The Battle of Tours

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | iHeart Radio | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

In the year 732, one of the most important battles in world history took place between the cities of Tours and Portier in France. 

On one side was an unstoppable juggernaut that had amassed one of the largest empires in world history in less than a century. 

On the other side was a vastly outnumbered force that lacked the primary weapon of the era, heavy cavalry. 

The outcome of that battle can still be seen in the world today. 

Learn more about the Batte of Tours and the battle that shaped Europe on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

A while ago, I did an episode on the most important battles in history. These weren’t the biggest battles or the battles where a general showed the greatest brilliance, but the battles whose outcome managed to shape world history. 

These battles were civilizational battles. Battles between different cultures and empires, not just squabbles between neighboring kings or dukes over who will collect taxes on a piece of land. 

Several of these battles had to do with the rise of Islam. 

After the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632, Islam spread out from the Arabian peninsula like wildfire. To say that Islam was seemingly unstoppable is not an exaggeration. 

In a previous episode, I covered the accomplishments of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, one of the greatest generals in history. As far as we know, he was undefeated on the battlefield and was responsible for much of the early spread of Islam. 

The Rashidun Caliphate was the first Islamic state after the death of Mohammed, and within 30 years, it spread to conquer the Arabian Peninsula, much of modern Iran, the Levant, and the northeast coast of Africa. 

It was during the Rashidun Caliphate that another one of the great battles in history took place, the Battle of Yarmouk, in 636. I covered the Battle of Yarmouk in a previous episode, but basically, the forces of Islam defeated the Byzantine Empire, which was actually the remnants of the Roman Empire in the east. 

Having defeated the Byzantines, it ensured that Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant would be Muslim and not Christian, a state of affairs that still exists today. 

The Rashidun Caliphate was replaced by the Umayyad Caliphate in 661. While the leadership of the Islamic world changed, their success in expansion continued. 

For the purpose of this episode, focusing on their westward expansion, the Umayyad Caliphate spread across the entirety of North Africa, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, and began the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.  

On April 30, 711, General Tariq ibn-Ziyad led Moorish forces across the Mediterranean and landed in Gibraltar. 

In Iberia, they conquered the Visigoth people who had settled in the peninsula after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The entire area was called Al Andalus in Arabic. 

I’ve covered Al Andalus and the Reconquista, which took place 700 years later in previous episodes. 

The relevant point for this episode is that the Umayyad Caliphate didn’t stop at the Iberian Peninsula. 

By the early 8th century, there was a major concern throughout Europe that the continent would fall to Islam. Having conquered the Iberian Peninsula, forces of the Caliphate began conducting raids beyond the Pyrenees mountains into what is today modern-day France. 

In their initial forays into France, they found almost no resistance. 

In 720, the governor of Al Andalus, Al-Samh ibn Malik, established a foothold in what is today the city of Narbonne on the Mediterranean coast. 

From there, they used it as a base to begin raiding into southern France on the other side of the Pyrenees. 

However, on the other side of the Pyrenees, they didn’t see the same success that they did on the other side. 

In 721, at the Battle of Toulouse, the Umayyad forces were defeated by Duke Odo of Aquitaine, and during the battle, ibn Malik was killed.

This was a setback, but it didn’t stop the ambitions of the caliphate. For the next several years, they conducted raids out of Narbonne, going as far as Burgundy in 725.

By 732, the Umayyads had assembled a significant force led by the new governor of Al-Andalus, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, and they advanced into the Aquitaine. 

There, they met Duke Odo again at the Battle of the River Garonne, where this time they decisively defeated Odo. 

Odo fled north to seek help from Charles Martel. Martel held the title of Mayor of the Palace to the Merovingian kings of the Franks. He was basically the person who ran the kingdom but wasn’t the leader in title. The name “Martel” was an Old French word for “hammer.”

Martel and Odo had been rivals, and Martel offered his support to Odo on the condition that Odo pledged fealty to the Franks, which he agreed to. 

Martel had been aware of the Islamic threat for years and believed that to counter them, which he knew would eventually happen, he would need a professional, well-trained army, not an army of farmer conscripts. In particular, he needed to counter the vaunted Islamic cavalry. 

He established just such a professional army that had experience fighting in wars in Saxony, witsome men having been under his command for almost 20 years.

Knowing that Abdul Rahman was on the move, Martel assembled his army of approximately 30,000 men and set out to meet the Umayyad forces.

In order to keep the element of surprise, Martel had his army travel by side roads, and he also made sure to position himself so he could select the field of battle that would be advantageous to him.

He selected a place between the towns of Tours and Poitiers. I should note that, as with many battles from antiquity, we don’t know exactly where it took place. We only know that the battle took place somewhere between Tours and Poitiers, which are about 90 kilometers apart from each other. 

We also know, based on historical accounts, that the site he selected was a high, wooded plain that required Abdul Rahman’s forces to attack uphill, with trees in the way. This landscape would take away much of the advantage of the Umayyads’ cavalry.

