Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Role of Ransoms in Medieval Warfare

by Helena P. Schrader

The concept of ransom dates back to classical times, but during the Early Middle Ages they fell into disuse and we hear little about them. By the mid-11th century, however, they were back in fashion, and from the mid-12th century to the end of the 15th they were a dominant feature of warfare.  Although they have since disappeared from Western warfare, the criminal custom of capturing people for ransom still persists in some parts of the world such as Latin America and Nigeria. In England, the age of ransoms was the High Middle Ages, when ransoms constituted a fundamental component of warfare. Without them, the very course of English history would have been different — not just because kings like Richard I of England and John “the Good” of France might have been killed rather than held for ransom, but because the custom of allowing a captive to buy his freedom altered many aspects of warfare itself.

It is worth noting, however, that the tradition of ransom was strongest in France. It spread with French influence to England and the Holy Land, but was not so well established in the Holy Roman Empire or Iberia. Interestingly, the Saracens either had an independent tradition of ransom (and if someone knows about this please leave a comment!) or rapidly adopted the “Frankish” custom because it was so highly lucrative. The Arabs were, after all, very good businessmen and traders, and ransoms were first and foremost a financial transaction.

In the French/English tradition, ransoms were a means of enriching oneself, and the rules of tournaments reflected this by dictating that a captured knight had to surrender his horse and armor to his captor. It was the lure of loot as much as the hope for fame and honor that produced the “tournament circuits” of the 12th to 14th centuries, where knights travelled from tournament to tournament like modern-day professional athletes. But the fortunes made on the tournament fields were a pale imitation of what “real” ransoms could bring.

A man taken in battle by his enemy was completely at the mercy of the victor, and the stakes were impossibly high; the victor was within his right to slaughter his opponent. The custom of ransom dramatically decreased casualties, because the prospect of financial gain greatly increased the proclivity of victorious fighting men to show mercy toward those who surrendered to them. This had the unfortunate side-effect, of course, of making the lives of wealthy men more valuable than the lives of the poor. As a result, throughout the High Middle Ages there was a tendency for those of a class deemed good for ransom to escape death, while their less fortunate followers paid the price of defeat with their lives.

But ransoms were not fixed and so not immutably tied to rank and title. They were always negotiable, and a rich merchant’s son — assuming he had enough time to describe the size of his father’s purse to his erstwhile murderer — stood as good if not a better chance of being granted the privilege of ransom than a poor knight. Ransoms were always based on what a man (or his family) could pay quite simply because there was no point in setting a price that one could not hope to collect — unless the real intent was to ensure the captive could never again raise arms against you.

Had Philip II of France, for example, held Richard the Lionheart captive instead of the Holy Roman Emperor, it is probable that he would have set demands intended to keep Richard in a dungeon for the rest of his life.  Likewise, the ransom set for John “the Good” of France after he was captured at the Battle of Poitiers was dictated far more by the political advantage of denying the French a rival king to Edward III than by thoughts of monetary gain. Except where kings and important nobles were at stake, however, ransoms were generally dictated by a captive’s ability to pay.

By which, of course, I do not mean the captive himself, for he was just that — held captive. Ransoms were usually raised by a captive’s relatives — parents, wives, siblings, children. If they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) scrape together the funds needed, then the appeal would go to cousins and in-laws, anyone who might have money and care enough for the captive to contribute to the cause. Lucky men, who enjoyed the respect of those more powerful and wealthy than themselves, might also be ransomed by their feudal overlord. Examples of this were the payment of Aimery de Lusignan’s ransom by King Amalric, or William Marshal’s ransom by Queen Eleanor. In the case of captive kings and barons, of course, they did not have to rely on the generosity of those that loved or respected them. They could demand contributions from their subjects, vassals and tenants.

