Saturday, June 03, 2006

A defender of the faith

Two important conclusions should be drawn from the life and work of Karl Martell. First, since Islam invaded Europe and repeatedly advanced in an effort to conquer it for Allah it is obvious that Islam has never been a "religion of peace." Second, sometimes it is necessary to take up arms in defense of self and others. On Charles Martel (links in the original): 730, his own realm secure, Charles began to prepare exclusively for the coming storm from the west. 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 since the Merovingian kings had lost power. The invading Muslims besieged the city of Toulouse, then Aquitaine's most important city, and Odo 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. The defeat was essentially the result of a classic enveloping movement on Odo's part. After Odo originally fled, the Muslims became overconfident and, instead of maintaining strong outer defenses around their siege camp and continuing scouting, did neither. 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 which were resting, or who fled without weapons or armour.

Charles had watched the Iberian situation since Toulouse, convinced the Muslims would return, and while he was securing his own realms, he was also preparing for war against the Umayyads. It is vital to note that Charles had used an extremely — for the time — controversial method of maintaining a standing army, one he could train as a core of veterans to add to the usual conscripts the Franks 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. Charles believed he needed a standing army, one he could train, to counter the Muslim heavy cavalry, of which, at the time, he had none. To train the kind of infantry which could withstand 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 this 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. The Church was enraged, and, for a time, it looked as though Charles might even be excommunicated for his actions. But then came a significant invasion. . .

Eve of Tours

It has been noted that Charles Martel could have pursued the wars against the Saxons—but he was determined to prepare for what he thought was a greater danger. Instead of concentrating on conquest to his east, he prepared for the storm gathering in the west. Well aware of the danger posed by the Muslims after the Battle of Toulouse, in 721, it has been explained that he used the intervening years to consolidate his power, and gather and train a veteran army that would stand ready to defend Christianity itself (at Tours).

It is also vital to note that the Muslims were not aware, at that time, of the true strength of the Franks, or the fact that they were building a real army, not the typical barbarian hordes which had infested Europe after Rome's fall. They considered the Germanic tribes, of which the Franks were part, simply barbarians and were not particularly concerned about them. (the Arab Chronicles, the history of that age, show that awareness of the Franks as a growing military power only came after the Battle of Tours when the Caliph expressed shock at his army's disastrous defeat) Further, the Muslims had not bothered with the normal scouting of potential foes, for if they had, they surely would have noted Charles Martel as a force to be reckoned with in his own account. Martel's thorough domination of Europe from 717 on, and his sound defeat of all powers who contested his dominion should have alerted the Moors that not only was a real power rising in the ashes of the Western Roman Empire but a truly gifted general was leading it. Thus, when they launched their great invasion of 732, they were not prepared to confront Martel and his Frankish army.

This, in retrospect, was a disastrous mistake. Emir Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi was a good general and should have done two things he failed to do: he assumed that the Franks would not come to the aid of their Aquitanian cousins, and thus failed to assess their strength in advance of invasion; he also failed to scout the movements of the Frankish army, and Charles Martel. Having done either, he would have curtailed his lighthorse ravaging throughout lower Gaul, and marched at once with his full power against the Franks. This strategy would have nullified every advantage Charles had at Tours: the invaders would have not been burdened with booty that played such a huge role in the battle. They would have not lost warrior one in the battles they fought prior to Tours. (Though they lost relatively few men subduing Acquitane, they did suffer some casualties - losses that may have been pivotal at Tours). Finally, they would have bypassed weaker oppononts such as Odo, whom they could have picked off at will later, while moving at once to force battle with the real power in Europe, and at least partially picked the battlefield. While some military historians point out leaving enemies in your rear is not generally wise, the Mongols proved indirect attack and bypassing weaker foes to eliminate the strongest first is a devastatingly effective mode of invasion. In this case, those enemies were virtually no danger, given the ease with which the Muslims destroyed them. The real danger was Charles, and the failure to scout Europe adequately was disasterous. Had Emir Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi realized how thoroughly Martel had dominated Europe for 15 years, and how gifted a commander he was, he would not have allowed Charles Martel to pick the time and place the two powers would collide, which historians agree was pivotal to his victory.

