What was the Battle of Tours (732)?

Introduction

The Battle of Tours, also called the Battle of Poitiers and, by Arab sources, the Battle of the Highway of the Martyrs (Arabic: معركة بلاط الشهداء‎, romanized: Ma’arakat Balāṭ ash-Shuhadā’), was fought on 10 October 732, and was an important battle during the Umayyad invasion of Gaul. It resulted in victory by the Frankish and Aquitainian forces under Charles Martel over the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, Governor-General of al-Andalus.

Details of the battle, including the number of combatants and its exact location, are unclear from the surviving sources. Most sources agree that the Umayyads had a larger force and suffered heavier casualties. Notably, the Frankish troops apparently fought without heavy cavalry. The battlefield was located somewhere between the cities of Poitiers and Tours, in Aquitaine in western France, near the border of the Frankish realm and the then-independent Duchy of Aquitaine under Odo the Great.

Al Ghafiqi was killed in combat, and the Umayyad army withdrew after the battle. The battle helped lay the foundations of the Carolingian Empire and Frankish domination of western Europe for the next century. Most historians agree that “the establishment of Frankish power in western Europe shaped that continent’s destiny and the Battle of Tours confirmed that power.”

Background

The Battle of Tours followed two decades of Umayyad conquests in Europe which had begun with the invasion of the Visigothic Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula in 711. These were followed by military expeditions into the Frankish territories of Gaul, former provinces of the Roman Empire. Umayyad military campaigns reached northward into Aquitaine and Burgundy, including a major engagement at Bordeaux and a raid on Autun. Charles’s victory is widely believed to have stopped the northward advance of Umayyad forces from the Iberian Peninsula and to have preserved Christianity in Europe during a period when Muslim rule was overrunning the remains of the Byzantine and Persian Empires.

Most historians assume that the two armies met where the rivers Clain and Vienne join between Tours and Poitiers. The number of troops in each army is not known. The Mozarabic Chronicle of 754, a Latin contemporary source which describes the battle in greater detail than any other Latin or Arabic source, states that “the people of Austrasia [the Frankish forces], greater in number of soldiers and formidably armed, killed the king, Abd ar-Rahman”, which agrees with many Arab and Muslim historians. However, virtually all Western sources disagree, estimating the Franks as numbering 30,000, less than half the Muslim force.

Some modern historians, using estimates of what the land was able to support and what Martel could have raised from his realm and supported during the campaign, believe the total Muslim force, counting the outlying raiding parties, which rejoined the main body before Tours, outnumbered the Franks. Drawing on non-contemporary Muslim sources, Creasy describes the Umayyad forces as 80,000 strong or more. Writing in 1999, Paul K. Davis estimates the Umayyad forces at 80,000 and the Franks at about 30,000, while noting that modern historians have estimated the strength of the Umayyad army at Tours at between 20,000-80,000. However, Edward J. Schoenfeld, rejecting the older figures of 60,000-400,000 Umayyads and 75,000 Franks, contends that “estimates that the Umayyads had over fifty thousand troops (and the Franks even more) are logistically impossible.” Similarly, historian Victor Davis Hanson believes both armies were roughly the same size, between 20,000 and 30,000 men.

Contemporary historical analysis may be more accurate than the medieval sources, as the modern figures are based on estimates of the logistical ability of the countryside to support these numbers of men and animals. Both Davis and Hanson point out that both armies had to live off the countryside, neither having a commissary system sufficient to provide supplies for a campaign. Other sources give the following estimates: “Gore places the Frankish army at 15,000-20,000, although other estimates range from 30,000 to 80,000. In spite of wildly varying estimates of the Muslim force, he places that army as around 20,000-25,000. Other estimates also range up to 80,000, with 50,000 not an uncommon estimate.”

Losses during the battle are unknown, but chroniclers later claimed that Charles Martel’s force lost about 1,500 while the Umayyad force was said to have 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 (721). Paul the Deacon reported correctly in his History of the Lombards (written around 785) that the Liber Pontificalis mentioned these casualty figures in relation to Odo’s victory at Toulouse (though he claimed that Charles Martel fought in the battle alongside Odo), but later writers, probably “influenced by the Continuations of Fredegar, attributed the Muslims casualties solely to Charles Martel, and the battle in which they fell became unequivocally that of Poitiers.” The Vita Pardulfi, written in the middle of the eighth century, reports that after the battle ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân’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 in the Continuations of Fredegar.

