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.