The People’s Crusade

The Prelude to the First Crusade

Led by Walter the Penniless and Peter the Hermit the People’s Crusade preceded the First Crusade by several months.

Following the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II began planning the departure of the Crusader army, which was expected to depart on August 15, 1096. While the Pope’s Crusader army was still organizing, large numbers of peasants and poor knights set off from all over Europe for Jerusalem on their own. This mass migration came about partially due to the Council of Cleremont, but also because Europe’s peasants had endured years of famine, drought and privation. As a result, the Pope’s call to Crusade was seen as an opportunity for escape.

The Origins of the People’s Crusade

Additionally, the Crusaders were motivated by a number of astronomical signs that had been seen in Europe’s skies. These included meteor showers, the northern lights and a lunar eclipse. There was also an outbreak of Ergotism, which resulted from the ingestion of alkaloid poisons deposited on crops by insects. These factors combined with an outbreak of milleniumism, and belief that the end of the world was imminent, resulted in a migration of more than 40,000 people, instead of the few thousand knights the Pope had been expecting.

The People’s Crusade was led by Peter the Hermit. Originally born in Amiens, France, Peter the Hermit was known for his simple dress and the fact that he rode a donkey. He was also an energetic supporter of the Crusade in northern France and in Flanders. He claimed that he had been appointed to lead the expedition by Jesus Christ. Peter also claimed to have been given a divine letter supposedly written by Jesus in evidence of this. It has long been believed that Peter’s army was composed solely of illiterate peasants, some of whom believed that every major city they saw was Jerusalem. However, by the 10th Century the location of and distance to Jerusalem was well known. Additionally, even though poor, some of the knights in Peter’s army, such as Walter the Penniless, were well trained and had adequate combat experience.

The Jews and the People’s Crusade

The declaration of Crusade against the Turks also caused an outbreak of anti-semitism. In some parts of France and Germany, Jews were considered to be as much an enemy of Christianity as Muslims. The reason for this was because the Jews were believed to be responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. As a result, contemporary observers argued that the First Crusade was unnecessary, as there was an enemy much closer at hand than the Muslims.

It is also likely that the Crusades were motivated by the communities in the German Rhineland. Most of the communities along the Rhine River were geographically isolated. As such, there were no restrictions against money lending. Western Christianity forbade usury and many of the Crusaders had to go into debt in order to pay for their weapons, armour and supplies. As a result, many of the Crusaders rationalized the killing of Jews as an extension of their mission to recapture Jerusalem.

The People’s Crusade Reaches Constantinople

Peter the Hermit gathered his followers at Cologne, Germany in April, 1096. He had planned to preach there and gather more followers. However, the French were not willing to wait and a few thousand French Crusaders continued marching, eventually reaching the Byzantine border, near what is now Belgrade, in Serbia. The commander of the local Byzantine garrison was taken by surprise and refused to allow the Crusaders to enter the Byzantine Empire.

When Peter’s followers reached Constantinople, they were quickly ferried across the Bosporus Straight, which separates Europe from Asia. It is not sure if Emperor Alexius I purposely sent the Crusaders on, knowing they would be slaughtered without guides, or if the Crusaders insisted on going on without adequate preparations. In either case, it is known that the Byzantine Emperor urged Peter to wait for the main Crusader army which was still forming in Europe. As a result Peter lost much of his authority.

The Battle of Xeringdon

The result was that the Crusaders became overconfident and started attacking nearby Turkish-held towns. The French laid siege to Nicaea, a local Turkish stronghold while the Germans attacked Xeringdon with a force of 6,000 men. They used the city as a base from which to raid other nearby towns. This triggered a Turkish counter blow and a large Muslim force lead by Kilij Arslan was able to retake the city. Some of the captured Crusaders converted to Islam and were taken to Khorasan. Those who did not convert were killed.

Meanwhile, Turkish spies had infiltrated the Crusaders’ camp and spread rumours that Nicaea had fallen and that the city was being looted. The news prompted the mobilization of the entire force of 20,000 men. However, the Crusaders were ambushed just three miles from their camp. A few thousand retreated to a nearby castle and survived to fight in the First Crusade, but most of the Crusaders were killed by the Turks.


Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade By John France, pg. 159

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Crusades By Paul L. Williams, pg. 48

Rights: A Critical Introduction By Tom Campbell, pg. 71

J. Norwich, Byzantium: The Decline and Fall, 33-35

The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare By Jim Bradbury, pg. 186

The First Crusade By Steven Runciman, pg. 59-60


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