The Islamic advance
After the death of the Prophet Muhammed in 632 AD the speed of the spread of Islam was extraordinary, and by 711 Islamic armies were poised to invade Spain from North Africa. Defeating the Visigothic kingdom of Spain was a prelude to increasing raids into Gaul, or modern France, and in 725 Islamic armies reached as far north as the Vosgues mountains near the modern border with Germany.
Opposing them was the Merovingian Frankish kingdom, perhaps the foremost power in western Europe. However given the seemingly unstoppable nature of the Islamic advance into the lands of the old Roman Empire further Christian defeats seemed almost inevitable.
In 731 Abd al-Rahman, a Muslim warlord north of the Pyrenees who answered to his distant Sultan in Damascus, received reinforcements from North Africa. The Muslims were preparing for a major campaign into Gaul.
The campaign commenced with an invasion of the southern kingdom of Aquitaine, and after defeating the Aquitanians in battle Abd al-Rahman’s army burned their capital of Bordeaux in June 732. The defeated Aquitanian ruler Eudes fled north to the Frankish kingdom with the remnants of his forces in order to plead for help from a fellow Christian, but old enemy: Charles Martel.
Martel’s name meant “the hammer” and he had already many successful campaigns in the name of his lord Thierry IV, mainly against other Christians such as the unfortunate Eudes, who he met somewhere near Paris. Following this meeting Martel ordered a ban, or general summons, as he prepared the Franks for war.
The Battle of Tours
Once his army had gathered, he marched to the fortified city of Tours, on the border with Aquitaine, to await the Muslim advance. After three months of pillaging Aquitaine, al-Rahman obliged.
His army outnumbered that of Martel but the Frank had an solid core of experienced armoured heavy infantry who he could rely upon to withstand a Muslim cavalry charge.
With both armies unwilling to enter the bloody business of a Medieval battle but the Muslims desperate to pillage the rich cathedral outside the walls of Tours, an uneasy standoff prevailed for seven days before the battle finally began. With winter coming al-Rahman knew that he had to attack.
The battle began with thundering cavalry charges from Rahman’s army but, unusually for a Medieval battle, Martel’s excellent infantry weathered the onslaught and retained their formation. Meanwhile, Prince Eudes’ Aquitanian cavalry used superior local knowledge to outflank the Muslim armies and attack their camp from the rear.
Christian sources then claim that this caused many Muslim soldiers to panic and attempt to flee to save their loot from the campaign. This trickle became a full retreat, and the sources of both sides confirm that al-Rahman died fighting bravely whilst trying to rally his men in the fortified camp.
The battle then ceased for the night, but with much of the Muslim army still at large Martel was cautious about a possible feigned retreat to lure him out into being smashed by the Islamic cavalry. However, searching the hastily abandoned camp and surrounding area revealed that the Muslims had fled south with their loot. The Franks had won.
Despite the deaths of al-Rahman and an estimated 25,000 others at Tours, this war was not over. A second equally dangerous raid into Gaul in 735 took four years to repulse, and the reconquest of Christian territories beyond the Pyrenees would not begin until the reign of Martel’s celebrated grandson Charlemagne.
Martel would later found the famous Carolingian dynasty in Frankia, which would one day extend to most of western Europe and spread Christianity into the east.
Tours was a hugely important moment in the history of Europe, for though the battle of itself was perhaps not as seismic as some have claimed, it stemmed the tide of Islamic advance and showed the European heirs of Rome that these foreign invaders could be defeated.