10th October 732 was the day on which Charles Martel, leader of the Franks, earned his nickname of Charles the Hammer, by virtue of his decisive victory over the Moors at the Battle of Tours.
The Moors had crossed from North Africa into Spain in 711 to begin their occupation that would last for nearly 800 years. However, they had ambitions to cross the Pyrenees into what is now France, in a bid to conquer the whole of Europe if at all possible. They were led by the governor of Spain, Abd ar-Rahman.
Their first victory was at Bordeaux where they easily defeated Eudo, the Duke of Aquitaine, before heading north towards Tours which they had heard was full of treasure just waiting to be plundered.
Eudo fled hot-foot to Paris where he urgently sought help from Charles Martel. The two had hardly been best buddies in the past, so Charles only agreed to help if Eudo would swear to be Charles’s vassal in future. Eudo had little choice, so the two leaders assembled an army of 30,000 men, divided between infantry and cavalry.
They met the Moorish army somewhere between Tours and Poitiers (the battle is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Poitiers). The Moors had an army that was about 80,000 strong, composed entirely of cavalry, the men being lightly armoured and armed with scimitars and lances.
The two armies spent the next six or seven days watching each other warily and manoeuvring for position, with the occasional skirmish. The Moors were particularly keen to protect the booty that they had already plundered during their advance from Spain.
One advantage that Charles had was that the Franks had been fighting against the Moors for about twenty years and therefore knew a great deal about their preferred battle tactics, which consisted primarily of mounting massive cavalry charges and sweeping all before them. Charles knew that he had to defend against such an approach, and that was the secret of his success in this instance.
The Moors mounted charge after charge but could not break the defensive wall that Charles had set up, formed into squares in a manner used to great success more than a thousand years later by the British army during the Napoleonic wars. The Franks, their cavalry dismounted, threw javelins and axes at the Moors when they got within range and the latter’s casualty rate grew alarmingly.
A rumour then got around that the wagons containing the Moors’ booty were under attack. They had to be defended at all costs, so the horsemen turned away from attacking the Franks to the more important task of defending their treasure. However, the rumour turned out to be false. Whether it had been planted by the Franks as a psychological ploy is open to debate, but it would have been a good tactic to use.
However, when the Moors returned to their camp they realised that another rumour was entirely true, namely that Abd ar-Rahman had been killed. There was nothing for it but to abandon their mission and head back to Spain, leaving all their booty behind.
The Muslim threat to western Europe was thus averted for the foreseeable future, with the next major advance coming from the direction of Turkey in the 16th century.
Charles the Hammer was able to assert his dominance by taking over Aquitaine after Eudo died two years later, and to lay the foundations for the even greater empire that would be created by his grandson, Charlemagne, in the 9th century.
© John Welford