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Battle Report Series: The Battle of Tours

The Battle of Tours was a conflict between the Umayyad Caliphate and the Kingdom of Francia who had support from Aquitaine. The Umayyad Caliphate, based in Damascus, engaged in rapid expansions that saw their armies conquer the Iberian peninsula. The Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi began advancing into Duke Odo’s territory of Aquitaine in what is now southern France. Duke Odo sought aid from Charles Martel, King of the Franks, and the two united their forces, to apprehend the threat of the Umayyad Caliphate. The foes met each other on October 10, 732. The Frankish forces hoped to catch the Umayyads by surprise as the Umayyads attempted to reach the city of Tours. The battle resulted in a decisive victory for the Franks, despite being outnumbered and without cavalry. The battle resulted in the abandonment of further expansion into Europe by the Umayyads. The battle of Tours is significant because it arguably preserved Christian dominance over western Europe and had the battle gone the other way, the history of Europe, and the world, could have been vastly different.

Charles Martel mounted depicted at the Battle of Tours

Background: The Kingdom of the Franks

The stereotype of Western Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was that the region immediately descended into chaos and would not recover for centuries. The reality is that even though the Western Roman Empire officially collapsed in 476CE, it began losing real control and influence much sooner. The people living under the control of the Western Roman Empire were nor ruled with an iron fist, and as the Western Roman Empire declined, their autonomy increased. A mere twenty years later, a new kingdom with centralized authority rose out of the ashes of Ancient Rome, the Merovingian Dynasty founded by Clovis I. This new kingdom styled themselves, King of the Franks. The Merovingian Dynasty lasted until 751CE. However, the king of the Merovingian Dynasty saw increasingly less power and became largely a ceremonial role. The real power of the Merovingian Dynasty rested with the Mayor of the Palace, who performed the necessary duties of running the Frankish Kingdom( Similar to the modern British constitutional monarchy, where a ceremonial king or queen exists, but the Prime Minister holds most of the power). The Mayor of the Palace at the time was, Charles Martel. Charles would lead to Frankish forces at the Battle of Tours.

Background: The Umayyad Caliphate and their expansion

Following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the new religion of Islam spread quickly under the armies of the Rashidun Caliphate. The Rashidun Caliphate spread it’s territory and Islam from the Arabian Peninsula, to North Africa and Central Asia. The rule of the Rashidun Caliphate lasted from 632CE-661CE. The Rashidun Caliphate collapsed due to the First Finta or Civil War. The First Finta stemmed from the assassination of Uthman, the 3rd ruler of the Rashidun Caliphate and a member of the Umayyad clan. The First Finta pitted the supporters of Uthman’s cousin, Muawiyah, against the fourth ruler of the Umayyad Caliphate, Ali. The First Finta ended in victory for the supporters of Muawiyah and led to the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate. The Umayyad Caliphate further expanded into North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. The Umayyads soon set their sights on Francia or the Kingdom of the Franks. The Umayyads established a base of operations in Narbonne in 720CE. The Umayyads seized several cities in Southern France that belonged to Visigothic counts without much resistance. The Umayyad Caliphate invaded the duchy of Aquitaine ruled by Duke Odo. Temporarily met with resistance, The Umayyads shifted their attention eastward and made some advances. In 730CE Duke Odo made a fateful alliance with a Berber commander who would soon be considered a traitor. The Umayyads would not let Duke Odo’s actions and the Umayyads invaded Aquitaine. Odo suffered heavy losses at the Battle of the River Garonne and it appeared his Duchy would be overrun. Desperate, Odo turned to an enemy, the Frankish Kingdom, the Merovingian Dynasty led by the Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel. In exchange for submitting to Charles’ authority, Odo received military assistance from Charles. The two sides were ready to face their common enemy.

The Battle of Tours

Charles and Odo deployed their forces composed almost entirely of heavy infantry, in a dense phalanx on top of a hill. The hill had dense trees in front in an attempt to hamper the Umayyad cavalry. While exact numbers for the strength of both sides exist, it is agreed that Franks was outnumbered. Tactically, Charles ordered his men to stay in their phalanx and wait for the Umayyad cavalry to charge them. As he had hoped, the Umayyad cavalry began the battle with cavalry charges. The Frankish army repelled the Umayyad cavalry but the turning point in the battle came when Charles sent some of his scouts to divert the attention of the Umayyad army. Charles’ scouts threatened the spoils of war the Umayyads carried to the battlefield from previous contests. When the Umayyad cavalry caught wind of this, a significant chunk of them returned to the army camp to try and protect their loot and their women, as it was said that some of the Umayyad soldiers brought their wives. This gave the impression of a full-fledged retreat. This impression of a retreat actually led to a real one and the entirety of the Umayyad army fled the battlefield. Within this chaos, the commander of the Umayyad forces, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi became surrounded by Frankish warriors and died. The Umayyad army left in such haste that they reportedly left their tents. The Frankish forces did not realize exactly what had happened and made camp for the night. The next day, the Franks reorganized their phalanx, only to find the Umayyads nowhere to be found! The Franks feared they had been outflanked or were facing an ambush. However, after extensive scouting and intelligence, the Franks realized the Umayyads had fully disappeared. The Franks, despite being outnumbered, delivered a smashing victory that halted the Umayyads advances into Europe.

A visual representation of the tactics used at the Battle of Tours

The Battlefield at the Battle of Tours


The Battle of Tours is unquestionably a noteworthy battle, but what exactly were its impacts om history. First, and most importantly, the Battle of Tours halted the spread of Islam into Western Europe. The Battle ended the First Umayyad invasion of modern-day France. The second invasion occurred from 735-739CE and arguably posed a greater threat. Although Charles did manage to resist the invasion, it ended largely because of turmoil within the Umayyad army. From a typical Western view, the Battle of Tours is a landmark battle that preserved Christian hegemony. This may not be entirely true, but if the Umayyads triumphed at Tours, Western Europe would be religiously diverse and as a result, may have been more divided. France engaged in a de facto Civil War during the French Wars of Religion. Imagine in the Middle Ages if parts of France practiced Christianity, while others practiced Islam. A similar history to Spain might have occurred, with a divided nation and then a Reconquista by one kingdom. The other key effect of the Battle of Tours was Charles Martel's rise to power. Charles continued to be Mayor of the Palace which meant he held the real power in the Frankish Kingdom. In 737CE, the King, Theuderic IV, died but no successor was named. Charles essentially ruled as King until his death in 741CE. Charles' son Pepin the Short became king and established the rule of the Carolignian Dynasty. The Battle of Tours arguably preserved Christian rule over Western Europe and the history of Western Europe as we know it.

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