How Charles Martel Stopped the Islamization of Europe

Source: Military History



After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe fragmented into many small kingdoms and tribal groupings. This era has been called the “Dark Ages,” but in fact, culture and civilisation flourished in most areas. Despite the prosperity, it was a turbulent time in which many successors to Roman power fought one another and battled barbarians along their frontiers. By 700 AD, several large kingdoms had arisen. Spain was more or less dominated by the Visigoths, who had migrated there from the east. The Duchy of Aquitaine ruled south-western France. But, by far, the largest of the western European states was the Kingdom of the Franks, which stretched from the English Channel and North Sea coasts to the Mediterranean and from a narrow holding on the Atlantic coast of Aquitaine to Bavaria and Saxony.

The Frankish Kingdom was a Christian state, like most of Europe, and could field a powerful army based around a core of elite armoured infantry and bound to their leader by oaths and family bonds. The remainder of the force was made up of lighter-armed foot soldiers; armoured cavalry were not yet the dominant force in European warfare, though their day was coming soon.

The Franks were powerful and warlike. No less material, but far less potent, was the Visigothic kingdom of Iberia, which by 700 AD was in dire straits. With famine in some areas and the nobility fighting among themselves, central authority had broken down and rivals of the king. Roderick decided that the time was ripe for a takeover. Roderick’s rivals turned for aid to what was probably the greatest power of the era, the Umayyad (or Omayyad) Caliphate, the vast Muslim Empire that stretched all along the north coast of Africa through Egypt, Arabia, and on to Mesopotamia. In 711 AD, assistance was granted by Tariq ibd Ziyad, governor of Tangiers, in the form of 10,000 troops. With their Visigothic allies, this force landed at Gibraltar and so began the Muslim conquest of Iberia. Defeating Roderick in battle, the Muslim forces rapidly conquered much of the country. Whether or not they had initially intended to help Roderick’s opponents, they now set about making themselves masters of Iberia.

Expeditions Into Europe

After the initial invasion, Tariq ibd Ziyad was superseded in command by his superior, a member of the Umayyad dynasty named Musa ibn Unsay. Ever larger forces entered Iberia and turned it into a province of the Caliphate. Some areas were overrun but retained a degree of autonomy, retraining their religious freedom, such as the principality of Murcia, while other regions, notably Asturias, held out as best they could or revolted against Umayyad rule.

Some of those holding out were in the Pyrenees between what is now France and Spain. Expeditions were sent against them, and ultimately, through the mountains against the kingdoms there, which were thought to be supporting the rebels. As the Muslims crossed the mountains and began making forays into Europe, alarm grew. By 720 AD, Moorish forces had a toe-hold in southern France and were expanding their control. They launched raids as far as the Rhone valley.

A series of internal problems and revolts slowed Muslim expansion into Europe for several years, but, in 730 AD, the then leader Abd-ar-Rahman launched an expedition into Aquitaine to remove the threat to his northern border. Defeating the Aquitainians at Bordeaux, Rahman’s army rampaged through the Duchy of Aquitaine, breaking its power and reducing its strongholds.

The neighbouring Frankish kingdom had several princes with various titles, but the greatest of them, ruler of the Franks in all but name, was Charles. It was in the coming campaign that the Frankish prince earned his title Martel, which means ‘The Hammer.’ Born in what is now Belgium, Charles Martel had previously been imprisoned to prevent succession complications. This was not entirely successful. He escaped and during the ensuing civil war he learned the value of what today would be called logistics. After a shaky start he emerged as a wily and surprisingly modern commander. Coming to the field with forces capable of winning the battle was part of his pattern of strategy. He also learned the value of striking unexpectedly and of defying convention when it was advantageous to do so. The great Chinese military thinker Sun Tzu, of whom Charles of course had never heard, would recognise many of his tactics. His military brilliance allowed Charles Martel to create a unified kingdom under his rule, though he did not take the title of king. By 732 AD, Charles was an enormously powerful figure in Europe. He was also popular with the Church as a champion of Christianity.

Who better then to lead the Christian Franks in repelling the invaders and their foreign religion? In fact Charles had been preparing to do just that for some years. Although he did engage in various campaigns between 720 AD and 732 AD, he was well aware of the threat from the southeast and had begun to create an army to defeat it. This is typical of the man; he did not rush in to fight his foes, but, instead, worked out how they could be beaten before offering battle. The core of Charles’ strategy against the invaders was the creation of a force of elite heavy infantry who were professionals capable of training all year round. This was not the practice of the time. Other than small bodyguards, fighting men were normally raised for a campaign, then went home to their farms afterwards.

Charles equipped his professionals lavishly and protected them with good armour. He trained them well and allowed them to gain experience in combat, increasing their confidence and steadiness. He did have some mounted troops, but cavalry was not much in use in Europe at that time and they lacked stirrups. These mounted soldiers, who were not true cavalry and could not stand against the excellent horsemen of the Moorish Caliphate, were used as a mobile reserve or simply dismounted to fight.

The Campaign Open

The Moorish forces were overconfident. They had easily beaten everything that Europe could put in their path and did not rate the ‘barbarians’ as fighters or as an army. Although a previous expedition had been defeated before the walls of Toulouse, the Muslims did not believe that Europe could offer any significant opposition.

