The Fourth Crusade & Children’s Crusades: Perhaps Christendom’s Lowest Point (The Crusades part 5)

The Crusades (Part 5 of 6)

1. Deus Vult: Pope Urban II Calls for the First Crusaders (AD 1095)
2. The First Crusade and Reclaiming the Holy City (AD 1096-1099)
3. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Second Crusade (AD 1144-1153)
4. Lionheart and the Third Crusade (AD 1187-1193)
5. The Fourth Crusade & Children’s Crusade: Perhaps Christendom’s Lowest Point (AD 1198-1212)
6. Final Crusades and Final Results (AD 1215-1291)

The Third Crusade, which ended in AD 1193, was perhaps the most widely celebrated because of the involvement of Richard the Lionheart. But even Lionheart had failed to retake Jerusalem. A temporary armistice allowing Jews and Christians to take pilgrimage back and forth to Jerusalem was all that had ultimately been obtained. By the turn of 13th century, however, the crusading spirit was waning along with the hopes of reclaiming the entire Mediterranean world for the Kingdom of the Cross. However, when the energetic Pope Innocent III (pope from AD 1198-1216) finally took his place in the papal chair, he “threw himself with all the energy of his nature into the effort of reviving the crusading spirit.” (Schaff)

The truth is, though, that Latin Christians were desperate. And people can do strange things when they are desperate.


Pope Innocent III

Before discussing the Children’s Crusades, it is important to touch briefly on the Fourth Crusade. When Innocent III began rallying his forces for a new attempt to retake Jerusalem in 1198, he could find no king to join him in leadership. What resulted, therefore, was a military expedition which lacked any imperial authority. This had at least two regrettable results:

  1. With the only commands and forbiddings coming from the Vatican, the crusading armies were not forced to submit to anyone.
  2. The crusading armies were susceptible to the influence of other leaders and governments they might encounter along the way.

The latter result reared its head soon after the crusaders departed France in 1202. The initial strategy was to enter Jerusalem after conquering Egypt. In a move that would soon backfire, the crusaders sought transport to Africa from the Venetians. Since they were unable to pay the full balance for the voyage up front, they swore a temporary allegiance to Venice. Under the heavy-handed influence of the doge of Venice, Henry Dandolo (died AD 1205), the crusaders made their first offensive move.

The siege would not come against a city held by Muslims, however. Instead, the Latin Christians joined the Venetians in an attack on the nearby Eastern Christian city of Zara (modern-day Croatia). When Innocent III heard rumors of the planned attack, he sent orders strictly forbidding such actions and even threatened excommunication. His command was not heeded, however, and on November 24, 1202, the Latin crusaders laid siege to, plundered, and utterly destroyed the city of Zara. For the next several months, Zara would become the staging area for planning a second offensive that would eventually do more damage to the Christian faith than could have possibly been imagined.

The Venetians had their sights set on Constantinople. Because of internal conflict between Alexius III and Alexius the son of Isaac over the Eastern throne, the capital of the Eastern Empire was at a vulnerable point. The Latin Christians, who had been in schism with the Eastern Christians since AD 1054, were once again persuaded to join the Venetians in conquest. In 1203 and 1204, the crusaders again attacked their Christian brothers and sisters and captured Constantinople. More than one ancient source records the “wanderlust” of this particular crusade, as Constantinople was plundered of its relics and treasures. Several accounts also describe rampant sexual immorality and orgies that took place at the initiative of the crusaders.

The final result of the Fourth Crusade was the establishment of another Christian “kingdom” of the likes of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. Thus began the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople — established in 1204 — with its capital at Constantinople. Baldwin of Flanders was chosen as the new Emperor of the “united” Constantinople, and he immediately began distributing Eastern lands among Western knights.

The Latin Kingdom of Constantinople (1204-1261) even had its own minted coins like the one shown here, with Christ on one side and an Emperor (such as Baldwin) on the reverse.