Umayyads

The invasion of Hispania, and then Gaul, was led by the Umayyad dynasty (Arabic: بنو أمية banū umayya / الأمويون al-umawiyyūn‎ also “Umawi”), the first dynasty of Sunni caliphs of the Sunni Islamic empire after the reign of the Rashidun Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali) ended. The Umayyad Caliphate, at the time of the Battle of Tours, was perhaps the world’s foremost military power. Great expansion of the Caliphate occurred under the reign of the Umayyads. Muslim armies pushed east across Persia and west across North Africa through the late 7th century.

The Umayyad empire was now a vast domain that ruled a diverse array of peoples. It had destroyed what had been the two foremost military powers, the Sasanian Empire, which it absorbed completely, and the greater part of the Byzantine Empire, including Syria, Armenia and North Africa, although Leo the Isaurian stemmed the tide when he defeated the Umayyads at the Battle of Akroinon (739), their final campaign in Anatolia.

Franks

The Frankish realm under Charles Martel was the foremost military power of western Europe. During most of his tenure in office as commander-in-chief of the Franks, it consisted of north and eastern France (Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy), most of western Germany, and the Low Countries (Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands). The Frankish realm had begun to progress towards becoming the first real imperial power in western Europe since the fall of Rome. However, 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.

Umayyad Conquests of Hispania

The Umayyad troops, under Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, the governor-general of al-Andalus, overran Septimania by 719, following their sweep up the Iberian Peninsula. Al-Samh set up his capital from 720 at Narbonne, which the Moors called Arbūna. With the port of Narbonne secure, the Umayyads swiftly subdued the largely unresisting cities of Alet, Béziers, Agde, Lodève, Maguelonne, and Nîmes, still controlled by their Visigothic counts.

The Umayyad campaign into Aquitaine suffered a temporary setback at the Battle of Toulouse. Duke Odo the Great broke the siege of Toulouse, taking Al-Samh ibn Malik’s forces by surprise. Al-Samh ibn Malik was mortally wounded. This defeat did not stop incursions into old Roman Gaul, as Moorish forces, soundly based in Narbonne and easily resupplied by sea, struck eastwards in the 720s, penetrating as far as Autun in Burgundy in 725.

Threatened by both the Umayyads in the south and by the Franks in the north, in 730 Odo allied himself with the Berber commander Uthman ibn Naissa, called “Munuza” by the Franks, the deputy governor of what would later become Catalonia. To seal the alliance, Uthman was given Odo’s daughter Lampagie in marriage, and Moorish raids across the Pyrenees, Odo’s southern border, ceased. However, the next year, the Berber leader killed the bishop of Urgell Nambaudus and detached himself from his Arabs masters in Cordova. Abdul Raḥman in turn sent an expedition to crush his revolt, and next directed his attention against Uthman’s ally Odo.

Odo collected his army at Bordeaux, but was defeated, and Bordeaux plundered. During the following Battle of the River Garonne, the Chronicle of 754 commented that “God alone knows the number of the slain”. The Chronicle of 754 continues, saying they “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

Odo, who despite the heavy losses was reorganising his troops, gave the Frankish leader notice of the impending danger knocking on the heartland of his realm, and appealed to the Franks for assistance, which Charles Martel only granted after Odo agreed to submit to Frankish authority.

It appears that the Umayyads were not aware of the true strength of the Franks. The Umayyad forces were not particularly concerned about any of the Germanic tribes, including the Franks, and the Arab chronicles of that age show that awareness of the Franks as a growing military power only came after the Battle of Tours.

Further, the Umayyads appear not to have scouted northward for potential foes, for if they had, they surely would have noted Charles Martel as a force to be reckoned with in his own account, because of his growing domination of much of Europe since 717.

Umayyad Advance towards 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. Having easily destroyed all resistance in that part of Gaul, the invading army had split off into several raiding parties, while the main body advanced more slowly.

The Umayyads delayed their campaign late in the year probably because the army needed to live off the land as they advanced. They had to wait until the area’s wheat harvest was ready and then until a reasonable amount of the harvested and stored.

Odo was defeated so easily at Bordeaux and Garonne, despite winning 11 years earlier at the Battle of Toulouse, because at Toulouse he had managed a surprise attack against an overconfident and unprepared foe: the Umayyad forces were mostly infantry, and what cavalry they did have were never mobilised. As Herman of Carinthia wrote in one of his translations of a history of al-Andalus, Odo managed a highly successful encircling envelopment which took the attackers totally by surprise, resulting in a chaotic slaughter of the Muslim forces.

