Peter was just a boy like any other boy, and we know so little of his early life that we have forgotten his father's name. He grew up in Picardy, worked in the fields, went to church, and when he became grown, began life as a soldier. Peter also married, but we know nothing of the kind of wife he chose, and since Peter separated from her, it does not really matter.
After being a soldier for a few years Peter decided he would become a monk. After making this change in his life he settled down into being one of the most ardent and devout of all the monks of his time. We are not quite sure whether he ever went to Jerusalem on a long, pious pilgrimage or not, but it has been generally said that he did so.
You can imagine what a weary journey it was to walk all the way from France to Palestine, begging for food and shelter by the way, stopping in the wayside churches to pray, sleeping anywhere one could find a shelter, and fearful at all times of being robbed by highwaymen. But there were thousands who made these pilgrimages to worship at the holy sepulchre and to visit the sacred city of Jerusalem.
Now Jerusalem for many hundreds of years had belonged to the Arabs, who had captured it from the Romans. The Arabs worshipped Mohammed, and did not believe in Christ, but as they were a generous and kind-hearted people, they allowed pious pilgrims from all over the world to visit Jerusalem, and to worship at the tomb of Christ. Those pilgrims were treated with consideration, and the church of the holy sepulchre was kept in order and treated with respect.
But when Peter was fifteen years old, the barbarous Turks overran Palestine and captured Jerusalem from the Arabs and changed everything, so far as the poor pilgrims were concerned. The Christians had to pay large sums of money to visit the tomb of Christ, and even then were often robbed and some of them were killed. Moreover, the church was no longer treated with reverence, but became dirty and neglected.
When Peter was forty-five years of age, it is said that he made his way to Jerusalem and saw the plight in which all his fellow pilgrims were. He went at once to the patriarch of the church and loudly complained.
"The Turks by their unholy practice are defiling the temple of the Lord. It is filthy beyond description, and fills my soul with horror. Besides, the pilgrims are robbed and beaten. Only yesterday, I saw a pilgrim pay his last coin to enter the church, and the door was closed in his face. I have heard of others being beaten until they died."
"Alas, good pilgrim Peter!" replied the patriarch, "what you say is true, but what am I that I can stay this host of infidels? I am helpless, for I also am poor and almost alone."
And Peter saw that the good father was powerless to help the pilgrims or to protect the holy sepulchre from desecration.
That night Peter was admitted to the tomb of Christ, and there kept vigil, or watch, all night. As he watched by the tomb a vision came to him as of an angel, saying:
"Peter, what thou seest here should be known by mankind. I advise you to preach a crusade against these infidels and Turks, and to arouse the Christians of all lands to come by the thousands and redeem this holy sepulchre, by which thou standest, from the hands of those that do but defile it."
Peter departed the next day with a great purpose. He would preach a crusade, and arouse the world. The patriarch gave him a letter to the Pope at Rome, to whom Peter carried it. The Pope blessed him and praised his purpose, and then let him depart on his way to his native land.
Peter now began to preach the first crusade. He was known everywhere as Peter the Hermit, because he had come out of his retirement in order to preach to the people. He was small in size, thin, and of dark complexion. His eyes were bright and his voice most persuasive. Everywhere he was hailed by the people with great eagerness, for he was telling them a stirring story of the cruel Turks, and calling upon them to rise and march to Jerusalem.
He went about barefoot, poorly clad, carrying a cross in his hand. He probably had a long white beard, and his hair fell over his shoulders, for most of the monks wore their hair in that way. As he went through the country he rode a mule, and the excited people would pull hairs from the mule's tail, keeping them as relics of the holy man.
"Behold this cross!" he would call to the crowds around him. "It is by this sign that you shall conquer. Leave all and follow me to the Holy Land and drive the hated Turk from the Lord's domain. If ye perish on the way or die in battle, ye shall inherit the kingdom of God." This and much more did Peter the Hermit preach to the great crowds that followed him about the streets and from town to town through France.
Peter seemed to take little thought of what an army meant, and how it was to be supported, and supplied, and disciplined. All he wanted was an army, for he himself was once a soldier and thought he could be equal to any emergency. Instead of waiting for the knights and lords to make ready in a proper way for the long march, he became impatient, and wanted to go at once.
At Easter, in the year 1096, a great crowd of about fifteen thousand French mustered in the city of Cologne on the Rhine. They were not all soldiers, nor were they all men. Women, boys, girls and little children were there begging to go to the Holy Land. There were many there out of curiosity, and then there were others who were hardly more than thieves, who went anywhere a crowd gathered.
It was hardly more than a great mob of excited people who set out in the springtime in the vain hope of reaching Jerusalem and capturing that city from the Turks. But they were full of enthusiasm and each bore a cross. Most of them had crosses embroidered on their coats or sleeves, while others went so far as to have a cross burned upon their breast with a hot iron.
When Peter's army began to move, the first thing they did was to attack the Jews at Cologne, and other towns, and to rob them of everything they had. Their houses were plundered, their stores and shops were broken into, and in many cases men, women, and children of that race were put to death.
At that time the Jews in all nations were treated as an outcast and a wicked people. They had crucified our Lord, and the descendants of the Israelites of old must pay the penalty. So in Europe and in England a Jew had no standing in law or the church, and anyone could treat him as he chose.
The army moved on day by day, but Peter stayed behind to preach in the towns he passed through, collecting others to go along. The main body moved under charge of Walter, whom men call the Penniless. Among the whole force of fifteen thousand there were only eight who had horses, the rest were on foot.
It is said that Peter finally collected forty thousand pilgrims in his first crusade, many of whom were real fighting men, but there was little order and discipline in this great mob of rude soldiers and excited people. Like a lot of travelers, each one was expected to provide for himself and take care of himself.
When the army reached Semlin, on the Danube, some of the pilgrims had a fight with the people of the town and were defeated. The clothes and weapons which had been taken from them were hung in triumph from the city's walls. This so infuriated the pilgrim army that they marched upon the town, drove out the inhabitants, and remained there as long as there was food to eat.
When the host of Peter's army came near Belgrade, they crossed the Danube river on rafts, or in wicker boats, or any way they could. Some swam across and many floated over on logs. When the people of Belgrade saw them coming they cried in terror, "The pilgrims! Peter's pilgrims! They are upon us!" and fled from their town.
In this way the army went on. Many grew tired of the excitement and turned back home. Others stopped in the towns through which they passed. Some died of disease, exposure, and weariness on the way. Jerusalem was farther off than they had expected, and there were gruesome tales of the cruel Turks that made women and children tremble.
After about five months' marching, Peter's army, reduced to seven thousand, reached Constantinople, where lived Alexius, the Emperor of the East. Alexius begged Peter to stay until the main body of another crusading army could arrive, which was better prepared for advancing into Palestine.
Peter, however, could not control his followers, few as they had become. They created so much disturbance and behaved so badly that Alexius was glad to get rid of them. This remnant of Peter's army was now a plundering band of outlaws that were bent on adventure more than on anything else.
Alexius provided them with ships and sent them over into Asia, where they could move on if they wished. He even gave them plenty of food for their march. It was not long before they fought a battle, and Walter the Penniless, their leader, was slain. Then the rest were scattered and we hear but little of them in history.
Thus we see that Peter the Hermit, though a great preacher, who aroused all Europe to a crusade to deliver the holy sepulchre, was after all a very foolish and incompetent leader. It was left for others to carry on the great idea he had announced, and to really lead armies into the Holy Land.
In fact, Peter joined other crusading armies and was present at Jerusalem three years later, when that city was taken from the Turks. On that day he received public thanks by all the priests for the part he had taken in the crusades.