Pope Urban II set August 15, 1096, as the departure date for the armies of the crusade. Hurried and costly preparations were under way, not only on the estates of Western knights but also in the cities of the Byzantine Empire, where citizens needed to gather provisions for the thousands of soldiers who would march across their lands. The First Crusade was shaping up to be the largest and most ambitious military operation launched from western Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. The costs in resources and manpower were enormous.


Many in Europe wondered at the careful preparations for the holy enterprise. In the medieval worldview, it was right that made might. Just as David felled Goliath with only a sling and his faith, so God continued to bless his faithful with victory when they fought for just causes. This widespread belief would receive a vigorous shaking during the course of the crusading movement, but those days were still in the future. In 1095, optimism ruled. As thousands rushed to follow Christ to the place of his resurrection, there was little thought of the possibility of defeat, particularly among those who understood warfare but a little. To many, the extensive preparations of the church and nobility for the crusade seemed not only superfluous but almost faithless. If Christ’s soldiers marched to the Holy Land, would he not scatter the infidel Turks as he had the Philistines long ago?

Peter the Hermit

This view was shared by one of the most popular crusade preachers, Peter the Hermit. Riding from town to town on his donkey, this ragged holy man mesmerized audiences with fiery and emotional sermons. Miracles followed Peter wherever he went. Demons were exorcised, sicknesses healed, and confirmed sinners turned to God. It was widely believed that Peter carried with him a letter sent from heaven in which God exhorted all Christians to move quickly against the Turks so that he could take vengeance upon them. Peter’s preaching drew thousands into the crusade. Many powerful lords took the cross after hearing Peter or even simply hearing of him. The preacher’s message, like his letter, was for all people, rich and poor, old and young, male and female. His sermons were not just an exhortation to go to the lands of Christ but an invitation to follow Peter himself. As a result, this charismatic man bore in his train a throng of people, predominantly French but of every social status. In April 1096, he left France for Cologne, where he preached to the Germans, also with great success.

His preaching had become a crusade itself

Peter the Hermit’s crusade preaching had become a crusade itself. Although there were knights and lords who followed the preacher on his march, the army (if it can be called that) consisted mainly of those who required little preparation to depart for an indefinite period of time to parts unknown. In other words, the large majority of his followers were relatively poor, and a great many were armed with only the crudest implements. Some were women and children. The crusade marched across Europe, a storm of religious enthusiasm impelled by simple faith and Peter’s own spellbinding personality. It could not be slowed, let alone stopped. Long before the official departure date
of August 15, Peter and his masses left western Europe on their long trek to meet the enemies of Christ.

Foraging, Theft, Riots

Peter the Hermit’s ragtag army was not the only group that left early. The French lord Walter Sansavoir (not Walter the Penniless, as he is often misnamed) led another large and ill-disciplined army of minor knights and enthusiastic peasants ahead of Peter the Hermit. Walter agreed to wait for Peter at Constantinople, where their combined forces would enter Turkish Anatolia. The march of these two armies across Hungary, Bulgaria, and Greece was not without violence. Emperor Alexius I had not expected crusaders so soon, so his government had not yet prepared the markets necessary to feed so large an army. As it happened, few of the crusaders in this “first wave” of the crusade, as Jonathan Riley-Smith has called it, could afford to purchase food anyway. Foraging, theft, riots, and violence were the result. Matters could have been much worse had the emperor not moved quickly to make provisions available and had Peter and Walter not done their best to keep their rowdy followers in check.

Arrived in Constantinople

Walter Sansavoir arrived in Constantinople in mid-July 1096. Peter the Hermit came a few weeks later, on August 1. Alexius was eager to meet them, particularly Peter the Hermit, about whom he had heard much. The emperor was clearly impressed with Peter’s sanctity, but he expressed amazement that the preacher had come to Byzantium so quickly. Would it not be wiser, he asked, to wait until the main body of crusaders arrived before crossing into Asia Minor? Alexius succeeded where Urban did not, convincing Peter and Walter that it would indeed be better for them to tarry at Constantinople. Their followers were not so easily swayed. They had made a long journey through many trials and were now within sight of Turkish lands. Why should they wait until the stragglers caught up with them? Was God not calling to them even now to crush his foes? Would he not punish delay and cowardice? As subsequent events make clear, this was a crowd eager for glory, and they saw no reason to share it with those who mocked them when they left Europe with nothing but a prayer and a song. There was also the practical consideration of provisions. The crusade was camped in Constantinople’s suburbs, where food was readily available in the markets, but the poor could not purchase it, and the rest did not think it right that they should have to impoverish themselves while waiting month after month for no good reason. Walter and Peter’s pleas for patience fell on deaf ears. When they judged local food prices too high, the mob began pillaging the suburbs for what they wanted. At last, Alexius allowed Peter to take his crusade to the Turks. It had done enough damage to the Christians.

Across the Bosporus and the subsequent massacre

On August 6, the “People’s Crusade” was transported across the Bosporus. At last, the throng was on the Turkish frontier. No one seems to have come up with a plan for marching through Anatolia, a deficiency that was now all too apparent. Disputes about the proper course of action broke out, some of them violently. Regional sympathies began to tear the mob into two competing crusades, one of Germans and some Italians and the other of French. Rather than advance, they took to raiding. When the French crusaders led a surprise attack on the suburbs of Nicaea and returned with plenty of loot, the Germans were beside themselves with envy. They quickly launched their own
raid but were met by the Turks, who were now alive to the danger. They easily routed the Germans, capturing the entire army. Those who renounced Christ and converted to Islam were sent to the East; the rest were slaughtered. The Turks then sent a forged message to the French, purportedly from the Germans, telling them of the riches of their captured citadel. With alacrity, the French headed off, despite the warnings of those better informed. Deep in Turkish territory, they learned too late the truth. In their rush, the French had blindly walked into an ambush. The entire army was wiped out.

Waiting the arrival of the main body of crusaders

Peter the Hermit avoided the massacre. He had earlier returned to Constantinople to discuss tactics with the emperor. There he received the news of the elimination of his crusade. Of all the thousands who had followed the beloved preacher from France to Asia Minor, Peter himself was virtually the only survivor. There was nothing for him to do but enjoy the emperor’s hospitality
while awaiting the arrival of the main body of the crusade.