The Battle Of Tours Shaped Europe’s Destiny

The Battle of Tours: Frankish Triumph against Muslim Invasion

In 732, the Frankish and Aquitanian forces, under the leadership of Charles Martel, clashed against the invading Muslim army of the Umayyad Caliphate in what became known as the Battle of Tours, or Poitiers, or the Highway of the Martyrs. The battle was a crucial moment in the Umayyad invasion of Gaul, and its outcome would shape the destiny of Western Europe for centuries to come.

The Franks and Aquitanians emerged victorious, dealing a decisive blow to the Umayyad forces. Although details of the battle remain unclear, it is believed that the Umayyads had a larger force and suffered more casualties. Notably, the Franks fought without heavy cavalry, a strategy that proved successful against the Umayyad’s cavalry-dependent tactics.

Uncertain Details of the Battle

The exact location and number of combatants in the Battle of Tours remain a mystery. Surviving sources offer little information beyond accounts of the victory. Most historians, however, agree that the battle was fought somewhere between the cities of Poitiers and Tours, in northern Aquitaine in western France, close to the border of the Frankish realm and the Duchy of Aquitaine under Odo the Great.

The Fall of Al-Ghafiqi and Muslim Retreat

During the battle, Abdul Rahman Al-Ghafiqi, the Umayyad governor of al-Andalus, led the Muslim army. However, Al-Ghafiqi was killed in combat, and the Umayyad forces withdrew after their defeat. The battle marked the beginning of the Frankish and Aquitanian domination of Western Europe, and its significance in shaping the destiny of the continent cannot be understated.

Battle of Tours Confirms Frankish Power

The Battle of Tours was an instrumental factor in curtailing the Islamization of Western Europe. Historians widely credit the Christian victory for halting the Umayyad invasion and for the establishment of Frankish power in the region. The battle laid the foundations for the Carolingian Empire, and Frankish domination of Western Europe would continue for the next century. The confirmation of their power marked a turning point in Western history, one that was influenced by the outcome of the Battle of Tours.

Charles Martel & the Battle of Tours by Edward Creasy
Charles Martel & the Battle of Tours by Edward Creasy
The Battle of Tours by Charles River Editors - Audiobook
The Battle of Tours by Charles River Editors - Audiobook

Background: The Umayyad Conquests in Europe

In 711, the Umayyad invasion of the Christian Visigothic Kingdom of the Iberian Peninsula marked the beginning of two decades of Umayyad conquests in Europe. These military campaigns extended to the former provinces of the Roman Empire, in Gaul. The Umayyad forces made their way northward into Aquitaine and Burgundy, engaging in major battles at Bordeaux and a raid on Autun.

The Battle of Tours

The Battle of Tours is widely regarded as a pivotal event in Western European history. It is believed to have halted the northward advance of Umayyad forces and prevented the Islamization of Western Europe. The location of the battle is assumed to be where the rivers Clain and Vienne join between Tours and Poitiers. The number of troops in each army remains a subject of debate among historians.

The Strength of the Armies

According to the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754, the Franks, who were the forces of Austrasia, was greater in number and formidably armed. They killed the Umayyad king, Abd ar-Rahman. However, virtually all Western sources disagree, estimating the Franks at less than half the Muslim force. Some historians believe that the total Muslim force, counting the outlying raiding parties that rejoined the main body before Tours, outnumbered the Franks.

Drawing on non-contemporary Muslim sources, some historians describe the Umayyad forces as 80,000 strong or more. However, estimates of what the land was able to support and what Martel could have raised from his realm and supported during the campaign suggest that the strength of the armies may have been much smaller. Modern historians estimate the Umayyad forces at Tours at between 20,000–80,000, while others argue that estimates that the Umayyads had over fifty thousand troops (and the Franks even more) are logistically impossible.

Casualties and Aftermath

The losses sustained by each army during the battle remain unknown. Chroniclers later claimed that Charles Martel’s force lost about 1,500, while the Umayyad force suffered massive casualties of up to 375,000 men. However, these same casualty figures were recorded in the Liber Pontificalis for Duke Odo the Great’s victory at the Battle of Toulouse in 721. The Vita Pardulfi, written in the middle of the eighth century, reports that after the battle, Abd-al-Rahman’s forces burned and looted their way through the Limousin on their way back to Al-Andalus, which implies that they were not destroyed to the extent imagined on the Continuations of Fredegar.

