Question: "What were the Children's Crusades?"
Answer: The Children’s Crusades were not truly Crusades in the proper sense of the word. What are historically called the Children’s Crusades were an independent movement that occurred in AD 1212. None of the participants ever reached the Holy Land. There is not even absolute certainty that all the participants were truly children.
The original goal of those involved with the Children’s Crusades was to travel to Jerusalem to rediscover the lost cross of Christ. They believed the cross had been wrongfully taken by Muslims in approximately 1187. While some argue these “Crusaders” were literally children, other historians believe it is more likely those called “children” were a class of landless peasants.
The Children’s Crusade left from France in 1212 and traveled to Italy. At that point, they were unable to find anyone to take them to Jerusalem. Instead of returning to France, most of the travelers remained in Genoa and the surrounding area where they became slaves or provided cheap labor to area business leaders. Further, the group appears to have never been officially sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church.
Two main accounts regarding the Children’s Crusades have long circulated. One account suggests there was a second group from France led by a peasant child named Stephen of Cloyes. According to this account, Stephen gathered some 30,000 children to Marseilles with plans to travel to the Holy Land.
A second account of the Children’s Crusades tells of a group of 50,000 from Germany comprised of both children and adults (some versions say 20,000). This multitude traveled across the Alps to meet with the Pope in Rome. The Pope praised their intentions but decided they were too young to travel to the Holy Land and sent them back home. Most returned, but, according to the story, some forged ahead and boarded ships for the Holy Land. They were never heard from again.
Some claim as many as 50 different printed stories exist of Children’s Crusades from the thirteenth century. It is generally agreed most of these accounts are legendary or highly exaggerated. Ascertaining the truth of what took place is difficult.
Biblically, there is no precedent for a church engaging in military action or marching against Muslims. There is no reason for a church to venerate physical objects or to claim to be doing God’s work in searching for relics and enshrining them. And there is certainly no cause to send children into harm’s way; Jesus showed love to children and expects parents to care for their children, rearing them according to God’s truth (Ephesians 6:4).