"To the sea of fools Led the path of the children." Old Epigram.
Just a word about the Crusades, or Holy Wars, before we begin our story.
A war is generally a conflict between nations, countries, or individuals, for possession of land or a throne, but the Holy Wars were not such. They were expeditions made by those Christians who were determined to rescue the Sepulchre, or tomb, of Christ and the City of Jerusalem, from the rule of unbelievers.
For eighty-eight years Christian kings ruled in Palestine, then all the land was conquered by the Mohammedans, except a few cities, and the Christians sent out another, and still another, and another expedition to subdue the enemy, but all were useless. The Holy City and the Holy Sepulchre were still in the hands of infidels, who persecuted the pilgrims who visited the Holy Tomb; and the Christians sent a heart-rending cry to all Europe for help, but Europe was slow to answer the appeal, and it was several years after Pope Innocent ordered a new Crusade, before an army departed for the scene of conflict.
It was during this interval that the Children's Crusade or Holy War, took place--of which we are about to read.
But first let us go back to the city of Chartres, on the 25th day of April, 1212, when a surging crowd of men and women is filling every street and by-way of the quaint city.
What are the crowds watching so eagerly? A procession of priests and laymen, carrying banners and black-draped crosses, and chanting in solemn unison as they march.
It is the day of the celebration in Chartres of the "Black Crosses," an old church ceremony instituted centuries before, by Gregory the Great, during the ravages of the Plague, but now celebrated as an appeal to the people to free Jerusalem and the Holy Tomb from the hands of the infidels.
The solemn ranks of the procession move slowly through the streets of Chartres, carrying black-draped symbols of a Saviour's death, chanting deep-toned litanies, and that the old ceremony has lost none of its emotional power is shown by the tears and silence of the watching throngs, while among all the crowd none is more profoundly stirred than a slender shepherd lad from the neighbouring town of Cloyes, who is seeing the ceremony for the first time.
Agile as such a lad should be, and sturdy in consequence of his out-of-door life, Stephen, for that was his name, found it an easy matter to breast the surging tide of spectators following the procession, to slip in where he could to best advantage watch the solemn ceremonies, to stand without fatigue while he drank in all the emotional thrill of the day.
The shrouded crosses, the appeals for rescue of an entombed Christ in the hands of an infidel enemy, the tears and cries of the crowds, worked on the impressionable shepherd lad, unaccustomed to aught but life with his flocks, worked on him so powerfully that he was hot with a desire to rush to Jerusalem and expel the hated Mohammedans from that land and city, once blessed by the living presence of Jesus, and hallowed by the possession of his tomb.
So filled with enthusiasm was Stephen that his burning cheeks and glowing eyes told the tale to an observant priest, who to accomplish his own end, kept close watch of the boy, spoke to him, making inquiries as to his name and occupation, and then decided to make him a tool of destiny.
But of this Stephen knew nothing. Filled with thoughts of what he had seen and heard, at evening he walked slowly towards his home in the little village of Cloyes, walking less on solid earth than on a cloud of dreams and desires, and from that moment he was never again the contented shepherd lad, son of the peasant of Cloyes. He was alive with new emotions now, and as he wandered on the hillside with his flock he was in imagination the hero of daring deeds, taking part in such pictured scenes as his excited fancy could conjure up, until at last, he was in a state of mind suited to any enterprise, prepared to believe any story, however improbable, to accept any life except that of his own monotonous peasant existence.
While in this mood there came to him on his hillside, several days later, a stranger in the dress of a pilgrim, returned, as he at first said, from Palestine. He was on his way to a distant home and in need of food.
Only too eagerly did Stephen share with him such food as he had, asking in return to be told of the wonders of the Holy Land and of the daring deeds of the heroes who had fallen there in battle. The stranger readily complied with this request and poured into the boy's credulous ears tales well calculated to thrill and excite his already inflamed fancy. Then, watching Stephen closely as he spoke, the stranger said with solemn earnestness:
"But this is not all I have to tell, my lad. There is work for you to do,--for you, the Lord's anointed, his chosen apostle, and in the name of Christ and his Holy Cross, I bid you arise and do his will."
"Work?--for me? From whom comes this message?"
Stephen's eyes were lit with the fire of excited desire and his voice trembled with emotion.
Very slowly the answering words fell from his companion's lips:
"The message is brought by him who sends it. Behold, lad, the Christ of history and of truth! I bid you arise--rouse up the youth of our land! Lead them to that Holy Sepulchre! As prophet and as leader, go where they shall follow, and bring to pass that which nobles and soldiers have failed to accomplish. Go lad--go!"
Stephen's breath came in quick gasps--his eyes were like coals of fire as he sank on his knees, crying:
"Oh bless me--bless me--I will go--Lord, I will go!"
A hand was laid gently on his head as the deep voice said, "In the name of Jesus, lad--in the name of the Crucified, lead your troops to victory. Across the land, across the sea, lead them to victory!" Then in a less impassioned tone, the stranger added, "I leave with you a letter to the king of France. Go quickly to him with this proof of your divine mission and he will aid you in your enterprise. In the name of Jesus, lad, arise and go!"
A letter was pressed into Stephen's hand. He heard retreating footsteps, and before he had gained his composure and risen to his feet, his divine guest was gone. He was alone with his straying flock, not sure except for the letter, whether he had had a vision or a visitor.
