Tag Archives: Ransoms

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