People of N Spain and SW France. There are about 2.75 million Basques in the three Basque provs. and Navarre, Spain; over 250,000 in Labourd, Soule, and Lower Navarre, France; and communities of various sizes in Central and South America and other parts of the world. Many preserve their ancient language, which is unrelated to any other tongue. They have guarded their ancient customs and traditions, although they have played a prominent role in the history of Spain and France.
The origin of the Basques, almost certainly the oldest surviving ethnic group in Europe, has not yet been determined, but they antedate the ancient Iberian tribes of Spain, with which they have been erroneously identified. Genetically and culturally, the Basque population has been relatively isolated and distinct, perhaps since Paleolithic times. Primarily free peasants, shepherds, fishermen, navigators, miners, and metalworkers, the Basques have also produced such figures as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, and Francisco de Vitoria.
Before Roman times, the Basque tribes, little organized politically, extended farther to the north and south than at present. But the core of the Basque country resisted Romanization and was only nominally subject to Roman rule. Christianity was slow in penetrating (3d5th cent.). Once converted, the Basques remained fervent Roman Catholics, but they have retained a certain tradition of independence from the hierarchies of Spain and France.
The Basques withstood domination by the Visigoths and Franks. Late in the 6th cent. they took advantage of the anarchy prevailing in the Frankish kingdom and expanded northward, occupying present-day Gascony (Lat. Vasconia), to which they gave their name. The duchy of Vasconia, formed in 601 and chronically at war with the Franks, Visigoths, and Moors, was closely associated with, and at times dominated by, Aquitaine. In 778 the Basques, who had just been reduced to nominal vassalage by Charlemagne, destroyed the Frankish rear guard at Roncesvalles, but they subsequently recognized Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine, as their suzerain.
The duchy of Gascony continued, but the Basques early in the 9th cent. concentrated in their present habitat and in 824 founded, at Pamplona, the kingdom of Navarre, which under Sancho III (10001035) united almost all the Basques. Although Castile acquired Guipúzcoa (1200), Álava (1332), and Vizcaya (1370), the Castilian kings recognized the wide democratic rights enjoyed by the Basques. Guernica was the traditional location of Basque assemblies.
With the conquest (1512) of Navarre by Ferdinand the Catholic, the Basques lost their last independent stronghold. After the 16th cent., Basque prosperity declined and emigration became common, especially in the 19th cent. Basque privileges remained in force under the Spanish monarchy, but in 1873 they were abolished because of the Basques' pro-Carlist stand in the Carlist Wars. To regain autonomy, the Basques supported nearly every political movement directed against the central authority.
In the civil war of 193639, the Basque Provinces, not including Navarre, defended the republican government, under which they had autonomous status. The Basques of Navarre supported the Franco forces. The Franco government, once in power, for the most part discouraged Basque political and cultural autonomy, although Basque nationalism has retained its appeal to the Basques. The trial of Basque nationalists in 1970 caused serious political conflicts in Spain, and the years following have been increasingly marked by unrest and violence by and against the Basque separatist organization.