And how was he to know, innocent peasant lad, of an ignorant and superstitious ancestry, brought up on miraculous tales of saints and seers, that the Christ of his visit was no other than that priest whose attention Stephen had attracted by his emotion at Chartres, who with crafty keenness had chosen the peasant boy to carry out his purpose of arousing the youth of the land to undertake a new Crusade? How was Stephen, all aflame as he was, to be supposed to penetrate the priest's disguise, to realize his purpose, and throw off the thrill? He could not and he did not.
Leaving his flocks to ramble at will over the plains and neighbouring hills, with the divine letter clasped in his hand, Stephen ran homeward through the little village where he lived, past its dilapidated church, its quaint shops and rows of houses, over the old stone bridge by which the main street crosses the little river Loir, running in a southerly direction to join the beautiful Loire. The bridge is a pleasant place to linger on a summer day, and recalls many a historic memory of Joan of Arc, who once passed that way, on her way to Orleans--of Philip Augustus--of Richard Coeur-de-Lion--but on nothing except his divine mission was the lad Stephen intent as he crossed the bridge on that April day.
Having reached home, he hastily called his parents from their labour, and gathering together such neighbours as could be summoned, he told of his talk with the Saviour, who had come to call him, Stephen, the shepherd boy, from tending his flocks, to rescue the Holy City and tomb from wicked hands, and in proof of the truth of his story he showed the letter from Jesus Christ to the King of France asking the king's aid for Stephen in his holy mission.
As I have said, this was an age of dense ignorance and superstition among the peasant classes. Those who had heard Stephen's tale were dumb with awe and wonder and doubted not its truth. Only his father spoke against the plan, mentioning his son's youth--commanding him to go back to his flocks. But to these commands Stephen turned a deaf ear, for was not he the Lord's anointed? Who could dictate to him, now that the Divine voice had spoken in accents clear and strong?
On the next day and the next, even until darkness fell over the little town, Stephen narrated his story in the market-place to ever-increasing audiences, telling that now when the defenders of the Holy Sepulchre were so few, and older and stronger Crusaders had failed to carry out their divine purpose by reason of the ravages of war and disease, God had revealed his plan to give the possession of Palestine to those children who should enlist in his holy cause.
"For the last time have we heard of defeat," cried Stephen. "Hereafter shall children show mailed warriors and proud barons how invulnerable are youths when God leads them!"
This cry stirred the youths of Cloyes profoundly, and they all rushed to enlist under the banner of Stephen and the Holy Cross, but the number was not large enough to satisfy Stephen's ambition. He was determined now to rouse all France and in consequence of that desire, he decided to leave his home and go to a town five miles north of Paris--St. Denys, the great shrine of the land, where lie the bones of the martyr Dionysius, the object of countless pilgrimages, where to ever-changing crowds, he could preach his Crusade, and gain recruits for his army.
And so to St. Denys, Stephen of Cloyes went, in May of 1212. Dressed in his shepherd's clothes, for he had no others, with his crook in his hand and a little wallet by his side, he left quiet Cloyes for ever. With a heart throbbing with hope and excitement, he journeyed on, feeling neither fatigue nor fear, and as he went he preached his mission in towns and cities by the way, and ever the interest deepened in this lad who spoke with such burning eloquence, proclaiming himself God's chosen instrument to rescue the Holy Sepulchre, and everywhere he gained recruits. But even in Paris and Chartres, he did not linger long, being eager to reach St. Denys. At last he arrived there, and standing at the door of the historic church which contained the martyr's tomb, proclaimed his new Crusade to astonished crowds whom he fascinated by his unusual eloquence as he told the old story of the sufferings of the Christians in the Holy Land, telling it so simply and so vividly that his audiences were profoundly stirred, especially by Stephen's last and best appeal. He pointed to the Sepulchre of St. Denys, to which worshippers were thronging, and contrasted its condition with that of the Sepulchre of the Saviour, asking if his hearers would not help him make the Saviour's tomb as honoured and as free from disturbing influences as was that of the saint. He then read his letter to the king and asked if God's commands were to be disregarded, telling of his interview with Christ, and adding that after his day in Chartres, he had gone in search of his flocks and found them missing, but had later discovered them in a field of grain, from which he was about to drive them angrily, when they fell on their knees and begged his forgiveness. This, he said, with other signs, had led him to believe that he was truly God's anointed, even before he had been visited by Christ.
It may well be asked here how a lad scarcely over twelve years of age and born of the peasant class, could have suddenly become so eloquent--so capable of appealing to audiences, and the answer is not easy to give unless one thoroughly understands the spirit of that age in which Stephen lived--an age in which there was much high-coloured and stirring language used by the priests, language which appealed so strongly to an impressionable lad like Stephen, that he unconsciously took it for his own and made use of it; being often carried on the tide of his emotion, far beyond his own understanding of the words and thoughts he was uttering.
Immediately, he became the Saint of the day, and the martyr's bones were deserted by those who preferred to listen to the lad's stirring appeals. It is even reported that he worked miracles to support his own divine claim, and the enthusiasm to join his army grew daily more intense. As pilgrims went back to their homes they carried news of Stephen's Crusade to their children, who, filled with excitement, in turn passed the news on to their friends. And so the interest spread like a contagion throughout all parts of France, through Brittany, where the English ruled, through Normandy, recently added to Philip's domain, to Aquitaine and Provence, to Toulouse and peaceful Gascony. Whatever feuds their parents were engaged in, the children did not care, and were not interested in the wars for power. So while their elders were prevented from unity of action by the strife and political divisions of the land, the young were one in feeling and in desire, and joined gleefully in Stephen's stirring cry:
"Long enough have you knights and warriors, so boastful and so honoured, been making your fruitless attempts to rescue the tomb of Christ! God can wait no longer! He is tired of your vain puny efforts. Stand back and let us, whom you despise, carry out his commission! He who calls can insure the victory, and we will show you what the children can do!"
