Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

9. Charles Martel |
The fearsome Franks halt the Muslim tide

Charles Martel is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 232, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Across North Africa and Spain, Islam seems unstoppable, until Charles Martel and his men of the north block the way

Charles Martel - The fearsome Franks halt the Muslim tide

Charles Martel - The fearsome Franks halt the Muslim tide
Frankish warriors burst into a Muslim camp at Poitiers, in what is today south-central France (depicted in this nineteenth-century engraving from Guizot’s History of France). After the conquest of North Africa and Spain, the seemingly invincible Arab-led armies probed northwards into Frankish territory, and for the first time encountered the fearsome, ax-wielding Franks.

Muslim tradition preserves and cherishes the triumphant story of Uqba ibn Nafi, the daring cavalry commander who led his little Arab force west from Egypt along the three-thousand-mile coast of North Africa, defying all the perils of the Byzantine-held ports and highly untrustworthy Berber tribesmen, until finally he reached the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There, urging his horse into the surf and scanning the boundless waters, Uqba cried out in triumph and frustration: “Allahu Akbar! [God is great!] But were it not for this sea, I would still ride on to the unknown kingdoms of the west, preaching the unity of Allah, and putting to the sword the rebellious nations who worship any other god but him!”

The year was 683, but Uqba’s shout would resonate in the fears of twenty-first-century Americans. Thirteen hundred and eighteen years later, on the opposite side of that same ocean, other Muslims, having hijacked three airliners, would issue the same cry, “Allahu Akbar!” as they tried to make good on Uqba’s vision.1

His declaration was in fact the high point of an endeavor that began forty-one years earlier, when the Muslims, looking west from Egypt, decided that their conquests had scarcely begun. Egypt was certainly a prize, but if the whole world was to be conquered for Islam, as the Prophet was taken to intend, it was merely one step. So they pushed tentatively along the Mediterranean’s south shore in pursuit of the next great prize: Christian Carthage, home of Tertullian, Cyprian and the mighty Augustine, all of whom had played such pivotal roles in the growth of Christianity, and the bounteous prefecture of North Africa.

By the seventh century, however, Christianity in North Africa had fallen on bad times. The mixed population of Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines was rent by dissension, both political and religious. The mountains and deserts of the interior, little touched by any invader, were the domain of the Berbers, also known as Moors from their presumed original homeland in Mauritania. The Berbers may be descendants of the biblical Canaanites, or the Phoenicians, and as John Bagot Glubb observes in The Great Arab Conquests, they are a stubborn people who even today resolutely preserve their distinctive race and their Hamitic-derived languages.

Although the Christian faith was vibrant in the Roman-dominated cities, it was also afflicted by various schisms and heresies. Its bishops were particularly suspicious of Byzantine theological ultimatums, and most of them had little use for those issued by Rome either. In the sixth century, African bishops fought so bitterly against Justinian’s “Three Chapters” edict that the emperor finally arrested and deported many of them. In the seventh, they vehemently opposed the similar Monothelitist doctrines of Emperor Constans II.

The advent of Islam increased the religious tension, as refugee theologians from Muslim-conquered Alexandria moved to Carthage, bringing with them, says historian Henri Daniel-Rops, “their eternal taste for theological wrangling” (The Church in the Dark Ages). However, the most damaging schism in Christian North Africa had been created by the Donatist movement–rigorist, exclusivist and peculiar to North Africa alone. For three hundred years, Donatism had survived ferocious efforts to extirpate it, and on the eve of the Arab invasion was as lively as ever.

Inland, a Christian presence of any kind was relatively weak. Some Berbers had adopted Judaism. Many more had become Christian, but were likely to espouse their faith–or to abjure it–more from political convenience than religious conviction. (Under Islam, this tendency would continue, despite frequently grievous consequences. “When the Berbers apostatize,” declared one exasperated Muslim historian, “they do it twelve times over!”)

Politically, the story was the same. The Roman Empire had never really subdued or gained the allegiance of the Berbers, and Byzantium oscillated between conciliation and ferocious retribution. Late in the sixth century, after the whole region west of Egypt was elevated to the status of a seven-province prefecture, its governors won significant victories over the Berber tribes, controlling their chronic raiding. But one governor, the praetorian prefect John, characteristically forced two of their chieftains to serve him as slaves. Such humiliating gestures gave the Berbers further cause to hate Byzantium.

