Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

The Children Crusaders

I was moved, by what causes I know not, to travel to the city of Baghdad, which is on the river Tigris. It was a long and toilsome journey, but of that I need say no more. I had dwelt for many years in Egypt, where I had enjoyed as much prosperity as can fall to my lot. But there came upon me a great impatience of rest which, as it were, drove me from my home. It was in the one hundred and forty-fourth year after the taking of Jerusalem by the Duke Godfrey that I set forth. On the twenty-fifth day I came to Jerusalem, for there is no need to speak of other places which I visited in my journeying. At this time the city was possessed by the Christians, who had gained it, not by force of arms, but by treaty. Twice had this come to pass. First, fourteen years before the time of which I write, there came to Palestine one Frederick, second of the name, Emperor of Germany. He was a noble prince, a valiant warrior, and great also in counsel. It was, indeed, by counsel that he prevailed in this matter, nor can it be denied that he did more at a smaller cost of treasure and of men's lives than those that had come on the same errand before him.

There were some that had no good word to say of him, but would have it that he was no true Christian, seeing that he was willing to come to terms of peace and agreement with unbelievers. It was agreed between him and the Sultan that the governor of the city should be a Christian, but all that dwelt therein, whatever their faith, should keep peace, that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre should be the possession of the Christians, and the place of the Temple, whereon Omar the Khalif, who was the second after Mahomet, had built a mosque, should belong to the followers of the Prophet, but that it should be lawful both for these and for those to pass whithersoever they would without harm or hindrance. These things seem to me according to reason; and it is certain, if I may believe some that spoke about these things of their own knowledge, that for a time there was marvellous peace and prosperity in the city.

But such days—such has been my experience of the world—pass away quickly. When the treaty came to an end, for it was but for a term of years, then, or, as some affirmed, even before the lawful time, the Sultan drove the Christians from the city. Nevertheless, after three years, it was restored to them by the good offices of an English prince, brother to the King of England, as I was told. So it was when I came thither, as I have said above; but it was taken from the Christians not many months after, and this by a tribe of barbarians from the North, and greatly did it suffer at their hands. Surely of all cities under heaven, Jerusalem has been the most heavily afflicted. I might say with the prophet that she has received double for all her sins. There is no need to tell of the other towns through which I passed in my journeying to Baghdad. Let it suffice to say, that I came thither in the fifth month after my setting forth from Egypt. At the first I lodged with a certain Isaac, one of my own nation, who followed the trade of a tanner, but neither the man nor his occupation were pleasing to me. And as I sought for some place where I might more conveniently and pleasantly bestow myself, I found one that kept a garden in the outskirts of the city. I had observed the man that he differed somewhat from the other townsfolk, and I judged, having had no little experience in the matter, that he came from the West; and this I did partly from his speech, and partly from his skin, which though brown from much burning of the sun had withal a certain fairness. He was somewhat suspicious at the first, and that not without reason, as I learned after, but finding that I meant honestly by him, we came to an agreement by which for certain moneys paid to him I had from him a lodging and my daily victual. And when we had grown familiar he told me the story of his life, which I will now proceed to rehearse:

"I was born," said he, "in a province of the land of France, lying in the south and west of the said land. It is a region of vineyards, where much wine is made and sent to other countries, not a little to the profit of those that make it. It was commonly said that there was no province where the nobles and priests were richer and the peasants more content. My father had followed his lord when ling Philip, the second of his name, went crusading, and had gained some honour both in the besieging of the city of Acre and in the battle of Arsuf, for his lord was one of them who elected to abide with the English king when their own prince drew back from the enterprise and departed to his own country. It was after his coming back that he married my mother, and I was born on the last day of the year of Redemption 1200. I remember that my father would often talk of the things that he had seen, though of his own doings he was commonly silent. He was more than commonly devout, and in this temper my mother wholly agreed with him; and we children, for there were four, of whom I was the eldest, were nurtured from the first most carefully in religious ways. My father would often say that the crusades in which he had taken a part had come to nothing, not for want of power but for want of goodness. 'There were two kings,' he was wont to say, and many princes and nobles and knights and men-at-arms without number, yet they availed nothing. And why? Surely because God will have His servants holy, and will not have His purposes accomplished by evil men. They that bear the Cross should live as befits the Cross; if they do not, then they bear it in vain.' There were many others who said the same thing, among whom was the priest of our village: he also had borne the Cross, and was wont to take up his parable with no small vigour against the wickedness of those who, professing to be soldiers of Christ, bore themselves as soldiers of the devil.

