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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

PETER THE HERMIT

[77] IN this chapter I shall have more to tell you of a strange, ugly-looking little man called Peter the Hermit than of Henry's son, who now became Philip I.

Philip had been a lazy, selfish boy, and he grew up into a wicked, self-pleasing man. And so when the chance came to do a noble deed, an unselfish act, Philip thrust the opportunity from him, that he might live idly and undisturbed in his luxurious palaces.

When William of Normandy asked the king to join him in his great expedition to conquer England, Philip would have nothing to do with the plans of his ambitious vassal.

So William sailed for England with a great army, and, as you know from your English history, he fought and won the battle of Hastings, in 1066, against King Harold of England.

From that day the Norman duke became also the King of England.

Philip I. may now have been sorry that he had not joined William in his great enterprise. In any case he became jealous of his powerful vassal, and resolved when the opportunity arrived to injure him.

About nine years passed, and then the chance for which Philip was waiting came.

Robert, the son of William the Conqueror, was angry with his father because he had refused to make him governor of Normandy.

[78] Philip I. was only too pleased to encourage Robert's anger, and to help him to stir up rebellion in Normandy.

When William the Conqueror found out what Philip was doing he was very angry, and his anger was a thing to be feared. He at once went to war with his enemy, and had already taken one of Philip's towns and burned it to the ground, when, as he rode through the conquered city, his horse slipped on a burning cinder. King William was thrown forward on his horse, and was so badly hurt that six weeks later he died.

Philip I. was not sorry that the enemy he had provoked could trouble him no more. It was the easier for him to spend his time in pleasure and in idleness. And this he still did, while France, and indeed the whole of Europe, was being roused as by a trumpet call.

The Holy City, Jerusalem, had been for many years in the hands of the Turks. As you know, they were a fierce and cruel people, and imprisoned, tortured, and even killed, the pilgrims to Jerusalem.

At last Europe was roused to try to rescue the Holy City from the hands of these cruel people. The expeditions which set out from France, from England, from Germany, for this purpose, were called Crusades, and the people who took part in them the Crusaders. It is of the first crusade that I wish now to tell you. It was a strange little man who wandered through France, calling on the people to rouse themselves to set the Holy City free. Peter the Hermit, as he was called, was ugly and small, but the keen bright eyes that looked out of his thin pinched face seemed to see right into the hearts of those to whom he spoke. He was not old, this plain-looking little man, but he had suffered much, so that already his hair and beard were white.

The Hermit wore a woollen tunic, and over that a serge cloak, which reached to his feet. His arms and his feet [79] were bare. Often he was to be seen riding on an ass, and holding in his hand a crucifix.


[Illustration]

"OFTEN HE WAS TO BE SEEN RIDING UPON AN ASS."

Peter had once journeyed to Jerusalem, and he had seen for himself how pilgrims were robbed by the Turks; how the places where Christ's blessed feet had trod were defiled by cruelty too great to be told.

So when Peter left Jerusalem he journeyed to Rome, his heart on fire with the evils he had seen and the wrongs he had borne in the Holy City. He was going to Rome to tell the Pope all that he had seen and suffered.

When the Pope, Urban II., had heard Peter's tale, he blessed him, bidding him go from town to town, from land to land, to tell all who would hear of the things he had seen in Jerusalem.

Thus it was that in 1094 the First Crusade began to be preached.

At first but a few came to hear Peter speak. There was nothing about the plain-looking little man to make them come. But the few who listened to his words soon brought others to hear, and gradually crowds gathered wherever Peter went. For this man, so small, so plain, had a great gift from God, the gift of speech.

When Peter spoke, his words fell as fire upon the hearts of those who pressed around him. As he told of all that he had seen in Jerusalem, the people almost believed that they were in Jerusalem, seeing the very sights Peter had seen. His words were indeed as a fire, and kindled in the hearts of the people a flame that did not die even when in very truth they stood at the gates of the Holy City.

For a year Peter went through France rousing the people. Then in 1095 many of those who had listened to him journeyed to a town called Clermont, where the Pope, Urban II., was now going to hold a great Council.

The days were already cold and wintry, for it was November when the people crowded into Clermont. Soon all the houses in the town were full, as well as those in the [80] villages round about. And still the people came in great numbers. Many of them were forced to put up tents in the meadows, where they would have been cold indeed, save for the fire which Peter had kindled in their hearts.

In an open space in the centre of the town a platform was erected. Here, on a certain day, in the midst of a great throng of people, stood the Pope, with Peter the Hermit by his side.

"Men of France," cried Urban II., "right valiant knights . . . it is from you above all that Jerusalem hopes for help. Take part in this Holy War, I beseech you, and all your sins will be forgiven." Peter also talked to the people, telling them yet again of all the misery that Christians in Jerusalem suffered, until at length a great shout went up from the hearts of the people. "God willeth it! God willeth it!" they cried, and these words became the battle-cry of the crusaders.

Then from the Pope's own hands the people received the sign or badge of their great undertaking. There was but one sign fitting for such a warfare, the sign of the Cross. This was made of red silk or cloth, and was fastened on the crusader's cloak, or on the front of his helmet.

The Pope was a wise man, and he knew that it would take many months for a great army to get ready to march to Jerusalem, so he said that the first crusade should not start until about nine months later, in August 1096.

But although the knights were ready to wait until they had made preparations for their long and difficult journey, the mob clamoured to be led to the Holy City by Peter without further delay. And Peter and one poor knight, called Walter the Penniless, yielded to these foolish people. These crusaders, however, were not an army, but only a vast rabble of men, women and children, who were all unprepared for the long and difficult journey to Palestine.

Peter the Hermit, it is true, knew the way to the Holy Land, but he forgot how difficult it would be to feed so [81] great a multitude, and how impossible it would be for these poor folks to wrest the Holy Sepulchre from the Turks, if they ever reached Jerusalem.

The mob set out in great joy, but it was not long before the hardships of the journey began to make them grumble. They grew hungry, for Peter had not stayed to take provisions for so great a company. In their hunger they grew desperate, and when they reached a town they would plunder it, as though they were a band of robbers rather than pilgrims of the Holy Cross.

Thousands who set out died upon the way, of hunger or disease, while many more who reached Hungary were slain by the wild tribes who dwelt in that land.

At length Peter, with those of his company who were left, reached Constantinople. Here they took ship and crossed the Bosphorus into Asia Minor, only to be met by the Turks, who attacked them so fiercely that Peter was left with scarcely three thousand followers.

We hear no more of these poor people until Peter, and those who had not died from hunger or sickness, joined the real crusading army when at length it entered Asia Minor.

Meanwhile, the knights of France had assembled two great armies to fight in the Holy War. The nobles themselves sold their houses, their lands, their treasures, that they might have money to equip and feed their army.

Philip I. knew what his nobles were doing, but he neither helped nor hindered them. His own pleasures were engrossing all his time and thought.

The two French armies were joined by a third formed of Norman knights who had settled in Italy. The three armies were led by nobles who had already won renown on the field of battle.

Godfrey de Bouillon was one of these leaders. His father had been a warrior, his mother a saint, and those who watched Godfrey would say of him, "For zeal in war [82] behold his father, for serving God behold his mother." And they said this because they believed that this knight was warrior and saint in one.

Tancred, "a very gentle perfect knight," was another of the leaders of the first crusade.

The third and oldest of these great leaders was Raymond, Count of Toulouse. He had vowed that he would never return to France, but would stay in the east fighting the Turks as long as he lived in order to atone for his many sins.

It was a great host that at last, in August 1096, set out for the Holy Land. It had many hardships to suffer from famine and disease before it reached Asia Minor.

As soon as they landed, however, the crusaders detertmined to attack Nicsea without delay. Nicsea was an important town belonging to the Turks.

As they marched toward this town, they met Peter the Hermit, followed by a small band of pilgrims. This band was all that was left of the vast rabble that had set out from France in 1096.

Peter told the leaders of the real crusade all that had befallen him and his followers, and then gladly joined the army for which he had been looking and longing for many weary months.

Nicaea was reached and at once besieged. The town was in the hands of a Turkish sultan called Kilidj Arslan.

When the sultan had heard that the crusaders were drawing near, he had gone to assemble all his forces. His wife, his children, and his treasures he had left in the town. He had also sent a message to the people, bidding them "be of good courage, and fear not the barbarous people who make show of besieging our city. To-morrow, before the seventh hour of the day, ye shall be delivered from your enemies."

The sultan did all he could to make his words come true. On the following day he arrived before the walls of his city with a large force, and fell upon the besieging [83] army. The crusaders fought bravely, Godfrey de Bouillon leading them on with the courage for which he was renowned. He himself killed a Turk, "remarkable amongst all for his size and strength," and whose arrows had been causing great havoc in the ranks of the crusading armies. Kilidj Arslan was defeated, and withdrew from Niceea to find a fresh army.

For six weeks the crusaders besieged the sultan's town; and then, just when they believed it was ready to surrender to them, they saw waving from its towers the flag of the Greek emperor.

Now the Emperor Alexis had seemed to befriend the crusaders, but during the siege he had sent secret messages to the inhabitants of Nicsea, persuading them to yield to him. And this the people of Nicsea had done the more willingly because they had once belonged to the Greek empire, and Alexis had promised not to treat them as a conquered people, but as those who had returned to their former masters.

The crusaders were sorely disappointed, for they had hoped to plunder the town, while their leaders were wroth because the Emperor Alexis would allow not more than ten of their number to enter Nicsea at the same time. But it was useless to show the Greek emperor that he had angered them, so the knights determined to march on towards the south-east of Asia Minor, and thus to reach Syria.

