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The Childrens Crusade

One day in May 1212 there appeared at Saint-Denis, where King Philip of France was holding his court, a shepherd-boy of about twelve years old called Stephen, from the small town of Cloyes in the Orléannais. He brought with him a letter for the King, which, he said, had been given to him by Christ in person, who had appeared to him as he was tending his sheep and who had bidden him go and preach the Crusade. King Philip was not impressed by the child and told him to go home. But Stephen, whose enthusiasm had been fired by his mysterious visitor, saw himself now as an inspired leader who would succeed where his elders had failed. For the past fifteen years preachers had been going round the country-side urging a Crusade against the Moslems of the East or of Spain or against the heretics of Languedoc. It was easy for an hysterical boy to be infected with the idea that he too could be a preacher and could emulate Peter the Hermit, whose prowess had during the past century reached a legendary grandeur. Undismayed by the King's indifference, he began to preach at the very entrance to the abbey of Saint-Denis and to announce that he would lead a band of children to the rescue of Christendom. The seas would dry up before them, and they would pass, like Moses through the Red Sea, safe to the Holy Land. He was gifted with an extraordinary eloquence. Older folk were impressed, and children came flocking to his call. After his first success he set out to journey round France summoning the children; and many of his converts went further afield to work on his behalf. They were all to meet together at Vendôme in about a month's time and start out from there to the East.

30,000 Massed at Vendome

Towards the end of June the children massed at Vendôme. Awed contemporaries spoke of thirty thousand, not one over twelve years of age. There were certainly several thousand of them, collected from all parts of the country, some of them simple peasants, whose parents in many cases had willingly let them go on their great mission. But there were also boys of noble birth who had slipped away from home to join Stephen and his following of "minor prophets" as the chroniclers called them. There were also girls amongst them, a few young priests, and a few older pilgrims, some drawn by piety, others, perhaps, from pity, and others, certainly, to share in the gifts that were showered upon them all. The bands came crowding into the town, each with a leader carrying a copy of the Oriflamme, which Stephen took as the device of the Crusade. The town could not contain them all, and they encamped in the fields outside.

When the blessing of friendly priests had been given, and when the last sorrowing parents had been pushed aside, the expedition started out southward. Nearly all of them went on foot. But Stephen, as befitted the leader, insisted on having a gaily decorated cart for himself, with a canopy to shade him from the sun. At his side rode boys of noble birth, each rich enough to possess a horse. No one resented the inspired prophet travelling in comfort. On the contrary, he was treated as a saint, and locks of his hair and pieces of his garments were collected as precious relics. They took the road past Tours and Lyons, making for Marseilles. It was a painful journey. The summer was unusually hot. They depended on charity for their food, and the drought left little to spare in the country, and water was scarce. Many of the children died by the wayside. Others dropped out and tried to wander home. But at last the little Crusade reached Marseilles.

Greeted Kindly in Marseilles

The citizens of Marseilles greeted the children kindly. Many found houses in which to lodge. Others encamped in the streets. Next morning the whole expedition rushed down to the harbour to see the sea divide before them. When the miracle did not take place, there was bitter disappointment. Some of the children turned against Stephen, crying that he had betrayed them, and began to retrace their steps. But most of them stayed on by the sea-side, expecting each morning that God would relent. After a few days two merchants of Marseilles, called, according to tradition, Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, offered to put ships at their disposal and to carry them free of charge, for the glory of God, to Palestine. Stephen eagerly accepted the kindly offer. Seven vessels were hired by the merchants, and the children were taken aboard and set out to sea. Eighteen years passed before there was any further news of them.

Meanwhile tales of Stephen's preaching had reached the Rhineland. The children of Germany were not to be outdone. A few weeks after Stephen had started on his mission, a boy called Nicholas, from a Rhineland village, began to preach the same message before the shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne. Like Stephen, he declared that children could do better than grown men, and that the sea would open to give them a path. But, while the French children were to conquer the Holy Land by force, the Germans were to achieve their aim by the conversion of the infidel. Nicholas, like Peter, had a natural eloquence and was able to find eloquent disciples to carry his preaching further, up and down the Rhineland. Within a few weeks an army of children had gathered at Cologne, ready to start out for Italy and the sea. It seems that the Germans were on an average slightly older than the French and that there were more girls with them. There was also a larger contingent of boys of the nobility, and a number of disreputable vagabonds and prostitutes.