The victor of Toulouse, Duke Odo of Aquitaine met the Moors at the River Garonne and attempted to turn back the invasion. This time, however, there was to be no European victory. Large numbers of Berber (North African) and Arab cavalry crushed into Odo’s army, which was scattered and ridden down. Suffering massive casualties, Odo’s force ceased to be a factor in the campaign and the Muslims pushed on.

However, victories like Garonne contributed to the general overconfidence of the Moorish host. Scouting was neglected and victory became an expectation rather than something won by hard endeavour. This allowed Charles to choose the battleground and achieve a measure of surprise over his opponents, who were unaware of the size of quality of his force. Charles marched his force to intercept the Muslims, who he knew were on their way to attack Tours. He did not use the Roman roads, even though these offered the easiest going, as he expected these to be watched, but placed his force in the path of the opposing army. The exact location is unclear but lay somewhere between Poitiers and Tours; occasionally, historians refer to this battle as the Battle of Poitiers.

The advancing Muslims stumbled upon Charles’ force in its blocking position and were both surprised and nonplussed. Their scouts had brought no word of this force and it had simply appeared in their path. The Moorish leader, Emir Abd-ar-Rahman, hesitated to attack and sought to discover as much as possible as he could about these latest adversaries. The pause, which lasted six days, allowed Rahman to observe the enemy and to pull in his patrols and detached forces, but it also acted in the Franks’ favour. The enemy were operating far from home in a colder climate than they were used to, whilst the Franks were on home ground. It was obvious that Rahman was going to have to attack and the Franks were ready for him. They occupied a good defensive position and could remain there indefinitely. Sooner or later, Rahman would have to attack or else turn around and go home.

The Moors Charge

Rahman had under his command between 40,000 and 60,000 cavalry who had carried before their charge every opponent they had met. Many of their defeated foes had been Frankish infantry like those arrayed before them. Any misgivings Rahman might have felt about charging uphill against a solid defensive formation were outweighed by his confidence in his cavalry. Or, perhaps, he simply felt that having come this far he could not simply retire. Subsequent events showed the value of discipline and confidence in battle. Conventional wisdom of the time said that infantry could not defeat cavalry, but Charles’ troops did just that.

The Franks were drawn up in a large defensive square formation with reserve units inside. The capabilities of the infantry square were well proven at Tours.

The Moorish cavalry made several charges at Charles’ square. Despite being tired by their heavy armour and the slope they attacked up, and despite their formations being disrupted by the uneven ground and the trees that dotted it, they crashed home again and again.

Crisis Point

Several times, groups of Moorish horsemen fought their way into the square. If they could establish themselves there, then it would be all over. Attacking from within and without the square would mean that it would lose its cohesion and its scattered members would be ridden down. Reserve forces within the square fell on them, the infantry rushed confidently up to attack the armoured cavalry (something that rarely happened and even less often succeeded). However, fortune seemed to be smiling on the Franks as they successfully drove the Moors out of the square, killing them in droves as they did.

Matters were in some doubt for a time as the square was heavily beset from all sides, but then, the pressure began to ease. Moorish warriors began falling back to their camp, leaving the square battered, but intact.

Rahman Killed

Some of Martel’s scouts had managed to get into the Moorish camp during the battle, taking advantage of poor scouting and over confidence on the part of the enemy. There, they freed prisoners and generally caused mayhem. This confusion in their rear, coupled with the worry that their hard won plunder might be stolen back by the Franks, drew many of Rahman’s troops back to the camp and severely disrupted the attack on the Frank’s square. Rahman tried to stop the rearward movement but in so doing exposed himself with an inadequate bodyguard. He was killed by Frankish soldiers. The Moors were dismayed and retired in some disorder. The Franks tidied up their formation and remained in their defensive positions.

There was no clear successor to Rahman, and the Moorish force fell into disarray. The force began to retire in the direction of Iberia, though this was not immediately apparent to the Franks who suspected a feigned retreat to draw them off the hill they occupied. The Moors retained the means to defeat the Franks. They were still very powerful. However, their will had been broken and the various sub-commanders, still unable to agree who should take over, decided to continue their journey home. They had gained a considerable amount of plunder and still had much of it. Little would be gained by a renewal of hostilities, or so they reasoned.


The “Battle of Tours” has at times been lauded as the only reason Europe is not a Muslim state and a part of the Arab Empire. While this is an exaggeration, it is fair to say that Charles deserved the nickname “The Hammer” (or Martel), which was conferred on him for handing the Muslim expansion such a dramatic defeat.

Tours represented something of a high water mark in the Muslim invasion of Europe. Expeditions over the Pyrenees would continue and Charles Martel would oppose them for the rest of his life. He would, in time, create the great Carolingian dynasty that produced Charlemagne, who is considered to be the father of European chivalry.

The Muslim occupation of Iberia continued for many centuries as advantage ebbed and flowed between Muslim and Christian forces in Southwestern Europe. Charles Martel’s victory did not end the Moorish invasion nor make invasion into further territory impossible. It was, however, the point where the easy Muslim victories ended and the long struggle began.

By: James Kenny, 11 October 2016, Owlcation,


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