The Battle of Tours: The Defence of Christendom?

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By the early 8th century, the Umayyad Caliphate was the largest empire the world had yet seen. Having cut across Northern Africa, forces under the banner of Islam had swiftly overrun the Visigoths to capture the majority of the Iberian Peninsula. In AD 732, the Muslim general Abdul Rahman led an invading force across the Pyrenees, defeating Duke Odo of Aquitaine at the Battle of Bordeaux.

Rahman’s army thus posed an immediate threat to the Kingdom of the Franks. Charles Martel, the mayor of the Merovingian Palace, marched to meet the invaders at Tours. The resulting battle was a hard-won victory for the Franks, with Rahman being killed in battle. The Muslim army, defeated and lacking leadership, retreated back across the Pyrenees, leaving the Franks as the incumbent dominant power in Gaul.

The significance of the Battle of Tours has long been misunderstood. European historians throughout the 18th and 19th centuries claimed that Charles Martel was the only barrier protecting the entirety of Europe from subjugation, a view hardly diminished by the fact that his byname, Martel, literally meant ‘the Hammer’. This narrative, popularised by the historian Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pits Islam against Christianity for control of Europe, with the Christian forces under Charles Martel preventing European Islamicisation. Gibbon praised Charles Martel as the saviour of Christendom, musing that “perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford” had Abdul Rahman not been defeated.

Crucially, however, Gibbon misinterpreted the purpose and scale of the Muslim invasion. Modern historian Paul Forarce argues that the Muslim expedition into Gaul should “be interpreted as a long-distance raid rather than the beginning of a war”. This claim is evidenced by a contemporary source, the Mozarabic Chronicle, which specified that Rahman “wished to plunder the diocese of Tours”: the Muslim army had never intended to conquer and rule over Gaul but merely aimed to pillage it instead. Therefore, Rahman had significantly overstretched into Frankish land, with no intention of ruling the lands he had plundered on his way.

The idea of the Battle of Tours being a decisive end to Umayyad expansion in Europe is also questionable, owing to evidence of further Muslim expeditions in the subsequent years. Just three years after the defeat at Tours, the new governor of al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain and Portugal) crossed the Pyrenees as his predecessor had done, this time capturing parts of Provence and Septimania. These captured territories were held for a further 27 years, demonstrating that Muslim presence in Frankish territory survived the defeat at Tours.

However, this later invasion was small-scale compared to the prior invasions of the Maghreb (North Africa) and Iberian Peninsula; an explanation for why large-scale Muslim expansion into Europe stopped in present-day Spain is still needed. Gibbon proposed that the Battle of Tours was a great blow to the Caliphate’s military advance in Europe, resulting in a shifting of momentum in favour of the Franks. The death of the governor of al-Andalus and the dispersal of his host were undoubtedly setbacks, yet incomparable in scale to other crises the Caliphate was to face.

In early 740, the Berber tribes of Western Morocco broke into revolt against the Caliphate, resulting in the overthrow of Umayyad authorities throughout the Maghreb. Berber soldiers in al-Andalus, hearing of the success of the Moroccan revolt, deposed the Andalusian governor swiftly since they outnumbered Arabs in the region.

After three years of military crackdown from Syrian generals, the revolt had stemmed off in modern-day Tunisia, with new Muslim states independent of the Caliphate still controlling much of northwestern Africa. Although al-Andalus was eventually recaptured, it had gained a significant amount of independence from the central Syrian government. After the end of the revolt, the Western provinces of the Umayyad Caliphate were all but ignored, owing to the Caliph’s problems closer to home. The Abbasid Revolution overthrew the Umayyad dynasty in Syria between the years of 747–750, leaving al-Andalus weakened and independent.  

Thus, internal revolt and the overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate provide a broader context for the end of the empire’s expansion. The Caliphate was beginning to collapse just eight years after it had reached its greatest extent, since conquering new territory at the same time as the empire splitting up was impossible. Therefore, although Charles Martel’s victory might have repelled invaders temporarily, the empire-spanning crises from 740-750 more significantly protected Europe from Muslim conquest.

The lasting significance of the Battle of Tours instead comes from its effect on Charles Martel’s standing in Gaul. In the early 8th century, Charles Martel’s title of ‘Mayor of the Palace’ came with the de facto rule of the Frankish Kingdom; the Merovingian king held a mostly ceremonial role. Charles Martel went on to extend his power over the Franks to such an extent that no new king was appointed after the death of Theuderic IV in 737.

Charles Martel’s victory in 732 greatly consolidated his control over the kingdom. Although he was the power behind the throne, Charles still had to outcompete the other nobles who vied for power. His victory over the Muslims earned him many supporters in the aristocracy, especially in Aquitaine, which was under the greatest threat from Rahman. Though Martel had been consolidating control of the kingdom for years, the Battle of Tours marked the beginning of his dynasty’s dominance in Europe. 

This meant that after his death, the kingdom peacefully transitioned into the joint rule of his sons, Carloman and Pepin. After Carloman retired and joined a monastery, Pepin was anointed as the first Carolingian king. Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, his name literally meaning ‘Charles the Great’, went on to become the first Carolingian Emperor.

The Battle of Tours had a profound effect on European history, even if its portrayal as the final defence of Christian Europe has been greatly exaggerated. Charles Martel’s victory created the foundations upon which the Carolingian Empire was built, leading to a century of Frankish dominance over the majority of Western and Central Europe.

The Mozarabic Chronicle, Translated by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamani

Gibbon, E. (1781), The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Fourarce, P. (2000), The age of Charles Martel