Medieval Ransoms Part 3

This post is less about ransoms as such than the conditions under which medieval prisoners of war were kept whilst waiting for their ransoms to be paid. Fragglerocking asked last week if they were kept in prisons. Sometimes they were, but mostly they weren’t. This could have something to do with the status of the prisoner, or with the ability of the captor to pay for secure accommodation.

During the fourteenth century, there really weren’t that many places to keep prisoners. Criminals were usually kept in town gates whilst awaiting trial. There were always guards there to check on people coming in and going out of the town who might have to pay a toll, so they could also keep an eye on the prisoners. As you can see from the photograph of Southampton’s town gate above, though, there wasn’t room to keep many prisoners. It didn’t fit well with the chivalric code, either, to treat men who had been captured in a battle like common criminals. Then there was the problem of status. You might want to keep a man who was a servant or a minor knight in a place like this, but you wouldn’t want to keep a knight from whom you were hoping to receive a large ransom here. Some men did, though, in the hope of extracting an even larger ransom from them. Generally speaking, though, the higher status a prisoner had, the better his accommodation.

Town gates weren’t the only places with prisons; some castles also had them, like this one at Portchester Castle.

The Prison, Portchester Castle

As you can see, it’s little more than a pit. Sadly none of the children in the castle that day got down there to give you an idea of scale, but it’s small. It’s probably about six feet wide by eight or ten feet long, which would be reasonably comfortable for one man, but there might be more than one prisoner to be kept. The pit is certainly secure (although prisoners managed to escape from both town gates and castles, mainly because they weren’t kept in good repair or because they bribed their keepers), but it’s not somewhere you’d want to keep an honoured prisoner, especially if there was the possibility that you might be his prisoner in a few years.

Unless you were the holder of the castle, accommodating your prisoner there or in the town gate was expensive, especially if their captivity was lengthy. We looked at some of the reasons why it could take a while for a ransom to be paid last week.

Captured knights were often left in the hands of other people in prisons like these, but many were kept in their captors’ own homes. Not only were landholders very mobile, moving frequently between their properties, but fighting was probably continuing elsewhere. Someone might be prepared to take one or more prisoner with him from place to place, but he wouldn’t want to take them somewhere where they could provide assistance to their own side, either by escaping or by acting as spies.

Some knights were allowed quite a bit of freedom within the bounds of their captivity. They were allowed to move freely within the building where they were kept and some were allowed to walk around outside, with a guard, of course. Some were even allowed their own servants and horses. At least one man was allowed to have his wife with him.

I don’t know yet how my protagonist, Geoffrey, will spend his captivity. It will, I think, suit his personality to spend his first weeks in the castle in close confinement, but that won’t help at all with building the relationship that will be at the centre of the novel.

Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl

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 Buildings, Medieval Warfare

9 responses to “Medieval Ransoms Part 3

  1. As fascinating as ever, April. Wonderful research.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. That’s a great answer to my question! Thanks April. That town gate is amazing!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Really enjoyed this overview of ransoms and prisoners of battle. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Medieval Ransoms Part 4 | A Writer's Perspective

  5. I love how you’ve continued this series on prisoners of war, April. I’m wishing Geoffrey the best of luck in his captivity!

    Liked by 1 person

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