Religion has played a valuable role in bringing groups of people with little to nothing in common together throughout history. Kingdoms have raised to power or crumbled to dust as a direct result of religious choices made by those who ruled the lands. It goes without say that religion is a fundamental building block in a society’s creation. This was even truer in medieval times, in a time before instant access to information, when people looked to a select group for solutions to their problem and answers to their cosmic queries. Back when religion could inspire groups to kill, or to love, to share, or to steal, religious crusades weren’t uncommon. Controversially two young boys from entirely different parts of the world happened to create their own nearly identical crusades in 1212, these crusades would come to be known as the Children’s Crusade.
In the years leading up to 1212 Crusades had been a popular way to rally spirits, despite this they didn’t always yield the desired results. One such Crusade was the Albigensian Crusade, which resulted in an invasion of Spain from Muslims out of North Africa in 1210. The invasion of Spain carried through to 1212 when Pope Innocent III mobilized Christian prayers in the name of the Spanish church by holding their own processions in Rome on May 16, 1212. This mobilization of prayers in the larger cities supposedly led to smaller towns following suit. This is where Stephen of Cloyes comes in to the picture. On May 20th, the twelve year old shepherd boy gathered a group of his fellow workers and took part in their own prayer for the Spanish. It’s likely that the enthusiasm his group put out attracted a much broader group of children and young adults to pray with them. By June their prayer group had managed to amass anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 people. Their group had evolved into its own illegitimate Crusade with an aim of recovering the True Cross, the cross Jesus was crucified on. A chronicler from Laon writes that Stephen was instructed by Jesus, under the guise of a pilgrim, to obtain the True Cross. This pilgrim also provided Stephen with letters to be delivered to King Philip II of France in regards to these matters. Although no real historic evidence shows that these letters ever existed, it is true that the King ordered them to disperse when they arrived. Many of Stephen’s followers followed the Kings orders and went home or made their homes where they were, but it is possible that a group of them headed north to the German city of Cologne where another young boy, Nicholas, was setting off on a Crusade identical to Stephens and this is where the Children’s Crusade was born.
Nicholas was setting out to lead his group of young adults on a divine mission given to him directly from the heavens around the same time Stephen set out on his own. Nicholas had planned to cross the Alps and head into Italy where he promised the Mediterranean Sea would part and allow them passage to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. One of the concerns brought to Nicholas by the Children’s Crusade was the matter of the Saracen army as the Children’s Crusade didn’t want to battle them. Nicholas stated that they wouldn’t need to fight as the Muslims would be defeated when they converted to Christianity. The trip itself was a catastrophe, nearly two thirds of the people who accompanied Nicholas perished before they even got to the Mediterranean. About 7,000 people were said to arrive in Genoa in late August where they marched with a matter-of-fact attitude to the sea expecting the ocean to part in a biblical fashion. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. As you would expect this caused quite the uproar among his followers, some tried to return home while others were offered citizenship by the Genoa government while others were sold into slavery and Nicholas himself didn’t survive the journey back home to Cologne. The utter failure caused an insurmountable amount of deaths, as a result Nicholas’ own father was arrested and sentenced to death by the city under the pressure of the families that had lost loved one.
As the Children’s Crusade has only 50 citations throughout all of history, and only about 20 of them were from people who may have witnessed it first hand, most of this is in speculation. There’s no doubt that a crusade did take place in 1212, however, the few facts that are known of the Children’s Crusade lead historians to believe that it may have been a crusade that primarily consisted of impoverished people more so than children. It is also known that Stephan of Cloyes was indeed a 12 year old boy and he did reach King Phillip II with his group, but not much else is known thereafter. Nonetheless this is an entertaining story which I, like many others, hope is more accurate than the documents that portray it. We may never know who took part in the crusade or the number of people that marched with Nicholas and Stephen but we certainly can hope for the facts to come clear someday.