Among the children who listened to Stephen's appeals, the more enterprising returned home determined to play a part in the Crusade only second to that of the Prophet, as Stephen was now called. Everywhere in France, they went through their home districts, begging their companions to join the Crusade, and it is probable that these children had much help from priests who sought in every way to inflame the youthful host, and to lead them on to concerted action.
As the army grew larger, the children formed into bands, and marched through towns and villages with all the pomp and display possible, despite much opposition from their parents, who saw with alarm that the excitement was growing daily more intense. The bands of recruits carried lighted candles, waving perfumed censers, and at the head of every band there marched a proud youth carrying the Oriflamme--a copy of the flag of the church, which was kept at St. Denys. The design of this banner was a red triple-tongued flame, symbolic of the tongues of fire that came down at Pentecost. This banner, like the colours of a regiment, was a symbol of honour, and an object of the young Crusader's devotion.
As the bands marched, they either sang hymns, such as had kept up the courage of previous Crusaders, or others composed on the spur of the moment by their revered children's minds, and in all of the hymns came the refrain--"Lord, restore Christendom! Lord, restore to us the true and holy Cross!"
And too they adopted the watchword which for two centuries had rung through Asia. Crying, "God wills it!" children of all classes and conditions and ages, cast aside authority, and joined the army, and soon the movement became like the surge of a great wave, carrying the youth of France out on its dangerous tide--girls as well as boys--weak as well as strong--joining the forces.
Of course, the matter attracted the attention of the king, Philip Augustus, who at first, for political reasons, was inclined to favour the young Crusaders, but then seeing how serious the matter really was, and that if it were not suppressed it would bear away the youth of the land, to almost certain disaster, finally issued an edict or command that the children return to their homes.
Kings are too wise to pay any attention even to messages written by a divine hand, and there is no evidence to show that Philip was in any way influenced by the letter given to Stephen by his celestial visitor, and Philip's edict went forth, that there be an end to the uprising of the children.
But in vain was the edict, which the King did not attempt to enforce, in vain were all the commands and threats and pleas of parents and guardians. Stephen's Crusade had become an epidemic. If a lad were locked up that he might not join its ranks, he straightway sickened; some even died of pining; where commands were the only bar to freedom, the youths utterly disregarded them and ran away. So, after a few weeks of Stephen's inflamed preaching there was rebellion in many previously happy household in France, agony in many a mother's heart, who saw her children leaving her, never, as her mother instinct told her, to return.
In the ranks of recruits were many noble youths, sons of counts and barons, who had from birth been brought up with knights and warriors who had won fame and honour in former Crusades, and who told glowing tales of the beauty and charm of the Holy Land to their children, and these were naturally thrilled at the thought of seeing such scenes and doing such deeds of valour, in gorgeous armour and on prancing steeds, for so did they picture themselves, as their fathers had done before them.
And there were others whose fathers had died in the Wars of the Cross, whose feverish dream was to make use of their father's honoured sword and shield and thus complete the work that Death had cut short. When these youths from the hills on which their homes stood, watched the processions passing with uplifted crosses and banners waving high, when they heard the songs and shouts of triumph, they could not be held back from joining the throng, and from their thousand homes they came to join the army, while higher and higher swelled the excitement, despite the opposition of king and clergy.
While Stephen was preaching at St. Denys, trying to gather his army together with all speed, tidings of the new Crusade were brought to a boy in a village near Cologne, a boy who had always been keenly interested in reading and hearing of the Crusades, and who was at once filled with a desire to follow the leadership of Stephen.
Nicholas, for that was this German lad's name, had a father who was both clever and ambitious. He knew the precocity of his son, and desiring to have the boy's talents bring him fame, and perhaps worldly benefits, worked on the boy's young mind in every possible way, until Nicholas believed himself to be called of God to imitate the example of Stephen, and to go to Cologne and preach as Stephen was doing at St. Denys.
Old Cologne was a great and influential city, and at that time the religious centre of Germany, and there Nicholas went and preached, telling, and doubtless with much suggestion and help from his father, many marvellous tales of the cross of blazing light which had been his pledge of success in the Holy War. Now we hear him speaking in impassioned words by the door of the old Cathedral, now on a platform surrounded by his credulous audience, and again simply standing on the street corner telling his story, while like the widening ripples from a stone thrown into the still waters of a lake, widened the ripples of interest in the new Crusade among the German children.
For reasons politic, the Emperor suppressed the matter where he could, but in the vicinity of the Rhine and the neighbouring land of Burgundy, the mania spread like wildfire, and as in France, overcame all opposition, until in little over a month after the first preaching of Nicholas, his bands were ready to depart for the Holy Land, while Stephen, Prophet and leader in France, was still waiting for the completion of his army, recruits for which were ever pouring into St. Denys, and although Stephen had never seen Nicholas, it must have been anything but an easy matter for him to control his feelings and act as such a divinely appointed leader should, when he heard that Nicholas was ready to lead his forces on to victory, while he, Stephen, first called of God, was left behind.