Overall, the Battle of Tours remains a subject of debate among historians. While it is widely believed to have halted the northward advance of Umayyad forces and prevented the Islamization of Western Europe, the exact strength of the armies and the losses sustained remains uncertain. However, the battle’s significance in shaping the course of Western European history is undeniable.

Clash of Empires at Tours

The Saracen Army outside Paris, 730-32 AD

The Saracen Army outside Paris, 730-32 AD

The Umayyads – A Mighty Empire

In the 8th century, the Umayyad dynasty was the first dynasty of Sunni caliphs that emerged after the reign of the Rashidun Caliphs. Under their leadership, the Umayyad Caliphate had become a vast empire and one of the world’s foremost military powers. They had successfully defeated and absorbed the Sasanian Empire and conquered much of the Byzantine Empire, including Syria, Armenia, and North Africa. The Umayyad armies had pushed east across Persia and west across North Africa through the late 7th century. At the time of the Battle of Tours, the Umayyad Caliphate was at the height of its power.

The Franks – The Emerging Empire

During Charles Martel’s tenure as commander-in-chief of the Franks, the Frankish realm had become the foremost military power in western Europe. This realm consisted of north and eastern France, most of western Germany, and the Low Countries. The Frankish realm had begun to progress towards becoming the first real imperial power in western Europe since the fall of Rome. Despite its power, it continued to struggle against external forces such as the Saxons, Frisians, and other opponents such as the Basque-Aquitanians led by Odo the Great (Old French: Eudes), Duke over Aquitaine, and Vasconia.

The Umayyad Conquest of Septimania

In 719, Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani led Umayyad troops to overrun Septimania, the southernmost region of the Frankish kingdom, as part of their expansion campaign up the Iberian Peninsula. Al-Samh established his capital in Narbonne, or Arbūna as the Moors called it and quickly subdued the unresisting cities of Alet, Béziers, Agde, Lodève, Maguelonne, and Nîmes that were still controlled by Visigothic counts.

The Battle of Toulouse

The Umayyad campaign into Aquitaine suffered a temporary setback at the Battle of Toulouse, where Duke Odo the Great broke the siege of Toulouse, taking Al-Samh ibn Malik’s forces by surprise. Despite this defeat, Moorish forces based in Narbonne continued to strike eastwards, reaching as far as Autun in Burgundy in 725.

The Alliance with Berber Commander Uthman ibn Naissa

Threatened by both the Umayyads in the south and the Franks in the north, Duke Odo allied himself with the Berber commander Uthman ibn Naissa, also known as Munuza, the deputy governor of what would later become Catalonia. To seal the alliance, Uthman married Odo’s daughter, and Moorish raids across the Pyrenees, Odo’s southern border, ceased. However, the next year, Uthman killed the bishop of Urgell Nambaudus and detached himself from his Arab masters in Cordova. Abdul Raḥman sent an expedition to crush his revolt, then directed his attention against Uthman’s ally Odo.

The Battle of the River Garonne

Odo collected his army at Bordeaux but was defeated, and the city was plundered. During the following Battle of the River Garonne, the Chronicle of 754 recorded that “God alone knows the number of the slain”. The Chronicle continued, stating that the invading forces “pierced through the mountains, trampled over rough and level ground, plundered far into the country of the Franks, and smote all with the sword, insomuch that when Eudo came to battle with them at the River Garonne, he fled.”

Odo’s Appeal to the Franks

Despite the heavy losses, Odo reorganized his troops and gave the Frankish leader notice of the impending danger to his realm. He appealed to the Franks for assistance, which Charles Martel granted only after Odo agreed to submit to Frankish authority. The Umayyads were not aware of the true strength of the Franks, and the Arab chronicles of the time show that awareness of the Franks as a growing military power only came after the Battle of Tours.

The Umayyad Advance toward the Loire

In 732, the Umayyad advance force was proceeding north towards the Loire River, having outpaced their supply train and a large part of their army. After easily destroying all resistance in that part of Gaul, the invading army split into several raiding parties while the main body advanced more slowly. The Umayyads delayed their campaign late in the year because the army needed to live off the land as they advanced, waiting until the wheat harvest was ready and stored.

