Q&A

Medieval Economics 101. How to make a profit out of a ransomed knight?

Wild Reddit Question Appeared!

“If I were a medieval knight and I captured another highborn warrior in battle, a tournament or in single combat, how specifically would I go about ransoming him to make sure I got the money before releasing him?”

[A question by u/fattubaplayer1 on r/AskHistorians: link to the original post]

“And on the other side of the coin, how would I make sure my relative is safely released for the funds I am handing over. Was there a common method of exchange in these situations ?”

My Answer

You may wonder… How did the Lords of Coucy raise the money to build the most impressive castle of whole Christendom in the 13th century? The answer may shock you…

You can go at it ‘Coucy style’ and hang your prisonner by his genitals as an incentive for a higher ransom. Not kidding. Thomas de Marles, Lord of Coucy (d. 1130), reportedly did so.

Now, on a more serious note.

Derived from the concept of Roman law, the custom of ransoming captives taken in battle developed alongside notions of knighthood and chivalry in early Capetian France. […] Though originally a purely personal obligation between captor and captive, by the fourteenth century prisoners’ ransoms were generally recognized as a form of heritable property. As such, the ransoms could be sold to third parties, and the trade in ransoms could be a profitable business for those with the right international connections. […] To a great extent the system relied on trust. It was common to allow a prisonner to go free on parole so that he could organize payment of his ransom, though he would usually be required to provide pledges as a safeguard against bad faith. […] The more effective sanction was the dishonor and notoriety that accrued to defaulters. […] The effectiveness of honor as a constraint is best demonstrated by John II of France. Released on parole in 1360, he returned to England in person four years later when one of his replacement hostages absconded and it had become clear that he could not pay the next installment of his ransom.

Cf. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (2010), vol. 3, ‘Prisonners and ransoms’.


In order to illustrate this general statement, I’d like to present three cases of ransom, counting one that had already been discussed on this sub 😀 [or previously on my blog]

Bertrand Du Guesclin, Count of Longueville

Captured at the Battle of Auray (1364)

London, British Library, Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 47v ~ Death of Bertrand Du Guesclin

When he was captured at the Battle of Auray, Bertrand Du Guesclin was ransomed alongside Girard Chabot for an astronomical amount: 100,000 golden francs. The King of France was able to pay some of it upfront, yet there was still a lot to cover. Therefore Bertrand Du Guesclin was freed so that he could gather some of the money from his war benefits and other means. In a letter from the 18th January 1365, Du Guesclin acknowledge his debt in the most official fashion, having it written down that he personnaly swore on the Bible. That letter was sealed by the chancelor of the ‘prince of Aquitaine’, meaning Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, who was heir to the kingdom of England. Du Guesclin and Chabot swore that they would pay up 20,000 francs by the next year’s Pentecost or willingly return to captivity. As we saw with the example of John II, that kind of pledges were actually trustworthy.

So here you have your first mean to insure a payment: release the knight against a formal written insurance that he will eventually pay up, otherwise expect him to come back to your custody from his own free will. If he doesn’t come back to you or come short financially, infamy will do its dirty job and tarnish his good name, making it very difficult for him to pursue his military career. It seems counter-intuitive but it is yet effective.

Arthur of Britanny, Count of Richemont

Captured at the Battle of Agincourt (1415)

Paris, BnF, fr. 20360, f. 316v ~ Depiction of the Battle of Agincourt in a 16th century manuscript

This story is one of the most fascinating in my opinion. Hang on to your family tree though! Arthur of Britanny was the third son of Jean IV of Britanny and brother to Jean V. His mother, Joan of Navarre, had remarried Henry IV of England: therefore Arthur was Henry V’s brother-in-law. This is quite remarkable because Henry V of England is the one who won the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415! Yet, for more than five years, the King of England refused to further any negociation regarding the release of his brother-in-law. In this case, political interests got in the way of economical profit. It is also worth of note that Henry V imprisoned in mother-in-law under the suspicion of witchcraft after the passing of his father.

Arthur (and his mother) being held hostage meant that the Duke of Britanny had to think twice before siding with the Valois. In a curious turn of events, though, the Duke of Britanny and his other brother, Richard, were captured by local political rivals, in 1420. The Duchess of Britanny, Joan of France, then sent a letter to Henry V, asking him to release Arthur or to ‘lend’ him so that he could lead the troops that would rescue his captive brothers. Henry V denied the request yet sent some troops of his own to help out.

A few months later, Henry V would marry Katherine of France, Joan’s sister, and sign the Treaty of Troyes, making him heir to the throne of France as per the ‘authority’ of Charles VI, who was known to be crazy since the 1390’s. John V and his brother Richard were eventually freed, yet the Duchess of Britanny decided to hide this information for a few days to help speed up Arthur’s release. Henry V caught up with the events from John V’s personal envoys, who stated that the Duke of Britanny would come and visit him himself, and only then did Henry V agree to release Arthur for two years. There was no talk of any ransom, still, so Arthur would only be ‘on parole’ according to certain terms until september 1422.

