By the beginning of the 8th century CE, Islam had overrun nearly 2/3 of Christendom. In 711, Berbers loyal to the Umayyad Dynasty in Damascus crossed the Straits of Gibraltar onto the Iberian Peninsula and smashed the Visigothic Kingdom of King Roderic. Over the next 15 years, the Berbers and Arabs overran the remaining small Christian kingdoms and consolidated their control of al-Andalus. In 720, they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains in force, and began raiding into Gaul, which was nominally under control of the defunct Frankish Merovingian kings. In 721, they were defeated by Duke Odo, the nearly independent ruler of the Duchy of Aquitaine, outside Toulouse. But the writing was on the wall, and it was obvious the expansionist Emirate of Cordoba, the ruler of al-Andalus, would be back.
Meanwhile, Charles Martel, aka Charles the Hammer an Austrasian warlord, was the power behind the Merovingian throne as their “Mayor of the Palace”. Throughout the 720s, he consolidated his power in Frankia and brought the wayward Merovingian dukes of Burgundy, Austrasia and Neustria under his control, at the expense of his own king.
In 730, Odo tried playing both sides, and allied himself with some rebellious Berber chieftains who were eventually subdued. Two years later, at the head of a large army of Berber and Arab horsemen, Abu Said Abdul Rahaman ibn Abdullah ibn Bishr ibn Al Sarem Al ‘Aki Al Ghafiqi, the Wali of al-Andulus and Emir of Cordoba crossed the Pyrenees to chastise Odo for his support of his unruly subordinates. Once there, Abdul Rahaman was determined to conquer Aquitaine and raid the other rich Frankish lands to the north. Odo again marshalled his army, but this time he was defeated outside Bordeaux. However, Odo escaped and fled north. He appealed to Charles for assistance in regaining his duchy. Charles did so, but only after Odo recognized his suzerainty over Aquitaine.
In early October 732, the 60,000 light cavalrymen of the Umayyad army raided and sacked the Frankish city of Poitier near the border of Frankia and Aquitaine. Further up the road towards Tours, the Frankish army of Charles Martel quickly assembled on a high wooded plain anchored between the rivers Clain and Vienne, blocking the road.
The Muslims had no issues with defeating even large numbers of Vandal and Visigothic infantry in North Africa and Hispania with their fast moving horsemen. Also, Abdul Rahaman had had little problem overrunning small bands of Frankish infantry. He had done so easily in the streets of Poitier the day before. But the sight of a solid wall of 30,000 Frankish heavy infantry which could not be outflanked, gave him pause.
Unlike the Vandals and Visigoths which were more tribal warriors in nature, the Franks of the seventh and eighth centuries continued the Greek and Roman tradition of the heavy infantryman. In northern Europe, cavalry was expensive, and not nearly as cost effective as an infantryman. For the cost of a single mounted horsemen, ten heavy infantrymen could be trained and equipped. Furthermore, raising horses was a luxury, and in Charles’ time a single horse was worth fifteen cows. Moreover, widespread use of the stirrup was still a hundred years in the future. Only the most important lords were mounted, and still fought on foot most of the time.
In the heavily wooded valleys and hills of northwestern Europe, the Merovingians relied on the small landowning farmers to provide the bulk of their armies. Under Charles, each family was required to provide one fully armed and armoured foot soldier for the Frankish army, the Landwehr. The relative prosperity of the Frankish farms allowed for the purchase of well-made armour and weapons. Additionally, the Landwehr served every fighting season until they died or were too old to fight, and was then replaced by their families. This wasn’t a feudal obligation but more of a holdover from Roman times, and similar to the Byzantine thematic system. In any case, this created a degree of discipline and professionalization in Charles’ army. On the road to Tours, Abdul Rahaman looked up at a solid shieldwall of chainmail and steel cap clad Frankish spearmen.
For a week there was an impasse. Charles couldn’t attack because that would break his formation as he descended down the valley and leave his men vulnerable to slashing counterattacks that were the tactics of choice for Muslim cavalry. Abdul Rahaman couldn’t attack because there was simply no weak points in Charles’ line. No matter how well trained, a warhorse will not impale itself on a wall of spears. The horse will inevitably halt and rear up, throwing its rider before an unwavering spearpoint. But Charles was patient. He knew Abdul Rahaman had to attack lest the proud Arab lose face. Moreover, the first nips of frost were in the air. The Umayyads had to attack soon or withdraw. On a Saturday in mid-October (the 10th, 11th, or 12th, or 23rd, 24th, or 25th, no one knows for sure) 732, Abdul Rahaman could wait no longer, and attacked.
The Muslim cavalry charged up the slope, but the Franks “stood like a wall of ice”. The horses were unwilling to skewer themselves on the Frankish spears. So the light cavalrymen rode up to the shieldwall, shot arrows, jabbed with their lances, and slashed wildly at the steadfast Frankish infantry, and tried to create an opening. They were met by spear thrusts and throwing axes, both of which were especially effective against the mostly unarmored horses of the Muslims. A fallen cavalryman was as good as dead. Soon, the dead horses formed an impromptu rampart, further impeding the Muslim attacks. All day, Abdul Rahaman’s horsemen charged uphill and fell back, then reformed and charged again. With great courage, bordering on fanaticism, the Muslims repeatedly threw themselves at the unwavering Frankish wall. They broke though just once, but Charles’ own guard sealed the breach.
That evening, a rumor began to circulate that Frankish scouts were looting the Muslim camp which was filled with slaves and the consolidated looted treasures of the towns and churches from Bordeaux to Poitier. The Umayyad warriors began to withdraw to protect their plunder. Abdul Rahaman himself attempted to rally his men to prevent a full retreat, but in the process was surrounded and killed. His men withdrew to secure the camp.
The next morning, Charles reformed his shieldwall, and prepared for another day’s fight. But the Umayyad army was gone, the camp abandoned. With no leader, the Muslim warriors took what they could carry on their horses, and abandoned everything else, including hundreds of pack camels loaded with valuables.
The Battle of Tours, sometimes known as the Battle of Poitier (Not to be confused with the battle of the same name in 1356 during the Hundred Years War), was the high water mark of Muslim expansion in Western Europe. In the contemporary chronicles of the battle, we see the first uses of the word “European” to describe the multinational Frankish/Gallic/Burgundian/Lombard nature of Charles’ army. Charles Martel would go on to form the Carolingian Dynasty, and his grandson Charlemagne would extend Frankish Empire across Europe. In al-Andalus, first the Franks, and then the Spanish Reconquista would slowly roll back the Muslim conquests. In 1491, almost 760 years after the Battle of Tours, Granada, the last Muslim outpost on the Iberian Peninsula, fell to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic king and queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Sicily.