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The Peoples' Crusade

The Peoples' Crusade was the popular reaction to Pope Urban's call for armed assistance for the Byzantine Emporer. In cities, towns and villages around Europe, monks, priests and rabble-rousers  urged the people to take up their belongings and head for Jerusalem.

The most influential of these was Peter the Hermit. He travelled throughout Northern Germany and France, promising people that freedom and eternal salvation would await them if they conquered Jerusalem. People flocked from all over, including strange folk from a distant land who wore kilts, and others who, lacking any common language, simply indicated their desire to join the crusade by crossing their index fingers.

The 'Holy Innocents' are slaughtered

They were men, women and children of all social ranks, but many of them poor. Few of them had any proper military equipment, let alone training.
The Journey Across Europe

The People's Crusade left Amiens in March 1096, several months before the official armies. With Peter as their spiritual head and Walter Sans-Avoir as their military leader. By the time they had reached Cologne, the vanguard led by Walter had already split from the main body. Walter convinced Coloman, King of Hungary, that the crusaders offered him no threat. The march of Walter's vanguard was peaceful enough, except for an incident at Semlin, where a straggling group of crusaders were murdered, and their clothes and armor dangled over the walls of the town.

Peter's huge group, which stretched along the road for several day's march, reached Semlin about a fortnight later. He gave orders that there should not be any violence, and the first parts of the army passed by without incidence. However, outside of his direct influence he could not keep control. Believing the clothes and armor dangling over the parapet to be a provocation (which, indeed, it probably was), the crusaders bring up the rear of the army rioted, and over 4,000 Hungarians were killed. Peter, who was some days ahead, may not of even known of the incident

Walter, meanwhile, had made it safely to Bulgaria, a frontier province of the Byzantine Empire. Here was no welcome. The governor of Belgrade had had no warning of the arrival, and so he shut the town gates, told Walter they had no food to sell, and waited for instructions from the Emporer. Some crusaders took matters into their own hands and began ransacking the countryside around. The locals reacted swiftly against these bandits, and a group around 150 were chased into a country church where they were burned to death.

By the time Walter reached Sofia, the locals were better prepared. A market was organised where the crusaders could buy much needed goods. The governor also provided guides, whose job was to ensure the crusaders arrived safely in Byzantium without causing any more trouble.

Peter's army, in contrast, was out of control by the time it reached Belgrade. The locals fled, and Belgrade was burned to the ground. Next on the route was Nish, where a large Byzantine garrison managed to keep the peace for some time. Peter gave them some of his own people as hostages, and marched on. Again, however, the reargaurd was volatile. Some water mills were set on fire, and the local governor ordered his army to retaliate. The fighting lasted three days and over 10,000 crusaders were killed. Peter hurried back, but there was little he could do.

The Emporer's Envoy
Noble and illustrious men, a rumour has reached our ears that serious charges of an unsavoury nature have been brought against you. They say you have done great violence to the people of our land who are our subjects. Therefore, if you ever hope to find favor in the sight of our majesty, we enjoin upon you, by our authority, that you do not remain in any of our cities for more than three days, and that you will lead your expedition as quickly as possible to Byzantium with steady and harmonious leadership. We will give you guides and we will cause you to be furnished with the necessary food at a just price.

Just in time, an envoy from the Emporer arrived with an offer to escort the crusaders to Byzantium.  The Emporer gave them money and food, and they arrived without further incident, rejoining Walter's army which had been camped there for a fortnight.

The crusaders reach Byzantium

The Emporer advised Peter to remain in the environs of Byzantium and to wait for the professional army to arrive. The people, however, were impatient to march to Jerusalem, and Peter asked for them to be ferried across the Bosphorus. By this time, cracks were showing in the adhesion of this vast multinational army, and Peter had effectively been pushed aside in favour of national leaders. The Gemrans and Italians united under a man called Rainald, while the Franks followed one Geoffrey Burel. Peter returned to Byzantium.

The crusaders set about plundering nearby villages, under the control of the Turks but populated by christians. The Franks then attacked the environs of Nicaea, the capital of the Seljuk Turks and heavily garrisoned. They were forced to flee, but they carried off a great deal of loot from the outlying villages.

This encouraged Rainald's forces to take their chances. They marched past Nicaea to the lightly defended fortress of Xerigordon, which they captured. The Turks arrived, surrounded them, cut off the water supply and then, after eight days, captured the fortress. The German commander and many of his men surrendered, but the rest given the option to convert to Islam. Those who aqueisced were sold into slavery. Those who did not were slain.

The siege of Xerigordon
Our men were terribly afflicted by thirst. They bled their horses and asses to drink the blood. Some let their belts and handkerchiefs down into a cistern, and squeezed the liquid into their mouths, while others urinated into their fellow's cupped hands and drank. Still others dug up the moist earth and lay down on their backs and spread the earth over their breasts, being so dry with thirst. The bishops and priests encouraged our men and admonished them not to dispair ...
The anonymous author of The Deeds of the Franks.

When news of this defeat reached the others, they were incensed. Geoffrey Burel ordered them to march against Nicaea, in the hope of drawing the Turks into a pitched battle. The Turks, who had good intelligenceof the ramschackle army as it made its way to them. An ambush was set up at a point where a narrow valley opened up into a plain. The crusader cavalry was allowed to emerge from the valley before being bombarded with arrows. They attempted to flee, but were blocked in the valley with no room to manouevre. The result was a massacre, with the bulk of the crusaders wiped out. Some made it back to their camp, where the old, the women and the children waited for them, but there was no respite. The Turks plunged through the camp, slaughtering everyone who were not worth keeping as slaves.

Some of the soldiers did not flee back to camp, but dispersed into the surrounding mountains. Several thousand of them made their way to an abandoned fortress on the seashore, where they blocked up the entrance and fought desperately for survival. When the Emporer heard of the siege, he acted quickly. He sent his fleet to the rescue, and the Turks quietly left the scene. The fortresses defenders were the only members of the Peoples' Crusade to make it back to safety.

What happened to them after that can only be guessed at, but it seems likely that most of them rejoined Peter at Byzantium and waited for the main crusading army to join them. 

Unique visitors: The story of the First Crusade.

Copyright 1999 Dr Tom J Rees. All rights reserved.