The Children's Crusade is one of the more unusual events in Medieval England. The Children's Crusade took place after the Fourth Crusade. By the end of the Fourth Crusade (1202 to 1204), it was clear that the Christian crusaders had gained no long term success. In fact, the Fourth Crusade had been a disaster for the Christians as many crusaders had not even got to the Holy Land let alone fight for Jerusalem and many Christians had used the crusade as a means to plunder valuable goods from abroad. The Children's Crusade seemed to put some Christian belief back into crusading.
Two groups appeared in 1212 which seemed to indicate that the beliefs of the First Crusade were still alive.
In 1212, two groups - one from France, the other from Germany - set off on a crusade to the Holy Land. There was nothing unusual about this as many 'armies' had gathered before to fight the Muslims. The major difference about these two groups was that they were composed entirely of young children. These children became convinced that they would be protected by God and that because of this protection they would get to the Holy Land and take Jerusalem for the Christians.
Not a great deal is known about the Children's Crusade other than it was a disaster. The person who seemed to be in charge was a boy called Stephen of Cloyes. We know very little about him. We know that he was a shepherd and that in 1212 he was 12 years of age. With a peasant's background, he would not have been able to read or write and at his age he would have done very basic work around a farm.
In May 1212, it is said that he turned up at the court of King Philip of France and told him that he had a letter from Christ ordering him to organise a crusade. Not surprisingly, King Philip was not impressed by the 12 year old and told him to go away and come back when he was older!!
Regardless of this rejection, Stephen went around preaching to children about his letter from Jesus and his desire to go to the Holy Land to capture Jerusalem. He told his followers that crossing the Mediterranean or any other waterways was easy as the waters would part and they would walk across as they were protected by God. By June 1212, Stephen is said to have gathered 30,000 followers around him - all children.
As they marched south through France, they clearly had no idea of what to expect. Adults cheered them along the route. It was as if their innocence shone through and made their success a certainty.
The Roman Catholic Church was not so sure. The Children's Crusade was never officially a crusade as it was never blessed by the pope. 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.
The Children's Crusade was doomed to failure. Many of the children had never walked such distances before and for many the effort proved too much. The journey from Vendome to Marseilles caused many children to drop out. Some even died of exhaustion. The sea did not part as Stephen had said and they had to cross the Mediterranean Sea by boat.
The children boarded seven boats in Marseilles and that was the last anything was heard of 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. As a priest, it is unlikely that he would have knowingly told a lie as Catholic priests would have believed that God is omnipresent (everywhere) and omnipotent (all powerful). Therefore if he told a lie, God would know and he would have been condemned to Hell. However, he may have been told incorrect information and told this story in good faith not knowing if it was incorrect. As historians, we just do not know.
A German Children's Crusade also took place in 1212. This was lead 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.
Therefore both crusades can be seen as a disaster but they are also an indication of how important Jerusalem was to Christians.