Charles Martel

Charles Martel


Known as ‘Charles the Hammer,” Charles Martel is famous for his defeat of the Arabs at Poitiers in A.D. 732. He was an illegitimate son of Pepin of Heristal, mayor of the palace of the Merovingian king¬ dom of the Franks. Following his father’s death, Martel was impris¬ oned by his father’s widow, who did not want any rivals to her family line.

Charles escaped from prison, raised an army of Austrasians, and defeated the Neustrian army. He became the sole “mayor of the palace” in A.D. 723. By this time, the Merovingian dynasty had declined through intermarriage, and the mayor of the palace conducted the true business of the kingdom, though he lacked the title of king.

Martel led campaigns against the Frisians, Saxons (a.D. 719-738), Swabians (a.D. 730) and Bavarians (a.D. 723-728). A diplomat as well as fighter, he sent Christian missionaries to the defeated tribes. Led by remarkable church leaders such as St. Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans, the missionaries con¬ verted many of the tribespeople to Christianity. Those who converted generally accepted Martel’s leadership in northern and central France.

The most dramatic moment of Martel’s life and career came in A.D. 732 when he responded to a request for help from Eudes, the Duke of Aquitaine, in southern France. Eudes found his land overrun by an invasion of Arabs from across the Pyrenees. Martel recruited a large army of Frankish warriors and led them south, seeking the Arab foe.The two armies collided at Moussais-la- Bataille, 12 miles northeast of the city of Poitiers (the battle has since been called either Poitiers or Tours).

After seven days of maneuvering, the Arabs made their attack on the Franks. The all-day battle resulted in a standoff. The Arabs could not break the steady lines of Frankish infantry and cavalry; the Franks could not pursue the enemy quickly enough to strike a serious blow against them. Martel expected the battle to resume the next day, but daybreak found the enemy’s camp deserted; the Arabs had fled during the night.

Martel celebrated the victory, which has been celebrated in European history as the decisive turning point in Europe’s wars against the Arabs. In the Moslem chronicles, the Battle of Poitiers figures as a small skirmish that had little overall importance.

Martel then became known as “Charles the Hammer” for this victory. He and his Frankish mounted soldiers were probably the first European military force to use stirrups on their horses. Martel died in A.D.741, having halted Arab expansion north of Spain and having founded a new dynasty that eventually was led by his grandson Charlemagne (see no. 20).