Tag Archives: Ransoms

Medieval Ransoms Part 4

I wrote in last week’s post that some prisoners of war were able to keep servants and horses. Not surprisingly the prisoner would pay for this. Other things for which he had to pay are a bit more unexpected.

The first thing he had to pay for was his accommodation: his food and his lodgings. In effect, he was paying for his own prison. The cost of this varied according to the status of the prisoner. In the fifteenth century this could be 20 shillings a day for a nobleman. You will recall that our skilled labourer from the fourteenth century earned 4d (pennies) a day. There were 12d to a shilling, so that would be 60 days of labour for one day’s accommodation. More usually, for much lower status prisoners, the fee was 4 or 5 shillings a week. Still out of reach for our labourer, but men of his class weren’t taken prisoner; they were killed.

This wasn’t the last of it. If the captor decided to take his prisoner with him as he travelled between his manors or for other reasons, the prisoner had to pay for his horse (plus its feed and accommodation). If he needed an escort, which he might if he were a high status noble, he had to pay for that too. Often a safe-conduct was required to allow him to travel within what was enemy territory. Guess who had to pay for that? This could cost the prisoner between 9 shillings and 26 shillings.

He even had to pay for the messenger to go to his friends and family to tell them about the ransom and make arrangements for it to be paid. This might not be a minor expense if the messenger had to travel some distance or search for the person he’d been sent to. There’s an example of a messenger who worked in this way for a noble for most of a year. This cost the noble £140.

These were the expenses a prisoner could count on if all went well. If there were any problems, there would be more. If a prisoner had been injured when he was captured, for example or he became ill later, there were medical expenses to be paid.

All these costs were added at the end of the prisoner’s captivity, so they often came as a bit of a shock. There were even court cases in which prisoners claimed that the size of the additional expenses were unfair.

It’s beginning to look as if my protagonist’s ransom will be the least of his worries. He’s got to send a messenger to his brother who is a journey of at least two weeks away. I happen to know that the brother isn’t where he’s supposed to be, so the messenger can easily be away for two months and more looking for him. That could cost Geoffrey £28 for the messenger and £2 for his accommodation. Instead of his ransom being £175, it’s now £205 and he no longer knows how it’s going to be paid.

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.

Available now:




Filed under Hundred Years War, Medieval Life

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.

Available now:




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Buildings, Medieval Warfare

Medieval Ransoms Part 2

The French attempt to recapture Calais

I wrote in last week’s post that the male protagonist in a novel that I’m plotting at the moment has valued his ransom at £175. Being English, Geoffrey and his brother have calculated their worth in pounds sterling, but they’re in France and ransoms there would be paid in French gold coins. Geoffrey’s captor would make his calculation in livres tournois, the currency used in France. The coins were made of gold, silver or a silver-copper alloy, depending on the value of the coin.

The silver coins were the most important for most people, as they were used to pay taxes, wages and rents. The silver-copper alloy coins were used for everyday expenses, such as shopping. Ransoms, though, were usually paid in gold.

One livre tournois was worth much less than one pound sterling. There were six livres tournois to one pound sterling, so Geoffrey’s ransom as he has calculated it would be 1,050 livres tournois.

Then as now, however, the exchange rate wasn’t the only element of the transaction.

Once Geoffrey’s ransom is agreed with his captor, he has a problem. Although he has enough wealth to pay the ransom he has calculated, he doesn’t have enough gold. There might be some gold coins in the booty he’s taken, but most of the coins will be silver. The rest of his booty might be valuable (or not so valuable) objects that he has taken in raids and he might be able to persuade his captor to take some of these in lieu of coins. If he’s unlucky, his captor will expect him to hand over 1,050 gold coins.

