Charles Martel (c. 688 – 22 October 741; German: Karl Martell) was a Frankish statesman and military leader who, as Duke and Prince of the Franks and Mayor of the Palace, was de facto ruler of Francia from 718 until his death.
Charles Martel is nicknamed “the Hammer” because he defeated the Muslim invaders even though he was hopelessly outnumbered and outtrained. While the Muslims had thousands of veterans in their army, Charles only had several hundred Farmers.
Martel successfully asserted his claims to power as successor to his father as the power behind the throne in Frankish politics. Continuing and building on his father’s work, he restored centralized government in Francia and began the series of military campaigns that re-established the Franks as the undisputed masters of all Gaul. In foreign wars, Martel subjugated Bavaria, Alemannia, and Frisia, vanquished the pagan Saxons, and halted the Islamic advance into Western Europe at the Battle of Tours.
Martel is considered to be the founding figure of the European Middle Ages. Skilled as an administrator and warrior, he is often credited with a seminal role in the development of feudalism and knighthood. Martel was a great patron of Saint Boniface and made the first attempt at reconciliation between the Papacy and the Franks. The Pope wished him to become the defender of the Holy See and offered him the Roman consulship. Martel refused the offer.
The Frankish kingdoms at the time of the death of Pepin of Heristal. Aquitaine (yellow) was outside Arnulfing authority and Neustria and Burgundy (pink) were united in opposition to further Arnulfing dominance of the highest offices. Only Austrasia (green) supported an Arnulfing mayor, first Theudoald then Charles. The German duchies to the east of the Rhine were de facto outside of Frankish suzerainty at this time.
Martel was born as the illegitimate son of Pepin of Herstal and his concubine Alpaida. He had a brother named Childebrand, who later became the Frankish dux of Burgundy. The brothers, being illegitimate, were not considered to be part of their father’s paternal family, the Pippinids, who since the early seventh century had dominated the politics of Francia.
After the reign of Dagobert I (629–639) the Merovingians effectively ceded power to the Pippinids, who ruled the Frankish realm of Austrasia in all but name as Mayors of the Palace. They controlled the royal treasury, dispersed patronage, and granted land and privileges in the name of the figurehead king. Martel’s father, Pepin, was the second member of the family to rule the Franks. Pepin was able to unite all the Frankish realms by conquering Neustria and Burgundy. He was the first to call himself Duke and Prince of the Franks, a title later taken up by Charles.
Removing Muslims from Europe
In 721, the emir of Córdoba had built up a strong army from Morocco, Yemen, and Syria to conquer Aquitaine, the large duchy in the southwest of Gaul, nominally under Frankish sovereignty, but in practice almost independent in the hands of the Odo the Great, the Duke of Aquitaine, since the Merovingian kings had lost power. The invading Muslims besieged the city of Toulouse, then Aquitaine’s most important city, and Odo (also called Eudes, or Eudo) immediately left to find help.
He returned three months later just before the city was about to surrender and defeated the Muslim invaders on June 9, 721, at what is now known as the Battle of Toulouse. This critical defeat was essentially the result of a classic enveloping movement by Odo’s forces. After Odo originally fled, the Muslims became overconfident and failed to maintain strong outer defenses and continuous scouting. Thus, when Odo returned, he was able to launch a near complete surprise attack on the besieging force, scattering it at the first attack, and slaughtering units caught resting or that fled without weapons or armour. The hero of that less celebrated event had been Odo the Great, Duke of Aquitaine, who was not a patron of chroniclers.
By 730 the emir of Cordoba was Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, who had been at Toulouse. The Arab Chronicles make clear he had strongly opposed the Emir’s decision not to secure outer defenses against a relief force, which allowed Odo and his relief force to attack with impunity before the Islamic cavalry could assemble or mount. This time the Umayyad horsemen were ready for battle, and the results were horrific for the Aquitanians.