The Battle of Tours Begins: Charles' Surprising Tactics

Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours

Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours

In the year 732, the Muslim forces of the Umayyad Caliphate were invading Gaul, with the intention of conquering it for Islam. However, they were caught off guard by a large force blocking their path to Tours. This force was led by Charles Martel, who had planned the attack with the hope of achieving total surprise. Charles decided not to attack immediately and instead fought in a defensive, phalanx-like formation.

The Skirmishes and the Wait for Reinforcements

For seven days, the two armies engaged in minor skirmishes. The Umayyads were waiting for their full strength to arrive. Despite being a proven commander, ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân had been outmaneuvered, and he had allowed Charles to concentrate his forces and pick the field of battle. Charles had used the trees and forest to screen his true numbers, making it impossible for the Umayyads to judge the size of his army. While many historians have believed that the Franks were outnumbered, some sources disagree with that assertion.

Charles’ Infantry, Battle Tactics, and Preparation

Charles’ infantry was his best hope for victory. They were seasoned and battle-hardened, having fought with him for years. In addition to his army, Charles had levies of militia that had not seen significant military use except for gathering food and harassing the Muslim army. He had been preparing for this confrontation since the Battle of Toulouse a decade earlier. Charles had made the best of a bad situation. Though allegedly outnumbered and without any heavy cavalry, he had tough, battle-hardened infantrymen who believed in him implicitly. Charles had taken out a large loan from the Pope to train and maintain a full-size army largely composed of professional infantry. Moreover, these infantrymen were heavily armed and dressed for the cold.

The Waiting Game and the Start of the Battle

Charles correctly assumed that ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân would feel compelled to give battle and move on to try to loot Tours. Abd-al-Raḥmân felt he had to sack Tours, which meant he had to go through the Frankish army on the hill in front of him. Charles’ decision to stay in the hills proved crucial, as it forced the Umayyad cavalry to charge uphill and through trees, diminishing their effectiveness. The battle eventually became a waiting game, with the Muslims not wanting to attack an army that could possibly be numerically superior and wanting the Franks to come out into the open. The Franks formed up a thick defensive formation and waited for them to charge uphill. Finally, on the seventh day, the battle began as Abd-al-Raḥmân did not want to wait any longer, with winter approaching.

Tactical Superiority of Cavalry vs Disciplined Infantry

In October 732, the Battle of Tours was fought between the Muslim forces of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al-Ghafiqi and the Frankish and Aquitanian forces under the leadership of Charles Martel. Al-Ghafiqi, who trusted in the tactical superiority of his cavalry, had them charge repeatedly throughout the day. The disciplined Frankish soldiers withstood the assaults, although according to Arab sources, the Arab cavalry broke into the Frankish square several times. Despite this, the Franks did not break. The well-trained Frankish soldiers accomplished what was not thought possible at that time: infantry withstanding a heavy cavalry charge.

Contemporary Accounts of the Battle of Tours

According to the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754, the battle between the Muslim and Frankish forces took place after a week of tormenting each other with raids. The northern peoples remained as immobile as a wall, holding together like a glacier in the cold regions, and annihilated the Arabs with the sword. The people of Austrasia killed the king, Abd ar-Rahman, when they found him, striking him in the chest. Suddenly, within sight of the countless tents of the Arabs, the Franks despicably sheathed their swords postponing the fight until the next day since night had fallen during the battle. The Europeans rose from their own camp at dawn and saw the tents and canopies of the Arabs all arranged just as they had appeared the day before. Not knowing that they were empty and thinking that inside them there were Saracen forces ready for battle, they sent officers to reconnoiter and discovered that all the Ishmaelite troops had left. They had indeed fled silently by night in tight formation, returning to their own country.

Charles Martel’s Family Account of the Battle of Tours

For the fourth book of the Continuations of Fredegar’s Chronicle, Charles Martel’s family composed a stylized summary of the battle. According to this account, Prince Charles boldly drew up his battle lines against the Arabs, and with Christ’s help, he overturned their tents and hastened to battle to grind them small in slaughter. King Abdirama was killed, and he destroyed them, driving forth the army, he fought and won. Thus did the victor triumph over his enemies. This source details further that “he (Charles Martel) came down upon them like a great man of battle”. It goes on to say Charles “scattered them like the stubble”.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People

It is thought that Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Book V, Chapter XXIV) includes a reference to the Battle of Tours. According to the text, a dreadful plague of Saracens ravaged France with miserable slaughter, but not long after that country received the punishment due to their wickedness.