But there was no help for it, and on a morning of early July, in 1212, the German bands were ready to march to glory. Most of them wore the long grey coat of the Crusader, with its Cross upon the right shoulder, which, with the addition of the palmer's staff they carried, and the broad-brimmed hat they wore, made a quaint and pleasing effect upon the childish figures--while it showed to great advantages the broad shoulders and fine figure of sturdy Nicholas, who was as different as possible in physique and temperament from high-strung sensitive Stephen.
Now the hour of their departure has come. The army of Nicholas is ready to start from Cologne--a great crowd of spectators surrounds them, watching their movements in breathless silence. Nicholas stands with up-raised hands, gives a signal--the army forms into a solid body--starts--moves--and in a moment, despite opposition, protestations, pleas and sobs, twenty thousand children have commenced their march to Palestine. On they move, banners flying, songs and cheers floating on the clear air, and while there is many a dimmed eye and choked voice among those gathered to see them start, in the ranks of the Crusaders there is only enthusiasm and joy. On to victory! is their cry as they disappear behind the hills, a winding ribbon of humanity, and soon the sound of their cheers and shouts sinks into silence.
And now let us follow them, as along the Rhine they journey. Across the fields--beyond the river--southward through wilderness and vineyard, they go--marching by an occasional castle rising from some lofty crag, connected in many a childish mind with oft-heard legend and with song.
As they march on, they while away the tedious hours with hymns and tales, the children from the castles telling of knightly deeds done by men of famous name, the peasants, telling of miraculous visions of the Saints; and in the hearing and the telling of the tales, the children became as one family, bound up in one holy purpose--to outdo all deeds of heroic valour which had ever been the theme of song or story.
A motley army they--strangest of all the armies ever seen before--with face and form and voice of youth, but filled with older purpose and courage, as on and on they march with Nicholas in command, the lines stretching behind for several miles; and still are their banners proudly borne aloft, and still as they march, this famous old Crusader's hymn rises on the still air:
Fairest Lord Jesus,
Ruler of all Nature,
O thou of God and man the Son!
Thee will I cherish,
Thee will I honour,
Thou, my soul's glory, joy and crown.
Fair are the meadows,
Fairer still the woodlands,
Robed in the blooming garb of spring;
Jesus is fairer,
Jesus is purer,
Who makes the woeful heart to sing.
And still they journey southward, with Palestine their goal, and in their young minds there is no fear of a way to cross the Mediterranean sea, for had not Christ assured Stephen, and a vision revealed to Nicholas, that the drought at that time parching the land was God's evidence that they were to pass through the sea as on dry land, its waters having been parted for their benefit?
So fearlessly and happily they travelled on through the lands of the lords and nobles who owed allegiance to France, and everywhere their fame had preceded them, and in every village they won fresh recruits, until at length their number was so great that no city on the way could contain their army.
Some slept in houses, invited by the kind-hearted, others lay in the streets or market-place, while others lay down outside the walls of the cities, or if they were in open country when night fell, slept in barns or hovels, or by brooks, or under protecting trees, and so weary were they from their tiresome march that wherever they were, it mattered not, they slept as soundly as on beds of down. Then when morning came they ate whatever they had left, or begged or bought what food they could, for some among them still had money in their pockets. The line of march was again formed, the banners unfurled, the crosses uplifted, and with songs and shouts another day was begun. At noon they rested by some stream or in a shaded nook to eat their scanty meal, and then again marched on, feeling more keenly each day the distance lying between them and the land of their dreams, for the great trials of the young Crusaders had begun. Every day the march grew harder and more tiresome to the weary travellers, each meal the supply of food was more scanty, and even those children who had any money were robbed or cheated of it by hangers-on and thieves. Disorder and lawlessness increased rapidly in the ranks of the army, until at last they moved on without any rank or discipline, and under various leaders, who now openly defied the authority of Nicholas. At last they reached the territory now called Switzerland, which was then a number of small districts, mostly belonging to the Emperor; and the army winding through its beautiful valleys and passing along the banks of its turbulent rivers, came at last to the shores of Lake Leman and camped by the walls of Geneva. From thence their task was to cross the trackless heights of the Alps.
Weary and worn, but singing as they went, they journeyed bravely on over Mt. Cenis, which in the Middle Ages was the most frequented of all the mountain passes to Italy, and on that journey many children gave way to exhaustion. The rocks cut their unprotected feet, the air of dark chasms chilled them, they saw no prospect of rest or food until the pass was traversed, and go any farther in such misery they could not. Many turned back, and sadder and wiser, sought again the protection and comfort of their homes.
But the majority of the army still feverishly excited and inflamed with hope, pressed on and on, then suddenly in a moment of unexpected vision, before them in the distance they saw winding rivers, tapestried hills, and vine-yards and valleys of such luxuriant beauty as they had never seen in their Northern lands.
With new courage and strength they hurried on now, and soon they were in Italy, where, alas, poor children, they met with all sorts of oppression and cruelty as they journeyed, for the Italians were embittered against the Germans because of the constant wars carried on by their emperors, and visited the sins of their fathers upon these innocent children who were in their power, refusing them entrance to many towns, and subjecting them to all sorts of cruelties. But still such of the army as remained pressed on and on, and then one day, oh, joyous sight, not far beyond they saw the sea, blue and boundless, and on its shore, bathed in sunlight, lay "Genoa, the proud," a vision of fairyland to their dazzled eyes.