Battle of Tours

Leadup and importance

The Cordoban emirate had previously invaded Gaul and had been stopped in its northward sweep at the Battle of Toulouse, in 721. The hero of that less celebrated event had been Odo the Great, Duke of Aquitane, who was not the progenitor of a race of kings and patron of chroniclers. It has previously been explained how Odo defeated the invading Muslims, but when they returned, things were far different. In the interim, the arrival of a new emir of Cordoba, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, who brought with him a huge force of Arabs and Berber horsemen, triggered a far greater invasion. Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi had been at Toulouse, and the Arab Chronicles make clear he had strongly opposed the decisions of the then Emir to not secure outer defenses against a relief force, which allowed Odo and his infantry to attack with impunity before the Islamic cavalry could even assemble or mount. Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi had no intention of permitting such a disaster again. This time the Muslim horsemen were ready for battle, and the results were horrific for the Aquintanians. Odo, hero of Toulouse, was badly defeated in the Muslim invasion of 732 at the Battle of the River Garonne—where the western 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. Thus, Odo faded into history, and Charles marched into it.

The Battle of Tours earned Charles the cognomen "Martel", for the merciless way he hammered his enemies. Many historians, including the great military historian Sir Edward Creasy, believe that had he failed at Tours, Islam would probably have overrun Gaul, and perhaps the remainder of western Christian Europe. No power existed, had Martel fallen at Tours, to stop the Muslims from conquering and occupying Italy, and Rome, in addition to all of Western Europe. Certainly, Gibbon made clear he believed the Muslims would have conquered from Rome to the Rhine, and even England, with ease, had Martel not prevailed. Other reputable historians that echo Creasy's belief that this battle was central to the halt of Islamic expansion into Europe include William Watson, and Gibbon believed the fate of Christianity hinged on this battle. This opinion was very popular for most of modern historiography, but it fell somewhat out of style in the twentieth century. Some historians, such as Bernard Lewis, claimed that Arabs had little intention of occupying northern France. This opinion has once more fallen out of style, and the Battle of Tours is usually considered by historians today as a very significant event in the history of Europe and Christianity.

In the modern era, John Julius Norwich, the most widely-read authority on the Byzantine Empire, says the Franks halting Muslim Expansion at Tours literally preserved Christianity as we know it. While some modern assessments of the battle's impact have backed away from the extreme of Gibbon's position, Gibbon's conjecture is supported by other historians such as Edward Shepard Creasy and William E. Watson. Most modern historians such as Norwich and Antonio Santosuosso generally support the concept of Tours as a macrohistorical event favoring western civilization and Christianity. Military writers such as Robert W. Martin, "The Battle of Tours is still felt today," also argue that Tours was such a turning point in favor of western civilization and Christianity that its after-effect remains to this day.


The Battle of Tours probably took place somewhere between Tours and Poitiers (hence its other name: Battle of Poitiers). The Frankish army, under Charles Martel, consisted mostly of veteran infantry, somewhere between 15,000 and 75,000 men. Responding to the Muslim invasion, the Franks had avoided the old Roman roads, hoping to take the invaders by surprise. Martel believed it was absolutely essential that he not only take the Muslims by surprise, but that he be allowed to select the ground on which the battle would be fought, ideally a high, wooded plain where the Islamic horsemen, already tired from carrying armour, would be further exhausted charging uphill. Further, the woods would aid the Franks in their defensive square by partially impeding the ability of the Muslim horsemen to make a clear charge.

From the Muslim accounts of the battle, they were indeed taken by surprise to find a large force opposing their expected sack of Tours, and they waited for six days, scouting the enemy, and summoning all their raiding parties so their full strength was present for the battle. Emir Abdul Rahman was a good general, and did not like the unknown at all, and he did not like charging uphill against an unknown number of foes who seemed well-disciplined and well-disposed for battle. But the weather was also a factor. The Germanic Franks, in their wolf and bear pelts, were more used to the cold, better dressed for it, and despite not having tents, which the Muslims did, were prepared to wait as long as needed, the fall only growing colder.

On the seventh day, the Muslim army, consisting of between 60,000 and 400,000 horsemen and led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, attacked. During the battle, the Franks defeated the Islamic army and the emir was killed. While Western accounts are sketchy, Arab accounts are fairly detailed in describing how the Franks formed a large square and fought a brilliant defensive battle. Rahman had doubts before the battle that his men were ready for such a struggle, and should have had them abandon the loot which hindered them, but instead decided to trust his horsemen, who had never failed him. Indeed, it was thought impossible for infantry of that age to withstand armoured cavalry.