For these and other reasons, the Muslims met little resistance in the 660s, as they moved all the way to the city of Barqa, about five hundred miles along the coast. Within a decade, an Arab—Berber army commanded by the above-mentioned Uqba had established a base south of Carthage, which he called Qayrawan, to command the surrounding country and serve as a rallying point for further conquests. However, the offensive bogged down, partly because of supply problems,2 and partly because Uqba possessed neither taste nor talent for compromise. He treated his Berber allies with what historian C. H. Becker calls “impolitic haughtiness,” (Cambridge Medieval History, volume 2), and was inclined to summarily execute any who accepted Islam and then recanted.

So Uqba was replaced as North African commander by a freed slave named Dinar Abu al-Muhajir, who clapped Uqba into irons and shipped him east. Dinar, who did understand diplomacy, made an ally of the paramount Berber chief, Kusaila, an erstwhile Christian, and was able to advance to the border between Morocco and Algeria. But favor and fortune in the Muslim world could change abruptly, and with the accession of a new Umayyad caliph at Damascus, back came Uqba. Not a man to forgive and forget, he loaded Dinar with chains and proceeded to exhibit him about the countryside. Though he quickly alienated Kusaila, he nevertheless managed to push right across Morocco and capture Tangier. Where the river Sous flows into the Atlantic at present-day Agadir, he finally ended his great odyssey, shouting his challenge to the ocean winds and waves.

But Uqba again proved unable to maintain his gains, and on his homeward march in 683, he was ambushed by Kusaila’s Berbers. Uqba perished, as did the hapless Dinar, still in his chains.3 At that point, the Berbers (having, as they saw things, switched allegiance and become Christian again, or as the Muslims saw things, having committed mass apostasy) rose en masse and drove all the Islamic forces right back to Barqa.

For a time, Qayrawan provided a haven for African Christians, but in 688, an Islamic army again thrust westward and recaptured it. (It changed hands three times in less than three decades.) About this time, Chief Kusaila fell in battle, and an extraordinary woman made her spectacular appearance on the stage of events: the legendary Dahia al-Kahina (Dahia the Priestess), known to her opponents as “queen of the Berbers.” Reputedly a seer and prophetess, she was an African of Jewish faith, and her army comprised Berbers, Jews and Christians.

In Outrageous Women of the Middle Ages, historian Vicki Leon speculates that al-Kahina headed a Berber tribe of the Atlas Mountains. This turbaned woman, her white robes vividly accentuating her coffee-colored skin and kohl-lined eyes, must have been a compelling figure as she charged with her warriors into battle, silver dagger flashing. Regaining the conquered territory as far east as Tripoli, for some five years she ruled much of North Africa. Her nemesis was a new Muslim commander, Hassan ibn Numan, expert strategist and diplomat.

By getting some of the Berber tribes on side, Hassan defeated the doughty queen in 703 in a battle near Gafsa (Tunisia), in which she herself was killed. Her head, it is said, was sent to the caliph–gruesome recognition of Muslim regard for a notable enemy. She had slowed, although not stopped, the Muslim invaders, but they were equally impeded by another factor.

On land, they could beat Byzantines, Berbers, or even both together, but they could not offset the power of the Byzantine navy that supplied the coastal cities. When Hassan captured Carthage in the summer of 697, the Byzantines regained it the same fall by using their fleet. Now, however, came a reversal that for centuries to come would prove decisive: Islam became seaborne, Byzantium’s control of the Mediterranean ended, and the tables were turned. (See sidebar, page 251.) In 698, the Muslims once more took Carthage, dispersing a Byzantine fleet with a bigger one of their own, and soon all the African coastal centers were in their hands.

It remained only for their next general, Musa ibn Nusair, backed by Berber allies, to sweep through Morocco, persuading or coercing the indigenous inhabitants to embrace Islam, if only to share in the battles and the booty. By 708, almost all North Africa was under Islamic control, with every vestige of Latin or Greek civilization quickly disappearing. So were most of its Christians–and more completely, historians note, than in any other conquered region. Many died in the conquest itself, many fled to Europe when Umar II made them choose between apostasy and exile, and many accepted Islam. The whole process took only about half a century.

