Charles Martel: Biography & Battle of Tours

Instructor: James Moeller
Charles Martel was a Frankish Ruler of the Carolingian line from 718 until his death in 741. His famous grandson, Charlemagne, would unite Central Europe under one rule. Charles Martel was famous for the Battle of Tours, in October of 732, where he defeated the Islamic Umayyad Empire and saved Europe from Islamic domination.

Who Was Charles Martel?

In the 8th century, Europe stood on the brink of a cataclysm. The Umayyad Islamic Empire (661-750CE) had conquered Spain and now set their eyes across the Pyrenees Mountains towards France. If they could succeed in subduing the Franks (modern day France), a major European power, then the rest of Europe would fall under Islamic domination. The man destined to halt that Islamic invasion was a Frankish Ruler and his army, Charles Martel.

Charles Martel as Mayor of Austrasia

Early Life

Charles Martel (The Hammer) was born in 688 to Pepin II of Herstal, Mayor of Austrasia. Austrasia was the eastern Frankish kingdom. The term Mayor differs from the modern usage of the word. Here it meant the mayor or leader of the palace, eventually evolving into the role of king. At the time of Charles' birth the Merovingian line of kings was failing. The Mayor overshadowed the king, reducing the actual king (in this case, Dagobert III) to little more than a figurehead. Pepin II had absolute power to include control of the treasury and the dispensation of offices. Historically, Charles was considered illegitimate as his mother was a noblewoman by the name of Alpaida.

Rule as Mayor of Austrasia

When Pepin II died in December of 714, a power struggle ensued. Pepin's legitimate wife, Plectrude, had urged her husband to name Theudoald, his grandson, heir. The nobles of Austrasia generally accepted the eight-year-old child as their ruler (with Plectrude essentially being the regent), but the nearby Frankish Kingdom of Neustria refused Theudoald's ascension and instead proclaimed Ragenfrid as the Mayor of Austrasia in 715. A Frankish Civil War ensued that lasted from 715 to 718. Prior to the war, Plectrude had Charles imprisoned in Cologne to prevent him from taking advantage of the unrest caused by the war. Charles Martel escaped from his imprisonment, garnered the support of the Austrasian nobles, and had himself proclaimed Mayor of Austrasia.

Battles and the Consolidation of Power

After being proclaimed Mayor, Charles had little time to gather men or any kind of a substantial army. The result was The Battle of Cologne, in which an army of Neustrians, or western Franks, with their Frisian, or Germanic allies, soundly defeated Charles in 1716. This was the only defeat he ever suffered on any battlefield. Afterwards, he retreated to a mountain stronghold in the Eifel Mountains where he assembled and trained an army sizable enough to confront the Neustrians.

In a bold move, Charles caught up with the retreating Neustrian Army near Malmedy at the Battle of Ableve and completely routed them. This battle would prove Martel innovative on the battlefield, something that would mark him in future conflicts. For example, he had a knack for showing up where you least expected him to, attacking at times of the day when men were resting, and sometimes even feigning a retreat in order to draw the enemy into a trap. Eventually, he would conquer other Frankish kingdoms and unify the Franks under one rule.

The Battle of Tours, 732

Map of the Umayyad Empire

The Moors had conquered Spain since 711 and frequently made raids into southern France. However, by the fall of 732, the Islamic governor of Cordoba, Abd Ar Rahman invaded Bordeaux where he thoroughly defeated Odo, Duke of Aquitaine. It was at this time that Odo (who ironically had earlier allied himself with the Neustrians against Charles) appealed to Charles Martel to come to his aid. Although sources are somewhat sketchy, most likely Duke Odo warned Charles that if he failed to come to his aid, all of France would fall to the Moors. This set the stage for what would become the famed Battle of Tours, or the Battle of Poitier. Historians cannot pinpoint the exact location of the battle which was at a midpoint between Tours and Poitier.

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