In the minds of the Latin Christians, the Byzantine Christians would once again answer to their Pope. Innocent III, however, vehemently condemned the attack on Constantinople and, in particular, the behavior of the crusaders. In his words,

You have spared nothing that is sacred, neither age nor sex. You have given yourselves up to prostitution, to adultery, and to debauchery in the face of all the world. You have glutted your guilty passions, not only on married women, but upon women and virgins dedicated to the Saviour. You have not been content with the imperial treasures and the goods of rich and poor, but you have seized even the wealth of the Church and what belongs to it. You have pillaged the silver tables of the altars, you have broken into the sacristies and stolen the vessels. (Schaff)

The Latin Kingdom of Constantinople would last until 1261, until it was recaptured by the Byzantines. The damage done between Eastern and Western Christians, however, would take centuries to repair. For those of Eastern Orthodox faith traditions, these events will certainly never be forgotten.


Schaff describes the so-called Children’s Crusades as “The most tragic of the Crusader tragedies.”

There is much confusion and silence in the historical tradition regarding from whence the call for the Children’s Crusades came. In all likelihood, there was no call from the papacy or clergy for a youth-targeted crusader movement. On the contrary, the crusading spirit had such a strong thrust that most people were still caught up in it. It would appear these young people truly felt some responsibility to play a role in the missions for the Cross.

An artist’s rendering of a young man – perhaps Stephen or Nicholas – preaching the a children’s crusade

In AD 1212, groups of young adults and children in both France and Germany–even some under the age of 10–began to organize into bands of crusaders. Two boys in particular, a 12-year old shepherd boy named Stephen of Cloyes, and a 10-year old boy called Nicholas of Cologne, preached the crusading spirit to their peers, promising that God would surely grant victory to children who were innocent of mortal sins. They argued God had a special allegiance to children, and thus it was their responsibility to fulfill God’s mission that had been abandoned by adults — defeating the Muslims and recapturing Jerusalem.

In France, it was believed Stephen had a vision from Christ in which Jesus appeared as a pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem who was crying out for His holy places to be rescued. Supposedly, both Pope Innocent III and the king of France tried to deter the movement but were unsuccessful. According to Robertson: “If any parents tried to keep back their children from joining them, it was of no use; even if they shut them up, it was believed that the children were able to break through bars and locks in order to follow Stephen and his companions.”

“The Children’s Crusade” by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Some estimates have the French children’s army as having reached 30,000 young adults and children — both boys and girls. Unfortunate events began to unfold even before the young crusaders left the country, however, when they encountered two dangerous charlatans. It was in Marseille that the groups were taken in by Hugo Ferreus and William Porcus — two Mediterranean slave traders with an eye to take advantage. The dealers swore allegiance to God and promised Stephen and his young crusaders a free ride to the Holy Land. They convinced the crusaders to board their seven ships and then set sail toward their destination. But Ferreus and Porcus had no plans to sail to the Israeli shores. Instead, they intended to carry the boys and girls and all of their valuables to Africa – never to be returned. Two of the vessels were shipwrecked in Sardinia and never even reached Africa. The remaining ships indeed carried the children to Africa where most of them became slaves in Egypt.

In Germany, Nicholas and another young man rallied more than 20,000 troops of their own. From Cologne these groups of adults, boys, and girls left for the Holy Land. Some attempted to cross the Swiss Alps and were never heard from again. Others either died or were redirected at different points in the journey, leaving Nicholas’ army at only 7,000 by the time they reached Italy. They too never reached Jerusalem and found tragic ends to their young crusading spirit.

The short-lived Children’s Crusades left behind grieving parents, an enormous void in the French and German generations born near the turn of the century, and a lot of perplexed Christians who must have wondered if all of these events had simply been a dark dream. Pope Innocent, perhaps trying to find some redeeming result from such calamity, praised the children for their exemplary passion for the cross. “They put us to shame,” exclaimed Innocent, “They rushed to recover the Holy Lands and we are still sleeping.”


  • Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land (2010)
  • Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon (1999) vol. 1
  • Robertson, J.C. Sketches of Church History: From AD 33 to the Reformation. (1904)
  • Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, vol. 5.
  • Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (1914)

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