Children’s Crusade

The Children’s Crusade to the Holy Land, whether a reality or a myth, inspired and shamed adult Christians for centuries because the children who participated were seen as fervent, innocent, and pure believers and martyrs.

Summary of Event

The Children’s Crusade is probably one of the most familiar and least understood events of the Middle Ages. Most generally educated Western adults know the phrase “Children’s Crusade” but have only vague notions about when and where it took place. The episode was not really a crusade—that is, it was neither called for nor sanctioned by the pope—and those participating in it were not granted special blessings or indulgences. [kw]Children’s Crusade (1212)
[kw]Crusade, Children’s (1212)
Children’s Crusade[Childrens Crusade]
France;1212: Children’s Crusade[2240]
Germany;1212: Children’s Crusade[2240]
Italy;1212: Children’s Crusade[2240]
Religion;1212: Children’s Crusade[2240]
Innocent III
Stephen of Cloyes
Philip II (1165-1223)
Ferreus, Hugh
Porcus, William
Nicholas of Cologne

Because of its spontaneous and humble beginnings, there are no official rolls of participants or contemporary records of the crusade. It was not until twenty and more years after the year of the Children’s Crusade that written accounts began to appear; these chronicles are contradictory, and many are clearly fictionalized or contain fictional elements.

The traditionally accepted version of the events, pulled together from various chronicles, is as follows. The beginning of the thirteenth century was a troubling time for Christians. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) had failed to drive Muslims out of what the Christians considered their Holy Land, and in 1209, Pope Innocent III’ Innocent III crusading armies had massacred hundreds of Albigensians, Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) non-Christians living in southern France. In the eyes of many Christians, the Crusaders had revealed themselves to be greedy and corrupt, more interested in the spoils of war than in sacred duty and honor. The institution of the Church was found wanting, and many people looked to children as personifications of the innocence of true faith. In this climate, two boys came forward.

In France, in the small town of Cloyes near Vendôme, a shepherd boy named Stephen Stephen of Cloyes announced that Jesus had visited him dressed as a poor pilgrim, given Stephen a letter, and told him to present it to King Philip II Philip II (king of France) of France. The letter called for a new crusade, conducted by children who were pure of heart and who would be able to accomplish what their elders could not. Stephen, then about twelve or thirteen years old, set out toward Paris to see the king, accompanied by several of his fellow shepherds, who believed that Stephen had been called to some great duty. More and more groups of children joined Stephen and his band, fervently ignoring protests by their parents. These groups included both boys and girls, poor and rich, and eventually many adults as well; they carried banners and crosses, praying and chanting Christian messages of praise. By May, 1212, when the crusaders gathered in the city of Saint Denys, just north of Paris, they numbered in the thousands.

Stephen called his followers to gather more friends and meet in Vendôme; from there they would go to the Holy Land to free the tomb of Jesus from the Muslims who then controlled the region. The children carried no weapons and had no intention of fighting. They believed that they had been called to liberate the Holy Land and that if they showed their faith by marching in, the infidels would simply fall away.

As the army grew, both the king of France and the pope studiously avoided taking any notice of it. The pope did not take the movement seriously and would not bless it. Philip II, if he ever saw Stephen’s letter, apparently did not believe it; he ordered the children to return home. The faith—or the hysteria—of Stephen’s followers was too well established to be set aside by the orders of an earthly king, and they continued in their quest.

By late July or early August, 1212, the crusaders set off for the port city of Marseilles, more than 300 miles (483 kilometers) away on the Mediterranean. They must have been quite a sight: a procession of several thousand (some accounts say thirty thousand), banners flying, crosses held high, singing hymns and chanting “To God!” No one knows how they intended to get to the Holy Land from Marseilles—whether they expected ships to be provided for them or, as some said, expected God to part the waters of the sea.

A month later, they arrived in Marseilles. Many of the young crusaders had turned back along the way, finding their enthusiasm for the cause weakening under the harsh conditions of travel. Others had been captured and sold into slavery, or fallen ill. Some new crusaders had joined the group as it passed by. When the army reached Marseilles, they asked permission to stay a short time, expecting to be on their way soon, and permission was granted. Somehow, transportation was arranged for five thousand crusaders on the ships of two merchants, Hugh Ferreus Ferreus, Hugh and William Porcus Porcus, William . With great ceremony, they sailed out of Marseilles in August, bound, they believed, for the Holy Land.

