A ruthless and successful warlord who played a pivotal role, as mayor of the palace (714–741), in the rise to royal and imperial rank of the carolingian dynasty which carried his name (lat. Carolus ); b. c. 688; d. Quierzy, Oct. 22, 741.
Charles Martel was the son of Pepin II by Alpaida, his concubine, or possible wife. Nothing is known of the first 26 years of Charles's life. In the turmoil following Pepin II's death, Charles was seen as a threat within the family by Plectrude, Pepin's widow, who had him imprisoned. He escaped from captivity and embarked on a career that the sources reveal in outline, but do not give enough detail to explain fully his remarkable success. We know that between 715 and 717 he consolidated his power in Austrasia, and that he did the same in Neustria between 718 and 719. During the years 720–741 he was able to assert his power in the outer regions of the Frankish kingdom and its neighbours.
Under a new merovingian king, Chilperic II (715/6–721), Ragamfred, the Naustrian mayor of the palace, attacked Austrasia in association with his Friesian allies. Charles led the resistance to Radbod, but suffered his only recorded defeat. The Neustrian invaders reached Cologne and only withdrew after being given a large amount of treasure by Plectrude. On their return, they were ambushed successfully by Charles at Ambleve, near Malmedy, in the heart of Pepinid territory. Early in the following year, Charles took the war to Ragamfred, defeating the Neustrians at Vinchy, near Cambrai (April 717). He secured control of his father's treasure from Plectrude and raised up Chlothar IV, a Merovingian of questionable ancestry, as the first Austrasian king in four decades. Charles was now the undisputed leader of Austrasia and the Pepinids.
Over the next two years, Charles extended his control over Neustria. On the convenient, if suspicious, death of the Austrasian king Chlothar IV in 718, Charles acted as mayor of the palace to a single Merovingian ruler, Chilperic II, claiming hegemony over the whole Frankish kingdom. Charles was helped in strengthening the central authority by three factors: the residual strength of the idea that the kingdom was a single political community, fears among the regional nobility at a breakdown of social order, and the threat of Muslim attack. Nevertheless, the sheer size of the territory he aspired to control meant that Charles was committed to constant and repetitive campaigning on the periphery of the Frankish kingdom.
Charles and his successors earned much prestige by their campaigns against non-Christian groups (Muslims, Frisians, and Saxons) that combined military success with religious zeal. Traditionally, the greatest of Charles's military achievements was held to be his defeat of a Muslim army at Poitiers in October 732. For Edward Gibbon, it was one of the world's decisive victories for having saved Western Christendom from a seemingly relentless Muslim advance from recently-conquered Visigothic Spain. Recent research has questioned the location, date, and significance of the battle. Raids into Frankish territory continued for some years until they were effectively stopped during the 740s by civil war in Spain while Septimania, the region between the Rhone delta and the Pyrenees that had been part of the Visigothic kingdom, remained under Muslim control until 759, in the reign of Charles's son, pepin iii. The immediate consequence of Charles's victory was that it asserted his power in Aquitaine. This advance was not entirely welcome to some local Christian rulers, such as Maurontus of Marseilles, who were prepared to cooperate with Muslim allies in resistance. Nevertheless, in the nineth century, Charles's military success earned him the title 'the Hammer' (lat. Martellus ).
In 739 Charles's reputation as an outstanding warrior prompted Pope Gregory III (715–731) to send him embassies, bearing such valuable relics as the keys to Saint Peter's tomb and links from his chains, in order to solicit aid against the encroaching Lombard king, Liutprand. Nothing seems to have come of this. Charles may well have preferred to retain the Lombards as allies in view of the help they had recently given him during his campaign against the Muslims in Provence. The close alliance between the papacy and the Franks, with its momentous consequences for western Christianity, was not to be forged until the time of Pepin III (751–768).
Like his father, Charles Martel offered support to missionaries, especially those from England. There were two Anglo-Saxon groups, one led by willibrord, active in Frisia from 690 to 739, and the other by boniface, active in Friesia, Hesse, and Thuringia from 716 to 753. Their missionary work produced social and religious changes that smoothed the integration of peripheral areas into the Frankish world. Perhaps their greatest achievements lay in reorganizing the Church in nominally Christian areas. From the 660's the papacy had been more active in its relations with Europe beyond the Alps, but it now came into closer contact with Charles Martel, his sons, and the whole Frankish kingdom through these missionaries. From Boniface, too, there is a sharply critical picture of a lax Frankish church, which is not entirely justified.
From the time that he achieved supreme power in the Frankish kingdom, Charles was identified by various titles such as 'duke' (lat. dux ) or ’prince' (lat. princeps ), but never as king (lat. rex ). He took great care to legitimize his position by acting under the nominal authority of a Merovingian ruler: Chlothar IV (717–718), Chilperic II (716–721), and Theuderic IV (721–737). From 737 until his death in 741, Charles operated without a Merovingian on the throne.
Any assessment of the career and significance of Charles Martel is complicated by the nature of the sources, which are overwhelmingly written with a bias that justifies the end of the Merovingian dynasty and glorifies the rise of the Carolingians. Charles is celebrated, paradoxically, as a champion of Christianity against nonbelievers, but also as a great despoiler of Church property. As a way of reconciling these opposing views, the German historian Heinrich Brunner argued, in 1887, that Charles had taken land from the Church in order to lease it to his followers, giving them the resources to create a more costly cavalry army that was superior to its opponents. A more modern twist has been to take the introduction of stirrups as a technological stimulus to this change. The social and economic consequences were profound, giving birth to a society based on the holding of land in return for military service.
Recent work has shown, however, that there is no evidence to support these views. Charles's reputation as a despoiler of Church lands was developed in the mid-ninth century by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims (845–882), who used earlier sources to castigate the Carolingian rulers of his own time for their abuses. The rise of Charles Martel can be explained through his success on the battlefield, his ruthless political skill and the consequent accumulation of resources, especially through the reunification of Austrasia and Neustria, which attracted supporters in increasing numbers. While Charles was prepared to punish opponents and reward allies with Church land, there is no evidence that he systematically followed such a policy, nor that he was the first to do so. Charles consolidated his power by alliances with key bishops, abbots and magnates. If the age of Charles Martel ushered in change, there were, nevertheless, fundamental continuities between the Merovingian and Carolingian worlds. Charles was buried at the royal monastery of St. Denis among the Merovingian kings.
Bibliography: p. fouracre, The Age of Charles Martel (London and New York 2000). r. a. geberding, The Rise of the Carolingians and the Liber Historiae Francorum (Oxford 1987). r. mckitterick, The Frankish Kingdom under the Carolingians (London and New York 1983). i. n. wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms 450–751 (London and New York 1994).
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.
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). □