The Children’s Crusade: Thousands of Children March to Holy Land but Never Return

The Children’s Crusade is one of the more unusual events that occurred in Medieval England. In the year 1212,  tens of thousands of self-proclaimed, unarmed crusading children set out from northern France and western Germany to regain Jerusalem from the Muslims. While never actually receiving official sanction, the so-called crusade was a disaster. None of the children reached the Holy Land, many were said to have been sold into slavery, and thousands never returned at all.

The Major Crusades

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, seven major Crusades were launched by Christians in Europe against Muslims that were in control of the Holy Land. In addition to these major military campaigns to the East, the Latin Roman Catholic Church also sanctioned numerous minor Crusades against her enemies. These included the Albigensian Crusade (1208–1241), aimed at eradicating the Cathar heretics of southern France, and the Northern Crusades (1193–1290) against the pagans of Northern Europe. Yet, one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of the Crusades is perhaps the so-called ‘Children’s Crusade’, said to have taken place in 1212.

According to a 13th century source, the Chronica regia Coloniensis (‘Royal Chronicle of Cologne’), the Children’s Crusade began around Easter or Pentecost of 1212:Many thousands of boys, ranging in age from six years to full maturity, left the plows or carts they were driving, the flocks which they were pasturing, and anything else which they were doing. This they did despite the wishes of their parents, relatives, and friends who sought to make them draw back. Suddenly one ran after another to take the cross. Thus, by groups of twenty, or fifty, or a hundred, they put up banners and began to journey to Jerusalem.

‘The Departure: An Episode of the Child’s Crusade 13th Century’ by Joanna Mary Boyce ( Wikimedia Commons )

The children claimed that it was the will of the Divine that prompted them to undertake this Crusade. In spite of this, their expedition did not achieve its intention in the end, “Some were turned back at Metz, others at Piacenza, and others even at Rome. Still others got to Marseilles, but whether they crossed to the Holy Land or what their end was is uncertain.” The author ends the account on a grim note, “One thing is sure: that of the many thousands who rose up, only very few returned.”

Stephen and Nicholas: Leaders of the Children’s Crusade

More recent versions of the story have suggested that there were actually two separate groups of children involved in this Crusade. The first group came from France, led by a peasant boy called Stephen of Cloyes. The boy claimed that Christ had appeared to him in a dream, and delivered a letter from Heaven. Stephen assembled a group of young followers in the city of Vendôme, and then marched to Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, where he intended to pass the contents of his ‘letter’ to the French king, Philip II. The king, however, was not amused by the young crusader, did not even bothered meeting him, and told them to go home. Although some took the king’s advice, and went home, many others took their place. It is said that Stephen succeeded in gathering 30,000 children, and led them to Marseilles, where they would cross the Mediterranean to the Holy Land.

‘The Children’s Crusade’ by Gustave Doré ( Wikimedia Commons )

At the same time, another ‘army’ of child crusaders was gathering in Germany. Their leader was a boy from Cologne called Nicholas, and he is reported to have attracted about 50,000 followers. Unlike Stephen, however, Nicholas’ followers included a small number of adults as well, though they were probably not in charge. These crusades travelled from Germany to Italy across the Alps, and are said to have even met the pope in Rome. Whilst the pope praised the children for their bravery, he also told them that they were too young to undertake such a venture. With that, most of the crusaders returned to Germany, though many of them would die on the way. A few determined youngsters boarded ships intended for the Holy Land, and then disappeared completely from history.

‘The Children’s Crusade, 1212’ ( Wikimedia Commons )

Although the Children’s Crusade is referenced in more than 50 chronicles dating from the 13th century, many question the accounts that have been given, and suspect they were at best an embellished version of what actually occurred.

The Children’s Crusade was not a crusade in its truest sense as the Pope did not call for it nor sanction it. Rather it was a popular movement whose details remain obscure and hard to trace, which was spurred on by religious fervour and fanaticism that sadly resulted in thousands of deaths.

What Makes a “Children’s Crusade?”

Some have even questioned if the Children’s Crusade was even a movement led by youth at all. For example, Peter Raedts reviewed documentation of the crusade and suggested in 1977 that they were, as writes, “participants in the Children’s Crusade had existed on the margins of society. They may have believed it was up to poor and marginalized people to take up the flag for Christianity after the first Crusades failed. Raedts concluded the crusaders were not really children, but poor people […]”

In more recent times, protests led by children have sometimes been called modern versions of Children’s Crusades. For example, the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963 was a child-led peaceful protest against segregation. Although it was met with violence, the results were at least successful in forcing business leaders to desegregate downtown Birmingham. And in 2018, hundreds of Florida schoolchildren set out to protest gun violence and demand stricter gun laws. Some people have called it “the Children’s Crusade of 2018.”