Charles Martel's Strategic Victory

Charles Martel fighting the Saracens at Tours-Poitiers in 732, Great Chronicles of France

Charles Martel fighting the Saracens at Tours-Poitiers in 732, Great Chronicles of France

The Battle of Tours-Poitiers in 732 was a turning point in European history. Charles Martel’s victory over the Umayyad army halted the Muslim advance into Europe, and the battle is considered one of the most important in world history. This analysis will examine the strategic and tactical decisions made by Charles Martel and ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân leading up to the battle, and how these decisions impacted the outcome.

‘Abd-al-Raḥmân’s Tactical Failures

Despite being a skilled general, ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân made two key mistakes before the battle. Firstly, he underestimated the strength of the Frankish army and did not assess their capabilities before invading. Secondly, he failed to scout the movements of the Frankish army, which led to the Muslim army being burdened with booty and suffering casualties before the battle began. Weaker opponents were not bypassed, which would have allowed the Muslim army to focus on the real power in Europe and partially pick the battlefield. While leaving enemies in your rear is generally unwise, the Mongols proved that bypassing weaker foes to eliminate the strongest first can be a devastatingly effective mode of invasion. ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân’s failure to adequately scout Gaul was disastrous and disadvantaged the Muslim army in the battle.

The Battle

Both Western and Muslim histories agree that the battle was hard-fought, with the Umayyad heavy cavalry breaking into the square. The Franks, however, was in formation and still strongly resisting. Charles could not afford to stand idly by while Frankish territories were threatened, and his men were enraged by the utter devastation of the Aquitanians and wanted to fight. Charles probably made the best decision he could in waiting until his enemies least expected him to intervene and then marching by stealth to catch them by surprise at a battlefield of his choosing. It is probable that Charles and his own men did not realize the seriousness of the battle they had fought. Few battles are remembered over 1,000 years after they are fought, but the Battle of Tours-Poitiers is an exception. Charles Martel turned back a Muslim raid that had it been allowed to continue, might have conquered Gaul.

The Importance of Charles Martel’s Victory

Had Charles failed, there was no remaining force to protect Western Europe. The battle may justly be reckoned among those few battles of which a contrary event would have essentially varied the drama of the world in all its subsequent scenes. Strategically and tactically, Charles probably made the best decision he could in waiting until his enemies least expected him to intervene and then marching by stealth to catch them by surprise at a battlefield of his choosing. Roger Collins disputes interpretations of ever-expanding Umayyad forces, reminding their internal cohesion problems and the capture of Autun in 725 when the Burgundian stronghold was captured and sacked, then just abandoned by Anbasa’s raiding forces. Charles Martel’s victory was crucial in halting the Muslim advance into Europe and shaping the course of European history.

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The Battle of Tours

The Battle of Tours

Charles Martel’s victory at the Battle of Tours in 732 CE is one of the most significant events in the history of France. This momentous battle marked the end of the Umayyad conquest of Europe and secured the future of Christian Europe.

The Great Chronicles of France, a collection of historical texts that document the country’s history, provide valuable insights into Charles Martel’s life and his heroic deeds during the Battle of Tours. According to these chronicles, Charles Martel was a strong and charismatic leader who united the Frankish tribes against the invading Muslim army.

The chronicles also describe the battle in vivid detail, highlighting Charles Martel’s tactical genius and bravery. They recount how the Muslim army, led by the Emir Abd al-Rahman, outnumbered Charles Martel’s forces, but Charles managed to outsmart them by selecting a favorable terrain and using his cavalry to charge into the enemy’s flank.

The Great Chronicles of France also depict Charles Martel as a deeply religious man who saw his victory as a divine intervention. They note that he gave thanks to God for his triumph and vowed to use his power to defend Christianity and protect his people.


  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, February 19). Battle of Tours. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

  • Collins, R. (2004). Visigothic Spain 409–711. Blackwell Publishing
  • Fouracre, P. (2000). The Age of Charles Martel. Routledge
  • Gibbon, E. (1788). The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. W. Strahan & T. Cadell
  • McKitterick, R. (1983). The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751–987. Longman
  • Oman, C. (1924). A history of the art of war in the middle ages, Vol. 1. Methuen & Co

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