Such is the Kingdom
Such is the Kingdom is a Choral Drama written by Matthew Todd. It is based on the part-history part legend of the Children's Crusade.
It is the year 1212, Medieval France under King Philip II. The West is sending out crusade after crusade. Knights and Noble-men ride to death and glory, some seeking power, others wealth while some still seek salvation. Crusading fever has gripped Europe as fear and revenge escalate from the atrocities committed by all who are caught up in the conflict. The world is reeling from the open treachery of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) while the Albigensian Crusade (1208) has seen the Christian West turn on itself in a merciless fury.
Meanwhile the common peasant struggles to survive in the drudgery and fragility of life. Scholars estimate that, despite high infant mortality, at least a third of the population of 13th century Europe was aged 13 or under, this is more than twice the number we are accustomed to in modern Britain. Slavery was rife, the life of a child was a common and cheap commodity. Many thousands of children were victims of malnutrition or disease and, if a child had the misfortune to lose his family, he would not be expected to survive into adulthood.
It is in the shadow of this dark world that one boy ignited a spark that would light the first Peregrinatio Puerorum (Pilgrimage of Children, or Children's Crusade) in 1212. As many as 30,000 children marched across France singing songs of joy and preaching messages of hope and peace. Incidentally, new evidence of these children has only come to light very recently, not least in the research of Gary Dickson, author of The Children's Crusade: Medieval History, Modern Mythistory (2008). For centuries, scholars doubted whether they were really children, whether there was indeed such a huge multitude, or whether it was all mere legend. Though the debate still goes on, we now know that there may be more truth in the legends than in the history. None who encountered the Peregrinatio Puerorum could quite understand or explain the faith and fervour that inspired these young crusaders. 800 years later, can we?
Such is the Kingdom tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy called Stephen who leads an army of children on a crusade. Stephen lives with his older sister Abra and their disturbed step-mother. Stephen's father is a Templar knight who is fighting on a far-off crusade.
Stephen sings in the cathedral and his talents and natural leadership qualities gain him the position of head-chorister. He is encouraged by his Latin teacher, a wise monk called Father John, and has unconditional respect from his fellow choristers, especially his loyal friend Simon who's father is also a crusader. However, Stephen also has an uncompromising moral conscience and risks his position at home and in the cathedral by speaking openly about his beliefs. When he tries to stop a probationer from being whipped he is warned that if he does not stop 'preaching' he will be forced to leave the cathedral. Stephen's boldness inspires Father John to speak against the hypocrisy in the cathedral who react by telling him to leave immediately. This is the final straw for Stephen: he dramatically walks out of the cathedral and the other choristers follow him.
On returning home, Stephen and Abra discover that their step-mother has become so obsessed with her poverty that she is trying to sell her step-children as slaves. They run out of the house, pursued by the slaver, and are rescued by Simon and the choristers who have been thrown out of the choir school. With nothing left to lose, they embark on their own crusade, determined to be knights of faith and honour. The crusade attracts an army of children who are inspired by Stephen's idealistic dream of security and a better life.
The children live the dream for several weeks: protecting and caring for each other and living as crusader knights.
However, when they are attacked by an army of slavers the dream soon turns into a nightmare. They fight bravely but are overwhelmed and all are either captured or scattered.
Stephen escapes to an Abbey where he mourns the failure of his crusade and the loss of his friends. But hope is not gone. Stephen meets a Templar Knight who is staying at the Abbey having returned disillusioned and exhausted from the Holy Land: it is his father. With the help of the Templar, the children are rescued, the slavers are defeated and Stephen's faith and hope are at last rewarded.
I wrote Such is the Kingdom as honestly as I dared. I have always been fascinated by this period in history and have a growing love of early music, but the questionable politics of the time and the controversy surrounding the crusades made me approach the subject matter with caution. However, I could not shake the desire to attempt to enter fully into the spirit of 13th century Europe and, more specifically, into the mindset of children who were inspired to drop everything and embark on a ‘Children’s Crusade’. Through my research, I discovered a startling world of absolute faith, of resolute purpose and of tragic disappointment. The history surrounding the Children’s Crusades is still the topic of much debate, but I took as my focus the 12-year-old Stephen of Cloyes who was the instigator of the French Peregrinatio Puerorum in 1212. The rest is my own imagination though deeply embedded in the history of the period.
My hope is that people will not dismiss this story as irrelevant without first trying to put it in context. There was a children’s crusade and, whatever the facts really are, we know for sure that something inspired a young boy to leave his humble background and march across Europe followed by a multitude of loyal children. Historically, their crusade was a disaster and yet the sentiment survives 800 years on in spite of many attempts throughout history to cover up the true facts. I have a suspicion that this story is still relevant today in many ways, perhaps even as relevant as it has ever been...
Though my characters are mostly fictional, they are based on real children that I have known who, I believe, have something important to say to a world that does not want to listen to them. If I had to express the theme of Such is the Kingdom in a single phrase it would be this: that every child has infinite value and potential. We must never underestimate what they are capable of or how much our words and actions can influence them for better or for worse. I hope that this truth will shine through the words and music and inspire you in turn to give our children the love and respect that they so desperately need and deserve.
ORIGINAL ARTWORK: John Walkinshaw