For nearly a century before the Battle of Tours, the forces of Islam had spread the religion first preached by the Prophet Mohammed in all directions from out of the Arabian Peninsula. East, they had overrun the ancient Kingdom of Persia. North, they had conquered Palestine and Syria and would shortly be at the gates of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. West, it had conquered Egypt, swept across North Africa, and crossed the strait of Gibraltar to consume the Visigoth Kingdom in Spain. By the dawn of the eight century, Islamic armies had crossed the Pyrenees Mountains and were proceeding to overrun France.
By 719, the Muslims from Spain had overrun the Septimania region of southern France, which stretched from the Pyrenees to the Rhone Valley along the Mediterranean coast. The Muslim leader Al-Samh ibn Malik established his capital at Narbonne, which he renamed Arbuna, and then proceeded to expand his conquests.
Two years later, Al-Samh besieged the town of Toulouse in the Duchy of Aquitaine. Duke Odo of Aquitaine defeated Al-Samh in detail with a relief force, breaking the siege. Al Samh later died of his wounds at Narbonne.
Nevertheless, Arab raids in France continued, reaching the town of Atun in Burgundy in 725. Duke Odo allied himself with Uthman ibn Naissa, the Emir of what is now Catalonia and thus bought himself peace along his southern border. However, soon after Uthman revolted against the governor of al-Andalus, Abd er Rahman. His revolt was crushed in quick order.
Abd er Rahman decided to invade Aquitaine to punish Odo. Duke Odo was defeated at the Battle of Bordeaux. The city was put to the sword, with great slaughter of Christians. As Abd er Rahman’s army fanned out to devastate the surrounding countryside, Duke Odo, in desperation, turned to Charles, Mayor-of-the-Palace of the Frankish Kingdom of Austrasian. Charles held the main power in the Frankish Kingdoms, the actual Kings being more puppet rulers than anything else. Charles agreed to march to Odo’s aid, but only if he were to submit to Frankish rule.
The exact location of the battle remains a matter of conjecture. It probably took place in the Loire Valley somewhere between Tours and Poitiers where the rivers Clain and Vienne join. The Muslims were likely headed for the Abbey of Saint Martin at Tours which was reputed to contain a huge treasure.
Charles deployed his army in a defensive shield wall. The Frankish Army was primarily infantry, armed with spear, sword, and axe. They had the advantage of terrain and were well dressed for the cold.
The Muslim Army was primarily cavalry, armed with spears and swords. They deployed opposite the Franks in a square formation. Most accounts of the battle suggest that the two armies confronted one another for seven days with little but minor skirmishes. But on October 10th, 732, the battle began in earnest.
The Muslims conducted charge after charge, using the tactics that had served them so well in previous battles against Christian forces. But this time the Frankish shield wall held, inflicting horrendous casualties on the Muslims. Finally, toward the evening of the 10th, Abd er Rahman was captured and slain. The Muslim Army withdrew. The Franks held their position, fearing a renewed attack the next morning. But, the next day, a reconnaissance discovered that the Muslim Army, upon the death of their leader, had withdrawn during the night.
Because of the battle, Charles acquired the nickname “Martel” meaning “the Hammer.” He continued to drive the Muslims out of France, defeating Muslim Armies at the River Berre and Narbonne. It took another two generations for the Franks to completely drive the Muslims back beyond the Pyrenees.
Charles Martel continued to expand the extent of Frankish power, fighting battles in Bavaria, Aquitaine, Provence, and Alemannia. He died in 741 and his territories were divided between his sons, Carloman, Pippin the Younger, and Grifo. Pippin shortly made himself King of the Franks. Pippin’s son, Charlemagne, became the first Holy Roman Emperor and ruled an Empire in Western Europe that rivaled that of the old Roman Empire.
Meanwhile, the struggle between the Umayyads and the Abbassids came to a climax in the land ruled by the Muslims. The Umayyad Caliphate fell in 750 except in Spain, with the Abbassids ruling from Baghdad everywhere else. The Umayyads, with the threat from the Abbassids, could not mount an invasion of Western Europe. The Abbassids lacked the toe hold in Spain necessary for operations in Europe.
Along with the defeat in 718 at the gates of Constantinople, the Battle of Tours halted Muslim expansion into Europe. It has been suggested by numerous historians, such as Edward Gibbon, that had the Franks been defeated at Tours, the Muslim advance into Europe, then divided into squabbling kingdoms, would have been unstoppable. France, Germany, even England would have fallen under Islam, putting to a virtual end to Christian Western Europe.
Not until the rise of the Ottoman Empire was Europe directly threatened by Islam again, but by then the advance was through the Balkans. In fact, the long, drawn out reconquest of Spain by the Christians began, to be concluded over seven centuries later, in 1492 with the fall of Granada.
Had Tours gone the other way, it is certain that Islam would have inherited the future rather than what we call Western Civilization. A Muslim sea captain would have discovered America and the words transcribed by the Prophet would have been preached on the banks of the Mississippi, on the Great Plains, and across North and South America. In that world Christianity might be, at best, a small, minority religion.
Charles Martel surely saved the West that October day in 731, permitting the rise of the Catholic Church, the establishment of France, England, Germany, and other countries as nation states and, in turn, the settlement of America and the establishment of the United States based on Western values. In short, he made the world we live in as few other men did.