Walter the Penniless was a leader of a band of crusaders who intended to take part in the so-called People’s Crusade, sparked by the impatient prodding of a mysterious figure named Peter the Hermit. Instead of waiting for the European nobility to mobilize, organize and equip their professional armies for the First Crusade, the likes of Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless chose the alternate option of immediately setting out for war in 1096. As the People’s Crusade title for their campaign suggests, Peter and Walter’s armies largely consisted of poorly-prepared pilgrims and peasants. That reputation aside, Walter the Penniless’ particular warband was one of the more experienced and better-equipped contingents that answered Peter the Hermit’s call. A 12th-century chronicler named Albert of Aix (also known as Albert of Aachen), in his Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae, described Walter’s force, stating, “Walter, surnamed the Penniless, a well-known soldier, set out, as a result of the preaching of Peter the Hermit, with a great company of Frankish foot-soldiers and only about eight knights” (Albert of Aix, Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae, Book 1, chapter 7). Walter the Penniless and Peter the Hermit loosely coordinated their marches, keeping their armies relatively near each other, and they planned to join up near Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) before continuing their campaign into Anatolia. Nevertheless, Walter may have granted himself more autonomy in choosing his route and negotiating with foreign leaders than Peter the Hermit may have liked. Walter’s army ended up trekking along a curious route that took them through Hungary and Bulgaria, and Walter took it upon himself to negotiate with the locals for his army’s safe passage and logistical needs. Concerning Walter’s travels, Albert of Aix wrote, “On the beginning of the journey to Jerusalem he entered into the kingdom of Hungary. When his intention, and 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 Malevilla, where the realm of the king of Hungary ends” (Albert of Aix, Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae, 1.7).
All things considered, Walter the Penniless’ journey through Hungary went smoothly, as he was able to usher his army through the Hungarian realm and reach the borderlands of Bulgaria without any issue. Yet, unfortunately for everyone involved, everything began to break down when Walter’s army passed through Malevilla. At that border crossing, some of the crusaders lagged behind to buy and trade with the Hungarians while Walter and the bulk of the army crossed on to Bulgaria and began negotiating with regional leadership figures. As the story goes, a group of sixteen crusaders who had remained behind near Malevilla ended up being targeted and robbed in a most embarrassing fashion by a gang of Hungarian hoodlums. On this tale, Albert of Aix wrote, “sixteen of Walter’s company remained in Malevilla, that they might purchase arms. Of this Walter was ignorant, for he had crossed long before. Then some of the Hungarians of perverse minds, seeing the absence of Walter and his army, laid hands upon those sixteen and robbed them of arms, garments, gold and silver and so let them depart, naked and empty handed” (Albert of Aix, Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae, 1.7). The sixteen stripped crusaders successfully reached the main group of Walter’s army and briefed their leader about what had happed. Walter the Penniless was angry about the situation and wanted revenge, but he had more pressing concerns at hand—his negotiations with the nearby Bulgarians had broken down.
Whereas the Hungarian ruler had been welcoming and accommodating to the crusader army, Walter the Penniless had a much harder time negotiating a deal that would allow his forces to trade and forage in the Bulgarian borderlands. Ultimately, as the negotiations floundered, Walter’s crusaders unwisely began to steal livestock from the Bulgarian pastures. The thefts infuriated the nearby Bulgarian cities, and the angry residents quickly mobilized an army in order to drive off the crusaders. Walter and his crusaders were caught off guard by the quickly-amassed Bulgarian forces, and the surprise threw them into disarray. On this disastrous turn of events, Albert of Aix wrote:
“[A] serious strife arose between the Bulgarians and the pilgrims who were driving away the flocks, and they came to blows. However, while the strength of the Bulgarians was growing even to one hundred and forty, some of the pilgrim army, cut off from the multitude of their companions, arrived in flight at a chapel. But the Bulgarians, their army growing in number, while the band of Walter was weakening and his entire company scattered, besieged the chapel and burned sixty who were within; on most of the others, who escaped from the enemy and the chapel in defense of their lives, the Bulgarians inflicted great wounds. After the calamity and the loss of his people, and after he had passed eight days as a fugitive in the forests of Bulgaria, Walter, leaving his men scattered everywhere, withdrew to Nish, a very wealthy city in the midst of the Bulgarian realm. 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” (Albert of Aix, Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae, 1.7).
