Charles Martel

The Frankish ruler Charles Martel (ca. 690-741) reestablished central authority in Francia and constructed a power base on which the Carolingian monarchs founded their empire.

To understand the historical importance of Charles Martel ("the Hammer"), it is necessary to appreciate the situation of the last Merovingian kings of Francia and to understand what historians generally refer to as the crisis of the mid-8th century, namely, the expansion of Islam and the sealing off of the Mediterranean. After the reign of Dagobert I (629-639) the Merovingian royal house was weakened by the fact that none of the later kings survived until manhood. Therefore in the 7th century the real power of government was exercised by the mayors of the palace. These officials controlled the royal treasury, dispersed patronage, and granted land and privileges in the name of the king.

The Merovingian kingdom in Gaul comprised two major subkingdoms, Neustria (the northwestern portion) and Austrasia (northeastern Gaul and the Rhineland), each of which was ruled by a mayor of the palace. The respective rulers of the two kingdoms fought bitterly for supremacy, and in 687 at the battle of Tetry, the Austrasian mayor, Pepin of Heristal, defeated the Neustrian mayor and united the two kingdoms. It was thus the task of Pepin and his son Charles Martel to restore centralized government in the Frankish kingdom and to combat the expanding power of Islam.

Charles Martel was the illegitimate son of Pepin of Heristal and a noblewoman named Alpaide. When Pepin died in 714, Charles successfully asserted his claims to power over the resistance of Pepin's widow, Plectrude, and became mayor of the palace. Charles attracted and maintained a group of personal retainers who formed the core of the royal army. Most of his reign as mayor of the palace was spent in checking the expansion of the Saracens in southern France and in the Rhone-Saône Valley.

In October 732 Charles won a major victory against the Saracens outside Poitiers despite the fact that the invaders were mounted and the Franks were on foot. The battle, aside from temporarily checking the expansion of the Moslems, was of long-range significance because it was here that Charles became convinced of the necessity of cavalry. After Poitiers, Charles developed the cavalry as his primary offensive fighting force. This change, however, proved highly expensive, and the cost of supporting and training men on horseback led to the adoption of a means of support that had far-reaching consequences. Charles found it necessary to "borrow" considerable lands from the Church; he then dispersed these properties among his lay retainers. The old army of Frankish freemen became less important, and gradually a considerable social distinction developed between the mounted knight and the ordinary foot soldier. Thus the elite class of mounted warriors who dominated medieval France owed their origins to the military policy of Charles Martel.

In his effort to maintain unity in the Frankish realm and to combat the Saracens, Charles relied heavily on the support of the Church and particularly on that of Boniface, the great missionary to the Germans. Charles encouraged the missionary efforts of Boniface and in return received new territories and considerable ecclesiastical revenues to support his fighting force. His role as protector of Christendom lay primarily in his wars against the Saracens. In 739 Pope Gregory III asked him to defend the Holy See against the Lombards; Charles, however, did not intervene because of an earlier treaty with the Lombards.

Charles Martel died at the royal palace at Quierzy on Oct. 22, 741, and was buried at the abbey of St. Denis.


Further Reading on Charles Martel

A brief survey of the historical contribution of Charles Martel is in Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire, translated by Peter Munz (1957). See also Ferdinand Lot, The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages (1927; trans. 1931).