At Bordeaux and again at Garonne, the Umayyad forces were mostly cavalry and had the chance to mobilise, which led to the devastation of Odo’s army. Odo’s forces, like other European troops of that era, had no stirrups at that time, possibly explaining it, and therefore no heavy cavalry. Most of their troops were infantry. The Umayyad heavy cavalry broke Odo’s infantry in their first charge, and then slaughtered them as they ran.

The invading force went on to devastate southern Gaul. A possible motive, according to the second continuator of the Chronicle of Fredegar, was the riches of the Abbey of Saint Martin of Tours, the most prestigious and holiest shrine in western Europe at the time. Upon hearing this, Austrasia’s Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel, prepared his army and marched south, avoiding the old Roman roads in so hoping to take the Muslims by surprise.

The Battle

Preparations and Manoeuvre

By all accounts, the invading forces were caught off guard to discover a large force sitting directly in their path to Tours. Charles achieved the total surprise he had hoped for. He then chose not to attack and rather began fighting in a defensive, phalanx-like formation. According to Arab sources, the Franks drew up in a large square, with hills and trees in their front to diminish or break up Muslim cavalry charges.

For seven days, the two armies engaged in minor skirmishes. The Umayyads waited for their full strength to arrive. ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân, despite being a proven commander, had been outmanoeuvred; he had allowed Charles to concentrate his forces and pick the field of battle. Furthermore, it was impossible for the Umayyads to judge the size of Charles’ army, since he had used the trees and forest to screen his true numbers.

Charles’ infantry were his best hope for victory. Seasoned and battle-hardened, most of them had fought with him for years, some as far back as 717. In addition to his army, he also had levies of militia which had not seen significant military use except for gathering food and harassing the Muslim army.

While many historians through the centuries have believed that the Franks were outnumbered at the onset of battle by at least two to one, some sources, such as the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754, disagree with that assertion.

Charles correctly assumed that ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân would feel compelled to give battle, and move on and try to loot Tours. Neither side wanted to attack. 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.

Charles had been preparing for this confrontation since the Battle of Toulouse a decade earlier. Gibbon believes, as do most historians, that 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. Moreover, as Davis points out, these infantrymen were heavily armed.

Formed into a phalanx formation, they were able to withstand a cavalry charge better than might be expected, especially as Charles had secured the high ground – with trees before him to further impede any cavalry charges. The failure of Arab intelligence extended to the fact that they were totally unaware of how good his forces were; he had trained them for a decade. And while he was well aware of the Caliphate’s strengths and weaknesses, they knew almost nothing about the Franks.

Furthermore, the Franks were dressed for the cold. The Arabs had very light clothing more suitable for North African winters than European winters.

The battle eventually became a waiting game in which the Muslims did not want to attack an army that could possibly be numerically superior and wanted the Franks to come out into the open. The Franks formed up in a thick defensive formation and waited for them to charge uphill. The battle finally began on the seventh day, as ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân did not want to wait any longer, with winter approaching.

The Engagement

‘Abd-al-Raḥmân trusted in the tactical superiority of his cavalry and had them charge repeatedly. The disciplined Frankish soldiers withstood the assaults, though 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. Paul Davis says the core of Charles’ army was a professional infantry which was both highly disciplined and well motivated, “having campaigned with him all over Europe”.

Turning Point of the Battle

Umayyad troops who had broken into the square had tried to kill Charles, but his liege men surrounded him and would not be broken. The battle was still in flux when – Frankish histories claim – a rumour went through the Umayyad army that Frankish scouts threatened the booty that they had taken from Bordeaux. Some of the Umayyad troops at once broke off the battle and returned to camp to secure their loot. According to Muslim accounts, in the midst of the fighting on the second day (Frankish accounts have the battle lasting one day only), scouts from the Franks sent by Charles began to raid the camp and supply train (including slaves and other plunder).

Charles supposedly had sent scouts to cause chaos in the Umayyad base camp, and free as many of the slaves as possible, hoping to draw off part of his foe. This succeeded, as many of the Umayyad cavalry returned to their camp. To the rest of the Muslim army, this appeared to be a full-scale retreat, and soon it became one.

Both Western and Muslim histories agree that while trying to stop the retreat, ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân became surrounded, which led to his death, and the Umayyad troops then withdrew altogether to their camp. “All the host fled before the enemy”, candidly wrote one Arabic source, “and many died in the flight”. The Franks resumed their phalanx, and rested in place through the night, believing the battle would resume at dawn the following morning.