Brought from the Tower of London to France in October 1420, Arthur was lead to Henry V in Corbeil where he met his childhood friend, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. From then on, Arthur was put under the custody of the earl of Suffold and followed him a bit everywhere. When lords from Britanny went to meet him in Pontorson and found themselves more numerous than the English, they offered Arthur to help him escape. Arthur refused their help. Suffolk valued Arthur’s sense of honour and allowed him to meet his brother, the Duke of Britanny. From then on it looked like Arthur embraced the party of Henry V and he even received the county of Ivry from the latter. It was even agreed that as long as he respected the terms of his parole he would be freed without ransom. Arthur turned out to become the perfect prisonner: the managed to convince his brother, John V, to join Henry V against the Valois! The Duchy of Britanny, just as the Duchy of Burgundy, was now siding with England in the Hundred Years War…

The sudden passing of Henry V in 1422 didn’t change anything for the Anglo-Brito-Burgundian alliance. However, Arthur took it as granted that he didn’t have to return to London according to the terms of his parole. And he neved did so. He was even granted the Duchy of Tourraine. In 1423, Arthur married a Burgundian princess and he proved eager to serve under the Duke of Bedford, who had been appointed Regent of France on behalf of Henry VI.

Yet, Bedford would only frustrate Arthur’s ambitions, still treat him as a prisonner of war, which suddenly led Arthur to switch sides! He rallied the Valois party and very shortly obtained the highest military title of the Royal French Army, in 1425. He was given the rank of Constable, that Du Guesclin had held a few generations before him. From then on, Arthur was instrumental in the eventual French victory over the English and the definitive closing of the Hundred Years War. Shrewd as he was, he insured that his brother rallied Charles VII very quickly and then he reconciled the Valois party with the Burgundians, in 1435.

This story illustrates very well that a ransom was not always what you could hope from a prisonner. Having a prisonner could also serve political interests. Now, however, you had to beware of your prisonner! Arthur was the perfect hostage up until the point where he felt free from any further obligation to the English crown. Then he quickly turned his jacket and even turned the tables…

John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsburry

Captured at the Battle of Patay (1429)

Almost ruined by the ransom put on him, Talbot still managed to offer a lavish manuscript
to Margaret of Anjou, on her betrothal to Henry VI, in 1445 ~ London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2r.

After the death of Thomas Montaigu, earl of Salisbury, John Talbot became one of the most important leader of the English army. Yet, he couldn’t hold on the siege at OrlĂ©ans and was captured at Patay. His ransom was set at an absurd amount. Paying it on his own would have utterly ruined him. A ‘public subscription’ was even organized in England and the King paid an advance on the ransom (the same way Charles V had helped Du Guesclin). Yet Talbot would not be released until Poton de Xaintrailles got himself captured by the earl of Warwick, who was Talbot’s father-in-law. Then a prisonner exchange was negociated which allowed Talbot to be released on parole, in 1433. John V, Duke of Britanny, gave Talbot 2,000 mewes of salt to help pay his ransom, in 1432: Talbot would still be selling that salt in 1439!

This last story also expose that it was sometimes more profitable to release your prisonner so that he could gather money to pay his ransom. In Talbot’s case, the capture of Poton de Xaintrailles certainly helped to speed up his parole.

Depiction of Saint George, patron of the Order of the Garter, to which John Talbot belonged ~ London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 439r.

I also found out that it that it could be customary to forbid a knight to engage is certain fights or to join this or that allegieance while on parole. Most men-at-arms and knights would respect such pledges.

In conclusion, it was customary to release a prisonner of war even before his ransom had been totally absolved. Moreover, money was not the only thing you could get from a prisonner of war. Political and strictly military interests also weighted in the balance and could tip the scale in favour of an early release, if not quite the opposite. Henry V had instructed his brothers never to free Charles of Orléans. Captured at the Battle of Agincourt like Arthur of Britanny, he was only released in 1443 through the intermediary of Philip the Good.

I hope that I helped you to better understand the complexity of the ransom system in the Late Middle Ages 🙂 Don’t hesitate to ask follow-up questions.

Further readings:
~ Letters, Orders and Musters of Bertrand Du Guesclin, 1357-1380. Edited by Michael Jones. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004, p. 36-37
~ EugÚne Cosneau, Le Connétable de Richemont. Paris: Hachette, 1886, p. 45-76.
~ A. J. Pollard, John Talbot and the war in France, 1427-1453. London: Royal Historical Society, 1983, p. 112-115.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.