One hundred years after the death of the prophet Mohammed, the armies of the Umayyads caliphate had set their eyes on Europe. By this time, they had swept through the old empire of the Persians and across North Africa into the Iberian Peninsula. When they crossed from North Africa, the leader Tariq bin Ziyad, ordered the fleet burned saying, “We have not come here to return. Either we conquer and establish ourselves here, or we perish.” They meant business. The armies had been beaten back by Odo in 722 at the Battle of Toulouse, but by 732 were ready to try again. They set their sights on the fertile lands of southern France.
The man set to stop them was the Prince of the Franks, Charles. He was the son of Pepin the Middle (I kind of love this name) and his second wife, Alpaida. Pepin was the mayor of palace to the King of the Franks, and with this title effectively ruled the country for him. However, when Pepin died Pepin’s first wife had Charles thrown in prison so her children could inherit. He was eventually released and began a long slog to regain his titles, and in 718 was named mayor of the palace and a prince of the Franks. He watched Odo’s victory over the Umayyads in 721 at Toulouse, and believed that a professional army was needed to stop the Umayyads and their cavalry. They had been lucky at Toulouse by taking the enemy by surprise and breaking the siege. They would not be lucky again. Incursions into southern France from the Umayyad held land in the Iberian peninsula had never stopped, and Duke Odo tried to step this through diplomacy and warfare. Neither worked. He sent a warning to Charles that the Umayyads were coming. In exchange for giving fealty to Charles for the duchy of Aquitaine, Odo got help from the Franks.
Charles began building a troop to withstand the Umayyads horsman, and funded it by confiscating religious land. This caused quite a stink. If this didn’t work, Charles would be in hot water in more ways than one. In 732, the invading Umayyads worked their way northward up the Loire valley. Reports state the army was as large as 80,000, but other sources say it could not have been larger than 20,000 or 30,000. All sources say that the Franks were outnumbered, but they were all battle hardened well trained soldiers who believed in Charles implicitly. Charles gathered his men and avoiding the Roman roads looked for his battlefield. He wanted to line his men up in a square or phalanx formation to counteract the calvary, and he desperately needed the element of surprise. Charles found a high wooded plain that would force the Umayyads to charge uphill. He drew up his square and waited.
The Umayyads were surprised to find a force of any size waiting for him. Abd-al-Raḥmân, the commander, delayed for a week trying to decide what to do. It was difficult for him to detect the exact size of Charles’ army as it was well screened by hills and trees. Also,it was late in the year and winter was coming. The Umayyads were not prepared for a winter away from their sunny homeland. On the seventh day, Abd-al-Raḥmân decided to attack rather than risk being caught in the cold. They attacked counting on their horsemen with long lances and swords to carry them to victory. But this time the Frankish square held. Arab sources state, “The Muslim horsemen dashed fierce and frequent forward against the battalions of the Franks, who resisted manfully, and many fell dead on either side.” The charged again and again, and still the square stood. Isidore, the author of The Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 one of the few contemporary writings about the battle, describes the Frankish square: “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 [a tribe forming the northern part of the kingdom of the Franks] carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts.”
Some of the Umayyads were able to break through the square and drove towards Charles to take him out. He was surrounded and protected by his liegemen and they would not give way. According to Frankish sources, a rumor went through the Umayyads that the Franks were going to loot the booty they had rightfully stolen from Southern France, and they retreated to protect it. Arab sources corroborate this by saying Charles sent scouts to the camp to free any slaves taken to draw off the enemy. This strategy worked and the Umayyads went charging back to their camp. This soon became a full scale retreat, in which the commander of the Umayyads, Abd-al-Raḥmân, was killed. Charles reformed his square with the remaining men and waited for the counterattack, which never came.
Charles was given the cognomen of “Martel” or “the Hammer” as he withstood the hammering from the Umayyads. Many historians believe he single handedly saved Western Europe as we know it. Edward Gibbon famously said without Charles Martel, the Umayyads would have swept through France and on into England. However, some modern historians such as William E. Watson, emphasize the importance of the victory in local politics, since it assured the political and military dominance of the Franks in Gaul and in Europe at large. There is still disagreement over that as some historians believe it was immaterial as the Umayyads were there to plunder no conquer. We will never know. However, Charles Martel went on to be the ancestor of another great Frankish king, Charlemagne.
Sources available on request