Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Children’s Crusade |
For centuries Christians bewailed a crusade that never happened

Children's Crusade is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 132, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

It was awful, those children starving and dying as they struggled toward Jerusalem, except they weren’t children, and most were soon turned back

Children's Crusade - For centuries Christians bewailed a crusade that never happened

Children's Crusade - For centuries Christians bewailed a crusade that never happened
In this nineteenth-century engraving by Gustave Doré, fresh-faced children gather in Cloyes, near Orleans, at the bidding of a charismatic young shepherd boy called Stephen to embark on an unarmed crusade to Jerusalem. But since Doré’s day, historians have become virtually unanimous in concluding that such a crusade did not occur.

For some seven hundred years the story of the “Children’s Crusade” provoked tears and horror in readers of history. It told how a shepherd boy known as Stephen of Cloyes had a vision in which Jesus commanded him to lead an army of children to Jerusalem to convert the Muslims. So Stephen, twelve years old at most, began preaching throughout France and Germany, causing what has been regarded as the greatest tragedy of the whole tragic crusading era.

Wherever he went, runs the story, boys and girls ran away from their homes and followed him; as many as thirty thousand are mentioned. Why their parents did not stop them always remained an unanswered mystery in the story. In any event, by the summer of 1212 the child army set out for the Mediterranean. Its waters, Stephen assured them, would part as the Red Sea had for Moses, and they would walk dry-shod to Jerusalem.

Reality quickly set in, however. There was drought that year, and many areas were devastated by famine. Roads were primitive, and bridges had fallen. The people they encountered could be downright nasty. “Is this Jerusalem?” the children would pitifully ask at each new town as they struggled onward. More and more of them fell behind and died of exhaustion or disease or criminal attack. When they reached the Mediterranean and it disappointingly refused to part, most of the children went home. Five thousand supposedly found passage on merchant ships; however, their fate remained utterly unknown for eight years, until a priest spotted some of them on the Muslim slave markets in Alexandria.

In the late nineteenth century, when scholars began raising questions about the Children’s Crusade, the relevant documentary evidence turned out to be flawed, contradictory, or written long after the event. Twentieth-century studies further reduced its credibility, and in 1977 Peter Raedts of Radboud University, the Netherlands, examined sixty-odd supporting sources and published his conclusions in the Journal of Medieval History.

For a start, he writes, much of the account must be regarded as pure legend. The participants were likely not children but young servants, newly displaced members of society, and youths who as the youngest in their families would be excluded from inheritance. All sought “an escape from the dreary misery of their daily lives.” One cause of the legendary aspect may have been misinterpretation of descriptive terms used by the chroniclers. “Boys,” for instance, was used then, as now, to mean “men” (as in “good ol’ boys” or “He’s gone out with the boys” or the First World War song “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching”).

Moreover, Raedts found, two very different movements had been combined into one story. The first grouping assembled in Germany under the leadership of a man named Nicholas, possible model for the shepherd boy, and much of the depiction of this campaign does resemble that of the legendary child crusaders, except that they were not children. The few participants who eventually returned home did so “one at a time, silently, barefoot and hungry, fools in everyone’s eyes, and a number of the girls had lost the flower of their virginity.” Nicholas was reported either to have died, causing his grieving father to commit suicide, or, alternatively, to have fought valiantly at the fall of Acre.

The second movement arose in France and “caused much less shock and sensation than did its German counterpart.” It was, indeed, attributed to a certain Stephen, who in this version claimed that Jesus Christ himself had given him a letter for the king of France. Preaching and performing miracles, Stephen gathered many thousands of people and embarked for Paris. He was halted by the king, however, who, having consulted with his bishops, ordered the whole throng home.

Given that they concerned adults, not children, these campaigns were not as unusual as they might sound to the modern ear. After all, the poor had been involved from the outset, when Peter the Hermit triggered the Peasants’ Crusade (see sidebar, pages 16—17). That was a veritable army of beggars, observes Raedts, whose “indiscriminate savagery aroused at least as much fear among the Christian knights as among the Muslims.” The so-called Children’s Crusade was probably much the same.

This is the end of the Children's Crusade category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 132, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Children's Crusade from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at