By the time Stephen of Cloyes and his followers reached Paris in 1212, they were exhausted, hungry and thirsty. But nothing could keep their leader from his bold mission. His entourage waited as Stephen demanded—and got—an audience from the King of France to ask for permission to conduct a crusade.

Stephen’s vision was grandiose: Along with his followers, he’d remove Muslims from Jerusalem and reclaim the Holy Land for Catholics. But there was something else striking about Stephen—he was just 12 years old.

His followers were children, too, lured from their families by Stephen’s sermons about a divine vision he’d had. And though King Philip turned down Stephen’s request, they were undaunted. Unarmed and unprepared, these kids were determined to strike out on a crusade of their own.

But the Children’s Crusade of 1212, as it is now known, has gone down in history as a misguided disaster. And though Stephen was a real historical figure, the truth behind the crusade is less clear. Did it really happen? And were most of its warriors really children?

Blame the ravages of time for those questions. The so-called Children’s Crusade is only briefly mentioned in chronicles of the Crusades, and since it was never officially declared by a pope, it technically shouldn’t be called a crusade. However, the movement’s unusual rise—and terrible fall—earned it a nickname that still sticks today.

The children’s crusade on its way to the Holy Land, 1212. (Credit: Bildagentur-Online/UIG via Getty Images)

Pope Urban II ordered the First Crusade in 1095, and the religious wars that followed depended on the approval of the Church. At various times, popes would call on European believers to head to the Holy Land and try to rout out Muslims, and these Catholic Church-sanctioned Crusades continued until the 1400s.

The Children’s Crusade was different. It didn’t have the approval of the Church, it arose independently, and its participants didn’t even have weapons. Rather, they bore crosses, banners and an optimistic assumption that once they got to the Holy Land, they could convert Muslims with persuasion and divine intervention.

Though chronicles give conflicting information, there seem to have been two main groups that participated in the Children’s Crusade. There was the flock led by Stephen of Cloyes in France as well as another band of aspiring crusaders in Germany, led by a charismatic boy known as Nicholas of Cologne. Both are said to have whipped up the passions of thousands of people.

In events that have been described as a form of mass hysteria, Stephen of Cloyes and others headed to Marseille, intent on crossing the Mediterranean and heading to the Holy Land. Legend has it he assembled 30,000 people for his cause, though some historians doubt the claim and say that many of the people were assembling for another crusade or simply went home once they heard Stephen preach. Some stayed, waiting for the sea to part like Stephen had foretold.

At around the same time, another group of believers gathered in what is now Germany. Nicholas of Cologne—about whom little is known—assembled his own group of followers with reports that an angel told him to start a crusade. Nicholas is said to have inspired tens of thousands of child and adult followers, whom he began leading over the Alps toward Jerusalem.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about these self-proclaimed crusades. Though the sanctus puer (“holy children”) were motivated by religious fervor and often took the same vows as participants in papal crusades, they were seen as a threat by the Church. The boys’ ability to drum up frenetic support—and their sheer numbers of followers—terrified local clergy, who worried they were losing hold of their flock.

Procession of children during their Crusade started by Stephen, a shepherd boy who was persuaded by a priest that he was appointed by heaven to recover the Holy Sepulchre, 1212. (Credit: Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)

But though Nicholas and Stephen were labeled fanatics, their mystical mission to the Holy Land intrigued their followers. They held believers spellbound with sermons, songs and promises of miracles. Nicholas was so enthralling that he’s been called the inspiration for the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The boys were good at whipping followers into a religious frenzy, but their simultaneous trips toward Jerusalem weren’t exactly well planned. As Nicholas and his flock headed over the chilly Alps, singing hymns and eagerly awaiting the conversion of the Muslims, they became exhausted and hungry. When they arrived in Genoa, Italy, they faced language barriers and annoyed townspeople who were not eager to play host to a ragged group of religious children. The people of Marseilles weren’t excited to see the crusaders, either.

Things disintegrated from there. It’s uncertain exactly what happened to all of the crusaders, but it seems that they dispersed once they got to the coastal towns. While waiting for ships to take them to Jerusalem, some took local jobs. Some returned to their towns. Others were sold into slavery or drowned at sea.

Some accounts say that a small group persisted and headed not to Jerusalem, but to Rome. But when they appeared before Pope Innocent III, he did not sanction their quest. He praised their enthusiasm, but told them they were too young to go on a crusade and told them to go home. It was a humiliating blow.

Though multiple accounts discuss Stephen and Nicholas, historians still disagree on many of the crusade’s particulars. In 1977, Peter Raedts reassessed the chronicles and concluded that participants in the Children’s Crusade had existed on the margins of society. They may have believed it was up to poor and marginalized people to take up the flag for Christianity after the first Crusades failed. Raedts concluded the crusaders were not really children, but poor people—an interpretation that calls the very name of the movement into question.

The slender accounts of the so-called Children’s Crusade make it hard to confirm or deny whether the participants were actual kids or just powerless peasants. But the ill-fated journey shows how the influence of just a few persuasive voices can incite a full-blown movement—even one that ends in humiliation and disaster.