Charles Martel: A Heroic Leader of Medieval Europe | History Hit

Charles Martel: A Heroic Leader of Medieval Europe

Celeste Neill

25 Apr 2023
14th century depiction of Charles Martel (middle)
Image Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On 22 October 741, Charles Martel, a prominent Frankish leader, passed away. Widely regarded by historians as a key figure in shaping modern Europe, Charles Martel was renowned for his prowess as a warrior and statesman, earning him the nickname “the hammer.” His military achievements and strategic leadership defended the Frankish kingdom against external threats, including defeating the Muslim invasion during the Battle of Tours in 732.

Charles Martel’s legacy extends beyond his military triumphs. He is credited with stabilising and strengthening the Frankish realm, laying the groundwork for the Carolingian Renaissance that brought significant cultural and intellectual advancements in Europe during the early Middle Ages. His contributions to Frankish society and politics shaped the course of European history.

Born to rule

Martel was born in 686 in Frankia, one of the Christian kingdoms which would rise out of the ashes of the Roman Empire. Charles’ father, Pepin of Herstal, was Mayor of the palace, a title which had come to mean de facto leader of the Frankish state. Like in modern Britain, the monarch held little power, and the authority of kingship rested in the hands of the mayor.

Thus, Charles was born into the centre of power in one of the strongest kingdoms of Early Middle Age Europe. This strange political set-up had begun with an earlier King, Sigebert III, who had trusted Martel’s ancestor Grimoald with too much power, which the mayors had subsequently been disinclined to relinquish.

Pepin was the first mayor bold enough to declare himself Prince of Frankia, and despite question marks later raised over his legitimacy Charles was groomed as his heir.

However, when Pepin’s new wife Plectrude appeared on the scene, she convinced Pepin to make his grandson Theudohald heir instead, and upon his father’s death Charles was ignominiously imprisoned in Cologne in order to get him out of the way.

Charles Martel depicted in the French book ‘Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum’ by Guillaume Rouillé, published in 1553.

Image Credit: Aleksandr Gertsen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Quelling internal dissent

Despite being unified under Pepin Frankia had been divided into two parts; the north-eastern kingdom of Austrasia and the more southerly land of Neustria. Cologne was in Austrasia, whose nobles were highly sympathetic to Charles’ cause, and after sensationally escaping from prison he met with them and was proclaimed mayor of Austrasia.

In Neustria, however, a rival called Ragenfrid had himself declared mayor by his tame King Chilperic II – and marched to meet Charles in Austrasia. Charles allowed Ragenfrid’s army to besiege and take Cologne, before feigning a retreat and smashing their complacent forces at the battle of Amblève when they were least expecting it.

Charles had trained his Austrasians himself and their discipline, combined with the tactic of the feigned retreat and ambush, was revolutionary in Europe at this time – and would be repeated with great success by William the Conqueror at Hastings. Charles never lost a battle in his entire military career after this brilliant start.

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Over 717 and 718 Charles marched against Neustria and eventually regained his position as the mayor of Frankia. Afterwards he finally turned on Plectrude and Theudohald and captured them. Unusually for the times, he was merciful to the pair, who were allowed to live out the rest of their lives in comfort.

His greatest struggle

With his kingdom secured, Charles turned his genius to foreign affairs. Firstly he secured his borders in modern-day Holland, before repelling Saxon invasions and conquering what is now southern Germany.

Martel’s power was now so secure that he appointed Frankish Kings by decree, and by the end of his reign he had decided that no King was actually needed – and the appointments ceased. However, Martel’s greatest struggle was yet to begin.

In Europe Frankia’s power was expanding but compared to the advance of Islam in the last century it was risible. Since the death of Muhammed in 632 this new religion had reached India and Europe, and by the 720s was a direct challenge to Martel and his aspirations for his new kingdom.

Map of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 AD.

Image Credit: Sheperd, William R.; Historical Atlas; New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911. 53., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Halting a seemingly-unstoppable advance

To the south of Frankia was the semi-independent duchy of Aquitaine, invaded by an Islamic army in 732 led by Abd al-Rahman al-Gafiqi. Duke Eudes fled to request help from Martel, who gathered and trained an army. At Tours, Martel won a decisive victory, halting the Muslim army’s advance and killing Al-Rahman.

Martel’s campaigns continued, facing more invasions, including a fleet commanded by Al-Rahman’s son in 736. Martel defeated the invaders and reconquered cities from Islamic rule, using a winning combination of heavy cavalry and veteran infantry. Charles ruled as “dux” or Lord of War after King Theuderic IV’s death in 737, finishing off the Muslim armies until his own death.

Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours. Painting by Charles de Steuben, 1837.

Image Credit: Charles de Steuben, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A peaceful end

In the last years of his life, Charles Martel reflected on his legacy and succession. He divided his vast realms among his sons in 740, enjoying one more peaceful year before passing away on 22 October 741.

Despite belonging to a lesser-known era, Charles Martel’s impact on history is unparalleled. His triumphs over the Islamic armies and establishment of a strong Frankish Empire propelled Europe into a new age of dominance. His innovative heavy-cavalry tactics shaped warfare for centuries, with knights leading thunderous charges across Europe and beyond. The dynasty he founded, which included his son Charlemagne, would continue his legacy as rulers and complete what Charles Martel had started.

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Celeste Neill