Many stories have been told about the Childrens’ Crusade of 1212, and it is not easy to distinguish fact from myth, but it does appear that there was such an event and it did not end well.
The Crusades were a series of attempts to wrest the “holy places” of Palestine back from Muslim rule. The First Crusade was sanctioned by Pope Urban II in 1095 and the final official Crusade – the Ninth – took place in 1271-2. There were also several unauthorized attempts to achieve the same (or a similar) end, and the Childrens’ Crusade was one of these.
A young French shepherd boy, Stephen of Cloyes, had the idea that Jesus had called him to lead a peaceful crusade that merely sought to convert Muslims to Christianity. Stephen was apparently able to perform miracles – or what other people might regard as such – and he gathered a sizable following as a result.
As many as 30,000 adults and children from across Europe rallied to the cause and headed south to the Mediterranean Sea. Stephen claimed that Jesus had promised that the sea would part like the Red Sea in the Book of Exodus, thus giving them safe passage to the Holy Land. However, not surprisingly, this did not happen.
Many of the Crusaders gave up at this stage and turned back, but some were more determined and looked for other means of progressing in their quest. They were therefore easy prey for slave traders who were only too happy to give them free passage aboard their ships, which promptly headed for the slave markets of Tunisia. Some of the ships were lost at sea, with the loss of their human cargoes.
The whole affair was therefore a dismal failure, as was always likely to be the case.