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At the death of his father in 714, Pippin's widow Plectrude claimed the government in Austrasia and Neustria in the name of her grandchildren, and had Charles thrown into prison. But the Neustrians threw off the Austrasian yoke and entered into an offensive alliance with the Frisians and Saxons.
In the general anarchy Charles succeeded in escaping, defeated the Neustrians at Ambleve, south of Liege, in 716, and at Vincy, near Cambrai, in 717, and forced them to come to terms. In Austrasia he wrested the power from Plectrude, and took the title of mayor of the palace, thus prejudicing the interests of his nephews. According to the Frankish custom he proclaimed a king in Austrasia in the person of the young Clotaire IV., but in reality Charles was the sole master - the entry in the annals for the year 717 being "Carolus regnare coepit."
Once in possession of Austrasia, Charles sought to extend his dominion over Neustria also. In 719 he defeated Ragenfrid, the Neustrian mayor of the palace, at Soissons, and forced him to retreat to Angers. Ragenf rid died in 731, and from that time Charles had no competitor in the western kingdom. He obliged the inhabitants of Burgundy to submit, and disposed of the Burgundian bishoprics and countships to his leudes. In Aquitaine Duke Odo (Eudes) exercised independent authority, but in 719 Charles forced him to recognize the suzerainty of northern France, at least nominally.
After the alliance between Charles and Odo on the field of Poitiers, the mayor of the palace left Aquitaine to Odo's son Hunald, who paid homage to him. Besides establishing a certain unity in Gaul, Charles saved it from a very great peril.
In 711 the Arabs had conquered Spain. In 720 they crossed the Pyrenees, seized Narbonensis, a dependency of the kingdom of the Visigoths, and advanced on Gaul. By his able policy Odo succeeded in arresting their progress for some years; but a new vali, Abdur Rahman, a member of an extremely fanatical sect, resumed the attack, reached Poitiers, and advanced on Tours, the holy town of Gaul.
In October 732 - just roo years after the death of Mahomet - Charles gained a brilliant victory over Abdur Rahman, who was called back to Africa by the revolts of the Berbers and had to give up the struggle. This was the last of the great Arab invasions of Europe. After his victory Charles took the offensive, and endeavoured to wrest Narbonensis from the Mussulmans. Although he was not successful in his attempt to recover Narbonne (737), he destroyed the fortresses of Agde, Beziers and Maguelonne, and set fire to the amphitheatre at Nimes. He subdued also the Germanic tribes; annexed Frisia, where Christianity was beginning to make progress; put an end to the duchy of Alemannia; intervened in the internal affairs of the dukes of Bavaria; made expeditions into Saxony; and in 738 compelled some of the Saxon tribes to pay him tribute.
During the government of Charles Martel important changes appear to have been made in the internal administration. Under him began the great assemblies of nobles known as the champs de Mars. To attach his leudes Charles had to give them church lands as precarium, and this had a very great influence in the development of the feudal system. It was from the precarium, or ecclesiastical benefice, that the feudal fief originated. Vassalage, too, acquired a greater consistency at this period, and its rules began to crystallize. Under Charles occurred the first attempt at reconciliation between the papacy and the Franks. Pope Gregory III., menaced by the Lombards, invoked the aid of Charles (739), sent him a deputation with the keys of the Holy Sepulchre and the chains of St Peter, and offered to break with the emperor and Constantinople, and to give Charles the Roman consulate (ut a partibus imperatoris recederet et Romanum consulatum Carob sanciret). This proposal, though unsuccessful, was the starting-point of a new papal policy. Since the death of Theuderich IV. in 737 there had been no king of the Franks. In 741 Charles divided the kingdom between his two sons, as though he were himself master of the realm. To the elder, Carloman, he gave Austrasia, Alemannia and Thuringia, with suzerainty over Bavaria; the younger, Pippin, received Neustria, Burgundy and Provence. Shortly after this division of the kingdom Charles died at Quierzy on the 22nd of October 741, and was buried at St Denis. The characters of Charles Martel and his grandson Charlemagne offer many striking points of resemblance. Both were men of courage and activity, and the two men are often confused in the chansons de geste.