Battle of Tours
Even as the Muslims threatened Christian Europe in the east at Constantinople, a similar threat developed in the west. Around the year 710 the tide of Arab conquest reached Morocco and the Atlantic Ocean. The Berbers or Moors (the Numidians of Hannibal’s day) supplied the necessary manpower. These peoples were essentially nomadic raiders, and to keep them employed Musa ibn Nusair, Muslim governor of North Africa, turned them toward Spain.
Musa apparently sought to plunder rather than conquer Spain. The caliph gave his permission for a raid only, cautioning Musa not to expose his army in an overseas expedition. Thus, in 710 a force of 400 men crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain, pillaged around Algeciras, and returned to Morocco.
Encouraged by this success and having learned that the Visigothic king of Spain was fighting in the north against the Franks, Musa decided on an extensive expedition. He sent to Spain, in small groups of 400 men at a time, a force of some 7,000 men. These took the Visigoth capital of Toledo, and by the end of 712 they had conquered all of Spain.
No sooner had Spain been overrun than Musa initiated an invasion of Aquitaine across the Pyrenees mountains to eliminate the remnants of the Visigoths, possibly still in 712. In 717–718 Musa’s successor ordered a full-scale raid; this failed, apparently because it became an operation of conquest. In 719 the Muslims took Narbonne, but two years later they met defeat at Toulouse. In 725 the Muslims occupied Carcassonne and Nîmes, and the next year they advanced up the Rhône River Valley and ravaged Burgundy.
The Franks were hardly in a position to oppose the Muslim advance. The ruling Merovingian dynasty was in decline, and effective power had passed into the hands of the mayor of the palace. In 714 Charles had assumed this title and was king in all but name.
In 732 Muslim governor of Spain Abd-ar-Rahmamn launched a full-scale invasion of Aquitaine, then ruled by Duke Eudo. The Muslim invaders defeated Eudo at Bordeaux and sacked and burned that city. From Bordeaux Abd-ar-Rahmamn moved north, pillaging and destroying as he advanced. He took Poitiers and moved toward Tours because of reports of that city’s wealth. Eudo meanwhile appealed for assistance to Charles, who had been fighting the Germanic tribes along the Danube. Charles agreed to assist if Eudo would submit Aquitaine to Frankish control. Putting together an army, he crossed the Loire, probably at Orléans. Abd-ar-Rahmamn’s army, now burdened down by plunder, fell back on Poitiers.
Little is known about the composition of Abd-ar-Rahmamn’s army or its size, which has been variously estimated at 20,000 to 80,000 men. Most were probably mounted Moors. They were armed principally with the lance and sword, and most of the men were without body armor. A mule train followed the troops, probably carrying plunder rather than supplies, for the army lived off the country. Its tactics centered on wild headlong charges.
The Frankish army was basically an infantry force and smaller than that of the invaders. Only the nobles had horses, and these were used only during the march. The Frankish soldiers were armed with swords, daggers, javelins, and two kinds of axes, one for wielding and one for throwing. The men carried shields for protection. The infantry consisted of the general’s private army, which had to be constantly employed because it was paid by plunder alone, and a conscript force of poorly armed militia. There was little discipline on either side.
Charles understood the vulnerability of his foe. He had written to Eudo, “If you follow my advice, you will not interrupt their march, nor precipitate your attack. They are like a torrent, which it is dangerous to stem in its career. The thirst of riches and the consciousness of success redouble their valour, and valour is of more avail than arms or numbers. Be patient till they have loaded themselves with the encumbrance of wealth. The possession of wealth will divide their counsels and assure your victory” (Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6:17). Such an approach had the advantage for Charles, of course, of wasting large tracts of land belonging to the rebel duke of Aquitaine.
The sudden appearance of Charles’s force caused consternation among the Muslims, who were so heavily weighed down with loot that they were no longer mobile. Abd-ar-Rahmamn considered abandoning the plunder but did not, possibly because his men would have refused to obey such an order. The two armies faced one another for seven days, with Charles waiting for the arrival of reinforcements. Few details exist concerning the actual battle. It most likely occurred at a site later called Moussais-la-Bataille on October 25, 732. Probably the armies first came into contact near Tours, and Abd-ar-Rahmamn withdrew toward Poitiers. When he found that the army’s booty had not gotten farther south, he decided to accept battle. As the Muslims were solely an offensive force, this meant an attack. Realizing this, Charles drew up his own forces in a solid phalanx formation, centered on his veterans.
The battle opened with a furious Muslim cavalry charge. Although they repeated it again and again, the Muslims were unable to break the Frankish phalanx. Toward dusk Eudo and a force of Aquitanians turned one of the Muslim flanks and launched an attack on Abd-ar-Rahmamn’s camp, where the bulk of the loot was located. Abdar-Rahmamn died in the battle, which was over by nightfall.
The next morning scouts reported to Charles that the Muslim troops had fled south, abandoning the bulk of their plunder. Frankish chroniclers provided fantastic figures of 360,000 Muslims killed against only 1,500 for Charles’s troops.
The losses were more likely along the lines of 2,000 for the Muslims and 500 for the Franks.
There was no pursuit, for Charles on foot could not pursue a retiring mounted force, and the capture of the loot prohibited such an operation. Probably Charles also deemed it wise not to remove all Muslim pressure from Eudo in order to ensure his loyalty, so Charles collected the loot and recrossed the Loire. For his role in the victory, Charles became known to posterity as Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer).
The Battle of Tours saw the deepest Muslim penetration into Europe east and west. It might not have saved Western Europe from Arab rule, but it did make Charles supreme in Gaul and enabled him to establish the Carolinigian dynasty, which reached its zenith under his grandson Charlemagne. In 735 Eudo died. Charles overran Aquitaine and compelled Eudo’s two sons to pay homage to him. After this Charles undertook several campaigns against the Muslims in the Rhône Valley, and a few years later the Muslims withdrew south of the Pyrenees for good.
Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 6. Edited by J. B. Bury. London: Methuen, 1912.
Kennedy, Hugh. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus. London: Longman, 1997.
Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar with Its Continuations. London: Nelson, 1960.