Who Was Charles Martel?

Charles Martel was a Frankish statesman and military leader who as Duke and Prince of the Franks and Mayor of the Palace, was de facto ruler of Francia from 718 until his death in 741AD.

The son of the Frankish statesman Pepin of Herstal and a noblewoman named Alpaida, Charles successfully asserted his claims to power as successor to his father as the power behind the throne in Frankish politics. Continuing and building on his father’s work, he restored centralized government in Francia and began the series of military campaigns that re-established the Franks as the undisputed masters of all Gaul.

After work to establish a unity in Gaul, Charles’ attention was called to foreign conflicts, and dealing with the Islamic advance into Western Europe was a foremost concern.

Arab and Berber Islamic forces had conquered Spain, crossed the Pyrenees, seized a major dependency of the Visigoths, and after intermittent challenges, under Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the Arab Muslim Governor of al-Andalus, advanced toward Gaul and on Tours, “the holy town of Gaul”; in October 732, the army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Al Ghafiqi met Frankish and Burgundian forces under Charles in an area between the cities of Tours and Poitiers (modern north-central France), leading to a decisive, historically important Frankish victory known as the Battle of Tours (or ma’arakat Balâṭ ash-Shuhadâ, Battle of the Palace of Martyrs), ending the “last of the great Arab invasions of France,” a military victory termed “brilliant” on the part of Charles.

Charles further took the offensive after Tours, destroying fortresses at Agde, Béziers and Maguelonne, and engaging Islamic forces at Nimes, though ultimately failing to recover Narbonne or to fully reclaim the Visigoth’s Narbonensis. He thereafter made significant further external gains against fellow Christian realms, establishing Frankish control over Bavaria, Alemannia, and Frisia, and compelling some of the Saxon tribes to offer tribute.

Apart from the military endeavours, Charles is considered to be a founding figure of the European Middle Ages. Skilled as an administrator as well as a warrior, he is credited with a seminal role in the emerging responsibilities of the knights of courts, and so in the development of the Frankish system of feudalism.

Moreover, Charles—a great patron of Saint Boniface—made the first attempt at reconciliation between the Franks and the Papacy. Pope Gregory III, whose realm was being menaced by the Lombards, wished Charles to become the defender of the Holy See and offered him the Roman consulship, though Charles declined.

He divided Francia between his sons Carloman and Pepin. The latter became the first of the Carolingians. Charles’ grandson, Charlemagne, extended the Frankish realms to include much of the West, and became the first Emperor in the West since the fall of Rome. Charles is seen as laying the groundwork for the Carolingian Empire. Gibbon wrote that Charles was “the hero of the age,” whereas Guerard describes him as being the “champion of the Cross against the Crescent.”