Raising an army
Historian Paul K. Davis wrote, “Having defeated Eudes, he turned to the Rhine to strengthen his northeastern borders—but in 725 was diverted south with the activity of the Muslims in Acquitane.” Martel then concentrated his attention to the Umayyads, virtually for the remainder of his life. Due to the situation in Iberia, Martel believed he needed a virtually full-time army—one he could train intensely—as a core of veteran Franks who would be augmented with the usual conscripts called up in time of war. (During the Early Middle Ages, troops were only available after the crops had been planted and before harvesting time.) To train the kind of infantry that could withstand the Muslim heavy cavalry, Charles needed them year-round, and he needed to pay them so their families could buy the food they would have otherwise grown.
To obtain money he seized church lands and property, and used the funds to pay his soldiers. The same Charles who had secured the support of the ecclesia by donating land, seized some of it back between 724 and 732. Of course, Church officials were enraged, and, for a time, it looked as though Charles might even be excommunicated for his actions. But then came a significant invasion.
The Muslims were not aware, at that time, of the true strength of the Franks, or the fact that they were building a disciplined army. The Arab Chronicles, the history of that age, show that Arab awareness of the Franks as a growing military power came only after the Battle of Tours when the Caliph expressed shock at his army’s catastrophic defeat.
Battle of Tours
It was under one of their ablest and most renowned commanders, with a veteran army, and with every apparent advantage of time, place, and circumstance, that the Arabs made their great effort at the conquest of Europe north of the Pyrenees.
Odo, hero of Toulouse, was badly defeated in the Muslim invasion of 732 at the battle prior to the Muslim sacking of Bordeaux, and again at the Battle of the River Garonne after he had gathered a second army—Christian chroniclers state, “God alone knows the number of the slain”— and the city of Bordeaux was sacked and looted. Odo fled to Charles, seeking help. Charles agreed to come to Odo’s rescue, provided Odo acknowledged Charles and his house as his overlords, which Odo did formally at once. Odo and his remaining Aquitanian nobles formed the right flank of Charles’s forces at Tours. Charles defeated the Moors commanded by Abderame; while the former and the latter squared off in battle, Odo set fire to the encampment of the latter.
After the Battle of Tours earned Charles the cognomen “Martel” meaning “the hammer” in French, by later, 9th century chronicles for the merciless way he hammered his enemies.
Many historians, including Sir Edward Creasy, believe that had he failed at Tours, Islam would probably have overrun Gaul, and perhaps the remainder of Western Europe. Gibbon made clear his belief that the Umayyad armies would have conquered from Japan to the Rhine, and even England, having the English Channel for protection, with ease, had Martel not prevailed. Creasy said “the great victory won by Charles Martel … gave a decisive check to the career of Arab conquest in Western Europe, rescued Christendom from Islam, [and] preserved the relics of ancient and the germs of modern civilization.”
Gibbon’s belief that the fate of Christianity hinged on this battle is echoed by other historians including John B. Bury, and was very popular for most of modern historiography. It fell somewhat out of style in the 20th century, when historians such as Bernard Lewis contended that Arabs had little intention of occupying northern France. More recently, however, many historians have tended once again to view the Battle of Tours as a very significant event in the history of Europe and Christianity. Equally, many, such as William E. Watson, still believe this battle was one of macrohistorical world-changing importance, if they do not go so far as Gibbon does rhetorically.
Indeed, 12 years later, when Martel had thrice rescued Gaul from Umayyad invasions, Antonio Santosuosso noted when he destroyed an Umayyad army sent to reinforce the invasion forces of the 735 campaigns, “Charles Martel again came to the rescue.”
In the modern era, Matthew Bennett and his co-authors of Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, published in 2005, argue that “few battles are remembered 1,000 years after they are fought … but the Battle of Poitiers, (Tours) is an exception … Charles Martel turned back a Muslim raid that, had it been allowed to continue, might have conquered Gaul.” Michael Grant, author of History of Rome, grants the Battle of Tours such importance that he lists it in the macrohistorical dates of the Roman era.
