After the bloody battle : Medieval Loot and Hostages

Some soldiers built their fortune on Medieval looting and ransoming hostages. Battlefield fallen and captive and the baggage train might as well have been marked “Medieval loot”. Precious booty included coinage, precious metals, jewelry, weapons, armor, clothing, horses, and, most importantly, food. Some Medieval battles even had their outcomes changed by the temptation to loot baggage trains before the battle was truly over!

The skull of a soldier who participated in the 1361 campaign. Now at the Swedish History Museum

The winners could upgrade their own equipment from the dead. The 9th century poem Beowulf talks about looting weapons from corpses, and later Scandinavian laws (11th century) tried to make this illegal.  Which suggests it happened a LOT.

This is why the Battle of Visby (1361) is so unusual – archaeologists found bodies still wearing full sets of armour. Some corpses even had bags full of coins still on them. With the July heat, the battle may have quickly become a hell full of unimaginable smells and decay. Instead of stripping everyone for Medieval loot, most of the approx 2,000 bodies were tossed into 5 mass graves as fast as possible.

The skull of the gentleman above was recovered with a full chainmail coif.

Golden Age of Private Ransom

Generally the quality of your arms and armour, and if you had a horse, was a very good indicator of your family’s wealth. A heavily armoured and mounted enemy knight certainly looks ransom-worthy.

Any gentleman was advised to tell his captor about his nobility immediately so that his life would be spared. This doesn’t bode well for non-noble soldiers. Often only the company leaders survived an encounter, the rest of the prisoners being killed.

The very lucky Ghillebert de Lannoy was “wounded in the knee and the head” at Agincourt (1415). English soldiers looking for prisoners dragged him off and locked him in a farmhouse. When the order was given to kill the prisoners, the English decided to simply set the whole place on fire.

Ghillebert crawled out of the flames, only to be recaptured by the English. Another stroke of luck – the English were back to collecting people for ransom. His freedom would cost 1200 gold crowns, although he did receive a gift of money from his captor, Sir John Cornwall, to replace the set of armour the had lost at Agincourt.

Capturing a high-ranking prisoner could be like “winning the lottery”. An archer William Callowe gained almost £100 from the ransom of a valuable prisoner at Agincourt. (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 ransom, almost a year’s salary.

Many English soldiers were taken prisoner at the storming of the town of Jargeau, in 1429. However, the majority of them would never reach Orléans, as they were killed on their way during a row over who owned them!

Ordinances or rules of war in the Hundred Years War were proclaimed publicly in English or French, sometimes just before the battle. Certainly, copies of them were in the hands of the captains of the host or the garrison. A few clauses in these documents concerned prisoners of war.

The first was to ensure that the king received his due share of all Medieval loot. Usually, a third of the value of a captive to be given to the captor’s superior and a third of that (i.e. a ninth) to be passed to the Crown.

The second clause was to discourage and limit quarrels between rival claimants to a capture. The third was to preserve the safety of the host. If anyone killed a prisoner, he would be arrested until he had compensated the captor for his loss and paid a fine to the Constable.

Armour from the battle of Visby. Medieval loot before it was looted. Now at the Swedish History Museum

Medieval Loot contract

Common practice was to release a prisoner as soon as he had promised to pay the ransom. And they generally followed through with payment.

An attorney negotiated the amount of the ransom and the terms of payment with the prisoner. Once the contract was negotiated and sealed, the attorney would collect letters of obligation from a third party, in case the prisoner defaulted. The captive was then released on parole in order to raise the money for his ransom and return to discharge his debt. All going well, he received ‘good quittances’ from the captor.

A prisoner might petition his commanders at assist with payment. But he might be refused. In the excellent “Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War“, Dr. Ambühl points out that : ‘Princes simply could not afford to give support to all their subjects who were prisoners of the enemy’. This suggests that the Medieval ransom culture was rife, where “masters” swapped prisoners, and even, occasionally, roles. 

While some prisoners were graciously treated, others weren’t so lucky. A torturer in the company of Robert Chesnel regularly beat prisoners “until they could stand no more”, so as to encourage them to promise the largest possible sums.

While ransom was very much a contractual business, it was wasn’t always efficient – one man was kept waiting 25 yearsIn 1446, Jean Rousselet, a sergeant at arms in Normandy, claimed to have been taken prisoner no less than fourteen times during his service to the English crown.

If you enjoyed this, you might like the story of Medieval swearing, and how Irish saints were famous for it.


Leave a Reply