20 October 2014

The Battlefield and Beyond: Noble hostages in the medieval English Court

By Blythe Gifford

Today, the word hostage is terrifying, implying the threat of imminent death if money is not paid or other demands met.  In the Fourteenth Century, however, being a hostage could be a much more pleasurable experience.
Battle of Poiters.  French knights left, English right.
In fact, if you were a knight or a noble in war at this time, the threat of death in battle was less than the threat of being taken captive.  After all, if you were dead, your enemy got nothing.  If you were alive, however, he might collect quite a tidy sum for your return.  In fact, the potential for such lucrative “spoils of war,” was a great incentive for a knight to join the call to battle.

Of course, there were chivalric rules about all this, but the result, particularly during the Hundred Years’ War, was that war became an elaborate economic game as well as a military one.  This reached its zenith in the Treaty of Bretigny between England and France.  When it was signed, in 1360, it seemed as if England had, indeed, won the war, which had not then gone on for a hundred years.  King Jean II of France was taken prisoner at the battle of Poitiers and the English were in a position to demand nearly any price for his return.  The final amount agreed on, three million gold ecrus, more than France’s total annual income, a ruinous figure which, eventually, contributed to the treaty’s failure.

King Jean II of France
But when he was held in England, King Jean did not languish in a drafty prison cell.  He was housed in the Savoy Palace, along with many other members of his entourage.  Certainly, not all prisoners were so well treated, but part of the code of chivalry was that knights should behave honorably to each other.  The captor should honor a man’s station and the captive should, on his honor, not try to escape.

The result, for a time, was that England was full of French nobles, feasting and partying as if they were guests at an elaborate house party.  (To be fully accurate, a hostage was to pay for his own room and board, but it’s hard to find detailed evidence of how this was accomplished.) 

Late in 1360, King Jean returned to France to personally work to raise the full amount of the ransom, which had been slow in coming.  In his absence, 40 nobles were sent in his place as surety for his return, but after a while, even the substitutes became restless.  In a great example of how this all played out, King Jean’s son, the Duke of Anjou, was allowed to cross the Channel to go to Calais, which was, technically, still English territory.  Even though he had cross the English Channel, he was bound by honor to remain an English prisoner.  However, the temptation of being so close to home, and his wife, proved too much, and the Duke went riding one day in 1363 and never returned.

This horrible breach of honor did not go unnoticed.  King Edward III of England wrote King Jean, shaming him with his son's blot on the royal name, and as a result, King Jean returned to England in January of 1364 and once again put himself in Edward’s hands as a hostage.
Savoy Palace on the Thames, the hostage king's home in London.
There are other, less flattering reasons given by history of why the French king might have returned to captivity, but suffice it to say he was given a royal welcome, once again housed in the Savoy Palace, and though he was ostensibly still working to moderate the ruinous terms of the Treaty, he apparently had a glorious time while doing it. 

Right up until he became ill and died less than three months later.

King Jean's funeral.
The cause of death was natural and the king of England mourned his royal brother with all due ceremony, giving him a funeral truly fit for a king before returning the body to France for another funeral and burial.

Well might Edward have mourned, for when he lost possession of the French king, he lost the leverage he needed to collect the remaining ransom.  Faced with the requirements of honor versus handing over good French coin to the English, the new French king let payments slide and eventually declared the treaty void in 1369.

By 1367, the last hostage in England had been released and by that time, as the French historian Edouard Perroy writes in his book, THE HUNDRED YEARS WAR, “There remained in London as hostages only the small fry of petty barons and burgesses.  Individual measures of clemency set some free, and others married and settled permanently in England…”

Married?  Mas oui!  Including a French count, Enguerrand, Lord de Coucy, who married King Edward’s daughter Isabella.  And that was what sparked the idea for WHISPERS AT COURT, my next Royal Wedding story, scheduled for release in 2015.

After many years in public relations, advertising and marketing, BLYTHE GIFFORD started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her first book to the Harlequin Historical line.  Since then, she has published ten romances set in England and on the Scottish Borders, most using real historical events as inspiration.  SECRETS AT COURT, a Royal Wedding story, was a March 2014 release from the Harlequin Historical line.  For more information, visit www.blythegifford.com 

Photo credits:  Author photo Jennifer Girard

"JeanIIdFrance" by Anonymous (Paris) Formerly attributed to Girard d'Orléans. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JeanIIdFrance.jpg#mediaviewer/File:JeanIIdFrance.jpg

"The funeral procession of Jean II" by Virgil Master (illuminator) - Jean Froissart, Chroniques (Vol. I). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_funeral_procession_of_Jean_II.jpg#mediaviewer/File:The_funeral_procession_of_Jean_II.jpg