"It is a common thing for children in the land of France, and I doubt not in other lands also, to mimic in their play marches and battles and the like. So it was in our village; and because the deeds of the Crusaders, and their mishaps also were in the mouths of all, the children would wear the Cross on the shoulders of their coats. It was but a sport, but it grew by chance, or, maybe, by the ordering of God, to something of great moment.

"There was in a village not many leagues distant from that in which I was born, a lad, Stephen by name, a peasant's son, who had then seen fourteen or fifteen years of age. He was of a keen temper, bent on doing great things, but, as I cannot but think, knowing him as I did, something of a self-seeker. He told me, for we were close friends for a time, that the first thing that greatly moved his mind was a sermon preached by the priest of his village who took for his text the words, 'God has chosen the weak things of this world to confound the strong.' As he mused on this matter the thought came to him that haply by the weak things were meant the children, and by the strong the kings and princes and knights. These latter have failed, he thought, because they followed one his pleasure, and another his ambition, and another his greed of gain. May it not be that the children, keeping their hands clean of these unlawful things, may accomplish that which grave men have failed to do?

"There was something of nobility in the thought, though it could scarce take form in this world of ours; but this Stephen, for I came to know him well, thought overmuch of himself, and was too much bent on gaining fame and power for himself. I do remember how he said to me, that he himself might well be king in Jerusalem if the children should accomplish, he leading them, what the men of war had not achieved. Being thus bent on his own profit, he would not listen to reproof or counsel; having also a singular gift of persuasive speech, he drew multitudes after him. It was like the spreading of a plague. Almost all the young were taken with the infection, and not a few of the old also. Some parents, indeed, were loth to let their children go, and even sought to keep them shut up with bolts and bars; but many encouraged them, not without tears and misgivings, especially among the mothers, but with a strong assurance that this was an enterprise which had the blessing of God upon it and would most certainly prosper.

Stephen of Crusades


"When this Stephen came to our village he was followed by some five hundred children, they being on foot, he riding in a chariot drawn by two white mules, for he had already assumed a certain state of show and power, and he found not a few recruits, of whom I was one. There were some girls in the company, a hundred maybe, out of the whole, and my twin sister would fain have gone with me, not only because we loved each other dearly, and were ill content when we were not together, but because she was not less possessed than I with the spirit of this enterprise. But my mother would not suffer it, nor did I seek to bring it about, for which I have many times thanked and do even now thank God with my whole heart. If Margaret—for that was my sister's name—is well and happy, I am content to bear what God has thought fit to lay upon me. In our village some thirty were added to the five hundred whom Stephen had brought with him. But these were but a small part of the whole multitude of children that was bent on the same errand. Stephen would not have more in his company, fearing lest he should over-strain the hospitality of those whose country he passed through, and they that followed him should be thus discouraged. But he had others under him, and to these he gave command that they should take, each his own company, to a city that is called Marseilles, being the most convenient port for those who would journey eastward.

"So the children came, being some ten or twelve thousand in all, to Marseilles, not a little to the astonishment and perplexity of the people of that town. As for the children, they were not a little divided. Some were convinced in their minds—this I heard with my own ears from the mouths of many—that the sea would open before them, and that they should be able to walk on dry land to Jerusalem itself—for whether the Holy City was many miles distant or close at hand they had not so much as thought. What Stephen himself had in his mind I know not, for by this time we had drawn somewhat apart; but I think that he had no such belief as this, but rather trusted to chance or whatever might befall. And now as day after day went by, and the miracle for which they looked was not wrought, not a few of the children grew weary. Some having outstayed their welcome at the homes where they were entertained, were thrust forth, and not finding other hospitality, were constrained to depart. Some lost their faith in the enterprise; some grew homesick; some found friends and service in the town which they were loth to leave; not a few were stricken with disease and died, for fevers and other ailments are rife in this said town of Marseilles. So it came to pass that at the end of a month there were but some six thousand left out of the whole.