Discords were forgotten, songs not sung before for many a tearful day, rose again on the clear air. Crosses and banners were again uplifted as of old, and Nicholas was once more prophet and leader, as, forgetful of the past and its miseries, the army of children stood on the 25th day of August, at the gates of the city of Genoa, waiting to be admitted.
Bright were the floating banners, proud were the waiting youths, as Nicholas made his plea:--
"In the name of Christ and his Holy Cross, admit us, his soldiers to your city! Grant us rest on our journey, to rescue the Holy Sepulchre from the hands of the enemy! Men of Genoa, we ask not for transportation across the sea rolling between us and our goal. On the morrow God will part that sea that we may go over as on dry land, to achieve a victory denied to the wise and powerful of the land. Yea, he has said, 'Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings you have ordained strength, because of your enemies, that you might still the enemy and the avenger.' Men of Genoa, open thy gates to us, in the name of Christ!"
A large number of dignified Senators, or rulers of the city, heard the petition of Nicholas, heard it with pity mingled with amusement, and offered the protection of the city for a week to the deluded youths, for by that time--so thought the Senators--the youths would discover their deception and return homeward.
Eagerly did Nicholas and his army accept permission to enter the city whose streets and palaces were in such sharp contrast to those of their own homelands, Genoa being at that time at the height of her prosperity and greatness, but their joyful wonder found its match in that of the inhabitants, whose astonished eyes saw so many fair-haired children marching through their city, with banners and crosses carried high, singing their splendid songs, and full of such grim determination to rescue the Holy Land, a feat which experienced warriors had failed to accomplish.
As the children marched through Genoa, changed indeed was the appearance of their army; of the twenty thousand who had left the banks of the Rhine under the leadership of Nicholas, there were only seven thousand remaining now. Of the rest some were on their homeward journey, some in new homes which they had found by the way, others were lying in undiscovered graves in forest or on hillsides. Only the strongest and most resolute of that great army remained, and in consequence it was the flower of the youth of the Rhinelands, who entered Genoa, rugged and healthy, though their clothes were worn and faded, their feet bruised and bleeding, their faces burned by sun and wind, and their expressions aged and saddened by experience.
The merchants left their desks, the children stopped their play, and stared in wonderment, the grave nobles were moved to surprise, and the mothers wiped their eyes as the army of blue-eyed youths marched by.
No sooner had the Senators extended the hospitality of the city to the youths than they decided to retract it, for three reasons: They were afraid of the effect on the morals of the city, which might be produced by the entrance of seven thousand unrestrained boys--also they feared that such a sudden addition to the population might produce a famine, for situated as Genoa was, there was never any too great a quantity of food. Also, most weighty reason of all, the German Emperor was at war with the Pope and in the contest, Genoa was on the Guelph, or papal side. To shelter German children then, even though on a Crusade, would be to harbour foes and to care for a hated race which the Pope had declared outlawed.
In consequence of these reasons the children were told that they could stay only one night in the city, after all, except those who desired to make it their permanent home, and abandoning their wild scheme, promise to become good citizens.
But the youths laughed scornfully in answer--saying:
"We only ask to rest one night. To-morrow you shall see how God cares for his army! Who would remain here, when there lies a path in the sea, between emerald walls, to the land where glory waits us?"
So saying they slept that night, in proud and peaceful hope of the morning's glory, and in the morning rushed early to the shore, that they might see the path across which they were to journey to the promised land. Alas for hopes and promises and visions! The blue waves rippled--the sea rolled on. Hours wore away and yet no path was cleared through the depths, night all too soon came on, and there was no alternative for the army but to leave the city, and then decide upon their next step. Some of the children awoke to the deception of that undivided sea and resolved to stay in Genoa under the conditions imposed by the Senators, for the comforts of the city appealed strongly to them after such hardships as they had experienced.
But on that day, Sunday, August 26th, the remainder of the army which had so proudly and happily entered the city on the day before, went from its gates with hanging heads and sad hearts--a crestfallen band. Outside the city walls they gathered in a field near by, to discuss their plans for the future. Was it wiser to stay and perhaps die in sunny Italy, than to lose their lives on the weary journey separating them from their homes?
One cheery lad made answer, "Are there no other cities which will give us shelter? Why think that Genoa was meant to be the place at which the way through the sea was to be made? Let us push on to the southward until we find the passage which God has promised!"
His courage was contagious, as courage always is, and the diminished band decided to press on still further, until God should show his sign. This resolve made, all turned to Nicholas for his approval of their decision, and so intense had been their excitement during the discussion of their plans that no one had noticed that their leader was no longer one of the group. Alas, for his consecration to a sacred calling, Nicholas was not to be found, either then or later! Their leader, who had led them on to glory, where was he? No one ever knew. Never again was Nicholas seen by any one of those comrades who had followed him so far and so faithfully, trusted him so fully, and barest surmise fills in the mystery of his disappearance.
Nicholas was no high-strung, emotional boy, carried away, as was Stephen, by the glory of his holy calling, he was a calm quiet lad, who, once impressed with the fact that there was work for him to do, always did it to the best of his ability, but always with a keen businesslike instinct of serving his own interests to the best advantage. His father had impressed upon him the glory and rewards which would come to him as leader of a victorious Crusade, and Nicholas had responded to the call.
Now defeat had come instead, and he, the leader of the army, must bear the brunt of the disgrace which would weigh heavily upon his shoulders as long as his life lasted,--of that he felt sure. His comrades were as competent to press on, or to journey homeward without him as under his leadership. So he argued with himself and even as he argued, yielded to a great temptation, and like Esau, sold his honour for a mess of pottage.