Most Never Returned Home

The expedition split into two parties. The first, numbering according to the chroniclers, twenty thousand, was led by Nicholas himself. It set out up the Rhine to Basle and through western Switzerland, past Geneva, to cross the Alps by Mont Cenis pass. It was an arduous journey for the children, and their losses were heavy. Less than a third of the company that left Cologne appeared before the walls of Genoa, at the end of August, and demanded a night's shelter within its walls. The Genoese authorities were ready at first to welcome the pilgrims, but on second thoughts they suspected a German plot. They would allow them to stay for one night only; but any who wished to settle permanently in Genoa were invited to do so. The children, expecting the sea to divide before them next morning, were content. But next morning the sea was as impervious to their prayers as it had been to the French at Marseilles. In their disillusion many of the children at once accepted the Genoese offer and became Genoese citizens, forgetting their pilgrimage. Several great families of Genoa later claimed to be descended from this alien immigration. But Nicholas and the greater number moved on. The sea would open for them elsewhere. A few days later they reached Pisa. There two ships bound for Palestine agreed to take several of the children, who embarked and who perhaps reached Palestine; but nothing is known of their fate. Nicholas, however, still awaited a miracle, and trudged on with his faithful followers in Rome. At Rome Pope Innocent received them. He was moved by their piety but embarrassed by their folly. With kindly firmness he told them that they must now go home. When they grew up they should then fulfil their vows and go to fight for the Cross.

Little is known of the return journey. Many of the children, especially the girls, could not face again the ardours of the road and stayed behind in some Italian town or village. Only a few stragglers found their way back next spring to the Rhineland. Nicholas was probably not amongst them. But the angry parents whose children had perished insisted on the arrest of his father, who had, it seems, encouraged the boy out of vainglory. He was taken and hanged.

The second company of German pilgrims was no more fortunate. It had travelled to Italy through central Switzerland and over the Saint Gotthard and after great hardships reached the sea at Ancona. When the sea failed to divide for them they moved slowly down the east coast as far as Brindisi. There a few of them found ships sailing to Palestine and were given passages; but the others returned and began to wander slowly back again. Only a tiny number returned at last to their homes.

Deceived, Sold as Slaves, Slaughtered

Despite their miseries, they were perhaps luckier than the French. In the year 1230 a priest arrived in France from the East with a curious tale to tell. He had been, he said, one of the young priests who had accompanied Stephen to Marseilles and had embarked with them on the ships provided by the merchants. A few days out they had run into bad weather, and two of the ships were wrecked on the island of San Pietro, off the south-west corner of Sardinia, and all the passengers were drowned. The five ships that survived the storm found themselves soon afterwards surrounded by a Saracen squadron from Africa; and the passengers learned that they had been brought there by arrangement, to be sold into captivity. They were all taken to Bougie, on the Algerian coast. many of them were bought on their arrival and spent the rest of their lives in captivity there. Others, the young priest among them, were shipped on to Egypt, where Frankish slaves fetched a better price. When they arrived at Alexandria the greater part of the consignment was bought by the governor, to work on his estates. According to the priest there were still about seven hundred of them living. A small company was taken to the slave-markets of Baghdad; and there eighteen of them were martyred for refusing to accept Islam. More fortunate were the young priests and the few others that were literate. The governor of Egypt, al-Adil's son al-Kamil, was interested in Western languages and letters. He bought them and kept them with him as interpreters, teachers and secretaries, and made no attempt to convert them to his faith. They stayed on in Cairo in a comfortable captivity; and eventually this one priest was released and allowed to return to France. He told the questioning parents of his comrades all that he knew, then disappeared into obscurity. A later story identified the two wicked merchants of Marseilles with two merchants who were hanged a few years afterwards for attempting to kidnap the Emperor Frederick on behalf of the Saracens, thus making them in the end pay the penalty for their crimes.

It was not the little children that would rescue Jerusalem. . . .


The above text is taken from Steven Runciman's classic three volume work, A History of the Crusades (Cambridge, 1951), Volume III:
The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades, pp.139-144.

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