Story of the Crusades - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Story of Peter the Hermit

Great troops of people travelled thitherward

Both day and night, of each degree and place

But few returned, having 'scaped hard

With hateful beggary or foul disgrace.

SPENSER: Faery Queene.

Some twenty years after the death of Hakim, the countries round about the Holy Land began to be harassed by a new and terrible foe. From far-off Turkestan had migrated a fierce fighting tribe, the descendants of one Seljuk, and known to history as the Seljukian Turks. Wherever they went they conquered, until half-way through the eleventh century, their leader drove out the Saracen rulers of Bagdad and made himself Caliph.

His successor was converted to Islam, and with added power, swept over Asia Minor and settled in the city of Nicaea, in threatening proximity to Constantinople.

This invasion was the more terrible in that it brought in its train a relapse to barbarism, for these Turks were barbarians, hordes of robbers and brigands, who cared for nothing but plunder and violence.

Alexios, the weak Emperor of the Eastern Empire, quailed at their approach, and looked on in terror at the spectacle of Christian churches destroyed and Christian children sold into slavery. But he appealed in vain for aid to the kingdom of the West. To unite Western Christendom against a far-off foe was a task beyond the powers of the tottering Empire of the East.

That inspiration, however, was at hand. In 1076, the Seljukian Turks conquered Jerusalem, and at once began a reign of terror for Christian inhabitants and pilgrims. The Patriarch, or Bishop of Jerusalem, was dragged through the street by his white hair, and flung into a dungeon, until his people could gather a sum sufficient to pay his ransom. The holiest sacrament of the Church was profaned by the barbarians, who invaded the buildings and insisted upon sharing in the rite. Pilgrims were stripped and beaten on the roads and passes that led to the Holy City; many suffered martyrdom as they knelt before the Holy Tomb. Out of seven thousand who set out from Germany in one year, only two thousand returned to tell a tale of cruel murder and outrage. The marvel is that such a terrible state of things was allowed to exist so long, without anything being done to remedy it. Pope Gregory VII. (Hildebrand) did indeed gather an army in the latter part of the eleventh century, but his energy was dissipated in the hopeless task of asserting the power of the Pope over the Emperor, and his army was eventually dispersed.

Robert Guiscard, the Norman, actually crossed the sea with his troops in 1081, when death overtook him; and for a time the unhappy pilgrims seemed to be left to their fate. Then suddenly was heard a "voice calling in the wilderness," the voice of one who was to be the herald of the First Crusade.

The story goes that a certain poor hermit named Peter, a native of the French city of Amiens, set out to go to Jerusalem in the year 1098. He had, like every one else, heard of the horrors he might be called upon to endure, but pushed on, undeterred, until, possibly because of his poverty, he arrived safely within the Holy City. He found the condition of things even worse than he expected. The very stones of the great church were stained with the blood of the martyrs; the cries of tortured women rang in his ears; the patriarch Simeon confessed that he had lost heart and was little better than a slave in the Moslem's hands. It was clear that the Emperor of the East, their proper protector, would never act up to his responsibilities. To whom, then, could they look for aid?

"The nations of the West shall take up arms in your cause," cried the dauntless Peter, and he forthwith promised to visit the Pope and obtain his help and sympathy on his return journey, if the Patriarch would give him letters to the Church of Rome.

That night, says the legend, Peter meant to spend in watching at the tomb of the Saviour, and there he fell asleep. And as he slept, the figure of the Redeemer stood before him, and with hand outstretched, bade him hasten to fulfil his great task, saying, "So shalt thou make known the woes of My people, and rouse the faithful to cleanse the Holy Places from the infidel; for through danger and trial of every kind shall the elect now enter the gates of Paradise."

With these words ringing in his ears, the Hermit at once hurried to the coast and sailed for Italy. He came before Pope Urban II. at the very time when the envoys of the Emperor of Constantinople were knocking very hard at the doors of Rome. Urban therefore did not hesitate to bless the enterprise of Peter, and to bid him go forth and preach a Crusade in his own way.

To induce kings, princes, and nobles, to leave their lands and go to fight in a cause from which they could gain no apparent profit, needed considerable time, and Urban himself undertook the difficult task. But he was wise enough to see that the peculiar power of Peter the Hermit could be used in stirring up the ordinary people, the simple-minded and the poor, to take up arms for the cause of Christ. So, as a writer of his own time puts it. "The hermit set out, from whence I know not, but we saw him passing through the towns and villages, preaching everywhere, and the people surrounding him in crowds, loading him with offerings and celebrating his sanctity with such great praises that I never remember such honour bestowed on any one."

Throughout Italy and France and along the banks of the Rhine journeyed the strange inspired figure, with head and feet bare, his thin frame wrapped in a coarse cloak, holding before him a great crucifix as he rode upon an ass.

"He preached to innumerable crowds in the churches, the streets and the highways; the Hermit entered with equal confidence the palace and the cottage; and the people were impetuously moved by his call to repentance and to arms. When he painted the sufferings of the natives and pilgrims of Palestine, every heart was melted to compassion; every breast glowed with indignation when he challenged the warriors of the age to defend their brethren and rescue their Saviour."

[Illustration] from The Story of the Crusades by E. M. Wilmot-Buxton


While Southern Europe was thus being stirred to enthusiasm by being brought into personal contact with one who had seen for himself the woes of the Holy Land, Pope Urban had already called a council to consider the matter in a practical form. At this Council of Placentia, however, the chief part of the attention of those present was drawn to the representations of the Greek Emperor, on whose behalf ambassadors pleaded the cause of the city of Constantinople. If that city fell before the threatened onslaught of the Turks, they said, Christianity must perish for ever in the East, and nothing but a narrow stretch of sea kept the Moslems from the gates of the capital city of the Eastern Empire.

At these words the deepest sympathy was expressed, but it was suggested that the best way of succouring the threatened city was to draw off the attention of the Turks by an attack upon Palestine itself. This was just what Urban desired. A definite march upon Jerusalem would fire the imaginations of men of all ranks far more than an attempt to defend Constantinople before it was actually besieged. The old jealousy between the Eastern and Western Empire had to be reckoned with; and the Emperor Alexios was no heroic figure to stand for the Cause of Christ. The whole question, was, therefore, deferred until the autumn of 1095, when a Council was summoned at Clermont in France.

That dull November day witnessed a most striking scene. The vast open square in front of the Cathedral was crammed with people of all classes drawn from all quarters by the rumour that the subject of a Crusade would be discussed. From the great western door, immediately after High Mass, emerged the figure of the Pope, and a number of bishops and cardinals, dressed in vestments glowing with colour, followed him upon the high scaffold covered with red cloth.

With cross outstretched in his left hand, the Pope held up his right to command attention, and then began to speak. "Who can preserve the force of that eloquence?" says one who stood by, and heard him point out that the Turks, having pushed their way to the edge of the Western World, and even then holding parts of Spain and Sicily, must now be driven forth from that holiest place, where Christianity alone had a right to enter.

Turning to the knights who stood by, leaning upon their swords, Urban addressed them in words of fire.

"Were they spending their days in empty quarrels, shearing their brethren like sheep? Let them go forth and fight boldly for the Cause of God. Christ himself would be their leader as, more valiant than the Israelites of old, they fought for their Jerusalem. A goodly thing would it be for them to die in that city, where Christ for them laid down His life. Let them, as valiant knights, descendants of unconquered sires, remember the vigour of their ancestors and go forth to conquer or to die."

This appeal stirred the multitude to its depths.

"DEUS VULT! DEUS VULT!" went up to heaven in one great roar of voices, and the cry was at once seized upon by Urban.

"Let these words be your war-cry," he exclaimed. "When you attack the enemy, let the words resound from every side, 'God wills it'" Go forth then; many sufferings will be yours, but you may redeem your souls at the expense of your bodies. Rid God's sanctuary of the wicked; expel the robbers; bring in the holy souls. These things I command, and for their carrying out I fix the end of next spring. If you have rich possessions here, you are promised better ones in the Holy Land. Those who die will enter the mansions of heaven, while the living shall behold the sepulchre of their Lord. Ye are soldiers of the Cross; wear then on your breasts, or on your shoulders, the blood-red sign of Him who died for the salvation of your souls. Wear it as a token that His help will never fail you; wear it as a pledge of a vow which can never be recalled."

Another mighty burst of applause followed these words.

Crowds of bishops and knights at once pressed forward to take the red cross badges which had been prepared, and Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, the first to do so, was at once appointed as spiritual head of the expedition, with Raymond, Count of Toulouse, as its military leader.

In the months that followed, all Southern Europe rang with the sounds of riveting armour and of forging steel. The actual departure of the Crusaders had been finally appointed for the August of 1096, but this was not early enough for the fervent spirits who had been already stirred to the depths by Peter the Hermit.

In the month of March, without preparation or provision for the journey, a vast concourse of some sixty thousand men and women turned their faces to the East, with Peter as their leader. As a writer of the time says, "Lands were deserted of their labourers; houses of their inhabitants; even whole cities migrated. You might see the husband departing with his wife, yea, with all his family, you would smile to see the whole household laden on a waggon, about to proceed on their journey. The road was too narrow for the passengers, the paths too hedged-in for the travellers, so thickly were they thronged by endless multitudes."

About fifteen thousand pilgrims, mostly French, assembled in this way at Cologne, about Easter 1096; and finding Peter unwilling to start before the German contingent had come up, they set off under a leader known as Walter the Penniless, and made for Constantinople. To do this they had to pass through Hungary, a wild and barren tract, the people of which had only lately been converted to Christianity; and here the rough discipline which Walter, by mere force of character, had managed to impose upon the horde that followed him, entirely broke down. Food being denied them, the pilgrims began to plunder. The Hungarians at once took up arms, and soon scattered the so-called troops in all directions. Hundreds took refuge in a church, which was promptly fired, and most of those within were burnt to death. Only a few thousand managed to hide in the woods and so escape; and this poor remnant, being collected with pain and difficulty by Walter the Penniless, made their way to Constantinople and put themselves under the protection of the Emperor until Peter should arrive.

Meantime, the Hermit had started, with a German following of about forty thousand people. Amongst these were quite a large number of women and children, many of whom doubtless did their part by cheering and helping their men-folk on the long road. But the hardships of the way told heavily on them, many fell out and lingered behind, beseeching the men to wait for them. Long forced marches were an impossibility, and a disorderly progress was made, in spite of the fact that they had more provisions and more money than their predecessors on the road.

At length they came to the spot where so many of Walter's followers had lost their lives. The place was but too well marked out by the weapons and crosses of the pilgrims which now adorned the walls and houses of the neighbouring town. In a wild outburst of fury, the mob threw itself upon the inhabitants, all unsuspecting as they were, and massacred them by the thousand. Enraged at this treatment of his people, the Hungarian King came down upon them with his forces, just as the pilgrims were endeavouring to cross the river into Bulgaria, and many perished before they could escape.

Once again, in crossing through Bulgaria, the undisciplined host came to blows with their fellow-Christians living in those lands. In vain did Peter represent that valuable lives, time and money was being wasted. About ten thousand lost their lives. Peter himself barely escaped to a wood, where he wandered about all night in misery, thinking that all his host was slain. Next day, however, he managed to collect about seven thousand, and as he marched on, other refugees joined him, until at length he found himself at the head of about half the force with which he had set out. Famished and gaunt, having lost nearly all the women and children, as well as food, clothes and money, Peter hurried them on till at length quite exhausted, they reached the walls of Constantinople.

Here they found the remnant of the army of Walter the Penniless, who had, from the first, kept his men under better control than had the Hermit. It was only too clear, however, that neither army was in a fit state to carry on a difficult warfare with the fighting Turks. The Emperor Alexios, therefore, persuaded them to rest and recruit until the organised Crusading Army should appear, meantime giving them all they could require, and treating them with the greatest kindness.

But it seemed as though a curse, instead of a blessing, rested upon these forerunners of the First Crusade.

The pilgrims became quite unruly, burnt the houses of their hosts, stripped the lead from some of the churches and actually tried to sell it to the inhabitants of the city. The Greeks naturally turned against their ill-mannered guests, and Alexios, dreading the consequences, persuaded Peter to take them with him over the Bosphorus into Asia Minor.

Thankful for his aid in transporting them, Peter got his men across the strait, but, all too soon after they had encamped on the other side, a fresh quarrel broke out between the followers of Walter and those of Peter. Utterly unable to control his own men, Peter threw up his task and retired to Constantinople alone.

Freed from all pretence of control, and mad with the knowledge that they were free, about ten thousand of these pilgrims began to plunder the neighbouring country, and finally made their way under the very walls of Nicaea, where the Turks were encamped. Here, under the daring leadership of one Reinaldo, they actually took a fortress, and, when the Turkish Sultan advanced against them from Nicaea, left a good part of their army to defend it while the rest came face to face with the troops of Islam.

Needless to say, the pilgrims were hopelessly defeated; only their leaders and a handful of men escaped to the fortress, but even here there was no safety for them. Tic Sultan did not even trouble to besiege it. He merely starved them out until they were forced to yield. The end of the story is a dismal one, seeing to what end the pilgrims had pledged themselves. Offered the alternative of death or Islam, by far the greater number accepted the latter, and the few faithful were slain before their eyes.

A cruel trap was laid for that section of the army which had stayed behind with Walter the Penniless. The Turks, whose troops were now harassing the Christian camp, caused a rumour to be spread that Reinaldo and his men had taken possession of Nieaea. At once the camp rose like one man and demanded a share in the plunder. In vain Walter warned, entreated, threatened; heedless of his warning, the infatuated pilgrims rushed towards the city, unhindered, until they found themselves in the midst of a large plain before the walls. Then, all at once the troops of the Sultan David flung themselves upon them from every side. Helpless they fell, with Walter in their midst. About three thousand managed to escape, and fled back to Constantinople, the rest of that vast host either perished on the field or were brutally massacred afterwards by their conquerors.

Knowing nothing of the awful failure of their predecessors, a third army, led by a German priest named Gotschalk, advanced as far as Hungary. There the story almost repeats itself. The people of Hungary refused to let them pass through; and their king, panic-stricken at their appearance, captured them by a cruel trick. Calling them to his presence, he told them that his people only opposed them because they came in hostile fashion; but if they would lay down their arms, they should be protected during their passage through his country, and have their weapons restored on the frontier. This the unhappy pilgrims did, to be immediately massacred by the Hungarians.

Twice again we hear of the setting out of lawless troops, bent even more openly on plunder than their predecessors, and twice again we hear of the Danube running red with the blood of those slain by the hosts of Carloman of Hungary.

Nothing, of course, could have been hoped from such undisciplined hordes; but perhaps they served the purpose, at the cost of a quarter of a million lives, of warning the more thoughtful Crusaders of the dangers of the way, and, of the need of absolute control and able guidance.

And thus, "the chaff being winnowed with the fan out of God's store, the good grain began to appear."