A nobleman of Genoa, who was rich and powerful, and who saw in the lad a resemblance to his long lost son sought Nicholas secretly, and offered tempting prospects of a home and such advantages as the lad had never dreamed of having in all his simple life, if he would abandon his leadership and forsake his army, and Nicholas yielded to temptation. With careful strategy he slid away from that little group of disheartened followers, feverishly discussing what was best to do, and all that flock who had trusted him so fully, mourned for him, and mourning, trusted still, accounting him as one whom the Lord God of Hosts had for some wise reason taken from them.
And even while they were mourning for him as for one dead, Nicholas in new garments, more rich and showy than any he had ever worn before, was being shown the wonders of his new home, where servants stood ready to do his bidding, where every article of furnishing was a miracle of fairy fashioning, where cultured voices spoke in gentle tones, and where, oh, rapture far beyond all else, in the near-by stable there stood a prancing steed that was to be his own. Truly a worthy Crusade leader, he--Nicholas, the German lad!
Without a leader now, and without discipline or regulations, the discouraged, disorganised band whom he had deserted, bravely started on again, and reached Pisa, where they had far kinder treatment than in Genoa, and from which place two shiploads of them sailed for the Holy Land, but which we have no record that they ever reached. Those who did not embark, broke up into various small bands and straggling groups, travelling still southward, and at last reached Rome where they told their piteous tale to the authorities, who granted them an audience with the Pope.
Kneeling before him, they told in graphic words the story of their wanderings and sufferings and discouragements, to which unmoved the Pope listened, then, praising their zeal, he commanded them to make no further attempt to reach Palestine, telling them of the hopelessness of the undertaking. But he added, that the cross of a Crusader once assumed, bound one for ever to the Holy Cause, and that when they were older they must fight again for the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre, whenever he should call them to do so.
This bound the children to a repetition of their hardships and adventures, which, considering the courage and suffering of that little band of youths who knelt before him, was little less than cruelty.
Despairing now, and worn out with what they had endured, they were forced to obey the Pope's decree, and so with shattered hopes and dreams of glory for ever abandoned, they retraced their steps, and found their pathway homeward far more trying than the rest of their journey had been.
Many of them died on the way, and of those who lived, it was said in towns and cities through which they passed, that where in departing they passed in parties and troops, happy and never without the song of cheer, they now returned in silence, barefoot and hungry, and with no band of followers.
Day by day they straggled into Cologne--victims of a sad delusion. Alas, how bitterly they had paid for their wilful disobedience!
When asked where they had been, they said they did not know, and had only wild confused tales to tell of strange lands and countries, costumes and customs, and many a mother's heart was broken with sorrow that her boy had not survived the journeying.
Winter had passed and Spring had come and gone before all the wanderers had returned, all the lost been given up, and for many a year to come, peasants and nobles, with tear-dimmed eyes told the story of the German children's march to the sea, and of the supposed martyrdom of their lost leader, Nicholas--whose father, the afflicted parents whose homes had been desolated by the Crusade, turned on in such a frenzy of bitterness and anger, feeling that he had strongly influenced his son to leadership that they laid violent hands on him and hanged him in revenge.
Meanwhile, during all the weeks while Nicholas and his army were marching southward on their way to Italy, Stephen was still preaching at St. Denys, and his young lieutenants were still gathering recruits for his army from all parts of France--but at length in late June, all was ready except the last preparations for departure, and Stephen then sent out a command to his forces to gather at Vendome, a city near Cloyes, which was not only one of considerable importance, but from which roads lay in many directions from which bands could arrive.
From that moment every day some new band came into Vendome with a young leader in command, and was loudly welcomed by the other waiting bands; while coming across the plains, other groups could be seen marching towards the city, with their flags and oriflammes waving high, and their crosses held higher yet. As they drew near the city their songs could be heard louder and louder until when they reached the city gates, the words were so distinct that their dialect disclosed the province from which they had come.
From every province in France they came, bringing with them their different languages, costumes and peculiarities, and consequently, there was great confusion and variety in the ranks of Stephen's army, but though their dialects and costumes varied greatly, the youths were bound together by a single hope, led by a common aim, as they marched into Vendome ready to start on their perilous journey.
Like the German youths, they were assured that no vessels would be needed to take them across the Mediterranean, for had not Stephen said:
"Between waters which are to be to us as a wall on the right hand and the left, are we to cross the untrodden bed of the sea and with dry feet will we stand on the distant beach by the walls of Acre or of Tripoli. We bear no weapons and we wear no armour! The pathway of other Crusaders may be marked by the stain of blood and the glitter of steel, but our pilgrims' robes are our armour, our crosses are our swords and our hymns shall time our march!"
Not all wore the Crusader's grey coat, but all wore the Cross which was made of muslin cloth and sewed on the right shoulder of the coat. To place the cross there was the duty of the prophets--as the young leaders of each band were called. Receiving the cross was the formal act of enlistment, and proud indeed were the lads who wore them.
At last the latest band had come to Vendome, and fully thirty thousand children were gathered together there, eagerly awaiting the command to start on their journey. What a sight that was, the army of children as they stood waiting for the command to march!
Pleading parents and weeping friends begged the youths to repent and stay at home where their duty lay, but pleas and cries were all counteracted by applause and encouragement from thoughtless enthusiasts, and after religious exercises in which God's blessing was asked, and the oriflammes and crosses raised triumphantly, the army formed in line of march, and then with a volume of cheers which drowned the sound of sobs and protests, moved on, out of Vendome under the protection and leadership of Stephen.
