The Children's Crusade


"The Children's Crusade" refer to an actual event that occurred around 1212.

On this page is a synopsis and also a lengthier related excerpt (below) from "Deus lo Volt! Chronicle of the Crusades" by Evan S. Connell.

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Synopsis of the Children's Crusade

The Children's Crusade is a mysterious event that took place around 1212, when, according to scattered comments in chronicles, thousands of children undertook to free the Holy Land. Actually, according to the reports, there were two separate crusades each led by a shepherd boy, Stephen in France and Nicholas in Germany, who, independent of each other, marched to points in Italy where the movements dissipated.

The readings suggest the children had believed that the reason for the other Crusades' failures were due to the sins of the adults involved. They thought that their innocence would allow them to regain the Holy Land.

Several accounts maintain that many of the children, in both cases, were deceived into thinking that ships waiting for them were to transport them on their march to the Holy Land. In truth they were sold into slavery at the ports they reached. This was little different from other instances of slave trading involving children, apart from the particular ugliness of the circumstances.

In both instances of the crusade the number of children estimated to have been involved are staggering and the ends they met are incredibly tragic.

Children originally numbering 20,000 were led by Nicholas to various locations in Italy with the hope of continuing to the Holy Land. By the time they arrived their number had been greatly diminished by hunger, exposure (they had crossed the Alps), kidnapping, and murder. In Italy their hopes never materialized and, although it would appear that some reached the Holy Land, they were likely taken into slavery and prostitution.

Stephen led a group of 30,000 children which arrived at Marseille. According to an account by Aubrey of Trois Fontaines they were provided with seven ships to transport them to the Holy Lands. Two of the ships were lost in a storm off the Island of Peter, where some of the bodies of the children were washed up. Pope Gregory, according to Aubrey, built a church (Ecclesia Noworun Innocentium) on the island where pilgrims came to see the children's bodies which miraculously had never decomposed. The other children, arrived in Egypt, where instead of fighting for the cross were sold as slaves.


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Excerpt from "Deus lo Volt"

The following is an excerpt (p. 331-338) taken from "Deus lo Volt! Chronicle of the Crusades" by Evan S. Connell. An amazing book written in the voice of a knight of that time (highly recommended).  Salon.com book review


In the year 1212 children resolved to do what kings and prices could not. They would march overseas to liberate the Holy Sepulcher. In the province of Orleannais a shepherd boy named Stephen from the village of Cloyes began to preach a doctrine never heard before. He declared that while tending his flock near Cloyes he was approached by a stranger, a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land, who asked him for something to eat. And when Stephen shared his food the pilgrim revealed himself to be Jesus Christ, saying that the innocent of France would succeed where kings had failed. He appointed this boy Stephen to lead the march and gave him a letter addressed to King Philip Augustus who was spending that summer at Saint Denys, burial place of Frankish kings since the time of Dagobert. Here, too, was the Oriflamme kept, holy standard of the realm. Concerning the identity of this stranger who claimed to be our Lord, chronicles report little. Mayhap some heretic thinking to reach the king. By himself he could not gain audience, but it is known how children work marvels and by means of an artless shepherd boy he thought to reach court with his diabolic argument.

The young shepherd set out for Saint Denys and preached while he walked, exhorting other children. He likened himself to Moses, subserving a new crusade, pausing at castles and villages. Thus he gathered children out of their homes and led them off and it was said no lock or bolt could prevent them. Neither plea not threats dissuaded them. Chanting in the common tongue, singing, joyously they marched at his heels and listened with delight to his every word.

To Saint Denys, therefore, he walked to see the king. And at the sepulcher of martyred Dionysius, garbed as though he were yet in the field near Cloyes, crook in hand, this child apostle spoke of suffering in Jerusalem, Christians enslaved. Many who listened thought they could hear groans, cries for help, clanking chains. He pointed to the shrine of Dionysius thronged with pilgrims and compared it to the tomb of Jesus vilified by Saracens. He likened Jesus to a banished king, Jerusalem to a captive queen. He spoke of a dream in which the sea rolled apart for him and for those who followed him. He displayed the letter to King Philip Augustus. He said that one day he was unable to find his sheep because they had left the pasture, but discovered them in a field of grain. He began beating them to drive them out, at which they dropped on their knees to beg forgiveness, and by this sign he knew he was appointed to liberate the Holy City. Documents from those days testify that outside the sepulcher of Dionysius he performed miracles.