Meanwhile, in Germany, another army of singing, banner-waving children had gathered around Nicholas Nicholas of Cologne , an eleven- or twelve-year-old boy from Cologne. Doubtless each of the two groups had received word of the other, and of other spontaneous uprisings by children, feeding the frenzy. In June or July, 1212, Nicholas and nearly twenty thousand followers set out for the Holy Land, via Genoa. They traveled south along the Rhine and across the Alps. Records indicate that the tired, cold, and hungry children rested at a monastery in the Alps before continuing. Like the French children, many of these German crusaders turned back, were waylaid by criminals, or died along the way. Fewer than seven thousand remained on August 25, 1212, when the group arrived at the gates of Genoa.

The army asked permission to stay only one night, expecting miraculous transportation across the sea to Palestine the next day. When it did not materialize, the group dispersed. Many returned home. Some went on to Pisa, still expecting to complete their journey. Two shiploads of children sailed from Pisa but were never heard from again. One small band eventually reached Rome and presented themselves before the pope to receive his further instructions. Innocent III coldly ordered them to return home but reminded them that they had taken vows as Crusaders and would be called to fight when they reached adulthood.

The French children who had sailed from Marseilles never reached their destination, and for eighteen years, their fate was a mystery. In 1230, an old priest came forward with a strange tale: He had sailed with the crusade out of Marseilles. Two days from port, a storm had sunk two of the ships, drowning all aboard. Those on the remaining five vessels were sold into slavery by the two merchants.


Although several contemporary chronicles tell of spontaneous gatherings of Christian children moving in procession and praying to God, it was nearly twenty years after the events that the first chronicler described them as crusaders and claimed that their destination was the Holy Land. Many scholars believe that the stories of the Children’s Crusade are more legend than history. Whether factual or not, the stories of pure and innocent children setting off to do God’s will, when the adults around them had failed to do so, have inspired Christians for centuries.

Further Reading

  • Armstrong, Karen. Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. New York: Doubleday, 1988. An engaging history that delves into Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious views. A brief section explains the theory that a spontaneous uprising by bands of wandering poor was transformed by later chroniclers into the myth of the Children’s Crusade.
  • Dickson, Gary. “Stephen of Cloyes, Philip Augustus, and the Children’s Crusade of 1212.” In Journeys Toward God: Pilgrimage and Crusade, edited by Barbara N. Sargent-Baur. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, 1992. Essay examining the French participation in the Children’s Crusade.
  • Gray, George Zabriskie. The Children’s Crusade. New York: William Morrow, 1972. Originally published in 1870, this volume pulls together six hundred years of lore about the Children’s Crusade into a romanticized, and unabashedly pro-Christian, narrative.
  • Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-witness Accounts of the Wars Between Christianity and Islam. Reprint. New York: Welcome Rain, 2000. Provides accounts of the Children’s Crusade from the annals of Marbach and the monk Aubrey of Trois-Fontaines, translated into lively English prose. Lavishly illustrated and clearly annotated.
  • Hindley, Geoffrey. The Crusades: A History of Armed Pilgrimage and Holy War. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003. Broad history of the motives, milieu, and effects of the Crusades, including a brief treatment of the Children’s Crusade.
  • Nicolle, David. Warriors and Their Weapons Around the Time of the Crusades: Relationships Between Byzantium, the West, and the Islamic World. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2002. A detailed account of the dominant technologies and strategies of warfare during the period of the Crusades.
  • Raedts, Peter. “The Children’s Crusade of 1212.” Journal of Medieval History 3 (1977): 279-333. Based on an extensive study of primary and secondary sources, argues that it was not religious fervor so much as peasant dissatisfaction with the wealthier classes’s failures to win the Holy Land that led to the Children’s Crusade.
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan, ed. The Atlas of the Crusades. New York: Facts On File, 1990. Especially helpful for tracing the paths of the three major groups of child-crusaders through regions whose geographical names have changed several times over many centuries. Includes bibliographical references.
  • Zacour, Norman P. “The Children’s Crusade.” In A History of the Crusades. Vol. 2. Edited by Kenneth M. Stetton. 6 vols. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. A detailed account, clear at every point as to which evidence from medieval chronicles can be considered reliable, and which is only speculative, at best.