It was only a few weeks since the young prophet had been the humble shepherd lad of Cloyes, but that was forgotten now, and as he led his army from Vendome he had assumed a pomp and dignity quite out of harmony with the appearance of his army. A leader of such a mighty host must not walk, so Stephen rode. The Lord's own general and prophet must assume the style which became his rank. He therefore rode in a chariot as splendid as could be procured, covered with rare carpets of brilliant colours. Over his head to protect him from the heat of the sun was a canopy from which there hung draperies of every hue. Around this chariot to guard him and carry out his commands, as well as to add to the impressiveness of his station, rode a band of chosen youths of noble birth, on chargers, dressed in splendid uniforms and armed with lances and spears. This pomp and splendour increased the confidence of his followers, who, too young to see the inconsistency of his conduct, listened to his words as to those of God, and regarded his wishes as law.
Out of Vendome, amid songs and shouts and tears and applause of the crowd gathered to see the departure, moved the ranks of youths, their eyes dazzled with the wonder and the glory of the leader--their hearts on fire to do his bidding. And in Stephen there burned the zeal of the real leader. In order to keep up the spirit of the host, which fatigue would tend to lessen, he spoke to them often in stirring words. At morning or noon or evening when they halted or encamped and also while they marched, he leaned often from his chariot and spoke encouraging words. Sometimes they thronged around him so closely when he spoke that it was hard work for his guards to protect him from the consequences of their weak homage and as they pushed forward to be near him, many of the weak and small were crushed to death. The veneration for the Boy Prophet was carried to such an extent that all vied with each other to procure a thread of his clothing, a piece of the trappings of his car, while they who had a single hair of his head felt they had a priceless treasure. It is small wonder that this shepherd boy, sensitive as he was to impressions, and duped as he was in the belief that he was anointed by God to a holy calling, and then worshipped by an ever-increasing tide of followers, should have been affected by the rapid change in his circumstances and surroundings. He was evidently possessed of no slight ability to carry out plans, and had much power over people, and his whole nature was aflame with the emotional credulous piety of the Middle Ages. Such was the lad Stephen, shepherd of Cloyes, prophet of the Children's Crusade, when with pomp and ceremony he led his army out of Vendome.
The pathway of his army was marked by far fewer hardships than those the German children were encountering, for the country through which they travelled was more peopled and the distance they had to go much shorter. They did not have to sleep on rocky heights or on freezing moors, and in the lands through which they passed they encountered only sympathy and interest. So their ranks were scarcely thinned by desertion or death, and yet even so, the trip was none too easy, especially on account of the great heat and drought of the summer, to which Stephen constantly referred as a sure sign from God that the sea was to be dried up for their benefit as he had predicted.
His army did not bear heat, want and exhaustion as well as the sturdier German children did, and in an incredibly short time its ranks lost all discipline and authority, and at last each one of his band of followers became keen only to outwit the others in a search for food, and in endeavours to hide it, they struggled on--a loose, undisciplined mass, until finally Stephen's authority was entirely lost and the march became only a race for the sea. All original enthusiasm of the army had vanished, and the courage which for a while had been kept up by Stephen's zeal, and by spirited songs and stories, died away, and Stephen was obliged to make use of constant deceptions in answer to questions as to when the weary march would be over, saying that a few more days or hours would bring them to the sea, and so ignorant of geography were the youths that the falsehoods were not detected. Day by day they awoke with fresh hope which was fed by the sight of a castle or walled town which they thought might be Jerusalem, and night after night they lay down victims of a cruel deception--poor deluded, wilful, little pilgrims! On and on they marched through central France, through Burgundy, and beautiful Provence, and finally from the last range of hills they had to climb, there burst on them a view of the cool, blue sea, and from their ranks there came a mighty cheer! With renewed hope they hurried down to the walls of the city of Marseilles which they saw lying below the hills, an enchanting vision of cool green beauty to their untravelled eyes. Their shouts announced their arrival to the people of the city, who hurried to street corners and to market places, and saw with curious and astonished eyes the strangest of all armies which had ever visited their city before, and young and old listened with wide-eyed astonishment to the tale they told. Three hundred miles they had come, those children, in about a month, and the sea was now to divide that they might pass over in safety to accomplish their holy object!
Unlike the German army, their numbers were scarcely lessened, as many new recruits had joined the ranks and replaced those few who had deserted or fallen by the way-side. So it was not a small and tattered or worn-out band who made their appeal to the Marseillian authorities, but an imposing band of twenty thousand youths, still flushed with health and hope.
Having no political reason to refuse them entrance to the city, and possibly rejoicing to have such an influx of pilgrims, permission to stay was given to the host of youths, who with their leader and the older companions who had followed the army, accepted the hospitality of Marseilles and were housed in various places for the one night which was to be the preface to that miracle which would prove their Divine mission.
After a night of fitful sleep and vivid dreams, Stephen at dawn crept out alone, and hastened to the shore of the sea, where he feasted his hungry eyes on its surging depths, crying, "How long, oh, Lord, how long, before You show thy power?" For hours he remained there, by the sea, and yet there came no pathway for their pilgrim feet to tread. Soon his army had clustered around him, and there they watched, and waited, asking eager questions, and Stephen's hour for victory or defeat had come.