Martel managed to inspire his men to stand firm against a force which must have seemed invincible to them, huge mailed horsemen, who, in addition, probably vastly outnumbered the Franks. In one of the rare instances where medieval infantry stood up against cavalry charges, the disciplined Frankish soldiers withstood the assaults, though according to Arab sources, the Arab cavalry several times broke into the interior of the Frankish square. But despite this, Franks did not break, and it is probably best expressed by a translation of an Arab account of the battle from the Medieval Source Book: "And in 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." Both accounts agree that the Muslims had broken into the square, were trying to kill Martel, whose liege men had surrounded him and would not be broken, and the battle was still in grave doubt, when a trick Charles had planned before the battle bore fruit beyond his wildest dreams. Both Western and Muslim accounts of the battle agree that sometime during the height of the fighting, scouts sent by Martel to the Muslim camp began freeing prisoners, and fearing loss of their plunder, a large portion of the Muslim army abandoned the battle, and returned to camp to protect their spoils. In attempting to stop what appeared to be a retreat, Abdul Rahman was surrounded and killed by the Franks, and what started as a ruse ended up a real retreat, as the Muslim army fled the field that day.

Both histories agree that while attempting to stop the retreat, Abd er Rahman became surrounded, which led to his death, and the Muslims then withdrew altogether to their camp. The Franks resumed their planlax, and rested in place through the night, believing the battle would resume at dawn of the following morning.

The next day, when the Muslims did not renew the battle, the Franks feared an ambush. Charles at first believed the Muslims were attempting to lure him down the hill and into the open - the one tactic he knew he had to avoid at all costs. Only after extensive reconnaissance by Frankish soldiers of the Muslim camp - which by both accounts had been hastily abandoned, even the tents remaining, as the Muslim forces headed back to Iberia with what spoils remained that they could carry -- was it discovered that the Muslims had retreated during the night. Later, the Arab Chronicles would reveal that the varying generals from the different parts of the Caliphate, Berbers, Arabs, Persians and far more, could not agree on a leader to take Abd er Rahman 's place as Emir, or even a single battlefield commander. Only the Emir, Abd er Rahman, had a Fatwa from the Caliph, and thus absolute authority over the faithful under arms. With his death, and the varied nationalities and ethnicities present in an army drawn from all over the Caliphate, politics, racial and ethnic bias, and personalities reared their head, and the surviving generals, bickering among themselves, were unable to agree on a commander to lead them the following day. It was that inability to select anyone to lead, which led to the wholesale withdrawal of an army that probably still could have defeated the Franks. Martel's ability to have Abd er Rahman killed when he could, using a clever ruse he had carefully planned to cause confusion, at the battle's apex, combined with years of rigorously training his men to do what was thought impossible: Martel's Franks, virtually all infantry without armour, managed to withstand both mailed heavy cavalry with 20 foot lances, and bow-wielding light cavalry, without the aid of bows or firearms. [2] This was a feat of war almost unheard of in medieval history, a feat which even the heavily armored Roman legions proved themselves incapable of against the Parthians, [3]and left Martel a unique place in history as the savior of Europe [4] and a brilliant general in an age not known for its generalship.

After Tours

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 Emirite of Córdoba a foothold in Europe. 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 get a foothold in Europe beyond al-Andalus.

Wars from 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 battle 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, Hunold, whose dukeship Charles recognised when the Arabs 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 Hunold on hold, and descended on the Provençal strongholds of the Muslims. 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. He crushed one Muslim 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 it's use again as a stronghold for Muslim 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 catapaults, 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. He left Narbonne therefore, isolated and surrounded, and his son would return to liberate it for Christianity. Provence, however, he successfully rid of its foreign occupiers, and crushed all foreign armies able to advance Islam further.

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 imporant a victory for Christian Europe as Tours. In Barbarians, Marauders, and Infidels, Antonio Santosuosso, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Western Ontario, and considered an expert historian in the era in dispute, puts forth an interesting modern opinion on Martel, Tours, and the subsequent campaigns against Rahman's son in 736-737. Santosuosso presents a compelling case that these later defeats of invading Muslim armies were at least as important as Tours in their defence of Western Christendom and the preservation of Western monasticism, the monasteries of which were the centers of learning which ultimately led Europe out of her Dark Ages. He also makes a compelling argument, after studying the Arab histories of the period, that these were clearly armies of invasion, sent by the Caliph not just to avenge Tours, but to conquer Christian Europe and bring it into the Caliphate.