"And now there came to Stephen two merchants of the town who said that they were willing to take the army of the children free of all charge and cost to the land of Palestine. They would set apart, they said, seven ships for this purpose in which they would put a sufficient store of food and other necessary things. A few would have nothing to do with these ships; if God, said they, had willed that we should go on our errand, He had opened a way in the sea before us. And this conclusion was right, let their reasons have been good or bad. Many on the other hand were glad to be thus released from their perplexity.

"These seven ships, therefore, were duly prepared and furnished with provisions, and on each of them were taken some seven or eight hundred children. I myself sailed in one that bore the name of St. George;  all the seven were named, but whether from the first or for that occasion only, I know not, after some saint. So we sailed from Marseilles early in the month of May, and for three days had a prosperous voyage. On the fourth day there sprang up about the time of sunrise a strong wind which increased so much during the day that the seamen lost all power over the ships. Two out of the seven being carried on to the shore of a certain rocky islet that is near to the southern point of the island of Sardinia, were there cast away. It was a piteous sight to see, for the two brake to pieces, so to speak, in the space of a few moments, nor was there a single one, either of the crew or of the passengers, in the one ship or the other, saved from the wreck. 'Twas a miserable thing to behold, as I myself beheld it; yet they that so perished were indeed much to be envied, as you will now perceive.

"These two pious merchants, who could not be content but that they must give the names of saints to their ships, were as great villains as ever lived on the face of the earth. They were slave-dealers, and than a slave-dealer there is, I hold, no viler person. Some of the children were taken to one port and some to another. One shipload was taken to Alexandria, and there set up for sale in the market. What befell the other four I know not, save as concerns the one in which I myself sailed. This was carried by the merchant, for one of the two villains was on board, to the port of Antioch. For myself, I fared as well as any child in so evil a case might hope to fare. I was bought by a merchant of this same town in which I now dwell. He was one of a kindly temper, and by good fortune I was able to do him a certain service, saving his only son, who was by some two years younger than myself, from drowning in the river Euphrates. And though he was a follower of the Prophet Mahomet, he suffered me to hold to my own faith. Nay more, when I grew to manhood he gave me to wife a maid, one of them that travelled in the same ship, whom he bought after the death of her master. I should say that some fifty children in all were bought by merchants and others of the city. About a fourth part died of disease, or it may be of grief and trouble, or ever they came here. Of the rest, some twenty, falling into the hands of men who would not be content but that they should follow the faith of Mahomet, and remaining steadfast in their belief, were cruelly put to death. Others, among whom I myself, with my wife, must be numbered, were suffered to hold our own faith so long as we made no show of it, and this peace I enjoy to this very day. I pay, indeed, a tribute to the governor of this city, three gold pieces for myself and two for my wife. And so long as he and others that bear or may bear rule in this city choose gold rather than the furthering of their faith, it will be well with us. We worship God in our own way, keeping the matter secret, but saying nothing but what is true. Also, now and again, a good priest comes this way and administers the Holy Communion to me and to my wife and to some others that are in the like case. Nevertheless I am not sorry that God has not blessed our marriage with children, for sometimes when I look forward, I greatly fear that sore trouble may come upon us and all others that hold by the faith in this city."

Nor, indeed, were my host's fears without good reason. I abode with him three years, and was well content with all his dealings with me, for he was an honest and God-fearing man. Not many months after I had left him there came tidings that there had been a great slaughter of Christian folk in Baghdad. Of my host and his wife I heard nothing. It is possible that having none to care for but themselves they escaped with their lives; but I much doubt. Through all these regions of Syria, Mesopotamia, and the neighbouring parts there was a great anger against the Christians about this time, and for this cause, that it was noised abroad that there was to be yet another Crusade. Nor is it to be wondered at that men's minds were greatly stirred by the news. Much evil had been wrought by these wars and little good. "Why do these robbers come hither?" men said, and 'tis true that many Crusaders bore themselves as robbers rather than as soldiers. "Can they not tarry at home and mind their own affairs?" And in their rage these men fell on the Christian folk who dwelt at their doors. Of all that suffered in these times none fared worse than the Christians of these countries to which the Crusaders came. And now I must write of the Crusade which was about to begin.