The Following Day

The next day, when the Umayyad forces did not renew the battle, the Franks feared an ambush. Charles at first believed that the Umayyad forces were trying to lure him down the hill and into the open. This tactic he knew he had to resist at all costs; he had in fact disciplined his troops for years to under no circumstances break formation and come out in the open.

Only after extensive reconnaissance of the Umayyad camp by Frankish soldiers – which by both historical accounts had been so hastily abandoned that even the tents remained, as the Umayyad forces headed back to Iberia with whatever loot they could carry – was it discovered that the Muslims had retreated during the night.

Contemporary Accounts

The Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 “describes the battle in greater detail than any other Latin or Arabic source”. It says of the encounter that:

While Abd ar-Rahman was pursuing Odo, he decided to despoil Tours by destroying its palaces and burning its churches. There he confronted the consul of Austrasia by the name of Charles, a man who, having proved himself to be a warrior from his youth and an expert in things military, had been summoned by Odo. After each side had tormented the other with raids for almost seven days, they finally prepared their battle lines and fought fiercely. The northern peoples remained as immobile as a wall, holding together like a glacier in the cold regions. In the blink of an eye, they annihilated the Arabs with the sword. The people of Austrasia, greater in number of soldiers and formidably armed, killed the king, Abd ar-Rahman, when they found him, striking him on the chest. But 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. Rising from their own camp at dawn, the Europeans 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 reconnoitre and discovered that all the Ishmaelite troops had left. They had indeed fled silently by night in tight formation, returning to their own country. (Wolf (trans.), Chronicle of 754, p.145).

Charles Martel’s family composed, for the fourth book of the Continuations of Fredegar’s Chronicle, a stylised summary of the battle:

Prince Charles boldly drew up his battle lines against them [the Arabs] and the warrior rushed in against them. With Christ’s help he overturned their tents, and hastened to battle to grind them small in slaughter. The king Abdirama having been killed, he destroyed [them], driving forth the army, he fought and won. Thus did the victor triumph over his enemies. (Fouracre, Continuations of Fredegar, p.149).

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”.

The Latin word used for “warrior”, belligerator, “is from the Book of Maccabees, chapters 15 and 16”, which describe huge battles.

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

Strategic Analysis of the Battle

Gibbon makes the point that ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân did not move at once against Charles Martel, and was surprised by him at Tours as Charles had marched over the mountains avoiding the roads to surprise the Muslim invaders. Thus, Charles selected the time and place they would collide.

‘Abd-al-Raḥmân was a good general, but failed to do two things he should have done before the battle:

  1. He either assumed that the Franks would not come to the aid of their Aquitanian rivals, or did not care, and he thus failed to assess their strength before invasion.
  2. He failed to scout the movements of the Frankish army.

These failures disadvantaged the Muslim army in the following ways:

  1. The invaders were burdened with booty that played a role in the battle.
  2. They had casualties before they fought the battle.
  3. Weaker opponents such as Odo were not bypassed, whom they could have picked off at will later, while moving at once to force battle with the real power in Europe and at least partially pick the battlefield.

While some military historians point out that leaving enemies in your rear is not generally wise, the Mongols proved that indirect attack, and bypassing weaker foes to eliminate the strongest first, can be a devastatingly effective mode of invasion. In this case, those enemies were virtually no danger, given the ease with which the Muslims destroyed them. The real danger was Charles, and the failure to scout Gaul adequately was disastrous.

According to Creasy, both western and Muslim histories agree the battle was hard fought, and that the Umayyad heavy cavalry had broken into the square, but agreed that the Franks were in formation still strongly resisting.

Charles could not afford to stand idly by while Frankish territories were threatened. He would have to face the Umayyad armies sooner or later, and his men were enraged by the utter devastation of the Aquitanians and wanted to fight. But Sir Edward Creasy noted that:

when we remember that Charles had no standing army, and the independent spirit of the Frank warriors who followed his standard, it seems most probable that it was not in his power to adopt the cautious policy of watching the invaders, and wearing out their strength by delay. So dreadful and so widespread were the ravages of the Saracenic light cavalry throughout Gaul, that it must have been impossible to restrain for any length of time the indignant ardor of the Franks. And, even if Charles could have persuaded his men to look tamely on while the Arabs stormed more towns and desolated more districts, he could not have kept an army together when the usual period of a military expedition had expired.