Usually a man was held in captivity until the ransom was paid, and conditions varied. Some men enjoyed comfortable “house arrest,” able to interact with the household and even family of the man to whom they had surrendered. Others were kept locked in a single room, even a dungeon. In the worse cases, prisoners were kept chained the walls of their prison until the ransom was paid.  On rare occasions, a man (of high rank generally) might be freed on parole in order to enable him to better collect the sum owed. Famous cases of this were Baldwin of Ramla, who was released by Saladin after payment of only a small portion of the enormous ransom set, and Bertrand du Guesclin, who the Black Prince paroled so he could raise his ransom. The former talked the Byzantine Emperor into paying the outstanding portion of his ransom, and the latter raised his ransom from the King of France, Louis d’Anjou and Henry of Trastamare.

While the payment of a ransom could financially ruin a man and his family, ransoms could make the fortune of those fortunate enough to take a valuable prize.  The English and Gascons almost tore the French king apart at the Battle of Poitiers in their eagerness to lay claim to his ransom. Desmond Seward describes a situation like this in his history of the Hundred Years War ( The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1445, Macmillan, New York, 1978):
[King John] was recognized and surrounded by a great crowd of soldiers anxious to take so fabulous a ransom. Although he surrendered to a knight of Artois, he was still in peril, for the brawling mob of Gascons and English began to fight for him. Finally he was rescued by the Earl of Warwick and Lord Cobham, who took him to the Prince [of Wales].

Few men had a share of a king’s ransom, but as long as a man was on the winning side, it was possible to accumulate a small fortune from the ransoms of lesser men. Ransoms more than plunder was what made the Hundred Years War so lucrative for England — and impoverished France. The latter was in part due to the fact that because a ransom was a reflection of a man’s ability to pay, it was also indirectly a reflection of his “worth.” The English soon learned that it was to their advantage to let French captives name their own ransoms because pride often induced the prisoners to name ransoms suited more to their self-image than the size of their pocketbook.  Even the Black Prince used this tactic when setting the ransom for Guesclin; the latter named the huge sum of 100,000 francs, something he could not possibly have raised from his own resources, hence the resort to the King of France et. al.

Yet common as ransoms were throughout the High Middle Ages, they remained a privilege not a right. The Knights Templar, for example, explicitly prohibited their members from paying ransoms. A Knight Templar was expected to die for Christ and find salvation for his soul in that act of martyrdom. This may have contributed to the Saracen tendency to slaughter captured Templars and Hospitallers; they had no monetary value and so eliminating them sooner rather than latter made sense.

Normally, however, it was the circumstances in which the victor found himself, not the ideology of the captive, that determined whether a ransom would be accepted or not. In the heat of battle, many soldiers became overcome by “blood lust” that utterly obliterated their greed for gold. Or, when the battle was not one between mercenaries but between true adversaries, fighting men might simply hate their opponents too much to be willing to grant mercy. There were also times when commanders made a strategic decision to kill prisoners. A famous case in point here was Henry V’s order to kill the French prisoners taken at Agincourt, which was largely dictated by his sense of vulnerability. Underestimating the demoralizing effect of his initial successes, he felt he needed every Englishman on the frontline, ready to repel the next attack by the still numerically superior French and was unwilling to spare men to guard the prisoners.

Even more significant, however, is that by the Wars of the Roses commanders were beginning to prefer annihilation of the enemy’s ability to fight over the profit gained from ransoms. It is a clear indicator of the increasing hatred between the rival factions for the English throne that Edward IV allegedly told his soldiers to “kill the lords and spare the commons.” Edward IV recognized that the commons might not pay monetary ransoms, but they were his subjects and he gained nothing from killing them. The rebellious lords, on the other hand, were the threat to his throne.

 In the subsequent century, as warfare became increasingly tied to religion and kings became increasingly despotic, the notion that an opponent might be allowed to live in exchange for a payment of money became discredited. Ransoms became anachronistic and eventually disappeared from the customs of Western warfare altogether.


Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in the crusader kingdoms. St. Louis’ Knight is set in the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus in the mid-13th century and Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are the first two books in a three biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 and later played an important role during the Third Crusade. St. Louis Knight was winner of the 2014 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction set in the High Middle Ages.



  1. A fascinating look at medieval ransoms, Helena. Thanks very much for taking the time to share your knowledge. Have Tweeted.


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