It is important to note however that modern Western historians, military historians, and writers, essentially fall into three camps. The first, those who believe Gibbon was right in his assessment that Martel saved Christianity and Western civilization by this battle are typified by Bennett, Paul Davis, Robert Martin, and educationalist Dexter B. Wakefield who writes in An Islamic Europe:
A Muslim France? Historically, it nearly happened. But as a result of Martel’s fierce opposition, which ended Muslim advances and set the stage for centuries of war thereafter, Islam moved no farther into Europe. European schoolchildren learn about the Battle of Tours in much the same way that American students learn about Valley Forge and Gettysburg.”
The second camp of contemporary historians believe that a failure by Martel at Tours could have been a disaster, destroying what would become Western civilization after the Renaissance. Certainly all historians agree that no power would have remained in Europe able to halt Islamic expansion had the Franks failed. William E. Watson, one of the most respected historians of this era, strongly supports Tours as a macrohistorical event, but distances himself from the rhetoric of Gibbon and Drubeck, writing, for example, of the battle’s importance in Frankish and world history in 1993:
There is clearly some justification for ranking Tours-Poitiers among the most significant events in Frankish history when one considers the result of the battle in light of the remarkable record of the successful establishment by Muslims of Islamic political and cultural dominance along the entire eastern and southern rim of the former Christian, Roman world. The rapid Muslim conquest of Palestine, Syria, Egypt and the North African coast all the way to Morocco in the seventh century resulted in the permanent imposition by force of Islamic culture onto a previously Christian and largely non-Arab base. The Visigothic kingdom fell to Muslim conquerors in a single battle at the Battle of Guadalete on the Rio Barbate in 711, and the Hispanic Christian population took seven long centuries to regain control of the Iberian Peninsula. The Reconquista, of course, was completed in 1492, only months before Columbus received official backing for his fateful voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Had Charles Martel suffered at Tours-Poitiers the fate of King Roderick at the Rio Barbate, it is doubtful that a “do-nothing” sovereign of the Merovingian realm could have later succeeded where his talented major domus had failed. Indeed, as Charles was the progenitor of the Carolingian line of Frankish rulers and grandfather of Charlemagne, one can even say with a degree of certainty that the subsequent history of the West would have proceeded along vastly different currents had ‘Abd ar-Rahman been victorious at Tours-Poitiers in 732.
The final camp of Western historians believe that the importance of the battle is dramatically overstated. This view is typified by Alessandro Barbero, who writes, “Today, historians tend to play down the significance of the battle of Poitiers, pointing out that the purpose of the Arab force defeated by Charles Martel was not to conquer the Frankish kingdom, but simply to pillage the wealthy monastery of St-Martin of Tours”. Similarly, Tomaž Mastnak writes:
Modern historians have constructed a myth presenting this victory as having saved Christian Europe from the Muslims. Edward Gibbon, for example, called Charles Martel the savior of Christendom and the battle near Poitiers an encounter that changed the history of the world… This myth has survived well into our own times… Contemporaries of the battle, however, did not overstate its significance. The continuators of Fredegar’s chronicle, who probably wrote in the mid-eighth century, pictured the battle as just one of many military encounters between Christians and Saracens—moreover, as only one in a series of wars fought by Frankish princes for booty and territory… One of Fredegar’s continuators presented the battle of Poitiers as what it really was: an episode in the struggle between Christian princes as the Carolingians strove to bring Aquitaine under their rule.
However, it is vital to note, when assessing Charles Martel’s life, that even those historians who dispute the significance of this one battle as the event that saved Christianity, do not dispute that Martel himself had a huge effect on Western European history. Modern military historian Victor Davis Hanson acknowledges the debate on this battle, citing historians both for and against its macrohistorical placement:
Recent scholars have suggested Poitiers, so poorly recorded in contemporary sources, was a mere raid and thus a construct of western myth-making or that a Muslim victory might have been preferable to continued Frankish dominance. What is clear is that Poitiers marked a general continuance of the successful defense of Europe (from the Muslims). Flush from the victory at Tours, Charles Martel went on to clear southern France from Islamic attackers for decades, unify the warring kingdoms into the foundations of the Carolingian Empire, and ensure ready and reliable troops from local estates.
