Charles Martel was a ruler of the Carolingian Frankish Empire in the early 8th century AD. The empire encompassed the territories of much of modern day France, western Germany, Switzerland, as well as Belgium and the Netherlands, and was the dominant Christian power in Western Europe at the time. Having won a civil war between two competing kingdoms in 724, Charles had secured his position as head ruler of the entire Carolingian Empire, but had not yet been granted the title of King.
Although he was constantly repelling Saxon and Bavarian armies, as well as other threats, the empire was for the most part secure. Charles supported St. Boniface and other missionaries in their efforts to convert all remaining German tribes to Christianity as a way of uniting his region. The European continent was slowly becoming more prosperous and stable. But a new threat had begun working its way towards the heart of Western Civilization 100 years prior to Charles’ rule.
In the Middle East, the religion of Islam was formed in 622 AD. The region was quickly united under the new religion and then began to conquer more distant lands. By 711 Islamic armies had crossed the Gibraltar Straight and entered into Europe by way of present day Spain. It was from here that they began to set up new kingdoms and seek to conquer other parts of Europe, primarily for plunder of any type of treasure they could find.
The indigenous peoples of Europe referred to the Islamic invaders as the Saracens. From Spain the door stood wide open for the Saracens to enter into France, the conquest of which would have likely been followed by all the rest of Europe, and might have resulted in the banishment of Christianity from the Earth. At this time Christianity was not universally known or practiced, even by those nations which we today regard as the foremost in civilization. Great parts of Britain, Germany, Denmark, and Russia were still pagan and barbarous.
In 712 the Saracens entered into France and began pillaging the region for treasure. In 725 Anbessa, the Saracen governor of Spain, personally leads an army across the Pyrenees Mountains into France and takes the strongly fortified town of Carcassone. During the battle he receives a fatal wound, and the Saracen army retires into the nearby town of Narbonne before retreating back to the safety of Spain.
In 732 the Saracens invade France again under the command of Emir Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi Abd al Rahman. They reach Bordeaux and begin to lay siege to the town when they get word of rich treasures in the Basilica of St. Martin in the city of Tours. They set off towards this area with the intent to plunder it for all it's worth.
Up to this point, the Carolingian Empire, ruled by King Charles, had no need to oppose the Saracens since they had not invaded any of his territories. The area of the Saracens plunder had been Aquitaine, an independent kingdom in southwestern France ruled by King Eude. Having learned of the damage being done to his neighboring kingdom, Charles becomes convinced of the danger presented to his territories. If Aquitaine were to be defeated, his kingdom would surely be next. Charles begins to march an army towards the Saracen invaders to confront them on his own terms.
While Abd al Rahman is advancing towards Tours, he receives intelligence regarding the advance of Charles and his army. He decides to fall back on Poitiers in order to occupy a more advantageous field of battle. Charles, leading an army of such size rarely seen in Europe, crosses the Loire River and joins the remains of the army of Aquitaine.
They come in sight of the Arabs on October 10th, 732. The enemy spots Charles and his army and at first hesitates. The two armies remain camped, staring each other down, for seven days. Abd al Rahman at last gives the signal to attack. The Saracens rush the Franks with all their might but the Frankish front line holds. The battle rages on until late in the day, when a terrible clamor is heard from behind the Saracen army. It is King Eude, attacking the Saracen camp, stealing all of their ill-gotten plunder. The Saracen army frantically rushes back to protect their possessions.
In this moment of confusion the Franks advance. Abd al Rahman is killed in the chaos. The Saracens regain control of their camp. By this time the sun is beginning to set, and Charles decides to wait until the next day to resume combat, not wanting to risk losing any more troops at night.
The next morning the Franks awake early and assemble their army, expecting to rejoin battle with their enemy. They wait, but no enemy appears. They cautiously approach the Saracen camp and find it completely empty. The Saracens had taken advantage of the night and begun their retreat back towards Spain, leaving most of their plunder behind. As the battlefield was surveyed that day, it was realized that a vast number of Saracen men had been slain. The Franks counted their losses and found that only 1500 of their men had been killed.
Charles is finally proclaimed King of the Carolingian Empire, and for his enormous victory he receives the surname of Martel, "The Hammer". He would later become the grandfather of Charlemagne. The Carolingian Empire becomes the Holy Roman Empire, with Charlemagne proclaimed Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800 AD. This empire survives for over 1000 years until it is formally dissolved in 1806.
The battle of Tours marks a major turning point in the history of Western Civilization. One where the spread of Islam into Europe was reversed, and Christianity begins to give the people of Europe something more in common with each other. By the year 1000 AD, the continent would be doing fairly well. It would be generally free from foreign attack and steadily creating a more prosperous future.
Originally published August 7, 2015
Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch