About five waves of disorganized pilgrims set out to cross Hungary on foot in 1096. In the first wave, they split up as they reached the Danube, some going by boat, some walking to a better ford. Walter Sans-Avoir was the first to reach Belgrade, outpost of Byzantium.
Walter’s band ran into unexpected trouble in Belgrade because the Byzantine commander didn’t know what to do with them. He told them not to proceed farther until he had instructions. Their provisions ran out, so they took food from Hungarian and Serbian farmers (to put it bluntly, they robbed and pillaged the countryside). Eventually the commander let them move ahead to southern Serbia while he sent messengers to Constantinople. Peter the Hermit’s band arrived next and ended up in a full riot in Belgrade after a marketplace dispute. Many of the local people were killed, and the “pilgrims” robbed and torched the city.
In southern Serbia, the two groups met at the city of Nisz. Again, a dispute touched off a riot, but in this case, a garrison of Byzantine soldiers joined the battle and as many as a quarter of the Crusading pilgrims were killed. The rest were escorted by a heavy guard to Sofia, then to Constantinople. Italians arrived by sea, joining the mix of Germans and French.
Emperor Alexius I Comnenus didn’t know what to do with this dangerous, undisciplined band of armed foreigners. It was not at all the sort of help he had asked for. The end result was both sensible for the Emperor and disastrous for the Crusaders: he ordered boats to carry them across the Bosporus to the Asian side. They landed on Byzantine territory but within a day’s walk they were into areas threatened by Turks. Peter the Hermit was still with them, but he had lost control. Norman/Italian robber knights now led the army, such as it was. It still included paupers, women, and children.
The Sultan of Seljuk Anatolia at this time was Kilij Arslan. He had declared independence from Seljuk Baghdad and was in the process of conquering all of Anatolia for his people. He had the momentum of conquest on his side and his men were practiced in battle.
The Europeans attacked some towns now held by Seljuks. It was very poor military strategy, because if you push too far ahead of your support system, you can be stranded and surrounded. Kilij Arslan’s men surrounded one part of the European force in a town they had just taken and besieged them into defeat. They killed about 30,000 of the rest of Peter the Hermit’s group nearby, including paupers and women. Some surrendered, converted to Islam, and went into slavery in Persia. Three thousand Crusaders (probably fighting men) survived in an abandoned castle until they were rescued by a Byzantine force, the only ones to return home.
By October 1096, the popular Crusade was over. Two hundred years later, a group of children may have set out to take back the Holy Land. Otherwise, the lesson appears to have been learned. Taking back the Holy Land was not an End Times miracle or a holy pilgrimage. If ordinary people wanted a way to be holy, it had better not involve spears.