Ransoms in the Hundred Years War

This week I’ve been working on the plot of a novel in which the male protagonist is one of the few English knights taken prisoner at the battle of Poitiers. I reached the part of the story where he and his captor are negotiating his ransom and thought that it would be interesting to work out what a prisoner like him would have been worth.

Geoffrey, his name at the moment, is the second son of the second son of an earl. With his older brother, he serves in the retinue of his cousin, who is the current earl. He has taken some booty whilst on chevauchée with the Black Prince, so he’s not entirely without financial resources. He and his brother have decided what they think they’re each worth if either of them has to pay a ransom for the other and they have the funds to cover this.

Calculating a ransom could be a complicated business and fortunes could be made and lost, depending on the prisoner’s ability to pay. There could also be arguments about who had taken someone prisoner. Legal cases could go on for years to sort this kind of thing out, even for prisoners who weren’t really worth very much, but the man who has captured Geoffrey has taken his sword, so there can be no questions later.

In addition to a ransom, the prisoner, or his friends or family, had to pay for his accommodation and food. It was, therefore, in his best interests, to ensure that the ransom was paid as quickly as possible. Costs could mount up quickly over the months and years (possibly) that a man was held while he was raising the money to pay his ransom. The figures that I have, from Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War, relate to ransoms demanded by the English for their French prisoners, since there were many more of these after the battle of Poitiers. This is the kind of information that would have guided Geoffrey and his brother when they decided how much they might have to pay for their freedom if they were captured.

The first category of prisoner is rather shocking, as it covers earls, counts and bishops. I suppose a king might take a bishop to war with him and I know that a bishop did lead an army against the Scots when they raided the north of England while Edward III was in France, but it’s still a bit of a surprise that bishops were taken prisoner and ransomed. They were not supposed to fight and non-combatants weren’t supposed to be captured. Men of this rank were worth between £2,000 and £8,000. This is an eye-wateringly large amount. As always, I’ll remind you that a skilled labourer earned about 4d a day. For those of you not familiar with the workings of pounds, shillings and pence that’s 120,000 days of labour for the lower ransom. If our skilled labourer worked every single day, it would take him 330 years to earn that amount. Fortunately, earls, counts and bishops were usually fabulously wealthy. Even so, a ransom of this size would put a serious dent in that wealth.

Men in the next category, barons, could expect to pay a much lower ransom. They were worth £500, or 30,000 days of labour. Knights and esquires were worth between £50 and £500. Other high-status servants were valued at £50 or less. Eight years of labour.

In 1360 a ransom of £16 was paid for Geoffrey Chaucer, who was captured by the French while he was out foraging. This was still 960 days worth of labour and clearly impossible for even an important and trusted servant like Chaucer to raise. Four years earlier he had been a page and it’s unlikely that his position in Lionel of Antwerp’s retinue was much more than that. Fortunately for him, the ransom was paid by the king, which makes me wonder whether Chaucer really was foraging or doing something entirely different on the king’s behalf.

Although he has no land, my Geoffrey has rich relatives and a name that his captor recognises, so he can expect his ransom to be more than that for other knights of similar wealth. His only hope for a quick release is that his captor won’t be too greedy, because Geoffrey knows that there’s no hope of any help from his cousin. I think he might have valued himself at about £175.

Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Warfare

13 responses to “Ransoms in the Hundred Years War

  1. Reading all the details of war is usually bad enough, but this post was a real eye-opener!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In a status-mad culture, that surely must’ve left captives in the odd position of wanting to be simultaneously more and less important.

    Thanks for translating the amounts into days of labor. It gives the discussion some grounding.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I wonder if any family of a posh prisoner ever said ‘nah,mate, you can keep him’ and saved the money?

    Liked by 5 people

  4. fantastic – thanks for sharing


  5. What a fun exercise! And thank goodness your Geoffrey character is loaded! So how many years would it take a skilled laborer to earn £175?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. No matter what era I might live in? I’ve come to the conclusion my worth, my ability to work to purchase my ‘freedom’ etc., will ALWAYS be set by others and will wax/wane given the changing tides and easiest to just say, “Oh me? I’m a nobody so guess you can try, or let me starve to death, or kill me now, I am really of no use to you, overall….for long term….” – – LOL. I guess, overall, it just seems the quicker, easier way to face one’s own extinction – without fretting over it too much – or trying to ‘outthink/out negotiate’ the enemy – LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure that anyone thought that their monetary value was their true worth. If they were captured, they had been in a position in which they could have been killed. I suppose you could think of the ransom as being a reward to the captor for not killing them, in whcih case it was only a token of their true value.

      Liked by 1 person

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