Geoffrey’s next problem is that there aren’t that many gold coins in circulation. Most people have never even seen a gold coin, let alone owned one, so he has to find someone who has gold coins … lots of them. There’s a chance that some of his friends or relatives will sell him gold coins, especially if they’ve managed to get ransoms from the French prisoners they captured during the battle, but they’re unlikely to have all that he needs. Florentine bankers are a good source of gold coins, but they will charge him a fee to change the coins and it won’t be a small one. He will need to sell some of his possessions and get in touch with a representative of a Florentine bank.

Once Geoffrey has sold anything that he needs to sell to ensure that he has the necessary coins, something that might take some time, he now has to get them to Florence and the bank in Florence has to get the gold coins to him. In theory. In practice it was far too dangerous to transport large sums of money that far. Fortunately, banking in the fourteenth century was far more sophisticated than that and bills of exchange were often used instead of physical money.

I’ve written about Geoffrey having coins and precious objects, but, of course, he doesn’t have them with him. They are, he hopes, safely in Bordeaux with his brother. Whilst some captors would allow their prisoners to leave their captivity in order to raise their ransoms, there’s a risk that some of them will simply go home as soon as they’re released. Geoffrey, though, doesn’t need to leave the castle where he’s being held. All he needs to do, is to send a messenger to his brother, who shouldn’t be too far away.

Geoffrey assumes that his brother has also survived the battle and has returned with the English army to Bordeaux, so we will too. The brother is the one who will contact their family and friends to try and exchange silver coins for gold coins. He will also sell anything he needs to get more silver coins. Eventually he will deposit the coins with a representative of the bank he or Geoffrey has chosen in Bordeaux and the banker will send a bill of exchange to a representative near to where Geoffrey is being held. This representative will then pay the gold coins to Geoffrey’s captor, assuming that they have sufficient gold coins in that part of France. As it was for so many, it’s beginning to look as if Geoffrey’s captivity will be a lengthy one.

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.

Available now:




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Life

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.

Available now:




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Warfare

The Indentured Soldier


 During the fourteenth century soldiers were becoming more professional. That is, they were paid to fight, whereas they had previously provided their services as part of their feudal duty to their lord. By the 1330s the English army (in reality a number of small, temporary armies) was a wholly paid force, although some still fought from a sense of feudal obligation to the king.

Most of these men were indentured. An indenture was the legal contract between the soldier and the man he served under. The contract was written out twice on one piece of paper. It was cut into two in such a way that the jagged edges would fit together.  It was from the supposed  teeth-like nature of the edges that the document got its name. The soldier got one piece and the captain the other. If there was ever a dispute about what was owed to whom the two pieces could be joined to show that they had once formed a single document. Obviously there was the temptation for the party with the most to lose simply to destroy his half of the document, but that could be managed by having a third copy kept by a lawyer so that there could be no dispute.

Indentures had been in use since the end of the thirteenth century. They described the pay, the equipment provided by or to the soldier and the rules governing any booty that was taken. Usually the soldier had to share it with his captain and the king. Some contracts even specified where in the hierarchy the soldier could take his meals.

Just as the soldier entered into a contract with his captain, so the captain entered into a contract with the king. He promised to bring a certain number of soldiers of each type in his retinue – archers, men-at-arms, knights. A retinue could be smaller than ten men or larger than two thousand. All of this would be written out in the indenture. An indenture specified the length of service and where it was to be given. If the service was abroad the contract would give details about how the soldier was to get there.

The indenture for a knight would often include an allowance of hay for his horses as well as stabling. Sometimes an agreement would be made that any horses lost by the knight would be replaced by his commander. These indentures also talked about how any ransom for captured prisoners would be split between the two of them.

Interestingly, indentures were not used where the king led the campaign. He would be there in person to oversee the administration of his army. They became more widely used from the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, as there were often two or three campaigns going on at the same time in different parts of France and the king couldn’t lead them all. Wages were still paid, even if there were no indentures setting out the terms.

