The Battle of Agincourt, 15th-century miniature : Wiki Commons
Not just a King’s ransom: war was a money-spinner for the rank-and-file soldier in the Late Middle Ages
Research by a University of Southampton historian has found that the practice of ransom was widespread among all soldiers during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) and not, as generally thought, just the preserve of kings, knights and higher orders.
Dr Rémy Ambühl has found that ransom in war provided a valuable source of income for all classes in the Late Middle Ages, including those in the lower orders. He says: “There is widespread evidence to suggest that during the 15th century the practice of ransom is increasingly extended to commoners, not just Kings or chivalrous Knights.”
Dr Ambühl’s research has led him to examine a large number of historical sources which support this, including; court records, financial documents, receipts, ordinances of war, petitions, biographical texts and even poetry. He has concluded that contracts which drew-up the terms and conditions of ransom were commonplace between individual soldiers or small groups on opposing sides. This involved captors and captives of all ranks and the practice was an accepted way of making profit out of war. This is supported by an apparent increase in the size of the rank-and-file sections of the French and English armies during this period.
Dr Ambühl explains: “Patriotism was not the driving force to encourage enrolment and ordinary men would have been reluctant to join armies willingly if they faced death upon capture. However, under the terms of ransom, prisoners were less likely to be harmed and additionally the practice provided them with an opportunity to make money – another incentive to enlist.
“Over the course of the Hundred Years War, more and more rank-and-file soldiers captured more and more rank-and-file prisoners giving rise to a form of social recognition between equals – the principle of reciprocity meant good treatment on one side would induce good treatment on the other. It can also be argued that materialism had started to penetrate the whole of society and even a small profit gained from the ransom of commoner prisoners was thought to be worthwhile.”
From the moment of capture, prisoners became the individual responsibility of their masters who were expected to secure an appropriate place and conditions for them to be held in. The Master had to work out the appropriate value of their prisoners and enter negotiations with them, their family and friends. In turn, prisoners, or their connections, would work to raise funds or arrange an exchange for their release.
Dr Ambühl comments, “Negotiations were crucial in this process and a dialogue was kept open between masters and prisoners at all stages. The ransom culture was essentially contractual and so firmly rooted that it could even supersede or invalidate arguments from the ‘law of arms’.”
Records show that the earliest evidence of a set scale of ransom payments for the bottom of the social hierarchy dates from the battle of Agincourt (Friday, 25 October 1415). Dr Ambühl concludes this may reflect an evolution of the ransom system in the first decades of the 15th century.
By the 16th century, scales of ransom payments were based on the wages of soldiers and throughout this period and into the 17th century there was increasing control from the state. Eventually a practice which had been shaped by combatants over the centuries ended up being tightly controlled by authorities.
Dr Rémy Ambühl’s full research on this subject can be found in his recently published book, Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War: Ransom Culture in the Late Middle Ages.