In the early middle ages, the Mayor of the Palace of the Frankish Kingdom was the power behind the throne, King in all but name, controlling the royal treasury, dispensing patronage, and granting land and privileges in the name of a figurehead monarch. In 688, Pepin of Herstal was Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia; the Frankish domain occupying what is now northern France, Belgium and parts of Germany.
Pepin kept a mistress, a noblewoman named Alpaida, with whom he had two sons, Childebrand and Charles. The former went on to become Duke of Burgundy, best remembered for expelling the Saracens from France. The latter went on become the founding father of the European Middle Ages.
Pepin’s only legitimate male heir predeceased his father in 714, and touched off a succession crisis when he his 8-year-old grandson Theudoald, his True Successor. The child’s grandmother, Pepin’s wife Plectrude, threw Charles in prison to nullify any threat, but he escaped and rose to power in the Civil War which followed.
Charles proved himself a brilliant Military tactician when he crushed a far superior army at the Battle of Ambleve. He returned victorious in 718, and then did something unusual for the time. He showed kindness to the woman responsible for his incarceration, and the boy for whom she had acted.
Charles consolidated his power in a series of wars between 718 and 732, subjugating Bavarians Allemanii, and pagan Saxons, and combining the formerly separate Kingdoms of Nuestria in the northwest of modern day France with that of Austrasia in the east.
At this time a storm was building to the west, in the form of the Muslim Emirate of Cordoba. The Umayyad Caliphate gained control of most of Hispania (Spain) beginning in 711, before invading eastward into Gaul. Umayyad forces suffered a setback in 721, when forces under Odo the Great, Duke of Acquitaine, broke the siege of Toulouse.
The Emir responded with a strong force out of Yemen, Syria and Morocco and, in 732, invaded again. This time, Odo was destroyed in a crushing defeat at the Battle of the River Garonne. So great was the slaughter of Christians that the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 said “God alone knows the number of the slain”.
Odo fled to Charles asking for help. The table was set for one of the most decisive battles in world history.
The Umayyad Caliphate had recently defeated the two most powerful military forces of its time. The Sassanid empire in modern day Iran had been destroyed altogether, as had the greater part of the Byzantine Empire, including Armenia, North Africa and Syria.
Other than the Frankish Kingdom, no force existed, sufficient to stop the advance of the Caliphate. Historians believe that, if not for the Battle of Tours, the Islamic Conquest would have overrun Gaul and the rest of Western Europe, resulting in a single Caliphate stretching from the Sea of Japan to the English Channel.
Estimates vary regarding the size of the two armies. The forces of Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi are estimated to have had 80,000 horse and foot soldiers on the day of battle. There were about 30,000 infantry on the Frankish side, and no cavalry.
Each of Charles’ tough, battle hardened soldiers wore up to 75lbs of armor. They’d been with him for years, and every one of them believed in his leadership. Outnumbered two to one, Charles had one decisive advantage. He was able to choose the ground on which to give battle.
The Frankish army took to high ground between the villages of Tours and Poitiers, and drew itself into a great, bristling square formation to withstand the shock of the cavalry charge. For seven days, the two armies faced one another with little but skirmishes between them. Finally, the Emir could wait no longer. It was late in the year and his men were not equipped for a northern European winter. On the seventh day, estimated to be the 10th of October in the year 732, al Ghafiqi ordered his cavalry to charge.
History offers few instances when a medieval army was able to withstand the charge of cavalry, but Charles had anticipated this moment. He had trained his men for years, and they were prepared. The Mozarabic Chronicle reports:
“[I]n the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”
Charles de Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732 depicts Charles Martel (mounted) facing Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours.
A few Umayyad troops succeeded in breaking into the square and went directly for Charles, but his liege men surrounded him and would not be broken. The battle was still in flux when rumors went through the Muslim army that Charles’ men had broken into the Umayyad base camp. Afraid of having the loot they had plundered at Bordeaux taken from them, many broke off the battle to return to camp. Abdul Rahman tried to stop the retreat, when he was surrounded and killed.
Wary of a “feigned flight” attack, the Franks did not pursue, and resumed their phalanx. There they stood until the next day, until it was discovered that the Islamic host had fled in the night.
Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel. “The Hammer“.
New Umayyad assaults would threaten northern Europe in 736 and 739, until internal conflicts divided the Caliphate against itself. Forces of the Ottoman Empire conquered the last vestige of the eastern Roman empire in 1453. Ottomans attempted the conquest of Europe near a place called Lepanto in 1571 and twice more in 1529 and 1683, only to be stopped at the gates of Vienna. The threat was far from over in 732, but Christian Europe in the west would never again be so grievously challenged.