The system of indenture meant that some men became professional soldiers and fought in campaign after campaign rather than return to working the land or to other occupations. In turn, this improved the quality of the soldiers available to the king, making his armies more effective. This goes some way to explaining why English armies tended to be smaller than French ones. Soldiers, as well as their commanders, would fight together over years of different campaigns, enabling them to work together and to fight as a single unit. Their equipment was checked frequently and, in the cases of archers’ arrows, provided by the crown. This meant that the equipment tended to become standardised. Whilst not necessarily improving the quality of the equipment, this did improve the armies’ efficiency.

Even at the end of the fourteenth century many found it repugnant that men were paid to fight for their king and mourned the passing of the old values, but it provided the king with a reliable method of recruiting soldiers to fight in France and Scotland.

In some ways the logical outcome of the indenture system was the formation of the groups of mercenaries who roamed France terrorising towns and villages during times of peace, particularly in the 1360s. If a man was to be paid to be a soldier, why shouldn’t he serve any man who would pay him?



Filed under Fourteenth Century

Ransoms: the way to riches, the way to poverty

During the Hundred Years’ War many knights were able to go into battle fairly confident that they would survive. The ransom system meant that, should they surrender, provided the battle wasn’t being fought to the death or there had not been an order not to take prisoners by the other side, there was a good chance they would be taken prisoner and released later on payment of a ransom. This made the knights more valuable alive than dead.

The chivalric code was what made it possible for Christian knights to fight one another. Earlier the Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen killed or enslaved vanquished enemies, but this was not acceptable to the church when both sides were Christians. Often men fighting one another were related or friends and killing an opponent who surrendered in such circumstances wouldn’t always be well-received. Due to the way knights were trained they often knew one another well, having served as squires together or met at tournaments. The ransom system meant that they didn’t have to kill their friends.

Knights could still be killed, of course. It wasn’t always possible to take prisoners and prisoners who were to be ransomed had to be protected, which was often difficult in the midst of a battle. Knights were essentially killing machines. They were trained to kill and it could be quite hard to restrain them once they had started. In the heat of battle they could often carry on killing, even when the enemy was surrendering to them or retreating.

The ransom system was part of the chivalric code and it applied only to knights, not to the ordinary soldier. A knight who was captured in a battle or a siege could be expected to buy his freedom by paying a ransom, or having it paid for him. Sometimes he could be set free on parole by promising that he would not take up arms against the one who had set him free and that he would pay his ransom.

Some men became wealthy by capturing and ransoming knights. Others could become poor through paying a ransom. The ransom of Jean II, who was captured at the battle of Poitiers in 1356 almost brought France to its knees, even though half of it was never paid. Jean died in captivity after his son, who had taken his place in prison to allow his father to return to France to raise his ransom, escaped. Feeling the dishonour of his son’s action, Jean returned to England where he died a few months later.

If a man could not pay a ransom he was either kept prisoner or made to redeem his ransom in some other way. For many that meant being taken to another country. It could take a long time to raise the money required and, since a captive was considered the property of his captor, the son of the captor could inherit the captive on his father’s death.

There were laws governing how a prisoner could be captured and how he could be kept and ransomed. When a man was taken prisoner for ransom there was what amounted to a legal contract between the man captured and the man to whom he had surrendered. The captive was supposed to be taken to a place of safety and protected until the battle was over. If this didn’t happen he could consider himself no longer bound by his surrender and try to escape. He was also supposed to be well-treated by his captor. In this respect being captured by the Germans or Spanish was decidedly undesirable. They were known to keep their prisoners in chains and mistreat them, even if they expected to receive a ransom for them. The ransom itself was supposed to be within the means of the captured man to pay, although this was frequently not the case.

One of the attractions of fighting in France during the Hundred Years’ War for the English was that France was known to be full of wealthy men and many Englishmen became rich from taking prisoners, just as many Frenchmen became poor from paying for their release. For a novelist this is quite a useful device for enabling a second son without property to become rich (like Henry in The Winter Love) or penniless (like Richard in His Ransom).


Filed under Hundred Years War