By 710, the holdout Christian area consisted of a strip of land centered on a formidable fortress at Ceuta. Ruled by a governor who was still at least nominally responsible to the Byzantine emperor, it was located on the African side of that narrow gap framed by the promontories known to the ancients as the Pillars of Hercules, where the waters of the Atlantic Ocean mingle with those of the Mediterranean Sea: the Strait of Gibraltar, eight miles across at its narrowest. North of the strait lay a truly fabulous bonanza, the country soon to be named by the Muslims al-Andalus (Andalusia).

The rest of the world now calls it Spain and Portugal; to the Romans, who had conquered most of it by 133 b.c., it was Hispania. With eight million or so loyal Christian inhabitants, and a thriving economy, it had been a bulwark of the old empire. But in 414 came invasion by some two hundred-thousand Visigoths, migrant tribes who had fought their way from eastern Europe via Gaul and Italy, sometimes as an ally of Rome, sometimes as its enemy. Over the next hundred years, the invaders drove out the Roman legions, and took over most of the Iberian Peninsula; they would rule it for the next two centuries.

The early effects of the Visigoth invasion mirrored that of barbarian incursions everywhere: roads and bridges in disrepair; mines and irrigation systems in disuse; cities deteriorating; little trade, and that sustained only by “foreigners.” Successive Gothic monarchs gradually adopted and adapted Roman administrative techniques, while blending Roman law with their own legal traditions. Although the Visigoths were Arian heretics in religion, their kings relied heavily on Hispania’s strong orthodox Christian ecclesiastical establishment, without which they could hardly have governed the large Hispano-Roman majority.

“Of all the kingdoms of western Europe, the Visigoths gave the best promise of a glorious future in the last years of the sixth century,” writes the Oxford historian C. W. C. Oman (The Mission of St. Augustine to England). The chief drawback was their Arian religion, which their kings long tried to maintain among the Visigoths, and at times to force upon the whole populace. Before the end of the sixth century, however, King Reccared, brother of the martyred Hermenegild (see sidebar, page 241), resolved to put an end to this chronic religious dissension. In 589, he embraced orthodox Christianity, urging his Arian bishops and nobles to do likewise.

Like the Roman emperors, Reccared believed that to safeguard his kingdom–and his throne–all his subjects must share one faith. To further the process, just as the emperor Constantine had summoned the Council of Nicea, so Reccared summoned the Spanish bishops to a solemn gathering in 589, where, again like Constantine, he set the terms. This was the Third Council of Toledo, which formally adopted full Nicene orthodoxy as the official faith of the Visigoth state.4 Most of his subjects followed their monarch’s lead, and he decisively suppressed a rebellion by a group of determined Arians who did not.

Under Reccared, the Visigoth capital of Toledo grew in opulence and influence, while Seville became a center of piety and learning under Bishop Isidore, a man whose life span (560—636) closely matches that of Muhammad (ca. 570—632). Isidore was famed for his sanctity and lavish almsgiving, for defending Trinitarian doctrine against Arianism, for founding schools and convents, but chiefly for his astounding erudition. His monumental Etymologiae comprises twenty books treating an immense range of subjects: theology, etymology, the seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy); natural science; political science; and what a later age would call social science. He clearly intended his work as a compendium of knowledge for a new Spain, a vision that would be cut short by the arrival of Islam.

Whatever qualities the Visigoth kingdom might have cherished, however, tolerance was not among them, as was evidenced in its horrific treatment of the Jews. Anti-Jewish policies, writes historian J. M. Wallace-Hadrill in The Barbarian West, represent “a grisly feature of seventh-century Visigothic legislation.” As one instance, in 616, King Sisebuto ordered that all Jews either be baptized or expelled. Even if they did convert, they were still regarded with suspicion and contempt. The Fourth Council of Toledo, in 633, ordered that children of converts be taken from their parents to be properly educated. Later councils wavered between impossibly punitive taxes on Jews, punishments like scourging and the shaving of all their hair, and hunting them down as suspected traitors. More and more fled the country, mostly to Africa.

The precise cause of such concentrated venom is elusive. Spain and North Africa abounded in Jews, refugees over the years from persecution in other places. Intelligent, hard working, and often well educated, they tended to acquire wealth and influence, and probably virulent envy as well. The most odious legislation, however, appears to have been inspired by the Visigothic fear of religious diversity.

Even so, the major weakness of seventh-century Spain did not lie in religious intolerance, but in its monarchical system. Custom decreed that any suitable member of the ruling family, not just a son, could succeed to the throne, a provision that positively encouraged assassination. Eleven of Spain’s thirty-three Visigoth kings were in fact assassinated, and three were deposed; the rest reportedly died unaided. Anyone with royal possibilities was also a likely target; both of Reccared’s sons, for example, were killed within two years of his death in 601.