In the subsequent decade, Charles led the Frankish army against the eastern duchies, Bavaria and Alemannia, and the southern duchies, Aquitaine and Provence. He dealt with the ongoing conflict with the Frisians and Saxons to his northeast with some success, but full conquest of the Saxons and their incorporation into the Frankish empire would wait for his grandson Charlemagne, primarily because Martel concentrated the bulk of his efforts against Muslim expansion.
So instead of concentrating on conquest to his east, he continued expanding Frankish authority in the west, and denying the Emirate of Córdoba a foothold in Europe beyond Al-Andalus. After his victory at Tours, Martel continued on in campaigns in 736 and 737 to drive other Muslim armies from bases in Gaul after they again attempted to expand beyond Al-Andalus.
Wars of 732–737
Between his victory of 732 and 735, Charles reorganized the kingdom of Burgundy, replacing the counts and dukes with his loyal supporters, thus strengthening his hold on power. He was forced, by the ventures of Radbod, duke of the Frisians (719–734), son of the Duke Aldegisel who had accepted the missionaries Willibrord and Boniface, to invade independence-minded Frisia again in 734. In that year, he slew the duke, who had expelled the Christian missionaries, in the battle of the Boarn and so wholly subjugated the populace (he destroyed every pagan shrine) that the people were peaceful for twenty years after.
The dynamic changed in 735 because of the death of Odo the Great, who had been forced to acknowledge, albeit reservedly, the suzerainty of Charles in 719. Though Charles wished to unite the duchy directly to himself and went there to elicit the proper homage of the Aquitainians, the nobility proclaimed Odo’s son, Hunald of Aquitaine, whose dukedom Charles recognised when the Umayyads invaded Provence the next year, and who equally was forced to acknowledge Charles as overlord as he had no hope of holding off the Muslims alone.
This naval Arab invasion was headed by Abdul Rahman’s son. It landed in Narbonne in 736 and moved at once to reinforce Arles and move inland. Charles temporarily put the conflict with Hunald on hold, and descended on the Provençal strongholds of the Umayyads. In 736, he retook Montfrin and Avignon, and Arles and Aix-en-Provence with the help of Liutprand, King of the Lombards. Nîmes, Agde, and Béziers, held by Islam since 725, fell to him and their fortresses were destroyed.
The Saracen [Muslim] Army outside Paris, 730-32, in an early nineteenth-century depiction by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.
He crushed one Umayyad army at Arles, as that force sallied out of the city, and then took the city itself by a direct and brutal frontal attack, and burned it to the ground to prevent its use again as a stronghold for Umayyad expansion. He then moved swiftly and defeated a mighty host outside of Narbonnea at the River Berre, but failed to take the city. Military historians believe he could have taken it, had he chosen to tie up all his resources to do so—but he believed his life was coming to a close, and he had much work to do to prepare for his sons to take control of the Frankish realm.
A direct frontal assault, such as took Arles, using rope ladders and rams, plus a few catapults, simply was not sufficient to take Narbonne without horrific loss of life for the Franks, troops Martel felt he could not lose. Nor could he spare years to starve the city into submission, years he needed to set up the administration of an empire his heirs would reign over. In addition, he faced strong opposition from regional lords such as the patrician Maurentius, from Marseille, who revolted against the Frankish leader. Moreover, the Aquitanian duke Hunald threatened his lines of communication with the north, so deciding him to withdraw from Septimania and destroy several strongholds (Béziers, Agde, etc.). He left Narbonne therefore, isolated and surrounded, and his son would return to conquer it for the Franks.
Notable about these campaigns was Charles’ incorporation, for the first time, of heavy cavalry with stirrups to augment his phalanx. His ability to coordinate infantry and cavalry veterans was unequaled in that era and enabled him to face superior numbers of invaders, and to decisively defeat them again and again. Some historians believe the Battle against the main Muslim force at the River Berre, near Narbonne, in particular was as important a victory for Christian Europe as Tours.