Standing on a rocky height, he spoke, with flashing eyes and ringing voice, yes, and with an honest conviction of the truth of what he said, spoke words of hope and cheer that allowed of no backsliding or complaint, among his followers; and still the weary band kept up their watch by the shore of that surging sea. The afternoon light deepened, the sunset came, night spread its glamour over the scene, and yet the waves rolled on, showing no sign of marvel or of miracle. Over-strained and broken by discouragement, yet still hopeful, the army waited through three long days and nights, and still the sea surged on unchanged, undivided!
Stephen's followers knew the truth at last,--they had been deceived by a false hope, led by a false leader. Crying out against him who had brought them to such a plight, so far from home, they vanished one by one, until of the army that had entered the city, only five thousand remained.
Bewildered, discouraged, frightened, Stephen knew not where to turn for help. Dropping on his knees he prayed earnestly for a voice to tell him of his duty and of God's desire.
Then suddenly his disheartened band of followers saw an unexpected sight. Stephen, the Prophet, marching alone through the streets of Marseilles, waving the Oriflamme, singing a song of triumph, shouting in clear and ringing tones, "God wills it--God wills it!"
They surrounded him, when at last he halted, and he spoke first in denunciation of their unbelief, and then he told of two Marseillian merchants who had come to him even as he was on his knees praying for guidance, and offered him vessels to carry his army to Palestine.
These merchants said they asked no passage money of Christ's soldiers for the trip, the only reward they wished was the consciousness of duty done to pilgrims in a holy cause, the prayers of the children, and the honour of having helped the young Crusaders.
Great was the rejoicing now, and great the shame at having for one moment doubted God's help and the good faith of his servant, Stephen.
Pressing around him as he told his thrilling tale, his followers begged forgiveness for their lack of faith, which Stephen graciously accorded and became once again the beloved leader, the honoured prophet.
Such vessels as were needed for the expedition were speedily made ready, and in Marseilles loud praises were heard on every side of the generous men who were helping the young Crusaders to fulfil their mission, then people began to gather to watch the little host embark.
It was a thrilling sight--there in that quiet bay, to see the Crusaders, trembling with excitement at this new experience--enter the vessels which were waiting to receive them, while on shore the citizens of Marseilles were crowding to the front to see the expedition start, and the gay colours of the flying banners, the bright costumes of the women, blended with the sunlight in which the fronts of the quaint old houses were bathed, together with the blue water and the bluer sky, made a picture both dazzling and beautiful.
When the little army had entered the ships provided for their use, the solemn ceremonies took place which in those days, when sea voyages were so perilous, always preceded such an expedition. Then, the religious exercises being over, all parts of the ships were examined to see that they were in proper order for such a dangerous voyage, the sailors were stationed at their respective posts, the anchor chains were loosened, ready to release the vessels, and the ropes held in hand. There was a brief silence, then upon the elevated "castle" or stern of each ship, the young army of Crusaders commenced to chant that dear old hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" which the church in all ages has used on solemn occasions, and as its words floated from one vessel, they were taken up on another until the air was full of harmony which was wafted back to the hills and shore, where the seven vessels were being eagerly watched out of sight. With none of the noise of modern steamers, those seven vessels glided out of the quiet harbour, in stately procession and passed beneath the lofty rock of Notre Dame, and the little voyagers were at sea.
Soon their songs grow faint as they float over the water, then die away. After that the flags and banners still tell of joy and hope, until they too are invisible. The day draws to a close, darkness drops down and envelops the seven ships sailing towards the promised land with five thousand courageous little pilgrims on board.
But, alas, for hopes and plans, alas, for the holy ideals of that little band. Not one of them ever realized his ambition!
Two of those ships which sailed so gaily from the harbour of Marseilles, laden with the fair and hopeful youths of France, whose mission was to rescue the Holy Tomb from infidel hands, were wrecked in a wild storm off the Hermit's rock, lying beneath the cliffs of San Pietro.
There beneath the "unplumbed, salt estranging sea" lies Stephen, the boy Prophet--who even while the tempest was hurling his army to death on the open sea, proved the sincerity of his piety; for clinging to a spar, while drifting to a certain doom, he led his little flock in song and prayer, and even as wave after wave dashed over the deck, above the roar of the tempest could his clear triumphant young voice be heard--"In the name of Christ and His cross, be brave. We go to victory--to victory!"
Hideous indeed were the sufferings of the brave youths in the other ships, when they saw their comrades drifting to their death, and little did they dream that they had escaped that terrible storm only to meet still greater perils. Soon they found that they were victims of an infamous treachery, that the merchants who had been so praised in preparing vessels for their use, were simply slave-dealers who had contracted (and probably for an enormous amount of money)--to sell those unsuspecting children to the Mohammedans--the very nation whom the youthful Crusaders had gone forth to conquer, to whom such a consignment of fair young slaves would be of rare value.
Surrounded by vessels of the enemy, they were taken from the ships in which they embarked, and despite their agony of fright and pleading, were carried either to Brijeiah or to Alexandria by their captors, where among the fairest scenes, and the most wonderful and tropical beauty they had ever dreamed of, they were sold into hopeless slavery. Not one of all that army of Stephen's ever saw Europe again, and the Children's Crusade ended as all enterprises end, whether undertaken by young or old, layman or priest, warrior or statesman, when conceived and carried out in a spirit of rebellion and frenzy.
Nicholas and Stephen--boy leaders of the Children's Crusade, one of the most pathetic and thrilling events in all history, one lived--one died. Which, think you, had the right to wear the emblem of the Holy Cross?