In the century that followed, there were able Visigoth kings and even erudite ones. Sisebuto (612—621) was reputedly an author and poet. Swintila, who ruled for nineteen years, drove the Byzantines from their last stronghold in southern Spain. There were church builders like Recceswinth (649—672), especially remembered for San Juan de Banos at Palencia, one of the few churches to survive Muslim rule. There was even one particular monarch lovingly recalled in Spanish history as “Good King Wamba.” But many reigns were undistinguished and venal, and such, according to Visigoth chroniclers, was the second-to-last: that of Witiza, from 701 to 709.

Witiza began well, writes historian Henri Coppee (History of the Conquest of Spain by the Arab Moors), but reputedly degenerated into “private vice and public folly,” and in 709 faded from history. His precise fate is not recorded, but the next occupant of the Visigoth throne was Roderic, Duke of Baetica, and grandson of a previous king. After leading an uprising to supplant Witiza’s kin, Roderic was duly elected by his fellow chieftains, placed the crown on his own head, and built himself a sumptuous palace at Cordova. The Witiza faction thereupon crossed the strait looking for help from Julian, governor of the tag-end remnant of Rome’s African empire at Ceuta.

This Julian (Ilyan to Muslim chroniclers, and Urban or Olban to some later historians) is a figure of some mystery. The eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, calls him “Count Julian, the general of the Goths.” Arab chronicles variously identify him as a Berber merchant, or chief of a Moroccan tribe. Whoever he was, he apparently ruled Ceuta and environs as a quasi-independent territory, and he is believed to have helped Witiza’s sons by sponsoring a two-vessel raid on the Spanish coast.5

Such a small raid was scarcely enough to alarm Roderic. But it should have, for this spectacle of Christian fighting Christian did not escape the attention of Tariq ibn Zihad, Muslim governor of Tangier. Jewish traders and refugees would certainly have kept Tariq informed if no one else did. Who had better reason than they to detest the Visigoths? And for him and his commanding general, Musa ibn Nusair, Spain offered lavish plunder to retain the loyalty of their new and easily disillusioned Berber allies. Musa obtained from Caliph al-Walid I permission to invade, albeit accompanied by a stern warning to proceed with caution. An exploratory raid in 710, which returned with unprecedented booty, greatly augmented the recruiting of a major invasion force to be commanded by Tariq.

Now events moved swiftly. How swiftly and how treacherously can scarcely be imagined, for it was Christian Count Julian who helped the Muslims conquer Christian Spain. Most of what follows is extensively disputed as to detail, and much of it is more legend than history, but the result was entirely real: Muslim domination of Spain for more than seven hundred years. Tariq probably crossed the strait in April 711, with seven thousand men, in merchant ships again supplied by Julian. A contingent of Witiza supporters may have followed, and possibly Julian himself. Tariq is believed to have landed at the great stone massif then known as Mons Calpe, which thereby acquired its modern name: Gibraltar, from Jabel Tariq (“Tariq’s Mountain”). Within months, he had taken the cities of Carteya and Algeciras, and was marching on Cordova.

King Roderic had been fighting the Franks and Gascons on his northern borders, but a supporter, Count Theodemir, managed to stave off an attack on Cordova until July, when Roderic’s army arrived to confront the invaders. They probably met at the point where a small river called the Barbate flows into Lake Janda, not far from the town of Medina Sidonia. Arab sources make the unlikely claim that the Goth army numbered a hundred thousand, and the Arab historian al-Kortobi contemptuously describes Roderic as an effete potentate in gold crown and silk robe, riding languidly to battle in a chariot. Gibbon picks up on this, commenting that “Alaric would have blushed at the sight of this unworthy successor . . . reclining on a litter or cart drawn by two white mules.”

However that may be, by then Tariq’s original seven thousand soldiers had likely been augmented by another five thousand Berber horsemen, and the turbaned Berbers with their pennants, lances, scimitars and flashing cutlasses must have posed a daunting spectacle. But what clearly defeated Roderic was, as usual, the fatal disunity of the Visigoths. According to all reports, whole sections of his army deserted to the invaders as various chieftains decided to deal rather than fight. Some say that among these was Oppas, a brother of the late Witiza. What role was played in the battle by Witiza’s sons is uncertain, but they and their recruited forces appear to have been on hand, perhaps waiting to see what would happen.

