Hostages in the Middle Ages

By Rob Morgan

The International Relations department bought this book, largely I suspect because the last chapter indicates that between 1968 and 1986 there were, internationally some 549 hostage-taking incidents. But in the medieval world things were much different. The  book, by Adam Kosto,  published by OUP 2012, and some 280+ pages long (ISBN 9780 199651702) at a mere £60 hardback, deals with an unusual but commonplace aspect of military and political life in the Medieval period, and he suggests that it extended from the fifth to the 15th centuries!

The Medieval hostage, rather than being captured, was literally given by his lord or prince as a guarantee of an agreement, to ensure safe passage or the behaviour of an army, sometimes they were a symbol of status. I liked the example he kept returning to again and again in the text. William Marshal was, as a five-year-old child, given as a hostage by his father to King Stephen in 1152. John, young William’s father, had promised to hand over Newbury Castle to the king, and his son was unfortunate enough to be in the king’s hands when John started to strengthen the defences of Newbury and send for additional military support. With some relish, King Stephen decided to kill the boy, and had him tied to a trebuchet, to be thrown to his death, but for some reason relented. William Marshal survived and went on to become Earl Marshal of England, Protector of the King. Well anyway, not all hostages were as lucky as little William.

The Crusades figure largely in the subject of hostages and the closely related subject of ransoms. ‘King’s Ransom’ indeed was the term for the twice captured Baldwin II of Jerusalem, and when Saint Louis of France was taken in 1250, another mass of hostages and vast sums of money appeared in the ‘deal.’  Baldwin was not trustworthy and the hostages were only saved by complex negotiations. Women were less frequently hostages than would be imagined, and in some ways, the laws of chivalry exerted control over aspects of hostage transfer. A dead hostage had no value, of course. The 100 Years War produced some interesting, and unpleasant hostage situations, of entire towns in some cases, or specific communities. When John IV of Brittany captured Olivier de Clisson, a ransom of 100,000 francs and the handing over of a dozen castles was the deal! When David II of Scotland was captured at Neville’s Cross in 1346, 20 noble hostages were given over.

There’s an interesting account — you could call it diplomatic in a sense — of Richard I’s little problem on his way home through Europe. The Treaty of Wurzburg in 1193, involved the Duke of Austria, the Emperor, Pope, the kings of France and England, all in a complicated arrangement. One odd clause Kosto mentions could be of interest to wargamers. Richard the Lionheart was to provide 50 fully equipped galleys, 200 knights, 100 crossbowmen and make himself available to command them, in the Emperor’s Sicilian Campaign!

This is a fascinating tour of the medieval period by a strange route, and chapter 7 on the hostages taken for Kings Ransom and release, and the appendices on specific monarch’s ‘difficulties’ are most interesting. I’d recommend it, if only to learn a little more about the bizarre methods of some of our princes and kings. William Marshal had the narrowest escape, and in his case, so did England!

A hostage situation (to use modern terminology) could make for a decent solo wargame, providing numerous options and possibilities on the turn of a chance card. So,7/10 for this one. A book filled with ideas, one I really enjoyed reading.

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