Saint Martin was born in AD 316 in what is now Szombathely Hungary, but was then a Roman Diocese of Pannonia. He came from a military background - his father was a Tribune (a higher rank than a centurion but below the legate - this was often a stepping stone to the Senate). Shortly after being born, the family moved to Pavia (then Ticinum), Italy when his father was granted land during his retirement. Saint Martin became a catechumen against the wishes of his family and began attending the newly legal Christian Church around the age of 10. Due to his father's military background and veteran retirement, Saint Martin was legally required to join the military at the age of 15. He did so, and joined a cavalry Alae, an elite group of cavalry.
At 18, he was stationed in Amiens, France (then Ambianensium civitas in Gaul). He belonged to the Equites catafractarii Ambianenses, an elite heavy cavalry unit that served often as the body guard of the Roman Emperor while he travelled. It was here, in the town of Amiens that he met a beggar along the roadside wearing torn and tattered clothes. He cut his expensive military cloak in half and handed it to the man so that he may be clothed. That night, as he rested, he had a dream of Jesus who was wearing the half cloak he had given the beggar. Jesus turned to the angels and said:
"Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe."
He awoke to find the cloak fully restored and was immediately baptized. Just a few years later, at the age of 20, his unit was called to partake in battle against an invading force near the modern German city of Worms. It was here he refused to participate in the violence, hearing a call from his Christian conscience. Saint Martin said:
"I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight."
Saint Martin offered to take the lead in the battle, unarmed, as an alternative to imprisonment as a visible signal that he had not chosen cowardice but had instead chosen the most difficult path. The army allowed it, but the invading force sued for peace before the battle began. He was then summarily released from military service.
Saint Martin left modern day Germany and went to Tours (then Caesarodunum) to become a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers. He was a staunch defender of the faith against Arianism and was eventually exiled and took refuge on the island Isola d'Albenga (then Gallinaria) in the Ligurian sea as a hermit. He returned in 361 to Tours and helped establish the Benedictine Liguge Abbey, the oldest monastery known in Europe. He preached throughout Gaul evangelizing to everyone he came across.
In 371 AD, Saint Martin was tricked to coming back into the city of Tours - someone had urged him to come and minister to someone who was near death from sickness. When he arrived he found out the true reason for his summons - he was to be consecrated Bishop, a role he reluctantly accepted. As Bishop, he immediately began destroying any Pagan temples, altars, and sculptures. He formed a Parish system, where he would travel to each parish on foot once a year to visit and help.
Just a few short years later, Saint Martin established the abbey at Marmoutier, longing to retire to a solitary and disciplined life in prayer. When the Priscillianist heresy broke out, Saint Martin and Bishop Ambrose of Milan travelled to the Imperial Court to persuade Emperor Magnus not to execute Priscillan (though they denounced his views as heretical , they did not believe the death penalty should be used). Saint Martin died in Candes-Saint-Martin, Gaul, in 397 AD. His body was taken to Tours and his sarcophagus reburied under the high alter of the new basilica there.
Clovis, King of the Franks, credited Saint Martin's intercession in Heaven to the victory over the Alemanni tribes and the defeat of Alaric II. The Merovingian monarchy venerated Saint Martin highly, with the veneration continuing on in the Carolingian dynasty.