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 unawares and dictate the time and place of battle, as his father had, and concentrated instead on seizing a substantial portion of the coastal plains around Narbonne in 736 and heavily reinforced Arles as he advanced inland. They 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 dicate the place of battle. All worked as he had planned, until Martel arrived, abeit 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 short 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, as the window was closing on Islamic ability to do so. These defeats 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 Muslim 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." Echoing Oman, Norwich has said:

He kept no court, cared not for titles, and the thought of a crown amused him. All that interested him was the true essence of power, and what could be done with it. He believed he had a mission to preserve what his ancestors had struggled so to build after Rome's fall, and intended that it not be destroyed during his stewardship. For a man of such enormous power—the real master of today's Europe at his life's end—he cared naught for show, but only for results.

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 loathe 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 literally rearrange Italy 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.

German historians are especially fervant in their priase of Martel, and their belief that he saved Europe and Christianity from then all-conquering Islam, while they also praise him as driving back the ferocious Saxon barbarians on his borders. Schlegel speaks of this " mighty victory " in terms of fervent gratitude, and tells how " the arm of Charles Martel saved and delivered the Christian nations of the West from the deadly grasp of all-destroying Islam", and Ranke points out, as " one of the most important epochs in the history of the world, the commencement of the eighth century, when on the one side Mohammedanism threatened to overspread Italy and Gaul, and on the other the ancient idolatry of Saxony and Friesland once more forced its way across the Rhine. In this peril of Christian institutions, a youthful prince of Germanic race, Karl Martell, arose as their champion, maintained them with all the energy which the necessity for self-defence calls forth, and finally extended them into new regions."

He is considered a hero in the Netherlands, a vital part of the Carolingian Empire, and the low countries. In both France and (especially in) Germany, he is revered as a hero of epic proportions.

Gibbon called him "the paramount prince of his age" and a strong argument can be made that Gibbon was absolutely correct.


At the beginning of Charles Martel's career, he had many internal opponents and felt the need to appoint his own kingly claimant, Clotaire IV. By his end, however, the dynamics of rulership in Francia had changed, no hallowed Meroving was needed, neither for defence nor legitimacy: Charles divided his realm between his sons without opposition (though he ignored his young son Bernard. In between, he strengthened the Frankish state by consistently defeating, through superior generalship, the host of hostile foreign nations which beset it on all sides, including the heathen Saxons, which his grandson Charlemagne would fully subdue, and Moors, which he halted on a path of continental domination.

Charles was that rarest of commodities in the Dark Ages: a brilliant stategic general, who also was a tactical commander par excellance, able in the crush and heat of battle to adapt his plans to his foes forces and movement — and amazingly, defeated them repeatedly, especially when, as at Tours, they were far superior in men and weaponry, and at Berre and Narbonne, when they were superior in numbers of brave fighting men. Charles had the last quality which defines genuine greatness in a military commander: he foresaw the dangers of his foes, and prepared for them with care; he used ground, time, place, and fierce loyalty of his troops to offset his foes superior weaponry and tactics; third, he adapted, again and again, to the enemy on the battlefield, cooly shifting to compensate for the unforeseen and unforeseeable.

He was also a skilled administrator and ruler, organizing what would become the medieval european government - a system of fiefdoms, loyal to barons, counts, dukes and ultimately the King, or in his case, simply maior domus and princeps et dux Francorum. ("First or Dominant Mayor and Prince of the Franks") His close coordination of church with state also began the medieval pattern for such government. He created the first western standing army since the fall of Rome. In essence, he changed Europe from a horde of barbarians fighting with one another, to an organized state.

Beginning of the Reconquista

Although it took another two generations for the Franks to drive all the Arab garrisons out of Septimania and across the Pyrenees, Charles Martel's halt of the invasion of French soil turned the tide of Islamic advances, and the unification of the Frankish kingdoms under Martel, his son Pippin the Younger, and his grandson Charlemagne created a western power which prevented the Emirate of Córdoba from expanding over the Pyrenees. Martel, who in 732 was on the verge of excommunication, instead was recognised by the Church as its paramount defender. Pope Gregory II wrote him more than once, asking his protection and aid [5], and he remained, till his death, fixated on stopping the Muslims. Martel's son kept his father's promise and returned and took Narbonne by siege in 759, and his grandson, Charlamagne, actually established the Marca Hispanica across the Pyrenees in part of what today is Catalonia, reconquering Girona in 785 and Barcelona in 801. This sector of what is now Spain was then called "The Moorish Marches" by the Carolingians, who saw it as not just a check on the Muslims in Iberia, but the beginning of taking the entire country back. This formed a permanent buffer zone against Islam, which became the basis, along with the King of Asturias, named Pelayo (718-737, who started his fight against the Moors in the mountains of Covadonga, 722) and his descendants, for the Reconquista until all of the Muslims were expelled from Iberia.