The Children's Crusade was an unusual event in Medieval England, and aspects of it are difficult to separate truth from myth. The Children's Crusade followed the Fourth Crusade (1202 to 1204) by eight years. The Fourth Crusade was a failure, with crusaders not even reaching the Holy Land. On the way many crusaders had been more concerned about plundering goods, as witnessed in the Sack of Constantinople.
Nevertheless, despite the lack of long-term success to date by crusaders, the belief that the Holy Land needed to be captured was very much alive.
In 1212, a group of crusaders from France (and by some accounts, another also set off from Germany - see Nicolas's Crusade below) embarked on a crusade to the Holy Land. By itself, this was not at all unusual as several Christian armies had previously gathered to battle the Muslims. What was different however, according to the narrative, is that this group was comprised almost totally of children and youths. These were children aware or persuaded of the popular Christian sentiment that Jerusalem was theirs. They were convinced that it was their responsibility and mission to get to the Holy Land and that their journey would be under the protection of God.
Few specific facts are known about the Children's Crusade. The concept itself of a band of children travelling to Jerusalem is quite possibly a romantic myth. Nothwithstanding who this unsanctioned crusade was comprised of, the outcome was not far short of a disaster.
The story begins with a lad called Stephen of Cloyes. All we know about this boy is that he was a shepherd born around 1200, making him 12 years old at the time of the crusade. It is doubtful, being a peasant, that he would have been able to read or write. His experience would have been limited to work around a farm.
In May 2012 he is said to have made his way to the court of France's King Philip, with whom he demanded an audience. He appeared in front of the king, presenting him with a letter, purportedly given to him by Christ in the guise of a poor pilgrim, ordering the boy to organise a crusade to capture Jerusalem. Unsurprisingly, King Philip was less than impressed and bade the boy farewell.
Undeterred, Stephen took to the streets preaching to children about his missive from Jesus and that they should do their duty by accompanying him to the Holy Land to capture Jerusalem. The bands of boys and girls marched through castles, villages, towns and cities carrying crosses, candles and banners singing songs that included, amongst many others, "Lord God, Exalt Christianity! Lord God, Restore us the True Cross!"
Asked how the Mediterranean would be crossed, he replied that this would be easy. They would simply walk across, as God would part the waters and protect them. The story goes that by June 1212 Stephen had accumulated 30,000 followers - all of them children. There were around sixty descriptions of this in the late 13th century, of which around 16 were accounts believable at least in part by chroniclers including Matthew Paris. These accounts were included in writings of sober, matter-of-fact Victorian historians, but it now believed that these historians did not follow usual critical methods normally employed to describe such events, instead being influenced by romantic notion of the movement. Contemporary historians now generally disbelieve this aspect of the traditional narrative, and suspect that in fact the army was comprised in the main of the wandering poor and dispossessed.
The Roman Catholic Church never sanctioned the crusade. However, this did not deter the children. The Church could not bless a 'crusade' that was doomed to failure but the Church also did not stop it. Why? It is possible that the Church believed that the actions of the children might shame kings and emperors into getting a proper crusade going to capture Jerusalem.
Alas, the Children's Crusade was destined for failure. The distances were vast and walking them was tough for hardened soldiers, let alone children. Unsurprisingly, many of the child crusaders never made it even half-way, with large drop-outs, and even deaths from exhaustion, on the Vendome-Marseilles leg. Stephen's prophecy that the Mediterranean Sea would part didn't eventuate, and the last vestiges of the crusade crossed in seven boats from Marseille. That was the last time anyone heard from them.
However, many years later a priest returned from traveling around northern Africa and he claimed to have met some of the surviving children (now adults). He claimed that two of the seven ships had sunk killing all on board and that pirates had captured the other five ships and the children were sold into slavery. White skinned children were considered to be a valuable prize in Algerian and Egyptian slave markets.
There is no proof that any of this is true as none of the children who left Marseilles ever returned. It is impossible to know what actually happened to the participants of the crusade.
A German Children's Crusade also took place in 1212. This was led by a boy called Nicholas and he had 20,000 followers. His dream was exactly the same as Stephen's - take Jerusalem for Christianity. This crusade also included religious men and unmarried women so it was not fully a Children's Crusade. Their journey south from Germany to Italy included a very dangerous crossing of the Alps and many died of the cold here. Those that survived pushed onto to Rome in Italy.
Here, they met the pope. He praised their bravery, but told them that they were too young to take on such a venture. With this, they returned to Germany but a great many of them did not survive the journey back. A few stopped off at the Italian port of Pisa and boarded a ship for the Holy Land. No-one knows what happened to them.
Although both crusades were a disaster, they show the importance of Jerusalem in the lives of everyday people.
Further reading: The Children's Crusade, Dana C. Munro
The American Historical Review
Vol. 19, No. 3 (Apr., 1914), pp. 516-524
"The Children's Crusade". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.