HISTORIC KIDS’ QUEST: THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE

A tragic piece of history most kids will find of interest. In late June, 1212, the town of Vendôme in Central France found itself with a lot of extra kids. And I mean, a lot. Thousands of them, mostly under the age of twelve. An army of children marching to the Holy Land to win Jerusalem for Christendom. Led by a charismatic twelve-year-old shepherd by the name of Stephen of Cloyes, they believed their Children’s Crusade would succeed where adult ones had failed.

That’s not to say Stephen didn’t first try to talk adults into taking up the cross. He did. Thirteenth-century folk obviously had more personal access to their leaders than twenty-first century ones do, because the kid got himself an audience with King Philip II and gave him a letter he said came from Christ, who had appeared to him as he tended his sheep. The letter urged the king to lead a crusade to the Holy land, but Philly had already been crusading with England’s Richard the Lionheart back in 1191 (even if he did throw in the towel after the siege of Acre, and said, “Sorry, too busy”, as regards another one in 1207), and so wasn’t what you’d call enthusiastic. He told the uppity brat to go home.

It was good advice. Unfortunately, Stephen didn’t take it. He set off for the coast, promising his band of little warriors that, when they got to Marseilles, the sea would open up for them (à la Moses) and enable them to walk across to the Holy Land. It didn’t, but, to the children’s joy, two nice merchants said they would transport them to the Holy Land in ships. All of them. And there would be no charge because they were good, pious men who knew this crusade was for the Glory of God. Though the names Hugh the Iron and William the Pig should have caused even the most naïve stripling to think twice about this offer, Stephen didn’t suspect a thing. How wonderful, he and the others thought. And it was – for Hugh & William. The kids who didn’t meet their ends when two of the ships went down were taken to Algeria and sold into slavery at a tidy profit.

The followers of Stephen’s German counterpart, a boy named Nicholas, fared a little better. Unlike Stephen, who’d been all set to spill Saracen blood, Nicholas claimed his group would win the Holy Land by converting the enemy to Christianity. He used the same ‘the sea will open up’ line, and it didn’t work any better for him in Genoa than it had for Stephen in Marseilles. No pious merchants offered these youthful crusaders free passage to Palestine, but the Genoese authorities did say any kid who didn’t want to trail all the way home again could settle in Genoa. Some did, but Nicholas and the rest went on to Pisa and then to Rome, where Pope Innocent III praised their intentions, but, like Philip, told them to go home, suggesting they take up crusading again when they were older and better able to fight. (He obviously didn’t put a lot of stock in that conversion idea.). A small percentage eventually got back to the Rhineland from whence they came, but what happened to the vast majority was never documented.

 

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