The consequence for Roderic was complete and ignominious defeat–and possibly death. At a crucial point, according to legend, Tariq spotted a nobly caparisoned warrior he believed to be the Visigoth king, rushed upon him, and split his skull, helmet and all. As rumor flew through both hosts that Roderic was dead, his warriors scattered in panic, and their exultantly pursuing enemies slaughtered them by hundreds. But had Roderic indeed been killed? Credible sources categorically deny that he was the warrior singled out by Tariq. Nor was his body found by Lake Janda–only, according to some tales, a magnificent, riderless warhorse with a ruby-encrusted golden saddle, presumed to be the king’s famous steed Orelia, along with a royal crown and a pearl-embroidered sandal.

One credible theory is that Roderic, wounded, was borne along by his retreating army. Spanish sources, writes historian Rafael Altamira (Cambridge Medieval History), offer evidence that he rallied his forces at Medina Sidonia, held out another two years while being pushed gradually north, and died in a final battle in Salamanca province in 713. And the ninth-century Chronicle of Alfonso III describes a tomb discovered near the town of Viseu in central Portugal, inscribed in Latin “Here lies Rudericus, king of the Goths.”

These events surely persuaded the Muslim invaders that Allah was fighting for them. As in Egypt, an apparently powerful nation had simply collapsed before their tiny armies. How else could this be accounted for? Therefore, although Musa had instructed Tariq to secure his landing and await further orders, Tariq was not so inclined. Instead, he dispatched his men in separate brigades to take town after town, and they continued to meet with signal success.

Byzantine inhabitants made no pretense of resistance because they never had much liked the Visigoths, comments historian Gabriel Jackson, in The Making of Medieval Spain, and the same was doubly true of any remaining Jews. Both hoped for better things from the newcomers, and in most instances were not disappointed. Tariq’s commanders would leave one of the Jews in charge at each town, along with a small garrison, and move on to the next.

Initially, few Visigoths put up a fight either. One exception, Count Theodemir, lost most of his army defending the mountain passes of Murcia, and took refuge in Orihuela. Spanish legend tells how he had all the women there dress as warriors, with helmets and long lance-like rods, and their hair artfully arranged, beard-like, beneath their chins. He posted them on the walls to simulate a hefty garrison, then negotiated with the Muslim commander a surrender on favorable terms. Once official seals and signatures were affixed, of course, and the Muslims entered the town, the ruse was obvious. So impressed was their commander by Theodemir’s boldness, however, that he appointed him governor of Murcia, which the Arab conquerors took to calling Tudmir (Theodemir’s land).6

Meanwhile another Muslim force, assigned to capture Cordova, found a breach in the wall, infiltrated the city by night, and took it with scarcely a fight. Tariq marched on Toledo, where tradition holds that Jews opened the gates to him. There he reportedly met with Julian and some of the Witiza faction, and assigned them official posts, including that of archbishop of Toledo. This went to a man called Oppas, who may or may not have been Witiza’s brother. It is quite unlikely, however, that he was a legitimate bishop in communion with Rome, and a traitor to his faith. His name, a common one, does not appear on the official list of Toledo archbishops, and as Warren H. Carroll observes in The Building of Christendom, the Muslims preferred to install heretical bishops of their own choosing.

By the end of 711, less than half a year after their landing, they controlled half the Iberian Peninsula, but Musa was less than pleased with Tariq’s performance. Not only was Tariq getting most of the glory and of the plunder, he was also bypassing important cities. So Musa followed his lieutenant across the strait with another eighteen thousand men, including cohorts of Arabs as well as Berbers, and attacked Carmona, Seville and Merida. Merida obstinately resisted, not capitulating until June 713, and Seville later rebelled and was subdued by Musa’s son Abd al-Aziz. Musa himself proceeded to Toledo to confront Tariq with his disobedience.

