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Battle of Tours

History -- Military history -- List of battles -- France/History -- History of England

In the Battle of Tours in 732 the Frankish Charles Martel defeated an Islamic army under Emir Abd er Rahman. The result of this battle stopped the northward advance of Islam from Spain.

Table of contents


  • Franks, led by Charles Martel. Estimates of his forces vary, losses according to St. Denis[?] were about 1,500.
  • Muslims, 60-400,000 cavalry, under Abd er Rahman.

Prelude The Muslims in Spain for some years threatened French territories. Duke Eudes[?] had banned them from his territory in 721, but they returned in 725. This time Eudes proved unable to halt their advance and they penetrated as far as Burgundy. Forced to negotiate, Eudes wedded his daughter to Othmar, one of the Islamic emirs. This alliance with the Muslims angered the Frankish Mayor of the Palace Charles, who defeated Eudes in 731. Othmar died in 731, which ended the peace between Eudes and Spain.

In 732 Abd er Rahman, governour of Spain, marched over the Pyrenees, possibly to end the unrest on his northern border, but more likely to plunder the Frankish territories. According to William E. Watson, however, it wasn't an expedition for more plunder or an operation to spread the word of Muhammed, but rather "a(n)...attempt to eliminate a strategic threat located north of the Andalusia border."

When the Arab army crossed the Garonne, they continued their rampage. According to one unidentified Arab, “That army went through all places like a desolating storm.” Duke Eudes (called King by some), collected his army before Bordeaux. Abd er Rahman defeated Eudes near Bordeaux, plundered the town, and marched north to the River Loire. A possible motive was the riches in the cathedral of Tours. Upon hearing this, Austrasian Mayor Charles collected his army and marched south. His army consisted of veterans. Estimates vary widely, from 15,000 - 75,000.

Location Despite the supposedly great importance of this battle, its exact location remains unknown. Most historians assume that the two armies met each other where the rivers Clain[?] and Vienne join between Tours and Poitiers.

The battle Charles positioned his army at a place where he expected the Muslim army to pass, at a defensive position. Possbly his tightly packed infantry, armed with swords, spears and shield formed a phalanx-like formation. According to the Arabian sources they drew up in a large square.

For six days the two armies watched each other, with just minor skirmishes. Neither of them wanted to attack. The Franks were well dressed for the cold, and had the terrain advantage. The Arabs had prepared less well for the intense cold, but did not want to attack what they thought was a numerically superior Frankish army. The fight commenced on the seventh day, as Abd er Rahman did not want to postpone the battle indefinitely.

Abd er Rahman trusted the numerical superiority of his cavalry, and had them charge repeatedly. This time the faith the Muslims had in their cavalry, armed with their long lances, long swords and spears, which had brought them victory in previous battles, was not justified.

In one of the rare instances where medieval infantry stood up against cavalry charges, the disciplined Frankish soldiers withstood the determined charges, though according to Arab sources, their cavalry several times broke into the interior of the Frankish square.

For the Frankish soldiers the heavy Saracen cavalry looked invincible: heavily armoured, with even their horses wearing protective armour. Probably the numerous Berber cavalry was just lightely armoured.

According to a Frankish source the battle lasted one day, according to Arab sources two days. When the rumour went through the Arab army that Frankish cavalry threatened the booty they had taken from Bordeaux, many returned to their camp. This, to the majority of the Muslim army, appeared to be a full-scale retreat, and soon, it was one. Abd er Rahman attempted to stop this retreat. At this time he was surrounded and killed, and the Muslims returned to their camp.

The next day, when the Muslims did not renew the battle, the Franks feared an ambush. Only after extensive reconnaissance by Frankish soldiers of the Muslim camp did it turn out that the Muslims had retreated during the night.

Aftermath The Arab army retreated back south over the Pyrenees. Charles, who earned his nickname Martel (hammer) in this battle, drove the Muslims in the following years from the area between Arles and Avignon. He would continue by defeating the Muslims once more in a battle near the River Berre[?] near Narbonne.

Importance of the battle

The actual importance of the Battle of Tours is a topic of much debate. Some, such as the famous historian Edward Gibbon, contend that if Martel had fallen, then the Muslims would have easily conquered Europe. Gibbon, in fact, wrote a famous passage of prose on the topic, stating that "A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Muhammed." But perhaps if Martel had lost, Western Europe might still have mustered up the strength to repel the invaders. The historian Sir Edward Creasy[?], however, does not think so, saying, "it is unlikely a lesser man could have succeeded where his superior had failed." Others, such as the noted historian William E. Watson, say this is not the case, that the importance of the Battle of Tours has been greatly exaggerated over the passage of time, and that the only reason it's noteworthy of all, is that after the conclusion of this battle, Muslim invasions of Western Europe ceased.

Whatever the verdict, the death of Abd er Rahman caused the structure of the Muslim army to collapse. Leaderless and fighting among themselves, the Muslims could not muster up enough to make another stab at Europe. No further invasions of Europe were attempted.

There exists a culinary footnote to the Battle of Tours which, although somewhat apochryphal, seems credible. The victory was celebrated by Frankish bakers who fashioned bread in the form of the Islamic crescent and served it up to celebrating Franks who devoured the symbol of the invader. Today, the French croissant still has pride of place on most French breakfast tables.

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