Further, unlike his father at Tours, Rahman’s son in 736–737 knew that the Franks were a real power, and that Martel personally was a force to be reckoned with. He had no intention of allowing Martel to catch him unaware and dictate the time and place of battle, as his father had. He concentrated instead on seizing a substantial portion of the coastal plains around Narbonne in 736 and heavily reinforced Arles as he advanced inland.
Abdul Rahman’s son planned from there to move from city to city, fortifying as they went, and if Martel wished to stop them from making a permanent enclave for expansion of the Caliphate, he would have to come to them, in the open, where, he, unlike his father, would dictate the place of battle. All worked as he had planned, until Martel arrived, albeit more swiftly than the Moors believed he could call up his entire army. Unfortunately for Rahman’s son, however, he had overestimated the time it would take Martel to develop heavy cavalry equal to that of the Muslims.
The Caliphate believed it would take a generation, but Martel managed it in five years. Prepared to face the Frankish phalanx, the Muslims were totally unprepared to face a mixed force of heavy cavalry and infantry in a phalanx. Thus, Charles again championed Christianity and halted Muslim expansion into Europe. These defeats, plus those at the hands of Leo III of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia, were the last great attempt at expansion by the Umayyad Caliphate before the destruction of the dynasty at the Battle of the Zab, and the rending of the Caliphate forever, especially the utter destruction of the Umayyad army at River Berre near Narbonne in 737.
In 737, at the tail end of his campaigning in Provence and Septimania, the king, Theuderic IV, died. Martel, titling himself maior domus and princeps et dux Francorum, did not appoint a new king and nobody acclaimed one. The throne lay vacant until Martel’s death. As the historian Charles Oman says (The Dark Ages, pg 297), “he cared not for name or style so long as the real power was in his hands.”
Gibbon has said Martel was “content with the titles of Mayor or Duke of the Franks, but he deserved to become the father of a line of kings,” which he did. Gibbon also says of him, “in the public danger, he was summoned by the voice of his country.”
The interregnum, the final four years of Charles’ life, was more peaceful than most of it had been and much of his time was now spent on administrative and organisational plans to create a more efficient state. Though, in 738, he compelled the Saxons of Westphalia to do him homage and pay tribute, and in 739 checked an uprising in Provence, the rebels being under the leadership of Maurontus. Charles set about integrating the outlying realms of his empire into the Frankish church.
He erected four dioceses in Bavaria (Salzburg, Regensburg, Freising, and Passau) and gave them Boniface as archbishop and metropolitan over all Germany east of the Rhine, with his seat at Mainz. Boniface had been under his protection from 723 on; indeed the saint himself explained to his old friend, Daniel of Winchester, that without it he could neither administer his church, defend his clergy, nor prevent idolatry. It was Boniface who had defended Charles most stoutly for his deeds in seizing ecclesiastical lands to pay his army in the days leading to Tours, as one doing what he must to defend Christianity.
In 739, Pope Gregory III begged Charles for his aid against Liutprand, but Charles was loath to fight his onetime ally and ignored the Papal plea. Nonetheless, the Papal applications for Frankish protection showed how far Martel had come from the days he was tottering on excommunication, and set the stage for his son and grandson to rearrange Italian political boundaries to suit the Papacy, and protect it.
Charles Martel died on October 22, 741, at Quierzy-sur-Oise in what is today the Aisne département in the Picardy region of France. He was buried at Saint Denis Basilica in Paris. His territories were divided among his adult sons a year earlier: to Carloman he gave Austrasia and Alemannia (with Bavaria as a vassal), to Pippin the Younger Neustria and Burgundy (with Aquitaine as a vassal), and to Grifo nothing, though some sources indicate he intended to give him a strip of land between Neustria and Austrasia.
Gibbon called him “the hero of the age” and declared “Christendom … delivered … by the genius and good fortune of one man, Charles Martel.”