Muslim Invasions: Charles Martel

Charles Martel
The Battle of Tours, by Charles de Steuben, 1837. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Charles Martel - Early Life:

Born on August 23, 686, Charles Martel was the son of Pippin the Middle and his second wife, Alpaida. The mayor of the palace to the King of the Franks, Pippin essentially ruled the country in his place. Shortly before his death in 714, Pippin's first wife, Plectrude, convinced him to disinherit his other children in favor of his eight-year old grandson Theudoald. This move angered the Frankish nobility and following Pippin's death, Plectrude had Charles imprisoned to prevent him from becoming a rallying point for their discontent.

Charles Martel - Personal Life:

Charles Martel first married Rotrude of Treves with whom he had five children before her death in 724. These were Hiltrud, Carloman, Landrade, Auda, and Pippin the Younger. Following Rotrude's death, Charles married Swanhild, with whom he had a son Grifo. In addition to his two wives, Charles had an ongoing affair with his mistress, Ruodhaid. Their relationship produced four children, Bernard, Hieronymus, Remigius, and Ian.

Charles Martel - Rise to Power:

By the end of 715, Charles had escaped from captivity and found support among the Austrasians who comprised one of the Frankish kingdoms. Over the next three years, Charles conducted a civil war against King Chilperic and the Mayor of the Palace of Neustria, Ragenfrid, that saw him suffer a setback at Cologne (716) before winning key victories at Ambleve (716) and Vincy (717).  After taking time to secure his borders, Charles won a decisive victory at Soissons over Chilperic and the Duke of Aquitaine, Odo the Great, in 718.

Triumphant, Charles was able to gain recognition for his titles as mayor of the palace and duke and prince of the Franks. Over the next five years he consolidated power as well as conquered Bavaria and Alemmania before defeating the Saxons. With the Frankish lands secured, Charles next began to prepare for an anticipated attack from the Muslim Umayyads to the south.

Charles Martel - Battle of Tours:

In 721, the Umayyads first came north and were defeated by Odo at the Battle of Toulouse. Having assessed the situation in Iberia and the Umayyad attack on Aquitaine, Charles came to believe that a professional army, rather than raw conscripts, was needed to defend the realm from invasion. To raise the money necessary to build and train an army that could withstand the Muslim horsemen, Charles began seizing Church lands, earning the ire of the religious community. In 732, the Umayyads moved north again led by Emir Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Commanding approximately 80,000 men, he plundered Aquitaine.

As Abdul Rahman sacked Aquitaine, Odo fled north to seek aid from Charles. This was granted in exchange for Odo recognizing Charles as his overlord. Mobilizing his army, Charles moved to intercept the Umayyads. In order to avoid detection and allow Charles to select the battlefield, the approximately 30,000 Frankish troops moved over secondary roads toward the town of Tours. For the battle, Charles selected a high, wooded plain which would force the Umayyad cavalry to charge uphill. Forming a large square, his men surprised Abdul Rahman, forcing the Umayyad emir to pause for a week to consider his options.

On the seventh day, after gathering all of his forces, Abdul Rahman attacked with his Berber and Arab cavalry. In one of the few instances where medieval infantry stood up to cavalry, Charles' troops defeated repeated Umayyad attacks. As the battle raged, the Umayyads finally broke through the Frankish lines and attempted to kill Charles. He was promptly surrounded by his personal guard who repulsed the attack. As this was occurring, scouts that Charles had sent out earlier were infiltrating the Umayyad camp and freeing prisoners.

Believing that the plunder of the campaign was being stolen, a large part of the Umayyad army broke off the battle and raced to protect their camp. While attempting to stop the apparent retreat, Abdul Rahman was surrounded and killed by Frankish troops. Briefly pursued by the Franks, the Umayyad withdrawal turned into a full retreat.

Charles reformed his troops expecting another attack, but to his surprise it never came as the Umayyads continued their retreat all the way to Iberia. Charles' victory at the Battle of Tours was later credited for saving Western Europe from the Muslim invasions and was a turning point in European history.

Charles Martel - Later Life:

After spending the next three years securing his eastern borders in Bavaria and Alemannia, Charles moved south to fend off an Umayyad naval invasion in Provence. In 736, he led his forces in reclaiming Montfrin, Avignon, Arles, and Aix-en-Provence.  These campaigns marked the first time he integrated heavy cavalry with stirrups into his formations.  Though he won a string of victories, Charles elected not to attack Narbonne due to the strength of its defenses and the casualties that would be incurred during any assault.  As the campaigning concluded, King Theuderic IV died.  Though he had the power to appoint a new King of the Franks, Charles did not do so and left the throne vacant rather than claim it for himself.

From 737, until his death in 741, Charles focused on the administration of his realm and expanding his influence. This included subduing Burgundy in 739. These years also saw Charles lay the groundwork for his heirs' succession following his death. When he died on October 22, 741, his lands were divided between his sons Carloman and Pippin III. The latter would father the next great Carolingian leader, Charlemagne. Charles' remains were interred at the Basilica of St. Denis near Paris.