In order to get provisions the more easily the vast army of the crusaders now divided into two.

One morning as Tancred led his host forward, it was suddenly attacked by a great number of Turks, who poured down upon it from the neighbouring hills. These Turkish hordes were led by Kilidj Arslan, who had followed the crusaders after the fall of Nicsea, and had now taken them by surprise.

The Duke of Normandy, who was with Tancred, rushed [84] into the fray, waving his gold and white banner, and shouting, "God willeth it! God willeth it!" Another knight hastily sent a message to Godfrey de Bouillon, who was not yet far away, to come to their aid. Godfrey, with about fifty knights, galloped on before the main body of his army, and, joining Tancred, flung himself upon the enemy.

By noon Godfrey's whole army arrived, with trumpets blowing and flags waving. Kilidj Arslan began to think he would retreat, but his retreat was speedily turned to flight. For the crusaders pursued the Turks so fiercely that they fled in terror, and "two days afterwards they were still flying though none pursued them, unless it were God Himself."

After this victory the crusaders marched on toward Syria, but for the future they determined to keep together.

The armies had now to cross great tracts of deserted country, where neither food nor water was to be found, where there was no shelter from the burning sun.

Not only the soldiers but the horses suffered terribly and died in hundreds, and many of the knights were forced to ride on asses or oxen. These animals were hardier, and better able to stand the heat than the horses. And the heat was terrible, and made the whole army suffer more than ever from lack of water.

One day the dogs that usually followed the army disappeared for some hours. When they came back their paws were wet.

The soldiers noticed the wet paws with joy, for they knew that the dogs must have found water, and without delay they set out to look for it. You can imagine with what delight the poor thirsty men at last discovered a small river, how eagerly they drank, and how they ran to tell their comrades the good news.

I may not stop to tell you of all the towns the crusaders besieged on their way to Jerusalem, nor of all that they suffered, but in the spring of 1099 the great army really [85] entered Palestine, and, in June of the same year, it at length caught sight of the Holy City.

"Lo! Jerusalem appears in sight. Lo! every hand points out Jerusalem. Lo! a thousand voices are heard as one in salutation of Jerusalem."

Thus, says the Italian poet Tasso, was the army moved at the sight of the Holy City.

After this first glimpse of the city neither the knights nor the rough soldiers dared to raise their eyes to look upon her, so great was their awe.

"In accents of humility, with words low-spoken, with stifled sobs, with sighs and tears, the pent-up yearnings of a people in joy and at the same time in sorrow, sent shivering through the air a murmur like that which is heard in leafy forests what time the wind blows through the leaves, or like the dull sound made by the sea which breaks upon the rocks, or hisses as it foams over the beach."

Jerusalem was in the hands of a large Turkish army, and the crusaders at once besieged the city.

Five weeks later she was theirs. Then alas! mad with triumph, the crusaders forgot that they were soldiers of the Cross. They slew the helpless inhabitants of the city; they plundered the houses and churches.

But soon they grew ashamed of their cruel deeds, and flinging aside their armour they clothed themselves in white robes. Then in shame and sorrow the crusaders climbed the hill of Calvary.

Jerusalem was taken on July 15, 1099, and about a week later the leaders of the crusade met together to choose a king to rule over the Holy City.

Robert, Duke of Normandy, was the first to be proposed.

"But he refused, liking better to give himself up to repose and indolence in Normandy, than to serve as a soldier the King of kings; for which God never forgave him."

Tancred was then asked to accept the great charge. But he wished for no higher rank than was already his.

[86] Raymond, Count of Toulouse, was too old, and said that he "would have a horror of bearing the name of king in Jerusalem."

Godfrey de Bouillon did not wish to be king, yet being chosen not only by Tancred and the Count of Toulouse, but by all the other knights of the crusading army, he accepted the trust, although he refused to take the title of King. He would be called only "Defender and Baron of the Holy Sepulchre." Nor would he wear a crown. "I will never wear a crown "of gold in the place where the Saviour of the world was crowned with thorns," said the great knight, as simply as a child.

Thus, with the taking of Jerusalem, ended the first crusade.

Meanwhile, Philip I. was growing, as slothful people will ever do, more slothful.

His son Louis was now twenty-two years of age, and Philip thought it would be pleasant to lay the burden of kingship upon the shoulders of his son, and perhaps it was the wisest thing he could have done.

So Louis was crowned king, and Philip was free to live his own indolent life to the end.

But before he died Philip grew sorry for all the wrong he had done, and for all the good he had left undone. And to show that he was really sorry he did public penance as the priests decreed. He also began to give alms to the poor. In 1108 Philip I. died, and by his own wish he was buried in a quiet little church on the river Loire, rather than in the abbey of St. Denis, where the kings of France were laid to rest. For at the end of his life Philip I. knew himself to have been unworthy of the name of king, and even in death he wished to humble himself in the eyes of his people.


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