In all the wonderful absurdity of the overall Crusades project, the fact that the First Crusade wasn’t actually the first Crusade barely registers. But the truth is that there was a Crusade before the First Crusade; it just doesn’t get a number because there weren’t any big-shot Christian nobles on the trip. And, OK, it also wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, but the reason it wasn’t officially sanctioned is that there weren’t any big-shot nobles involved.
The “People’s Crusade” was the brainchild of one either very holy or very opportunistic (although I guess “both” is certainly possible) man named Peter of Amiens, better known to posterity as Peter the Hermit. He sort of bursts on to the historical stage in 1095, after Pope Urban II issued his Crusading summons at the Council of Clermont. Peter, who appears to have been a priest in the northern French town of Amiens at the time, was way into this Crusade idea, so much so that he started traipsing around Europe on a donkey (the transportation of choice for any self-respecting hermit). He galloped (do donkeys gallop?) from town to town, delivering what must have been some ultra-compelling, fire and brimstone-type sermons about the need for all good Christians to take up the cross and go on a pilgrimage (which is what the Crusades were, a very well-armed pilgrimage) to the Holy Land. Seriously, Peter must have been doing tent revivals centuries before tent revivals actually became a thing: he’s supposed to have healed the sick, driven out demons, and put sinners on the righteous path of the Lord, can I get an A-MEN? Most importantly, he convinced the people who heard him that a Christian army that marched off to liberate Christ’s city from the Muslims couldn’t possibly fail, that it (and everyone who served in it) would be under divine protection for the duration of the journey.
Peter’s sermons were so powerful that we’re told he won over nearly everyone who heard them to the Crusades, so powerful that he, and not Urban, is often credited as the real driving force behind the First Crusade, but here’s where he deviated a bit from what would become accepted Crusading practice. The Church limited its Crusading appeals to nobles, those who could put together and pay for an army that they would then lead to the east. Peter, on the other hand, preached to everyone, and won followers at every level of society. But the nobles he recruited naturally needed time to call in their vassals, recruit additional soldiers, get their estates in order for the long and quite possibly fatal trip to the Holy Land, etc., whereas the peasants and townsfolk who flocked to Peter’s message quite literally flocked to Peter’s message, as in they started following him around all over France. He came to have a few knights and minor nobles in his entourage, but mostly he was followed by people who could just pick up and go with him on the spot. This was nice, they were all eager to follow him and go on Crusade and all that stuff, but very few of them could actually afford even the most basic military equipment, and almost none of them knew anything about how to fight in an army. Nevertheless, Peter, now with designs of leading his own Crusade composed of this group of followers (who needs real soldiers when God is protecting you, after all), took his growing “army” out of France and into Germany, heading east toward Constantinople and from there on into Turkish territory.
Peter’s movement around Europe also spawned the formation of a bunch of equally ragtag groups, who responded to his message but were too late to join up with him right then and there (maybe they heard about him second-hand or something). The largest of these groups coalesced around a minor French lord named Walter Sansavoir, and he managed to keep this mob together long enough to march it toward Constantinople, where he arranged to join up with the group that was following Peter. Most of the smaller groups, unable to catch up to Peter mid-march and without the supplies to get all the way to Constantinople, eventually gave up their dreams of Crusading in the Holy Land and decided to, ah, go kill some Jews instead. What killing Jews had to do with Crusading is beyond me (and there’s no evidence that Peter himself ever urged people to go ransack the Jewish quarter in the nearest major city), although I’m sure Jesus’s crucifixion was invoked at some point, and anyway it’s not like most medieval Christians really needed an excuse to do terrible things to European Jews. These mobs of mostly poor people may have had it in mind to kill some wealthy Jews, take their money, and use it to pay for their passage to Constantinople for the Crusade, but when local nobles took action to stop the pogroms and punish those responsible, the crowds of would-be Crusaders generally seem to have scattered and gone home.
Walter’s “army” arrived in Constantinople first, in late July 1096, and Peter arrived with his followers around August 1. The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos welcomed the “Crusaders,” especially Peter (whose reputation had preceded him), but there were a couple of problems here. First, as previously noted, this wasn’t an “army” so much as it was a “mob” of untrained and unequipped religious zealots. Second, Alexios hadn’t yet made any preparations for their arrival. The idea was that Constantinople’s merchants were to amass a sizable amount of provisions for the Crusader army, which it would then purchase from them before heading off to fight the Turks. Those provisions hadn’t been collected yet, and at any rate these people were so poor that they couldn’t have purchased anything even if there had been anything to purchase. Alexios actually talked Peter and Walter into waiting until the arrival of the real Crusade, which was just beginning to get moving, so they might cross into Turkish territory with some actual soldiers in their army. However, when Peter’s mob began to pillage the Constantinople suburbs for food, Alexios changed his mind and decided to get them on the move ASAP, and shipped them across the Bosphorus on August 6.
At this point, Peter decided to…well, he didn’t decide to do anything. I’m not sure what he and Walter thought would happen once they entered Anatolia, but it’s clear that they didn’t really have a plan beyond meeting at Constantinople. The mob kind of meandered about for a few weeks, sacking a town here and there, but meanwhile the lack of firm leadership from Peter caused the mob to begin fighting internally along national lines (French vs. German vs. Italian, mostly). Things really broke down when the Crusaders reached the city of Nicomedia. The French contingent successfully raided the outskirts of Nicea, which prompted the German contingent to capture, not simply raid, the city of Xerigordon. These two operations were enough to attract the attention of the Seljuk Sultan of Anatolia, Kilij Arslan I, who sent an army to take Xerigordon back. They accomplished this without much trouble, and then did something very clever to sucker the rest of the Crusaders into a trap.
The Seljuks sent a letter, purportedly from the German Crusaders, back to the main body of the “army,” reporting that the Germans had taken both Xerigordon and Nicea, and bragging about how much loot they’d gotten. This had the expected effect of drawing the rest of the Crusader mob toward Nicea to join in the looting. Kilij Arslan was waiting for them, and at the Battle of Civetot, on October 21, the Seljuk army butchered the totally outclassed Crusaders and routed them back toward their camp, which was full of women, children, and men who had been too infirm to go on the march to Nicea. A couple of thousand of the Crusaders managed to take refuge in a nearby fortress and eventually got rescued by a Byzantine army, but most of them were either killed or sold into slavery.
It so happens that Peter the Hermit was back in Constantinople trying to gather some supplies when all this happened, so he got to miss the battle and its total repudiation of his “divine protection” theory. He and the small group of “People’s Crusade” survivors waited for the arrival of the official Crusaders, and then tagged along on their march toward Jerusalem. He’s supposed to have delivered a stirring speech to the starving Crusaders at Antioch that was credited (in part) with rallying them to ride out and defeat the Seljuk army that was besieging them, though his kudos here should be tempered by the fact that he had earlier been caught trying to sneak out of the city and head back to Europe. He also reportedly delivered another whopper of a sermon outside the walls of Jerusalem before the Crusaders finally took the city and accomplished the object of their campaign. Some time after Jerusalem was captured he returned to France, and he’s not really heard from again after that.