Both Hallam and Watson argue that had Charles failed, there was no remaining force to protect Western Europe. Hallam perhaps said it best: “It 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: with Marathon, Arbela, the Metaurus, Châlons and Leipzig.”

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. Probably he and his own men did not realize the seriousness of the battle they had fought, as one historian put it: “few battles are remembered over 1,000 years after they are fought, but the Battle of Poitiers is an exception … Charles Martel turned back a Muslim raid that had it been allowed to continue, might have conquered Gaul.” 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.

Aftermath and Legacy

Umayyad Retreat and Second Invasion

The Umayyad army retreated south over the Pyrenees. Charles continued to expand south in subsequent years. After the death of Odo (c. 735), who had reluctantly acknowledged Charles’ suzerainty in 719, Charles wished to unite Odo’s duchy to himself, and went there to elicit the proper homage of the Aquitanians. But the nobility proclaimed Hunald, Odo’s son, as the Duke, and Charles recognised his legitimacy when the Umayyads entered Provence as part of an alliance with Duke Maurontus the next year.

Hunald, who originally resisted acknowledging Charles as overlord, soon had little choice. He acknowledged Charles as his overlord, albeit not for long, and Charles confirmed his Duchy.

Umayyad Invasion (735-739)

In 735, the new governor of al-Andalus again invaded Gaul. Antonio Santosuosso and other historians detail how the new governor of Al-Andalus, Uqba ibn Al-Hajjaj, again moved into France to avenge the defeat at Poitiers and to spread Islam. According to Santosuosso, Uqba ibn al-Hajjaj converted about 2,000 Christians he captured over his career. In the last major attempt at an invasion of Gaul through Iberia, a sizable expedition was assembled at Saragossa and entered what is now French territory in 735, crossed the River Rhone and captured and looted Arles. From there, he struck into the heart of Provence, ending with the capture of Avignon, despite strong resistance.

Uqba ibn al-Hajjaj’s forces remained in Septimania and part of Provence for four years carrying raids to Lyons, Burgundy, and Piedmont. Charles Martel invaded Septimania in two campaigns in 736 and 739, but was forced back again to Frankish territory under his control. Alessandro Santosuosso strongly argues that the second (Umayyad) expedition was probably more dangerous than the first. The second expedition’s failure[specify] put an end to any serious Muslim expedition across the Pyrenees, although raids continued. Plans for further large-scale attempts were hindered by internal turmoil in the Umayyad lands which often made enemies out of their own kind.

Advance to Narbonne

Despite the defeat at Tours, the Umayyads remained in control of Narbonne and Septimania for another 27 years, though they could not expand further. The treaties reached earlier with the local population stood firm and were further consolidated in 734 when the governor of Narbonne, Yusuf ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Fihri, concluded agreements with several towns on common defense arrangements against the encroachments of Charles Martel, who had systematically brought the south to heel as he extended his domains. He conquered Umayyad fortresses and destroyed their garrisons at the Siege of Avignon and the Siege of Nîmes.

The army attempting to relieve Narbonne met Charles in open battle at the Battle of the River Berre and was destroyed. However, Charles failed in his attempt to take Narbonne at the Siege of Narbonne in 737, when the city was jointly defended by its Muslim Arab and Berber, and its Christian Visigothic citizens.

Carolingian Dynasty

Reluctant to tie down his army for a siege that could last years, and believing he could not afford the losses of an all-out frontal assault such as he had used at Arles, Charles was content to isolate the few remaining invaders in Narbonne and Septimania. The threat of invasion was diminished after the Umayyad defeat at Narbonne, and the unified Caliphate would collapse into civil war in 750 at the Battle of the Zab.

It was left to Charles’ son, Pepin the Short, to force Narbonne’s surrender in 759, thus bringing Narbonne into the Frankish domains. The Umayyad dynasty was expelled, driven back to Al-Andalus where Abd al-Rahman I established an emirate in Córdoba in opposition to the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.

In the northeast of Spain the Frankish emperors established the Marca Hispanica across the Pyrenees in part of what today is Catalonia, reconquering Girona in 785 and Barcelona in 801. This formed a buffer zone against Muslim lands across the Pyrenees.

Before the Battle of Tours, stirrups may have been unknown in the west. Lynn Townsend White Jr. argues that the adoption of the stirrup for cavalry was the direct cause for the development of feudalism in the Frankish realm by Charles Martel and his heirs.

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