If this boy Stephen gained audience with the king has been debated. But it is know that on account of the children Philip Augustus consulted his advisors and learned men at the University of Paris, after which he ordered the children to disperse. They refused. Instead, like thistle on the breeze they gathered at Vendome, high and low, descending from castles on the mountains, emerging from wretched mud hovels, singing while they marched, holding wax tapers, waving perfumed censers, bringing copies of the red silk Oriaflamme with gold flames scattered. And if asked how they would accomplish what grown men could not, they replied that they were equal to the will of God and whatever He might wish for them, that would they humbly and gladly accept.

News of these crusading children got to Germany and Lotharingia quick as a storm. The Benedictine William at his monastery near Guines wrote of it. The monk Reiner at Liege wrote of it. And in Cologne the monk Godfrey wrote that a child called Nicholas began to preach outside the Byzantine cathedral where bones of the Magi rest in a golden casket. They say Archbishop Raynuldus brought back these inestimable relics from the sack of Milan. Whatever the fact, thousands came to worship. Nicholas preached to all who approached, holding up the metal cross in the form of Tau. But he did not preach the slaughter of Muslims, saying that the holy word of God would illuminate their lives, would convert them, would cause them to abhor the wicked faith of Mahomet and worship Jesus.

They set forth about the time of the Pentecost, according to the annal of Cologne, and left behind their plows and carts, abandoned the animals they pastured. Many took up pilgrim costume, wide brimmed hat, palmer's staff, gray coat and a cross sewn to the breast. By repute they numbered twenty thousand. Some leapt and danced like storks prepared to migrate. Thus wrapped in mighty delusions they walked from Cologne to Basle, to Geneva, traversed the Alps near Mount Cenis, by which time half had been lost, murdered, starved, frozen, drowned in raging mountain streams, devoured by famished wolves.

In August they reached the gates of Genova, but three thousand more had disappeared. Nicholas petitioned the Senate, begging hospitality for one night, explaining that the sea would divide next morning as it divided for Moses and they would march on to Jerusalem. His petition was granted. But at dawn the waves broke without remission. Therefore the children marched to Pisa, thinking they had missed their appointment. How many perished on this journey is not known. The Senones chronicle that two shiploads of children sailed from Pisa to the Holy Land. What became of them is not recorded. Others wandered uncertainly toward Arezzo, Firenzi, Perugia. It may be that a few walked to Rome where they met the pontiff. Without doubt some reached the port of Brindisi where a Norwegian named Friso sold the boys into slavery, the girls into brothels. Illi de Brunusio virgines stupranteur. Et in arcum pessimum venumdantur.

Concerning Nicholas, one document from those days asserts that he came at length to the Holy Land where he fought bravely at Acre, later at Damietta, returning unharmed. Perhaps. But when the citizens of Cologne learned what happened to their children they hanged his father.

As for Stephen, thirty thousand innocents gathered beneath his standard, a woolen cross affixed to the right shoulder of each. When they set out they were accompanied by animals and birds, overhead a cloud of butterflies, which are bearers of the soul. They leapt and shouted as did the German children, and sang for joy. O Jerusalem! O Jerusalem! Our feet shall stand within thy walls!

Through the fruitful heart of France they marched south to Lyons, beside the Rhone to Valence, Avignon, Marseille. Stephen traveled at this leisure in a chariot fitted with carpets and a decorated canopy protecting him from the August sun. Twelve youths from noble families surrounded him, forming the honor guard, each handsomely mounted, holding a lance. It is said that while Stephen was a child in years, ten or twelve, he was adept at vice, lecherous, quick to benefit from his role as saint and prophet. If he stood up to address the multitude thousands pressed forward. On such occasion many were trampled or suffocated. Those nearest him would reach out to pluck a thread from his coat, a splinter from the cart, a hair from the mane of the horse that drew him, much as it was Peter the hermit.