In The Berbers in Spain, historian Stanley Lane-Poole tells the tale of their encounter. Tariq stepped forward to welcome the supreme governor of North Africa to the conquered Visigoth capital–whereupon Musa lashed at him with his whip, furiously upbraided him for exceeding orders, and put him in chains. But Tariq was in favor with the caliph, al-Walid, who now ordered Musa to reinstate him (for “he must not render useless one of the best swords of Islam”). Al-Walid also ordered Musa to come in person to Damascus, which to his very great sorrow he did the following summer.7

As Musa departed on the long march to Damascus in 714, the Muslims in Spain were extending their conquest to the Douro River in the northwest, writes Jackson, “more by diplomacy than battle.” In the northeast, they captured Saragossa (the old Caesarea Augusta) on the Ebro River, and received the submission of such other cities as Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast. Andalusia began settling down in relative peace under Abd al-Aziz, a process greatly encouraged by consistent application of the policy that had worked so well from the beginning. While resistance was met with utmost severity, submission was always rewarded by what has since been widely recognized as the mildest governance the Muslims ever accorded any country.

The only property confiscated was that of the pro-Roderic faction or the church; other estate owners merely had to pay equitable taxes. Local judges and priests continued to function as before. There were no forced conversions of Christians or Jews; they simply had to pay a poll tax. Conversion was usually discouraged, in fact, since the Andalusian emirs (governors) were reluctant to forego this tax revenue. Even the clergy, perhaps bearing in mind the peninsula’s long Arian history, made no protest. There seem to have been no martyrs, or even very militant Christians–except, that is, in mountainous Asturias.

In this narrow northern strip on the Bay of Biscay, which even Rome had never penetrated, constant rain and snow had carved countless cirques, sink holes, alpine lakes and huge underground caverns into the great mountains of the Picos de Europa range. Here, at a place called Covadonga, the few stubborn Visigoth nobles who would not submit to the new Islamic overlords took refuge, perhaps finding allies among the independent-minded Iberian and Celtic inhabitants of Asturias. Establishing themselves in a cavern they called Santa Maria, they elected as their king a cousin of Roderic’s named Pelayo, who had fled the country about fifteen years earlier to escape death during Witiza’s takeover.

In their mountain fastness, they waited for the blow they knew would come: the last Muslim thrust to secure all Spain for the Qur’an. About 722, it came. An army of twenty-five thousand, according to The Chronicle of Alfonso III, pushed north to put an end to what the Arab sources call “these despicable barbarians.” It was led by a Muslim commander and by Archbishop Oppas of Toledo, two experienced fighters, but the legends say that the hills and the heavens were both against them. An appearance of the Virgin Mary turned back their own arrows on the attackers. Then Pelayo lured them into a narrow defile, where his men loosed great boulders to crush them and block their retreat. Then the Diva River rose in a terrible storm and drowned many of the trapped warriors.8

After this, Muslim strategists decided that further effort to subdue the northwest–Galicia, Asturias, Leon, Castile and their mountainous neighbors–just was not worthwhile. Already they possessed, as the first European province of the Islamic Empire, the largest, richest and generally most pleasant part of the peninsula. Moreover, the remaining northeastern region offered far more beguiling possibilities than the stony, inhospitable, cold northwest. It was a richer source of booty, and it offered a clear passage into the continent. Although Musa himself probably never crossed the Pyrenees, some chronicles claim that he dreamed of a land link across Europe to the caliph in Damascus.

Though clearly attractive at the time, this strategy was to prove a grave error. Within a generation, Pelayo’s son-in-law, Alfonso I, would make the first small moves of the Reconquista, the recovery of Spain. To complete the reconquest would take more than seven centuries, but it began with the Battle of Covadonga. An old North American Indian proverb warns: “If you destroy a wasps’ nest, do not forget to destroy the wasps.” The Muslims neglected to destroy the wasps.

They began instead to raid into Visigoth territory north of the Pyrenees, easily defeating Duke Eudo of Aquitaine in 719, and thereafter pillaging his towns almost at will. They seized Narbonne, which they would hold for forty years, attacked Toulouse and Carcassonne, and in 725, reached into Burgundy to sack Autun. But by now, they were seriously threatening the kingdom of the Franks, the land later known as France, a people the Muslims had not yet encountered, and would not soon forget. The Franks were noted for many things, some outright contradictory: for fervent fidelity to Christian orthodoxy, for saintly monks and nuns, for fearless ferocity in war, for implacable determination, and not infrequently for gross cruelty and licentiousness.

In 732, a year that looms large in Christian history, the armies of Islam came up hard against the Franks. A major raiding force led by Abd al-Rahman ibn Abdullah al-Ghafiqi, the new emir of Andalusia, again defeated Eudo on the Garonne River near Bordeaux, then stormed, plundered and burned the city. Al-Rahman next headed towards Tours on the Loire, the city of Blessed Martin, revered pilgrimage center of the Franks, and therefore an especially promising prospect for more pillage.

