Eighteen years had passed since the priest had seen his native France. He had left with 300,000 other young people full of hopes and dreams of service for Christ in the Holy Land, yet he was the only one to return. All others had died or were serving as slaves in foreign lands.
Stephen Starts It
The whole improbable series of events began in 1212 when a twelve year old shepherd boy, Stephen of Cloyes, brought a letter to King Philip of France saying it was from Christ. Stephen said that in the letter Christ told him to organize a crusade to march on Jerusalem. King Philip told the boy to go home to his father. Earlier attempts by the knights of Europe to reclaim the land of Jesus from the Moslems had not been successful. What could a boy of twelve hope to do? Stephen, however, announced that Christ had promised the sea would dry up and they would march over the Mediterranean dry shod as Moses had at the Red Sea.
Stephen's zeal and persuasiveness caused children from all over France to flock to his cause. Why parents allowed their children to go is a mystery -- possibly they were influenced by Pope Innocent III's tacit approval of the Crusade; possibly the fathers were themselves away at war in the east; possibly the parents too were mesmerized by Stephen. By June, 1212, 300,000 young people met at Vendoma, France to begin their journey to Jerusalem. They had no maps or supplies, only a blind faith. Even some adults and priests followed the children, believing their simplicity and innocence had a power of its own. Many believed the children would be able to conquer the Holy Land because of Christ's statement that to enter the kingdom of heaven one must become like a little child.
The crowd of children traveled to Tours and Lyons before they finally reached the Mediterranean shores at Marseilles. The summer of 1212 was a dry one, and crops were poor. Many children died before reaching the coast; others turned back. But thousands of ragged, hungry children did gather at the Mediterranean, waiting for the sea to part as Stephen of Cloyes had promised.
The Pig's Deception
The anticipated miracle never occurred; but two merchants, aptly named Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, offered to take the children without charge to Palestine in seven ships. Stephen gladly accepted the offer, and the youngsters clamored aboard. A storm arose, and two of the ships went down with all aboard off the coast of Sardinia. When the storm abated and the remaining five ships continued their journey, they sailed south, rather than east to Palestine. As it turned out, the seemingly helpful merchants, Hugh and William, had made a deal with the Saracens; the French children were taken to Algiers where they were sold into slavery and sent to Egypt. Most of the children became agricultural workers. About seven hundred were bought by Governor Al-Kamil who housed them as interpreters and secretaries. Such was the young priest who, eighteen years later, became the sole survivor to return to France. Some of the youngsters were taken as far as Baghdad, where eighteen were beheaded for refusing to become Moslems.
Not to Be Outdone
About the same time France's Stephen was launching his Children's Crusade, Nicholas, a German lad of ten, was also organizing a campaign of German youth. Nicholas collected about 20,000 in his children's army to march for Jerusalem. The children struggled over the Alps, many dying along the way. Some stories allege the children sang the crusading hymn "Fairest Lord Jesus" during their march but that is a legend doubted and disputed. When they reached Genoa, the city refused to offer the children any help. The few who reached Rome were persuaded by Pope Innocent III to abandon their crusade until they became adults.
Although the Pope did not officially sanction the children's crusade, he did not forbid it either. The zeal of the young people was impressive, and Innocent III announced that "the very children put us to shame." The children's crusade was abandoned, but only about 2000 of the original 20,000 youngsters ever reached their German homeland again. Many had died along the way; others remained in Italy where some even became the ancestors of the nobility, including the Vivaldi family.
A Wretched Tragedy
The Children's Crusade was a pitiful, pathetic episode, certainly unique in world history. The Crusades were undertaken in the name of God and ostensibly in the service of Christ. But this misguided zeal betrayed the spirit of Christ. The harm done by the Crusades to the reputation of the Church continues to this day. When fanatical religious fervor supplants humble godliness, even the children are set at risk.