At Marseille they found the sea unyielding. Waves curled and broke, adamant. Now two agents of Satan slipped out of the darkness. William Porcus. Hugo Ferreus. Concerning the first, some have called him a merchant of Marseille while others think he was Genoese sea captain of high repute. Yet again, he is called William de Posqueres who fought at the siege of Acre with Guy de Lusignan. As to Hugo Ferreus, most think him viguier of Marseille, which is to say the viscount's representative and traded in the Holy Land. No matter. Without cost, for love of God, absque pretito, causa Dei, so these knaves declared, would they charter what vessels were required, enabling a fervent army of Christ to reach Jerusalem. Seven vessels these traffickers obtained. What sort is not known? Gulafres. Dromonds. Bazas.

For eighteen years Europe did not learn the fate of these children, not until a priest who had accompanied them returned. Of all who embarked at Marseille he alone came back to say what happened. West of Sardinia rises a deserted islet, Acciptrum, referring to falcons that nest among the cliffs. Three days out from Marseille a furious storm drove two vessels against this rocky islet. All aboard were lost. The remaining vessels bore south to Africa and the slave market at Bujeiah. Here the Frankish children were sold. Some vanished in Bujeiah. Others went to Alexandria where the governor, Maschemuth, put them to work cultivating his fields. Sultan Malek Kamel bought seven hundred. Some few did set afoot in the Holy Land but were carried away to Damascus or Baghdad where they were decapitated or drowned or shot by archers if they did not renounce out Lord.

Was this done by the instinct of the devil? Cloyed with the blood of martyred men, did Satan in his blackness desire a cordial of children's blood to slake his thirst? Gregory, who was pontiff in those days, groaned with despair when he learned of how these children suffered and died. Have they not put us to shame? He wondered aloud. Have not these innocents perished while we slept?

He thought to raise a monument in their honor. That islet called Accipitrium where the two ships foundered was deemed appropriate. Many small corpses had washed ashore during the storm and fishermen who sometimes visited the place had buried them. His Holiness directed that a church should be constructed, the bodied of these children exhumed and reburied within. If they were found wondrously uncorrupted or not long has not been argued. The church is named Ecclesia Noworun Innocentium, which recalls the murdered children of Bethlehem, and was so endowed that twelve prebends live nearby, praying incessantly. All things flow constantly from God as water flows from a spring, tending ever to return.

Belgicum, Albericus, Thomas de Champre, and others make some mention of these innocents, none at length. The foolish little army had come quickly and gone. Besides, in those days the Church was bent on purifying Languedoc.

No one knows what became of Stephen, although an English monk, Thomas of Sherborne, while traveling through France long after the children vanished was held captive for eight days by a militant group of shepherds. This monk spoke of an old man commanding the shepherds who had been a slave in Egypt and promised the Sultan he would lead an army of Christians into bondage just as he had led Frankish children into slavery when he was a child. So he journeyed here and there preaching with no authority, claiming Our Lady had empowered him to conscript herdsmen and ploughmen by virtue of their simplicity to recover the Holy Land. Country folk left their flocks and herds to follow this old man. For, said they, God Almighty hath chosen the weak to confront the strong. Exiles, thieves, rogues, all came swarming. And whoever challenged their passage they would attack. Their master preached a doctrine of anger and venom that attacked various orders and deviated madly from conventional Christian doctrine. At the city of Bourges this all ended when this mob and its leader was attacked and ran down, most all slain, including the mad old man, the rest dispersed back to whence it came.

If the furious old man who led them was Stephen of Cloyes has been much debated. If he surrendered the ghost in boiling surf at Accipitrum, lost his head at Damascus, mayhap lived out his years in Muslim slavery, or if he declined to board the Judas ships and turned back to Cloyes, who shall decide? He with all who followed him had put their trust in Almighty God, expecting to win by faith what mounted knights could not through force of arms. They had gone armed with belief in lieu of steel. For love of our Lord they undertook the voyage, not for wealth or high repute. Those who devote their lives to Him, will they ever be disappointed at His reward?