The first army that left for the Holy Land was that of Peter the Hermit’s. It wasn’t an actual army because the vast majority of his followers were peasants and laymen; many men had taken their entire families with them. Only a small minority of Peter’s following were knights, commanded by the pious knight, Walter Sans Avoir other known as The Penniless.
Nevertheless, Peter had amassed a large following. Historians estimate that his following was anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people, large enough to be considered an army. Today, Peter the Hermit’s expedition is widely known as the People’s Crusade.
The biggest challenge Peter faced with leading such a large army was how he was going to keep them all well fed throughout the entire journey. There were very few districts in Europe that had enough food to feed such a large group of pilgrims, so the only way he was going to keep them fed was to keep them moving.
However, Peter changed his mind as they approached Cologne. The district of Cologne lay strategically near the Rhine River, so the land in that area was more fertile. Peter assumed that the townspeople there would have enough food to feed him and his following. That was probably why he decided to stay there for a number of days. He also wanted to preach to the Germans with the intent to recruit more nobles to his crusade.
Peter was successful: the German nobles, Count Hugh of Tubingen, Count Henry of Schwarzenberg, Walter of Tech, Count Emich of Lusingen, Gottchalk, and the three sons of the count of Zimmern, all inspired by Peter’s preaching, made their crusader vows. But not everyone left Cologne when Peter left.
Walter Sans Avoir grew impatient and so he left Cologne, taking a few thousand of Peter’s followers with him, all of them probably knights. They marched alongside the great Rhine and Neckar rivers, then down the Danube, arriving in Hungary in early May of 1096.
“When his (Walter’s) intention and the reason for his taking this journey became known to Lord Coloman, most Christian king of Hungary, he was kindly received and was given peaceful transit across the entire realm, with permission to trade. And so without giving offence, and without being attacked, he set out even to Belgrade a Bulgarian city, passing over to MaleviUa, where the realm of the kingdom of Hungary ends. Thence he peacefully crossed the Morava (Save) river,” wrote Albert, a chronicler of the First Crusade.
The moment they set foot in Semlin, discipline in Walter’s small army of crusaders disintegrated. As sixteen men attempted to rob a bazaar, they were caught in the act by the Hungarians. They were consequently stripped of all their arms and clothes and sent across the Save river naked. The Hungarians hung their clothes on the town wall as a warning to all. Conditions for the crusaders deteriorated even more once they entered Belgrade.
Since it was mid spring, the harvest had not yet been gathered, so the townspeople could not feed Walter’s army. They were probably just as suspicious of these foreigners as was their king and his military commanders. In any case, they forbade the sale of anything to Walter and the crusaders. Furious, Walter and his troops pillaged the countryside, stealing herds of cattle and sheep. In the process, the crusaders got separated from each other, so when the Bulgarians counter-attacked, they were quickly scattered and many of Walter’s men were massacred.
Walter fled with what remained of his army to Nish. “There he found the duke and prince of the land and reported to him the injury and damage which had been done him. From the duke, he obtained justice for all; nay, more, in reconciliation the duke bestowed upon him arms and money, and the same lord of the land gave him peaceful conduct through the cities of Bulgaria, Sofia, Philippopolis, and Adrianople, and also license to trade.”
They arrived at the gates of Constantinople in the middle of July and were received well by the Emperor Alexius. There, they waited for the arrival of Peter the Hermit and his much larger force.
Massacre in Semlin
Peter the Hermit departed Cologne with his following on around 20 April. He had a much larger following than Walter and it grew bigger as he passed through villages along the Danube River. By the time Peter arrived in Oedenburg, the gateway into Hungary, his force numbered more than 20,000 pilgrims.
King Coloman must have forgiven the first wave of crusaders for the trouble they caused in Semlin, or else news of their attempted theft did not reach him. He granted Peter and his followers’ food, other supplies, and safe passage through his kingdom on condition they would not pillage and commit murder.
All went well until they entered Semlin. Steven Runciman credited Peter the Hermit as being a genuinely pious and humble man; he sought to build friendly relations with the kings and bishops of Europe because he wanted safe passage for himself and for his followers. He did not, according to Runciman, want his followers to pillage and murder their way through the various villages. Unfortunately, in Semlin dispute over the sale of a pair of shoes escalated into a pitched battle in which Geoffrey Burel, a knight led an attack on the town, killing four thousand Hungarians.
Albert, a chronicler of the First Crusade, painted a much different picture of the events that transpired in Semlin. Word of what the Hungarians had done to several of Walter’s men, reached Peter at Oedenburg, but Peter refused to believe that fellow Christians would do such a thing to their own men until he “saw hanging from the walls the arms and spoils of the sixteen companions of Walter who had stayed behind a short time before, and whom the Hungarians had treacherously presumed to rob.” At the site of their clothes and arms, Peter “urged his companions to avenge their wrongs.”
They raised their banners high and attacked the Hungarians, letting loose a hail of arrows from their bows. The Hungarians, completely caught off guard and unprepared for battle, gathered their strongest knights — who numbered about seven thousand — but they were quickly overwhelmed by Peter’s far more numerical force. Four thousand Hungarians were massacred in that pitched battle, while Albert wrote, only one hundred pilgrims perished.
After their quick victory, Peter and his followers remained in the city for a few days where they gathered enough grain, sheep, cattle, horses, and wine to feed and supply the entire army. Then Peter learnt that King Soloman was marching on Semlin with an army to avenge his slain people.
Peter hastened with his followers to the Save River, taking with them all their newly acquired supplies, but they found very few boats to carry them safely across the river. On the other side, Nicetas ordered his Pecheneg mercenaries to restrict the crusaders’ crossing to one area. Desperate to get away from the Hungarian king’s army, the crusaders repelled the Pecheneg mercenaries; they sank the boats that carried Pechenegs and slay those who had not drowned. Very few of Nicetas’ mercenaries escaped the wrath of Peter and his pilgrims.
Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of The War For The Holy Land. New York; Ecco, 2011.
Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades: The First Crusade. Vol.1. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1951.
Stark, Rita M. Knights of the Cross: The Epic of the Crusades. Bloomington; iUniverse, 2008.