Education & Family

Medieval warfare had well-organised 'ransom market'

Robert Hardy and Judy Dench in a 1960 production of Henry V
Image caption Robert Hardy and Judi Dench in a 1960 BBC television production of Henry V

Medieval prisoners of war were much more widely traded for ransoms than has been previously recognised, according to University of Southampton research.

A study of the Hundred Years War reveals a well-organised trading market in English and French soldiers.

One soldier claimed to have been taken prisoner 17 times, says historian Dr Remy Ambuhl.

The protected and financially valuable status of soldiers saw the first use of the phrase "prisoner of war".

Historian Dr Ambuhl says that ransoming prisoners captured in medieval battles was much more common across all ranks of soldiers than had previously been understood.

His study of documents from the Hundred Years War, between 1337 and 1453, reveals an unexpected level of contractual and financial arrangements surrounding the swapping of all kinds of prisoners, not just knights and nobles.

Archer's target

Dr Ambuhl says that this system, operating between opposing forces, became an important financial incentive for soldiers.

Capturing a high-ranking prisoner could be like "winning the lottery", he said.

After the battle of Agincourt in 1415, an archer William Callowe gained almost £100 from the ransom of a valuable prisoner. This was at a time when an archer would earn about sixpence a day.

This was unusual, with most prisoners having a ransom cost linked to their earnings. A captured archer might be expected to pay 150 shillings, almost a year's salary, to be set free.

The ransom process had its own rules and prices, says Dr Ambuhl, who is publishing his research, Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War.

Prisoners could be given safe conduct to go home to collect a ransom, while companies of soldiers could have a system for sharing income.

This operated between the opposing forces and meant that soldiers captured in battle were much less likely to be harmed.

"It goes far beyond the knightly circle," he says, with mechanisms in place for paying to recover prisoners.

The phrase "prisoner or war" first appeared in the 1420s, in a Latin and French form, recognising how the protected status of prisoners had developed and the responsibilities of their captors.

"It was much more contractual than expected. It was very much a contractual business."

"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," says Dr Ambuhl.

Despite official disapproval, the financial incentive was so strong that it continued on a "large scale basis," says Dr Ambuhl: "It was a very effective system."

But it wasn't always as efficient, with one man kept waiting for 25 years.

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