Stephen of Cloyes had a vision: He would travel to Jerusalem to remove the Muslims and reclaim the Holy Land of Jesus for the Catholics with the help of his thousand followers. Their crusade, however, was not even approved by the church. More interestingly, Stephen, at that time, was just 12. What’s more, his followers were also around the same age. This was the beginning of the disastrous Children’s Crusade of 1212.
Not a Crusade
It was in 1095 that Pope Urban called for the first crusades. For the next 300 years, popes would gather and lead their followers to free the Holy Land from Islam in the name of Christiandom. In 1212, Stephen of Cloyes felt compelled to lead his followers into Christianity’s holiest city, Jerusalem, and bring it back to Christianity. Inspired by a vision he claimed he received from God, He would lead what history would know as the Children’s Crusade of 1212, though it was launched without a decree from the Pope, which it would need to be called a true “Crusade.”
The details of the not-crusade crusade were not clear, but according to accounts, he managed to gather some 30,000 followers who were moved by his sermons, songs of worship, and divine visions. Also, because they were just kids, too. King Philip turned down Stephen’s request, but he and his followers were far from being discouraged— they would march their way and strike out on their own crusade.
Meanwhile, Nicholas of Cologne had his own followers made up of tens of thousands of adults and children. He also had his own divine intervention, claiming that an angel told him to start a crusade. He and his followers went their way to Jerusalem.
The Church Was Not Impressed
It’s easy to imagine that the church could’ve felt immaculate towards these “holy children” that were moved and motivated by religion that they wanted to go on a crusade and take out the Muslims. Unfortunately, they instead felt threatened. For them, one person’s ability to inspire and call thousands of people to action, especially at that tender age, threatened and terrified them. They were mainly worried that they were losing hold of their congregations. The church saw both Nicholas and Stephen as threats.
The Holy Land itself was intrigued by the mission and fanatics of Nicholas and Stephen. Their convincing powers were really great that Nicholas was even labeled the inspiration behind the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Regardless of how fervent they were with their crusade and their religious cause, this did not help them succeed in their plan. Nicholas’ group headed to the freezing Alps, sang their hymns and waited for that divine intervention that would convert the Muslims into Catholics. They did so until they became exhausted and starving. They arrived in Genoa, Italy, and the people were not too enthusiastic about receiving non-Italian speaking, hungry, and ragged religious guests. Stephen’s group reached Marseilles, and the same thing pretty much happened.
History or Myth or Combination of Both?
It was not clear what happened to all the crusaders after this point. There were claims that some of them took local jobs while waiting for the ships that would transport them to Jerusalem, some went back to their towns, and there were also others who were sold into slavery, and some drowned in the sea after being betrayed by the sea captains.
Other accounts claimed that a small group managed to reach Rome instead of Jerusalem and that they presented themselves to Pope Innocent III, who praised their enthusiasm but told them to go back home as they were too young to go on crusades.
More interestingly, some historians doubt many details of the crusades. Dutch historian Peter Raedts reassessed the whole story and concluded that the Children’s Crusaders were not really children but instead were poor and marginalized people. There were no solid historical records that could confirm that the participants were indeed children, which questions the very name of the crusade. Even so, it’s proof that a single person, with the right convincing powers, could call to move thousands of people, even when the ending might be tragic.