But on the old Roman road that led from Poitiers to Tours (and thence to Paris, about another hundred miles distant) the booty-laden raiders encountered a formidable force of Franks. Tall, blond, hefty foot soldiers, they doubtless were veterans of constant conflict with invaders on other fronts: Bavarians, Alamanni, Saxons and Frisians. Moreover, they were commanded by the man who was currently establishing his control over the Merovingian kingdoms of Gaul, and founding in the process a new and powerful dynasty: Charles, a natural son of Pepin II. (See earlier volume, Darkness Descends, chapter 8.)

Unnerved by this spectacle, the Muslims drew back and made camp, the chronicles say, and for most of a week, the two armies took each other’s measure with light skirmishing. Charles was probably doing some local recruiting. Al-Rahman may have been moving some of his loot to a safer locale, while seeking a way to outflank his opponents. But at length he gave the signal and his mounted Berbers attacked, swooping in with javelin and cutlass on their small, swift horses. According to J. F. C. Fuller (Decisive Battles of the Western World), this was the sole Berber battle tactic: a wild, headlong charge continually repeated and “very wasteful of men.” (Of defensive tactics, Fuller adds, they possessed none worth mentioning.)

The Franks, clothed in leather and steel, their fair hair streaming below their helmets, were armed with spears, battle-axes and great two-edged swords, and drawn up as a solid phalanx ranged shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield. “The men of the north stood motionless like a wall of ice,” writes the awestricken chronicler Isidore of Beja. All day long, as wave after wave of Muslim cavalry crashed against them, they hacked and slashed down men and horses until the road and surrounding fields were choked with corpses.

Behind the carnage, the wall of Franks held firm–immovable, silent, awaiting the next charge, its dead propped up by the living–and against it, the Muslim cavalry eventually cracked and broke. By nightfall, so many Berber and Arab bodies were strewn on the battlefield that it became known in Andalusia as the Pavement of Martyrs. One of the martyrs was the commander himself, al-Rahman, leaving his army leaderless, but the Franks had no way of knowing this. They only knew, as they slumped exhausted in their places, that the attacks had ceased.

At dawn, their scouts cautiously approached the silent enemy tents (which were made, admiring Christian chroniclers noted, of crimson, yellow, and purple silk) and discovered–no one at all. The entire Islamic force was gone. They had abandoned the field, their tents, and even plunder and equipment. As for the Frankish leader, he had earned a name that would ring down the centuries: Charles Martel, meaning Charles the Hammer. “As a hammer of iron, of steel, and of every other metal,” declared The Chronicle of Saint Denis, “even so he dashed and smote in the battle all his enemies.”

Gibbon saw the Battle of Tours, sometimes called the Battle of Poitiers,9 as decisive for the future of Europe. “A victorious line had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the Rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire,” he wrote. “The repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the highlands of Scotland . . . and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Qur’an would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”

Later historians have scoffed at Gibbon’s suggestion, pointing out that al-Rahman’s offensive was no more than a large exploratory raid, aimed not at conquest but at plunder, but this contention ignores the fact that every Muslim conquest from Syria to Spain began with just such exploratory raids. When the raiders returned triumphant, loaded with loot and leading their despairing trains of enslaved people, conquest inevitably followed. In this first Muslim encounter with the Franks, however, the pattern was conclusively smashed. Here, the raiders had to abandon their booty, they brought home no slaves, and their leader and most of their comrades were dead.

After several more desultory ventures north of the Pyrenees produced similar results, the Muslims of al-Andalus seemed to lose all serious interest in the land of After several more desultory ventures north of the Pyrenees produced similar results, the Muslims of al-Andalus seemed to lose all serious interest in the land of the Franks. Besides, the Berbers of North Africa now rose in rebellion against the Umayyad caliphate, just as they used to rebel against the Romans. This cut off Andalusia from Damascus, and also blocked the emirs’ chief source of fresh warriors.

Fifteen years before the Battle of Tours, however, the Muslims had launched an attack whose long-term implications for Europe would nowhere be disputed. It was a full-scale attack on Constantinople–and it filled with dread that citadel of Christianity in the east.

This is the end of the Charles Martel category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 232, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Charles Martel from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at