Therefore, after skirmishing with Bulgarian forces at the border and suffering great losses, Walter the Penniless managed to find a savior in the duke of Nish, who made peace with the crusaders and gave Walter’s crusaders a much-needed agreement of safe passage. After being granted protection, Walter collected what was left of his army and marched into the territory of Constantinople, where he waited for the arrival of Peter the Hermit. As it happened, Peter’s army was also, at that time, in the vicinity of the Hungarian-Bulgarian border, and, naturally, he began hearing gossip about the theft incident that occurred near the Hungarian city of Malevilla, as well as the skirmishes in Bulgaria. Curious about the news, Peter directed his large army to Malevilla, where he supposedly saw crusader gear triumphantly displayed on the city walls. This sight, to Peter’s mind, corroborated the story about the robbery of Walter’s sixteen crusaders. After seeing the crusader equipment, Peter and his army became enraged and launched an assault against Malevilla. Although Peter’s army was an untrained, ill-disciplined and poorly-equipped mass, it nevertheless made short work of the city’s defenders, and the crusaders were quite brutal when they breached the walls. Albert of Aix described the attack and its outcome:
“About four thousand Hungarians fell there, but only a hundred pilgrims, not counting the wounded, were killed at that same place. This victory won, Peter remained with all his followers in the same citadel five days, for he found there an abundance of grain, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, a plentiful supply of wine, and an infinite number of horses…When Peter learned of the wrath of the King and his formidable gathering of troops, he deserted Malevilla with all his followers and planned to cross the Morava with all spoils and flocks and herds of horses” (Albert of Aix, Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae, 1.8-9).
Despite Peter the Hermit’s ambition to take all of his ill-gotten gains with him across the river, he soon found out there were not enough boats to carry all of his troops, not to mention their animals and loot. Peter realized that to ferry his entire army across, they would need to make a great number of additional rafts. Yet, as they had wasted five days pillaging Malevilla, Peter did not have any time left to spare—after all, an enraged Hungarian king with a large professional army would soon be arriving to seek revenge against the crusaders. Therefore, Peter set sail with as many troops as he could pack onto ships that were available, leaving behind the unfortunate warriors who could not get a spot on the boats. These abandoned crusaders did not want to wait and be slaughtered by the incoming Hungarian army, so they quickly went to work creating makeshift rafts and grabbing buoyant debris that might carry them across the river. As one might expect, the makeshift rafts did not hold up well in the water, causing many of the desperate crusaders to drown. Yet, even those who remained afloat on rafts and boats were not granted safety by the river and the far shore. After all, Walter the Penniless had recently fought with the Bulgarians in the borderlands, and therefore the residents on the Bulgarian side of the river were not happy to see another crusader army entering their land. In fact, as Peter’s disorganized army attempted to cross the river, they began taking arrow fire not from the Hungarians, but from hostile forces patrolling the Bulgarian side of the river. On this awkward crossing, Albert of Aix wrote, “Hence many who were unable to cross in boats tried to cross on rafts made by fastening poles together with twigs. But driven hither and thither in these rafts without rudders, and at times separated from their companions, many perished, pierced with arrows from the bows of Patzinaks, who inhabited Bulgaria” (Albert of Aix, Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae, 1.9).
Peter the Hermit and his forces in the ships tried their best to suppress the hostile archers and provide support to the struggling crusaders on the rafts. Arriving on the land, the crusaders were able to break free of their harassers while traveling through the forests and—like Walter the Penniless before them—the wearied crusaders eventually arrived at the amenable city of Nish and its accommodating duke. From there, Peter the Hermit and his army finally could set off on the final leg of the journey into the imperial realm of Constantinople and join up with the portion of the People’s Crusade that was led by Walter the Penniless.
Unfortunately, the luck of the People’s Crusade participants would remain dismal, even after escaping from their troubles in Hungary and Bulgaria. Once again, Peter and Walter blew off a chance to wait for support to arrive from the professional crusader armies that were being raised by the European nobility. Instead, the masses of the People’s Crusade began meandering toward Anatolia, and once they crossed the Bosporus, Peter’s already disorganized mob fell into complete disarray. There was no order, or discipline, or real hierarchy. Instead, people from different nationalities within Peter’s army gravitated into separate factions, and each division did their own thing as they marched into the territory of the Turks. Without any cohesion or coordination, the fragments of the People’s Crusade became an easy target for the incoming forces that intercepted them. In the end, Turkish warriors annihilated the scattered bands of the People’s Crusade, overwhelming and destroying the armed pilgrims without much difficulty. Walter the Penniless was one of the many shot dead by Turkish arrows. As for Peter the Hermit, he survived and escaped to Constantinople, where he waited until the arrival of the professional crusader armies of the Christian nobility in 1097.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration labeled Ridders op een markt, by Adolphe François Pannemaker after Charles Rochussen (c. 1832 – 1900), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- Albert of Aachen’s Historia expeditionis Hierosolymitanae in The First Crusade edited by Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971, 1988.
- The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials (Second Edition) by Edward Peters. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.