This Day in History: Charles Martel Becomes "the Hammer"

On October 10, AD 732, Charles, prince of the Franks, the Germanic tribe for whom France is now named, earned his colorful moniker Martellus —“The Hammer.” On a battlefield between Tours and Poitiers, about 100 miles south of Paris, Charles brought down the hammer on a large Muslim force led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.

Arab Expansion

By the time of his death in 632 AD, Muhammad had conquered Arabia and united the Arab tribes under his religio-political-jurisprudential ideology of Islam. After his death, the Muslim empire expanded even more rapidly, and by the 8th Century it stretched from the Indus Valley of modern Pakistan across the middle east and North Africa to Morocco.

The rapid spread of Islam, washing over long-established Christian communities in the Levant and the Maghreb, is likened in Scripture to a plague of locusts. (Rev. 9:3-11). Alexandria, long one of the most influential dioceses in Christendom, was conquered in 641 AD.

In 711, AD, Tariq Ibn Ziyad crossed over into Visigothic Spain, landing on the rock that now bears his name, “Gibralter”—Jabal Ṭāriq, "mountain of Ṭāriq.” Within 20 years, the Muslims had conquered almost all of Spain and were raiding deep into France.

The Muslim armies were highly motivated by (1) the promise of paradise if killed in battle (the only way, in Islam, to be certain of paradise is to die fighting holy war, jihad), and (2) the chance to get rich from plunder or booty, the chief component of which was usually slaves. Sharia law contains elaborate rules for the division and disposition of slaves and other booty gained through jihad.

What seems to have drawn the army of Abdul Rahman to northern France was the riches of the Abbey of Saint Martin of Tours, the most important shrine in western Europe at the time.

The Battle of Tours

In October, 732, the Muslims were surprised to discover a large force sitting directly in their path to Tours. Charles chose not to attack, but deployed his forces in a large square, with hills and trees in their front to break up Muslim cavalry charges and screen his true numbers.

Charles' infantry were seasoned, battle-hardened veterans who had fought with him for years, some as far back as 717. In addition to his army, he also had levies of militia which had not seen significant military use.

Charles correctly assumed that Abdal Raḥmân would feel compelled to give battle, so as to get through to the loot in Tours. His decision to stay in the hills proved crucial, as it forced the Muslim cavalry to charge uphill and through trees, diminishing their effectiveness.

The battle eventually became a waiting game in which the Muslims did not want to attack an army that could possibly be numerically superior and wanted the Franks to come out into the open. The Franks formed up in a thick defensive formation and waited for them to charge uphill. The battle finally began on the seventh day, as Abdal Raḥmân did not want to wait any longer, with winter and colder weather approaching.

Abdal Rahman trusted in his cavalry, the magnificent weapon that had conquered so much of the known world so quickly, and had them charge repeatedly. But Charles’ disciplined Frankish soldiers withstood the assaults and would not be moved or broken. The Arab cavalry broke into the Frankish square several times, but the Franks did not break, accomplishing what was not thought possible at that time: infantry withstanding a heavy cavalry charge.

The battle was still undecided when a rumor spread through the Muslim army that the Franks were threatening their base camp, with all the booty that they had taken from Bordeaux and other points along the way. And, indeed, Charles had sent scouts into the Muslim rear area to burn tents, free slaves, and cause as much chaos as possible. Bands of Muslim cavalry broke off the fight and returned to camp to secure their loot. This appeared to be a full-scale retreat, and it soon became one.

While trying to stop the retreat and rally his troops, Abdal Rahman al Ghafiqi was surrounded and cut off by the now-advancing Franks, and eventually killed. Then, according to one Arab historian, "all the host fled before the enemy and many died in the flight".

As darkness fell over the battlefield, the Franks resumed their phalanx, and rested in place through the night, believing the battle would resume at dawn. But the Muslims had had enough, and lit out for Spain.

Gibbon and many other historians viewed the Battle of Tours as the high-water mark of Arab expansion, and a turning point in the struggle between Christendom and Islam. Some contemporary revisionists argue that the importance of the Battle of Tours/Poitiers has been overstated. Victor Davis Hanson argues that the battle was at the least an important milestone in a long campaign to clear France of the raiding Arab forces:

“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.”

This campaign continued on in the Iberian Peninnsula, and became “the Reconquista,” the long-running contest between Christian and Muslim Spain that was to last almost eight centuries, and only be decided in 1491, the year before Columbus sailed west into the sunset.

Charles Martel is buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the traditional burial site of French kings. Ironically, as we have had occasion to point out before, Saint-Denis is now an overwhelmingly Muslim suburb of Paris. I wonder what “the Hammer” would say about that?