History is just that: a story. It follows people, the characters, through their environment, the setting, and the things that happen to them, the plot.
Like any story, it moves along thanks to specific events. And while they might not seem so significant at the moment, when we look back, we can use them to connect the dots to how we got where we are today.
One such event was the Battle of Tours. Fought between the invading, Muslim-run Umayyad Caliphate and the Christian Kingdom of the Franks, this battlefield duel drew a “line in the sand” in European history that is still alive and well in the 21st century.
The Advancing Muslim Kingdoms
To understand the Battle of Tours, the first place to look is the Middle East in the three centuries before the fighting began. Something was happening in these lands east of the Mediterranean and in the foothills of Asia.
In a word: Islam.
Founded in the 7th century by the Arabian prophet Muhammad, the monotheistic religion that descended from Judaism and Christianity had taken the Middle East by storm. Not only had huge swaths of territory converted to this new faith, its leaders, starting with Muhammad himself, had created a new empire.
As they spread their version of the word of God, they conquered new lands, spreading throughout Mesopotamia, western Asian lands such as Pakistan and India, as well as North Africa.
By the end of the 8th century, they had one of the largest empires in history. But they weren’t interested in stopping in North Africa, so they didn’t. In 711 AD, they crossed the Mediterranean and crashed onto the shores of Spain. Their armies quickly advanced through Spain, defeating the Visigoths and establishing a new province of their empire: Al-Andalus.
After so much success, why would they stop there?
Well, they didn’t. They crossed over the Pyrenees Mountains and into what is now France and kept on fighting.
Things were looking good for the Muslim caliphate. Until they weren’t.
The Christians Respond
The Battle of Tours is ultimately a story about the battle between Christianity and Islam. As Islam grew, it did so mainly in non-Christian lands.
The tribes of Arabia that united under Muhammad had been polytheistic, meaning they believed in many gods. As Islam spread, though, it came into contact with more and more Christian territories.
This worried the people of Europe. Not only did they devoutly believe their religion was the one true religion, but a threat to the Christian faith was a threat to the rulers of Europe who used faith as a source of their power.
So, when the Muslim-led armies crashed into Spain, a largely Christian territory, conquered it in the blink of an eye (historically speaking…it was more like a period of 50 years), there had to be a response.
The one to answer the call was a man named Charles Martel. He was the ruler of the Franks, a Germanic people who populated much of western Europe.
A Christian, Martel commanded a considerable army and rose to power as Islam was spreading into Europe. His decisions and the results of these decisions left a lasting mark on European history.
The Battle of Tours
The Battle of Tours itself took place in 732 AD, just twenty years after the Umayyad Caliphate had crossed into Spain. In just that short time, Muslim armies had made their way into what is now central France.
The lack of political unity at the time made it easy for the strong, unified army of the Caliphate to march across Europe. Kingdoms next to one another would often not come to the support of each other due to feuds both past and present.
This was exactly what the Umayyad army was hoping for when they attacked Tours, a wealthy city on the Loire River in central France. Technically part of Aquitaine, which Charles Martel had invaded for his own purposes, no one thought Martel would fight for the defense of Tours.
But Martel was a true man of mystery and did exactly what no one expected him to do.
The battle, which lasted more than a week, came as a surprise to the Umayyads army. Not only did they not really know that Martel and his army of Franks were waiting there, they had no idea how many people were in the army and how strong they really were.
So, the Umayyad commander, Abdul Rahman Al-Ghafiqi , sent his cavalry, or horse-mounted units, into the city for what he thought would be a quick victory.
Talk about wishful thinking.
The mainly-Frankish army was as big if not bigger than the invading force, and they fought them back handedly.
Martel’s force remained in the forest in the highlands, forcing Al-Gfaiqi’s army to try and charge uphill, something that never works, not even for Anakin Skywalker.
Numbers of casualties are impossible to know for sure, but by the end of the seventh day, the Umayyad army had lost.
Once beaten back, they turned and ran. Al-Gafiqi was killed in battle and the Muslim invasion of Europe was in big, big trouble.
Frankish Conquest of Gaul and the Early Stages of the Holy Roman Empire
After failing to beat back Martel, the Umayyad force ran south in retreat. Martel followed them, chasing them further and further from his people. Eventually, the Umayyad army crossed the Pyrenees.
“Finally!” he shouted. “Now down through Hispania and back to North Africa!”
Instead of making the same mistake his enemies had made by chasing them through foreign territory, Martel decided to call it a day once he felt safe.
He drew a line in the map, right through the Pyrnees and said “I’m done.”
This move had two major impacts.
First, it allowed him to maintain the gains he just made against the advancing Umayyad army.
Second, it allowed him to consolidate power in France. He just chased away the “evil” Muslims advancing with their army, outdoing his rival kings in the area, proving his strength to the people.
By stopping his pursuit, he made himself the most powerful man in western Europe.
The Rise of the Catholic Church
This victory, and the moves Martel made after it, put an end to the advance of Islam into Europe. The Umayyads would try again a few years later, but Martel’s position was too strong to defeat.
Internal strife in the Umayyad Caliphate also caused interest in a European invasion to stop. Eventually, Al-Andalus split off from its leaders in Damascus and became its own independent Caliphate.
The fact that this line that Martel “drew” also separated two very popular religions is why the Battle of Tours is so significant. From this moment on, the lands east of the Pyrenees were to be Christian. South of the Pyrenees were primarily Muslim.
Recognizing this divide, Martel did one more thing to cement his power. He went to the Pope, the leader of the Christian faith and one of the only authorities everyone would listen to and asked for his blessing to rule the land he had just conquered, or, as he might have put it, liberated from Muslim rule.
The Pope went along with this and the Frankish empire was born.
A New Era in Medieval History
The acknowledgement by the Church in Rome gave Europe its largest central authority since the fall of the Roman Empire. Many at the time still longed for the “glory days” or Rome, and were waiting for someone to take its place. For someone to fill that power vacuum.
The Frankish kingdom turned empire established by Martel helped fill this vacuum, at least for the time. Martel’s successors combined forces with the church to revive the title “Roman emperor” in an effort to unite Europe and Christianity.
In addition to proving the foundation for the Frankish empire, the Battle of Tours set the stage for the epic religious battle that was about to take place throughout the 11th and 12th centuries.
Stricken with fear over the threat of a Muslim invasion into Christian lands, the Pope and the kings of Europe would go on to organize the Crusades.
These wars sought to “take back” lands seen as rightfully Christian, which included the Holy Land of Jerusalem and the recently conquered Spain.
The Battle of Tours helped define the boundaries between the Christian and Muslim worlds and set the stage for conflicts that defined much of Medieval history.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao