‘The Lord was not able to bring them into the land which he promised them.’ DEUTERONOMY IX, 28
Peter the Hermit arrived with his followers at Cologne on Holy Saturday, 12 April 1096. There he began to realize the difficulties that beset the leader of a popular expedition. The vast motley collection of enthusiasts that he had gathered together consisted of men from many districts and of many types. Some brought their women with them, some even their children. Most of them were peasants, but there were townsfolk among them, there were junior members of knightly families, there were former brigands and criminals. Their only link was the fervour of their faith. All of them had given up everything to follow Peter; and they were eager to continue on their way. It was, moreover, essential to keep them on the move if they were to be fed; for few districts in medieval Europe had a sufficient surplus of foodstuffs to supply for long the needs of so large a company. But Cologne was set in a rich countryside with good river communications. Peter wished to take advantage of the facilities that it provided to pause a while and preach to the Germans. He was probably anxious to attract some of the local nobility to his Crusade. In France and Flanders the knights preferred to join the company of some great lord. But no great German lord was going to the holy war. His preaching was successful. Among the many Germans that answered his call were several of the lesser nobility, led by Count Hugh of Tubingen, Count Henry of Schwarzenberg, Walter of Teck and the three sons of the Count of Zimmern.
But the Frenchmen were impatient. Walter Sans-Avoir decided that he would not wait at Cologne. With a few thousand compatriots he left the city as soon as the Easter Feast was over, probably on Easter Tuesday, and set out on the road to Hungary. Marching up the Rhine and the Neckar and down the Danube, he reached the Hungarian frontier on 8 May. There he sent to King Coloman to ask for permission to cross the kingdom and for help in obtaining provisions for his men. Coloman proved friendly. The army passed through Hungary without an untoward incident. About the end of the month it reached Semlin on the further frontier, and crossed the Rive Save into Byzantine territory at Belgrade.
The military commander at Belgrade was taken by surprise. He had received no instructions how to deal with such an invasion. He sent post-haste to Nish, where the governor of the Bulgarian province resided, to inform him of Walter’s arrival. The governor, a conscientious but undistinguished official called Nicetas, was equally uninstructed. In his turn he dispatched a messenger to take the news as quickly as possible to Constantinople. Meanwhile Walter at Belgrade demanded food for his followers. The harvests were not yet gathered, and the garrison had none to spare; so Walter and his troops began to pillage the countryside. His temper was inflamed owing to an unfortunate occurrence at Semlin, where sixteen of his men, who had not crossed the river with their companions, tried to rob a bazaar. The Hungarians captured them and stripped them of their arms and their clothing, which were hung on the walls of Semlin as a warning, and sent them on naked across to Belgrade. When the pillaging round Belgrade began the commander resorted to arms. In the fighting several of Walter’s men were killed and others were burnt alive in a church.
Walter was eventually able to march on to Nish, where Nicetas received him kindly and provided food, keeping him there till he received an answer from Constantinople. The Emperor, who had believed that the Crusade would not leave the West before the Feast of the Assumption, was forced to speed up his arrangements. Nicetas was requested to send Walter on under escort. Accompanied by this escort Walter and his army continued their journey in peace. Early in July they reached Philippopolis, where Walter’s uncle, Walter of Poissy, died; and by the middle of the month they were in Constantinople.
From Walter Nicetas must have learnt that Peter was not far behind, with a far larger company. He therefore moved up to Belgrade to meet him and made contact with the Hungarian governor of Semlin.
Peter left Cologne on about 20 April. The Germans at first had mocked at his preaching; but by now many thousands had joined him, till his followers probably numbered close on 20,000 men and women. Other Germans, fired by his enthusiasm, planned to follow later, under Gottschalk and Count Emich of Leisingen. From Cologne Peter took the usual road up the Rhine and the Neckar to the Danube. When they reached the Danube, some of his company decided to travel by boat down the river; but Peter and his main body marched by the road running south of Lake Ferto and entered Hungary at Oedenburg. Peter himself rode on his donkey, and the German knights on horseback, while lumbering wagons carried such stores as he possessed and the chest of money that he had collected for the journey. But the vast majority travelled on foot. Where the roads were good they managed to cover twenty-five miles a day.
King Coloman received Peter’s emissaries with the same benevolence that he had shown to Walter, warning them only that any attempt to pillage would be punished. The army moved peaceably through Hungary during late May and early June. At some point, probably near Karlovci, it was rejoined by the detachments that had travelled by boat. On 20 June it reached Semlin.
There its troubles began. What actually happened is obscure. It seems that the governor, who was a Ghuzz Turk in origin, was alarmed by the size of the army. Together with his colleague across the frontier he attempted to tighten up police regulations. Peter’s army was suspicious. It heard rumours of the sufferings of Walter’s men; it feared that the two governors were plotting against it; and it was shocked by the sight of the arms of Walter’s sixteen miscreants still hanging on the city walls. But all might have been well had not a dispute arisen over the sale of a pair of shoes. This led to a riot, which turned into a pitched battle. Probably against Peter’s wishes, his men, led by Geoffrey Burel, attacked the town and succeeded in storming the citadel. Four thousand Hungarians were killed and a large store of provisions captured. Then, terrified of the vengeance of the Hungarian king, they made all haste to cross the river Save.
Peter Enters the Empire
They took all the wood that they could collect from the houses, with which to build themselves rafts. Nicetas, watching anxiously from Belgrade, tried to control the crossing of the river, and to oblige them to use one ford only. His troops were mainly composed of Petcheneg mercenaries, men that could be trusted to obey his orders blindly. They were sent in barges to prevent any crossing except at the proper place. He himself, recognizing that he had insufficient troops for dealing with such a horde, retired back to Nish, where the military headquarters of the province were placed. On his departure the inhabitants of Belgrade deserted the town and took to the mountains.
On 26 June Peter’s army forced its way across the Save. When the Petchenegs tried to restrict them to one passage, they were attacked. Several of the boats were sunk and the soldiers aboard captured and put to death. The army entered Belgrade and set fire to it, after a wholesale pillage. Then it marched on for seven days through the forests and arrived at Nish on 3 July. Peter sent at once to Nicetas to ask for supplies of food.
Nicetas had informed Constantinople of Peter’s approach, and was awaiting the officials and military escort that were coming to convoy the westerners on to the capital. He had a large garrison at Nish; and he had strengthened it by recruiting locally additional Petcheneg and Hungarian mercenaries. But he probably could not spare any men to act as Peter’s escort until the troops from Constantinople should meet him. On the other hand it was impracticable and dangerous to allow so vast a company to linger long at Nish. Peter was requested therefore to provide hostages while food was collected for his men and then to move on as soon as possible. All went well at first. Geoffrey Burel and Walter of Breteuil were handed over as hostages. The local inhabitants not only allowed the Crusaders to acquire the supplies that they needed, but many of them gave alms to the poorer pilgrims. Some even asked to join the pilgrimage.
Peter s Arrival at Constantinople
Next morning the Crusaders started out along the road to Sofia. As they were leaving the town some Germans who had quarrelled with a townsman on the previous night wantonly set fire to a group of mills by the river. Hearing of this, Nicetas sent troops to attack the rearguard and to take some prisoners whom he could hold as hostages. Peter was riding his donkey about a mile ahead and knew nothing of all this till a man called Lambert ran up from the rear to tell him. He hurried back to interview Nicetas and to arrange for the ransom of the captives. But while they were conferring, rumours of fighting and of treachery spread round the army. A company of hotheads thereupon turned and assailed the fortifications of the town. The garrison drove them off and counterattacked; then while Peter, who had gone to restrain his men, tried to re-establish contact with Nicetas, another group insisted upon renewing the attack. Nicetas therefore let all his forces loose on the Crusaders, who were completely routed and scattered. Many of them were slain; many were captured, men, women and children, and spent the rest of their days in captivity in the neighbourhood. Amongst other things Peter lost his money-chest. Peter himself, with Rainald of Breis and Walter of Breteuil and about five hundred men, fled up a mountain-side, believing that they alone survived. But next morning seven thousand others caught them up; and they continued on the road. At the deserted town of Bela Palanka they paused to gather the local harvest, as they had no food left. There many more stragglers joined them. When they continued on their march they found that a quarter of their company had been lost.
They reached Sofia on 12 July. There they met the envoys and the escort, sent from Constantinople with orders to keep them fully supplied and to see that they never delayed anywhere for more than three days. Thenceforward their journey passed smoothly. The local population was friendly. At Philippopolis the Greeks were so deeply moved by the stories of their suffering that they freely gave them money, horses and mules. Two days outside Adrianople more envoys greeted Peter with a gracious message from the Emperor. It was decided that the expedition should be forgiven for its crimes, as it had been already sufficiently punished. Peter wept with joy at the favour shown him by so great a potentate.
The Emperor’s kindly interest did not cease when the Crusaders arrived at Constantinople on 1 August. He was curious to see its leader; and Peter was summoned to an audience at the court, where he was given money and good advice. To Alexius’s experienced eye the expedition was not impressive. He feared that if it crossed into Asia it would soon be destroyed by the Turks. But its indiscipline obliged him to move it as soon as possible from the neighbourhood of Constantinople. The westerners committed endless thefts. They broke into the palaces and villas in the suburbs; they even stole the lead from the roofs of churches. Though their entry into Constantinople itself was strictly controlled, only small parties of sightseers being admitted through the gates, it was impossible to police the whole neighbourhood.
Walter Sans-Avoir and his men were already at Constantinople, and various bands of Italian pilgrims arrived there about the same time. They joined up with Peter’s expedition; and on 6 August the whole of his forces were conveyed across the Bosphorus. From the Asiatic shore they marched in an unruly manner, pillaging houses and churches, along the coast of the Sea of Marmora to Nicomedia, which lay deserted since its sack by the Turks fifteen years before. There a quarrel broke out between the Germans and the Italians on the one side and the French on the other. The former broke away from Peter’s command and elected as their leader an Italian lord called Rainald. At Nicomedia the two parts of the army turned westward along the south coast of the Gulf of Nicomedia to a fortified camp called Cibotos by the Greeks and Civetot by the Crusaders, which Alexius had prepared for the use of his own English mercenaries in the neighbourhood of Helenopolis. It was a convenient camping-ground, as the district was fertile and further supplies could easily be brought by sea from Constantinople.
Raids of the Crusaders
Alexius had urged Peter to await the coming of the main Crusading armies before attempting any attack on the infidel; and Peter was impressed by his advice. But Peter’s authority was waning. Both the Germans and Italians, under Rainald, and his own Frenchmen, over whom Geoffrey Burel seems to have held the chief influence, instead of quietly recuperating their strength, vied with each other in raiding the countryside. First they pillaged the immediate neighbourhood; then they cautiously advanced into territory held by the Turks, making forays and robbing the villagers, who were all Christian Greeks. In the middle of September several thousand of the Frenchmen ventured as far as the gates of Nicaea, the capital of the Seldjuk Sultan, Kilij Arslan ibn-Suleiman. They sacked the villages in the suburbs, rounding up the flocks and herds that they found and torturing and massacring the Christian inhabitants with horrifying savagery. It was said that they roasted babies on spits. A Turkish detachment sent out from the city was driven off after a fierce combat. They then returned to Civetot, where they sold their booty to their comrades and to the Greek sailors who were about the camp.
Environs of Constantinople and Nicaea at the time of the First Crusade
This profitable French raid roused the jealousy of the Germans. Towards the end of September Rainald set out with a German expedition of some six thousand men, including priests and even bishops. They marched beyond Nicaea, pillaging as they went, but, kinder than the Frenchmen, sparing the Christians, till they came to a castle called Xerigordon. This they managed to capture; and, finding it well stocked with provisions of every sort, they planned to make it a centre from which they could raid the countryside. On hearing of the Crusaders’ exploit, the Sultan sent a high military commander with a large force to recapture the castle. Xerigordon was set on a hill, and its water supply came from a well just outside the walls and a spring in the valley below. The Turkish army, arriving before the castle on St Michael’s Day, 29 September, defeated an ambush laid by Rainald and, taking possession of the spring and the well, kept the Germans closely invested within the castle. Soon the besieged grew desperate from thirst. They tried to suck moisture from the earth; they cut the veins of their horses and donkeys to drink their blood; they even drank each other’s urine. Their priests tried vainly to comfort and encourage them. After eight days of agony Rainald decided to surrender. He opened the gates to the enemy on receiving a promise that his life would be spared if he renounced Christianity. Everyone that remained true to the faith was slaughtered. Rainald and those that apostasized with him were sent into captivity, to Antioch and to Aleppo and far into Khorassan.
The Disaster at Civetot
News of the capture of Xerigordon by the Germans had reached the camp at Civetot early in October. It was followed by a rumour, spread by two Turkish spies, that they had taken Nicaea itself and were dividing up the booty for their benefit. As the Turks expected, this caused tumultuous excitement in the camp. The soldiers clamoured to be allowed to hasten to Nicaea, along roads that the Sultan had carefully ambushed. Their leaders had difficulty in restraining them, till suddenly the truth was discovered about the fate of Rainald’s expedition. The excitement was changed to panic; and the chiefs of the army met to discuss what next to do. Peter had gone to Constantinople. His authority over the army had vanished. He hoped to revive it by obtaining some important material aid from the Emperor. There was a movement in the army to go out to avenge Xerigordon. But Walter Sans-Avoir persuaded his colleagues to await Peter’s return, which was due in eight days’ time. Peter, however, did not return; and meanwhile it was reported that the Turks were approaching in force towards Civetot. The army council met again. The more responsible leaders, Walter Sans-Avoir, Rainald of Breis, Walter of Breteuil and Fulk of Orleans, and the Germans, Hugh of Tubingen and Walter of Teck, still urged that nothing should be done till Peter arrived. But Geoffrey Burel, with the public opinion of the army behind him, insisted that it would be cowardly and foolish not to advance against the enemy. He had his way. On 21 October, at dawn, the whole army of the Crusaders, numbering over 20,000 men, marched out from Civetot, leaving behind them only old men, women and children and the sick.
Barely three miles from the camp, where the road to Nicaea entered a narrow wooded valley, by a village called Dracon, the Turks were lying in ambush. The Crusaders marched noisily and carelessly, the knights on horseback at their head. Suddenly a hail of arrows from the woods killed or maimed the horses; and as they plunged in confusion, unseating their riders, the Turks attacked. The cavalry, pursued by the Turks, was flung back on to the infantry. Many of the knights fought bravely, but they could not stop the panic that seized the army. In a few minutes the whole host was fleeing in utter disorder to Civetot. There in the camp the daily round was just beginning. Some of the older folk were still asleep in their beds. Here and there a priest was celebrating early mass. Into its midst there burst a horde of terrified fugitives with the enemy on their heels. There was no real resistance. Soldiers, women and priests were massacred before they had time to move. Some fled into the forests around, others into the sea, but few of them escaped for long. Others defended themselves for a while by lighting bonfires which the wind blew into the Turks’ faces. Only young boys and girls whose appearance pleased the Turks were spared, together with a few captives made after the first heat of the fighting was over. These were taken away into slavery. Some three thousand, luckier than the rest, managed to reach an old castle that stood by the sea. It had long been out of use, and its doors and windows were dismantled. But the refugees, with the energy of despair, improvised fortifications from the wood that lay about and reinforced them with bones, and were able to beat off the attacks of the enemy.
The castle held out; but elsewhere on the field by midday all was over. Corpses covered the ground from the pass of Dracon to the sea. Amongst the dead were Walter Sans-Avoir, Rainald of Breis, Fulk of Orleans, Hugh of Tubingen, Walter of Teck, Conrad and Albert of Zimmern and many other of the German knights. The only leaders to survive were Geoffrey Burel, whose impetuousness had caused the disaster, Walter of Breteuil and William of Poissy, Henry of Schwarzenberg, Frederick of Zimmern and Rudolf of Brandis, almost all of whom were badly wounded.
The Failure of the People’s Crusade
When dusk fell a Greek who was with the army succeeded in finding a boat and set sail for Constantinople, to tell Peter and the Emperor of the battle. Of Peter’s feelings we have no record; but Alexius at once ordered some men-of-war, with strong forces aboard, to sail for Civetot. On the arrival of the Byzantine battle-squadron the Turks raised the siege of the castle and retired inland. The survivors were taken off to the ships and returned to Constantinople. There they were given quarters in the suburbs; but their arms were removed from them.
The People’s Crusade was over. It had cost many thousands of lives; it had tried the patience of the Emperor and his subjects; and it had taught that faith alone, without wisdom and discipline, would not open the road to Jerusalem.