Sancti Wilhelmi (Life of Saint William, ca. 1120s). The legendary and the historical Guillaume merged at same time in the twelfth century. As we move into the realm of the legendary, it is about time to see what Duke Guillaume has become in the songs.

Guillaume captures Nîmes after having hidden his men in barrels of wine to enter the city. WIkimedia Commons

The Guillaume Cycle and Medieval “Spin-offs”

Between the early twelfth and the late thirteenth centuries, at least some 24 poems were composed that can be loosely gathered as the Guillaume/William Cycle. Out of these, only seven directly deal with Guillaume, while the others are what may be considered as medieval ‘spin-offs’, filling the gaps with deeds and stories of Guillaume’s ancestors, progeny, and other relatives. The earliest poems form the ‘shorter’ cycle, for they describe the major events surrounding Guillaume d’Orange’s life: his enfance, rise in power and prowess, the wars he fights (losses and victories),  his monastery life, and his adventures as a hermit (yes, great heroes fight wars even in retirement, like Han Solo). Within the Shorter Cycle, Chanson de Guillaume is believed to be the earliest, most likely composed roughly about the same time as Chanson de Roland, for the two texts show many similarities.

A second group of poems (late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries) include stories of Vivien, one of Guillaume’s nephews, and of Rainoart, Guillaume’s brother-in-law. Both characters make an appearance in the Shorter Cycle and play important parts, and both are interesting in their own right. Between the two, Vivien cuts a tragic figure, and the poem apparently wants us to sympathize with his plight. In Aliscans, which forms a major part of the Shorter Cycle, he died without knowing for certain whether or not his honour was intact: he had vowed before that he would not flee battlefield farther than the thrust of a lance. He was killed when he left the battlefield to get water, and never had the chance of finding out the exact distance. In contrast, Rainoart is somewhat comic. A pagan to start with, Rainoart shares the bestial and savage appearance the Guillaume poets customarily attribute to the Saracens: Rainoart is represented as a giant fighting with a club. But, when his sister Orable married Guillaume and was baptised as Guiborc, Rainoart converted to Christianity, joined Guillaume’s force, and became such a key and favoured character in the Guillaume Cycle that he got his own poem!


Guillaume d’Orange

So, what figure does Guillaume d’Orange cut from these chansons and legends? This brings us back to the first question we asked: who is Guillaume d’Orange?

No doubt, as an epic hero, Guillaume is extremely powerful, fierce, and resilient in the endless wars against Frankia’s enemy. He is pious and exceptionally loyal to the king, even though the poets take pains to portray Louis the Pious’ unworthiness and injustice (he refused to grant Guillaume land, and had to be scolded by his daughter into helping Guillaume at the battle of Aliscans, though he had promised to lend Guillaume military aid). The last bit is an interesting point, because foregrounding Guillaume’s loyalty makes him stand out among the rebellious barons, the subject matter of Le cycle des barons révoltés (The Cycle of the Revolting Barons or The Cycle of Doon de Mayence).

It also foregrounds Louis the Pious’ weakness, a feature generally attributed to him in other Carolingian sources: though, to be fair, a lot of problems that Louis the Pious faced had their roots in the reign of Charlemagne; Louis the Pious was considered by many Carolingian authors but a pale shadow compared to his great father. Einhard (775–840), who as the biographer of Charlemagne and author of Vita Karoli Magni (The Life of Charlemagne), reports a series of ill omens before Charlemagne’s death, foreshadowing the empire’s decline under Louis the Pious.

Likewise, as far as Nithard (795–844) – a grandson of Charlemagne’s and a historian himself – is concerned, Louis the Pious had inherited all the excellence of the empire but he basically blew it. Therefore, it probably comes as no surprise at all that in Louis the Pious, the poet(s) of the Guillaume Cycle find a ready contrast to the loyal heroes of the Chansons; the weakness of the king only highlights Guillaume and the family of Narbonne’s loyalty, and gives the poems an extra touch of tragedy.

A scene from Chansons of the cycle of Guillaume d’Orange including Aimeri de Narbonne – British Library MS Royal 20 D XI f. 118

Despite Guillaume’s extraordinary bravery and loyalty, he can be surprisingly human and needs support just as much as ordinary people do. After a serious setback and the loss of Vivien, Guillaume, too, loses heart and at times wants to just give up. Luckily, he has some very good friends. One of which is his wife Guiborc. Once a Saracen princess, Guiborc/ Orable originally married an emir but fell in love with Guillaume and eloped with him. This leads to the year-long struggle between Guillaume and the emir, thus the wars in the Guillaume Cycle are as much a struggle between two realms as a family feud. While Guiborc feels responsible for all the bloodshed, she knows better than anyone that the only way out of this is to win or to die. When Guillaume suffers defeat, she encourages him to hope and to rise up again; when Guillaume flees, she taunts him and forbids him to yield. It is safe to say that, without Guiborc, there will be no Battle of Aliscans; there will be no victory.

It is only after Guiborc’s death that Guillaume gives up the world for good and retire into an abbey. But his fight by no means ends here. In Le moniage Guillaume (Guillaume in the Monastery), Guillaume d’Orange gradually merges with St. Guillaume le Désert. Even within the seclusive walls, the hero continues to stand out among the impious, envious, and scheming monks, helps the ungrateful Louis the Pious whenever duty calls, suffers as a captive, and finally settles in the desert. The poem ends abruptly, with the last few lines forever lost to us, but we may rest assured that Guillaume is justly rewarded and has certainly earned his place in memory: in the Divine Comedy, Dante placed Guillaume d’Orange in the Heaven of Mars, right at Charlemagne’s side and accompanied, as in the Cycle, by his brother-in-law Rainoart:

So too for Roland for Roland and for Charlemagne
Two lights my earnest gaze pursued, as far
As fowler’s eye the new-flown hawk may scan.
William of Orange then, and Renouard.

Minjie Su is currently a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching werewolves in medieval Icelandic literature. Click here to read more articles by Minjie.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.