25 October 732

A nineteenth-century engraving of a fifth-century Frankish soldier drawn from a description in the letters of Apollinaris Sidonius (c.430-–c.489), a Gallo-Roman aristocrat. By the time of Poitiers the Franks were generally more heavily armed and armoured, though the spear and long sword were still standard.

Few battles in European history are more famous than the defeat of an Islamic army somewhere between the northern French cities of Poitiers and Tours in October 732. For centuries this has been seen as the battle that finally turned the tide of an inexorable Arab expansion and saved Europe from an Islamic future – a battle, therefore, of world-historical significance. As in so many medieval conflicts, however, the battle is shrouded in mystery. Almost everything about it, including the exact site, the number of soldiers present, the pattern of the battle and the number of casualties, has to be surmised from the scantiest of surviving manuscripts and from the topographical evidence. What is certain is that the battle came to symbolize the turning of a tide of conquest that had seemed remorseless. The Arab incursion into Spain in 711 had proved unstoppable; the capture of southwest France was completed by 725; heavy raids into the rest of southern and central France had followed. If no-one had stopped the raid of 732 it is difficult not to assume that sooner or later much of France would have become an Arab province.

The stumbling block to further Arab expansion was the Frankish Merovingian kingdom, ruled for decades not by the king but by the ‘mayor of the palace’ whose position came by inheritance. The mayor in 732 was Charles, nicknamed Martel after the word for ‘hammer’. He had twenty years of campaigning behind him defending his empire from the barbarian east and from the rival claims of ambitious French nobles and bishops. He had not fought the Arab armies, though he knew of the raids they had carried out deep into French territory, while the Arab rulers of Spain (known then as al-Andalus) knew little about the Merovingians or their military prowess. In 731, the new governor of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqui, planned a major raid (perhaps even an invasion) into the western French territory of Aquitaine. Booty and slaves may well have been the principal motive, but it cannot be ruled out that this was indeed an exploratory excursion preliminary to more permanent settlement. The call went out for volunteers, many of whom came from the Berber territories of Arab-ruled North Africa. Starting out from Pamplona in northern Spain, Abd al-Rahman led an army of perhaps 15–20,000 (various estimates suggest a lower or much higher number) towards Bordeaux and the rich pickings of western France.

A painting from 1837 of the Battle of Poitiers-Tours by the German-born artist Charles Auguste Steuben, who lived and worked in Paris. The picture was hung in the Palace of Versailles by the French king Louis-Philippe in a collection of battle paintings. Steuben used a great deal of imagination for a battle about which very little is known in detail.

Aquitaine was ruled by Duke Eudes (generally known as Odo the Great). Caught between Arab expansion from al-Andalus and the ambitions of Charles’s Merovingian kingdom, Eudes tried to maintain his independence. In spring 732, Abd al-Rahman marched unexpectedly through the difficult passes of the western Pyrenees and arrived in southern Aquitaine. Within weeks he had captured and sacked Bordeaux. He then destroyed Eudes’s army at the Battle of the River Garonne, where Christian refugees were slaughtered. Eudes threw himself on the mercy of Charles Martel by agreeing to become a Merovingian vassal. Charles seems to have been keen to prevent the Arab army reaching his own territory in northwest France and sent out a call to muster his scattered forces. He led them to the city of Tours, where the wealthy monastery of St Martin was probably the Arab goal. After three months ravaging western France and amassing wagon trains of booty and slaves, Abd al-Rahman moved north towards Poitiers and Tours. How far he went is not known with certainty. It is clear that the advance took place in the middle of October as far as, or perhaps across, the River Vienne. From here on, the evidence is almost non-existent.

So little did the Arab army think of the threat from the Franks that scant effort seems to have been made to scout far ahead. It is likely that the usual Arab advance guard and skirmishers ran into Charles’s army camped south of Tours and pulled back. By 18 October, the Arab army was behind the Vienne where it set up camp. Charles, it is assumed, followed at a distance, crossed the river, and then drew up in a defensive position of his own choosing. The two sides were organized and armed differently. Abd al-Rahman’s army consisted of a core of Arab warriors and a large number of Berber levies; both forces were on horseback, probably using stirrups (a point of continuing controversy), and were armed with swords and spears. There was a smaller body of infantry using bows, slings and javelins. The Frankish army was mainly infantry, using long spears, swords and axes in a phalanx formation. How many cavalry were present is simply not known. Both were experienced armies rather than raw recruits. How many men Charles had with him is again mere speculation, though a similar number of 15–20,000 is possible.

The course of the battle is again open to conjecture. By chance the date, Saturday 25 October, is known with certainty from both Arab and Christian sources. Brief accounts, written later in the century by ‘Anonymous of Córdoba’ and in Continuator of Fredegar’s Chronicle, suggest that Charles drew up his army in a strong defensive line, supported by cavalry commanded by Eudus, and perhaps sheltered on both flanks by thick woodland. Here the Arab cavalry probably attacked head-on and were beaten back (the Franks managed to ‘grind them small in slaughter’ according to the Chronicle). Eudus may have outflanked the Arab army and attacked its large camp, full of loot and Berber families and followers. It seems likely that Abd al-Rahman retreated back to his camp to save it from being pillaged and that it was here that he was killed, possibly by a javelin. The camp was not captured but the defeat was clearly heavy enough to compel the Arab army to withdraw during the night, leaving the tents and most of the wealth behind them. They made their way back to Narbonne in the Arab southwest and thence back to al-Andalus, an intact, if defeated, force.

Historians argue over the significance of the victory at Tours or Poitiers, as well as over the unrecoverable details of the battle. The Arab name for the battle is ‘The Road of Martyrs’, which suggests heavy losses. The figures given later range from 1,000 to an implausible 300,000, but losses there would certainly have been. The victory did not stop further Arab depredations in France over the next four years, but they were confined to major raids. By 759, most of southwest France, including Narbonne, had fallen under Merovingian rule. The battle was perhaps not the grand clash of religions as it has so often been presented. Charles Martel did not see the Arab threat as much different from the threat from his unruly vassals or his pagan neighbours; the Umayyad Empire was also crumbling from within, so Poitiers could be seen as more effect than cause. Nevertheless it was a battle worth winning against an enemy that the battered Christian populations of Europe had thought might scourge them for ever.