What was the Children’s Crusade, and did it actually happen?
Inspired by the crusaders heading to the Holy Land, children and young adults rose up in early 13th-century France and Germany and launched their own bid to recapture Jerusalem. Or did they? Emma Slattery Williams explains the story behind the Children's Crusade and its leaders – and what it has to do with the Pied Piper...
What was the Children’s Crusade?
The Children’s Crusade is said to have been a failed popular (meaning not sanctioned by the Pope) crusade of 1212, mainly made up of children, with the intent of taking back Jerusalem. It is said to have been inspired by the crusades of Western European Christians to reclaim the Holy Land between the 11th and 13th centuries. The tale of the Children’s Crusade is one that is caught between fact and fiction, though. There are few first-hand sources to attest to this particular crusade, and those we do have may have been written well after the event or embellished.
What were the Crusades?
Between 1096 and 1291, there were a number of Crusades by European Christians to reclaim the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim control, and solidify and expand their control of the region. A holy city for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, Jerusalem would be visited by Christian pilgrims wishing to worship at the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
As various Muslim groups struggled for power, it became harder for Christians to visit Jerusalem, and, in 1095, Pope Urban II urged Christians to launch an expedition to free Jerusalem by force – resulting in the First Crusade. After three years of intense fighting, Jerusalem was captured, and several Crusader states established.
In 1147, another crusade began in response to the fall of the first crusader kingdom of Edessa, followed by a third expedition to retake Jerusalem, which had been captured by Muslim leader Saladin in 1187 – many more crusades followed over the next century. Past historians have estimated that anywhere between one and nine million people, on both sides, lost their lives in these holy wars.
How did the Children’s Crusade start?
Inspired by the faith-filled warriors of earlier crusades, spontaneous outbursts of piety are said to have occurred in children and young adults in France and Germany. They believed that, in supporting the crusader spirit, God would aid them in recapturing Jerusalem, and many began to march towards the Mediterranean.
Who led the the children on their crusade?
Stephen of Cloyes in France, thought to have been a 12-year-old shepherd, and Nicholas of Cologne in Germany, about whom even less is known. Between Easter and Pentecost of 1212, Nicholas is believed to have inspired thousands of followers – men and women, as well as children – to flock to him in Cologne after he claimed he had received orders from Jesus to retake the Holy Land. Nicholas, it is said, believed that the sea would part as the Red Sea had done for Moses, allowing the crusaders to safely reach Jerusalem.
The 13th-century Chronicon universale anonymi Laudunensi, written by an anonymous monk, claimed that Stephen of Cloyes saw a vision of Jesus who tasked him with leading a crusade and delivering a letter to the French king, Philip II. It’s possible that Stephen may have heard of Pope Innocent III’s visit to nearby Chartres to gather support for his own crusading plans.
According to the chronicle, Stephen gathered followers in June 1212 and travelled to Paris for an audience with Philip, to ask for his blessing to launch a crusade. His arrival may have coincided with a fair that attracted merchants from across Europe, and as many as 30,000 people allegedly flocked to Stephen’s side. Another chronicler stated that the intentions of these crusaders was not for war, but to recover the true cross on which Jesus was crucified; the holy relic had been lost 25 years earlier at the battle of Hattin against Saladin.
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Who joined Stephen and Nicholas?
Unlike those who had joined the papal-sanctioned crusades, these were not mercenaries or soldiers, but mainly children and young people. They were called pueri by 13th-century chroniclers, a term that meant children (specifically boys), which led people to call the movement the Children’s Crusade – several chroniclers even note that some parents imprisoned their children in their homes to prevent them from joining.
This doesn’t mean that the whole army was necessarily made up of children, as pueri may have also have referred to young peasants or those without land. The religious fervour that both Stephen and Nicholas inspired in their followers was seen as a threat to the established church. Local clergy were afraid that they were losing control of their congregations.
Did Stephen make it to the Holy Land?
Philip II, concerned that Stephen’s large group of followers could cause civil unrest demanded that the would-be crusaders return to their homes. The Children’s Crusade had ended before it had even begun. Or had it? The chronicler, Cistercian monk Alberic de Trois-Fontaines, extends Stephen’s story further and suggests that he led some of his followers to Marseilles.
Here, the crusaders are said to have been tricked by merchants and taken aboard their ships where some died when the ships sank, and others were taken as slaves to northern Africa. Those that survived were sold to Muslim slavers. Attempts were made to force the children to renounce Christianity, but they stayed true to their faith and were killed “in various types of martyrdom” – apart from one who escaped to tell the story. Most historians, however, question the accuracy of Alberic’s writings.
And what about Nicholas?
Contemporary sources record that Nicholas’s group reached Speyer in southwestern Germany on 25 July 1212 whereupon they took the dangerous route south across the Alps. Hungry, cold and exhausted, many would have died on this journey or given up and returned home. Those who persisted are said to have reached Piacenza in Italy on 20 or 21 August, having travelled 400 miles in just a month. Thousands more continued onwards to Genoa where they are said to have disbanded after the Mediterranean failed to part for them, as Nicholas had promised.
Although both crusades failed, they inspired many chroniclers to record their achievements of inspiring people to take on the holy cause, even without the Pope’s urging or approval. The Fifth Crusade, which set out for the Holy Land in 1217, is said to have been partly inspired by the religious fervour of the Children’s Crusade.
What does the Pied Piper have to do with the Children’s Crusade?
In the German town of Hamelin, a folktale persists that, in 1284, more than a hundred of the town’s children were taken away and never seen again. As the tale goes, a piper solved the town’s rat problem by playing music and luring the rats away to a river (where they drowned), but when he came to claim his payment he was refused.
He took up his pipe again and this time it was the children who were seduced by his music. Several theories exist as to what happened to the children of Hamelin, including one that suggests they left to embark on a holy crusade.
Were there other popular crusades?
In 1096, before the First Crusade had set out, a group of peasants and minor nobles marched across Germany and Hungary. On their journey towards Jerusalem, they committed massacres against Jews, especially in the Rhineland. They eventually reached Constantinople to aid the Byzantine empire against the Seljuk Turks. Many were captured or killed in the fighting that ensued.
In 1251, another popular crusade was launched, from northern France with the intention of rescuing Louis IX, who had been captured during the Seventh Crusade. Thousands of peasants marched to Paris and some carried out attacks on monasteries and the clergy before eventually disbanding.
This article was first published in the January 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.
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