Abdul Rahman was indeed taken by surprise and had no idea that there would be a large force blocking him from raiding Tours, which was a very wealthy city. 

He had the numerical advantage, and he waited for all his forces to arrive while engaging in skirmishing with the Franks. 

When Abdul Rahman’s troops began to arrive, they had difficulties with the climate. Abdul Rahman and his men were used to the warmer temperatures of Al Andalus and North Africa. It was now October in France, and temperatures were starting to drop. 

After seven days of skirmishing, the Muslim forces assembled and began the attack. We do not know the exact date that the battle took place.

It is believed that the Franks had about 30,000 men, and the Umayyads had about 80,000. However, Abdul Rahman had no idea the size of the Frankish force because they were mostly hidden by trees. 

Martel had no heavy cavalry of his own, which was very unusual for this time period. Heavy cavalry were the tanks of that age and were a key component to almost every military conflict. 

Martel had his men heavily armed and formed themselves into squares, similar to how ancient Greek troops would form a phalanx. 

The Umayyads threw wave after wave of cavalry at the Franks, who managed to repel them each time due to the advantage of the terrain, their formation, and the experience of their soldiers. Another factor was the fact that the Islamic cavalry was lightly armored, which made them more susceptible to infantry.

The Umayyad horsemen would take their plunder from attacks and buy jewels and trinkets, not heavy armor. Their weapons were usually spears that would break on first contact, and their armor was usually just a chainmail shirt. 

Eventually, the Umayyads did break through the Frankish lines and attempted to attack Martel directly, but his personal guard managed to repulse the attack. 

What eventually swayed the battle was a flanking maneuver that Duke Odo conducted. He took a Frankish cavalry force, swung wide around the Umayyad army, and attacked the Umayyad camp. 

All of the booty and plunder that the Umayyad army had collected was back at their camp, and that was the primary reason why most of the men were there. Many of them had traveled with their wives and families as well who were still at camp. 

A large part of the Umayyad army broke formations to retreat and defend their camp, which caused their lines to fall apart. 

As the Umayyad forces retreated to their camp, Abdul Rahman attempted to rally his troops and reform his line. However, he was quickly surrounded and killed by the Franks. 

With the leader dead, the Umayyad army retreated back to Al Andalus.

Charles Martel prepared for a counterattack the next day, but it never happened. 

This was not the last attempt of the caliphate to attack France, but it was by far the largest and the most serious. 

In 736 and 739, there were other raids into France, but they proved just as unsuccessful. There were no serious attempts to advance beyond the Pyrenees again. 

So, how did an army that had been almost unstoppable for a century suddenly fall short once it entered France?

Much of the credit goes directly to Charles Martel, who had clearly been preparing for this conflict for several years. He had a trained, experienced army who was able to defend against cavalry attacks. 

Martel had the element of surprise and was able to pick the field of battle. The cold weather of October in France probably also played a part. 

However, there was probably also an element of hubris amongst the Umayyad forces and leaders. 

Abdul Rahman, who otherwise was considered a good leader, committed many basic errors, including letting his opponent pick where the battle was to take place. 

The Umayyads had experienced so much success that they probably thought failure was simply impossible and got sloppy. The fact that so many men in their army were primarily concerned with their plundered loot was also used against them. 

Ultimately, what makes the Battle of Tours still worth talking about 1300 years after it happened has to do with the implications of the battle. 

Many historians see the Battle of Tours as the event which set the limits of Islamic expansion in Europe. It was as responsible for Europe remaining Christian as the Battle of Yarmouk was for the Middle East becoming Muslim. 

It stopped the unstoppable force, which was the Umayyad Caliphate, and put limits on their territorial expansion, at least in the West. 

The battle also had huge implications for the political alignment of Europe. 

The battle cemented the power of Charles Martel. Charles was never a king, but his son Pepin was, becoming the first Frankish king in the Carolingian Dynasty, a dynasty named after Charles Martel. 

Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, was named after Charles and, in 800, became the first European emperor since the fall of the Western Roman Empire over 300 years earlier. Charlemagne was the first Holy Roman Emperor, which began a line that continued until the early 19th century. 

The Battle of Tours, like the Battle of Yarmouk, is seldom taught in schools today, but it should be because the outcome of the battle had such wide-ranging implications for the entire world. 

If the events of October 732 had gone another way, we would be living in a very different world today. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from an email I recently received from Jennifer in California. She writes: 

Dear Gary,

I wanted to thank you for your great episode on non-Euclidean geometry from December! I teach a Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry course at California State University Monterey Bay. Your podcast is one of the best short descriptions I have seen of how non-Euclidean geometry came to be and why we should care. I assigned it to my students this semester as a first-day discussion topic. Thanks for the great work that you do on the show!


Jennifer Clinkenbeard 

Thanks, Jennifer! I can’t tell you how much it pleases me whenever I hear of teachers using my episodes in the classroom. If there are any other teachers out there who have used any of my episodes in the classroom, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.