Friday, March 18, 2011

France's Wars: Rise of the Franks 500-732

by Jack Le Moine

Did you ever notice that in almost every great war in history, France has been involved in some way? Here’s an example: The Franks conquer the other barbarians and launch a new era.

Summary: Under Clovis, they conquered France. Following him, the Franks were divided amid interminable civil wars and the descent into feudalism. They and France were saved by the rise of the Mayors of the Palace who stopped Arab invasion from Spain.

Background: Learning and civilization declined in this first of the Dark Ages. Clovis’ descendents were unable to maintain their power. The Mayors of the Palace acquired duties equivalent from starting as the king’s butlers, to being, to chief of staff, to prime minister.

When the latest Mayor of the Palace died in 714, his son, Charles Martel took over. He reunited the kingdom with some notable exceptions like Aquitaine in the southwest. He fought off constant raids from the Germanic tribes to the east. But his most consequential war was against France’s and Christian Europe’s greatest enemy: the Muslims from Africa.

In the 600’s the Arabs with their new Muslim religion erupted on the world. They destroyed the empire in Persia. They defeated the Byzantines in Palestine, Syria, and the Asia Minor, being stopped only by the fortifications of Constantinople itself. Conquerors headed west, across Egypt and North Africa. In 711 they entered Europe by the back door and conquered Spain. Next up was France.

Major Players:
1) France:
in a Dark Age, its government was regaining control under a strong ruler.

2) Other Countries:
Aquitaine: having successfully fought off the Franks, it maintained a rocky independence.

Muslims: chiefly Berbers from North Africa, in control of Spain but divided into two parties the Ma’ddites and the Yemenites. For purposes of the conquest, they were united under

3) The Leaders:
Abd ar-Rahman: the governor of the Yemenite party.

Charles Martel: of France, whose office “Mayor of the Palace” made him the modern equivalent of Prime Minister.

Charles Martel at
the Battle of Poitiers in October, 732.
Public domain image from Wikipedia.
Narrative: The Muslims took Narbonne. They turned this into their base of operations for their campaigns against France. Further attacks were stopped by the Aquitaines. They relieved the siege of Toulouse in 721.

In 725 the Muslims returned, capturing Carcassonne and Nimes. They occupied most of Septimania. They continued into Burgundy, destroying Autun.

Meanwhile, back in Spain, rivalries between the Ma’ddites and the Yemenites kept their armies at home. During the years of respite, Charles Martel worked on giving his army a cavalry arm to neutralize the Muslim advantage in that.

The time of respite ended in 732. Abd ar-Rahman invaded Aquitaine and destroyed their army and burned Bordeaux. They invaded the lands of the Franks, taking Poitiers. They now moved on Tours.

On a small hill they spied the Franks’ army under Charles Martel. Its location is unknown but is believed to be between Poitiers and Tours. For 7 days the armies the armies faced one another. I find it difficult to believe that the cavalry of both armies were inactive. Surely, there was much maneuvering for advantage.

Finally, the Muslims attacked. Their army consisted primarily of cavalry; the Franks infantry. The Franks’ lines held. The Muslim cavalry suffered heavy loss.

We know that Martel’s counter-attacks must have been limited at most because the next morning, they found the Arab tents deserted. Had the battle been joined on the Arab side of the field, their withdrawal during the night would not have come as a surprise.

Aftermath: The Muslims never came back. During this time, amphibious invasions had occupied Provence in the south. In the follow-up, Martel liberated this province. Revolts in North Africa sapped the Muslim armies’ strength, but even during times of power, the recovering strength of the Franks discouraged further attempts at invasion. Until the capture of Constantinople 700 years later (!), further Muslim expansion into Europe would henceforth have to come by sea. In France itself, a sense of shared purpose grew and countered the spreading feudalism of the age.

For Further Reading:


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