Medieval hostages

William Marshal

I’m currently working on Isabel de Clare and her family. Her husband William Marshal was famously a hostage during the Anarchy whilst a very young child and was very nearly hanged when his father John failed to comply with King Stephen’s demands – it appears that William’s touching candour and the king’s kind heart saved the little boy from an early death. Isabel’s two eldest sons became hostages of King John when he began to distrust Marshal. This possibly accounts for why William Marshal the Younger sided with the barons in the First Barons’ War rather than with the king. The Marshal’ friend and fellow Marcher baron William de Braose fell foul of the king when his wife Matilda, who sounds like a truly formidable woman, refused to hand her sons over to the men sent to collect them when de Braose failed to pay the Exchequer instalments on the debt he owed to the king for the grant of Limerick. Matilda and her son William were starved to death in Corfe Castle – to cut a long story short. And before I finish this particular paragraph one of Isabel’s Irish uncles was killed whilst he was a hostage and another was blinded – so Isabel and her husband were all too aware of the risks of giving hostages.

Oh yes and her grandfather Gilbert De Clare, Lord of Striguil also known as Gilbert Strongbow fell out with King Stephen when Stephen imprisoned Striguil’s nephew Gilbert Earl of Hertford and confiscated all of his castles when Hertford’s kinsman Ranulph Earl of Chester attacked Lincoln contrary to the agreement he made with the king and to which Hertford was surety. I should add that Striguil didn’t become grumpy with Stephen because of the unjust incarceration of his nephew or even the confiscation of the estates – he threw his toys out of the pram when the king wouldn’t give everything he’d just bagged to Striguil – no one comes out of the Anarchy particularly well behaviour-wise it would have to be said.

So – hostages-what exactly were they? A hostage, in medieval terms, was the physical embodiment of an agreement’s guarantee. A political or even a financial agreement required a demonstration of submission or good faith until a particular set of terms or conditions were met. It meant that the hostage or hostages had to have value to the person making the agreement – no point in accepting a fourth or fifth cousin it had to be a close family member. The hostage taker was also able to demonstrate his or her authority over the person required to offer a hostage or hostages as surety.  Anyone could become a hostage – the Scottish princesses Margaret and Isabella sisters of Alexander II were held as hostages from 1209 onwards to ensure that the Scots complied with the Treaty of Norham. it brings to mind the fact that international treaties were often cemented by a marriage treaty. This instance reflects the fact that hostage giving and taking was part of the arsenal available to medieval diplomats where marriage agreements weren’t an option.

King John was demonstrating his feudal overlordship of the Marshal family and therefore reminding the rest of his barons to behave themselves – in fact John was notorious for demanding both hostages and large sums of money. The hostage was often a guarantee that a fine or amercement would be paid to the Crown and an insurance policy on the king’s part that the fine wouldn’t be ignored. Having lost his Continental domains in 1204 he used it as a method of levying funds. When Maud de Braose and her son were captured having fled from Ireland to Scotland John initially incarcerated them in Bristol Castle. He came to agreement with William de Braose that he could have his family back for the staggering sum of 40,000 marks. In this instance the hostage taker was effectively ransoming his hostages – which is more akin to our modern understanding.

In fact hostages and hostage taking varied throughout the medieval period depending on the situation. For instance men captured in battle might arrange that their place was taken by hostages as surety of their intention to return with the ransoms that their captors demanded of them. One of the main difference between medieval hostages and modern hostage situations was that in medieval times hostages were given rather than taken (not that the de Braoses handed themselves over willingly but if nothing else it demonstrates the complicated nature of the whole business.)

 The situation in which hostages found themselves being kept might have been more akin to ward, foster child or guest rather than prisoner depending on the circumstances in which the arrangement was made. And of course, hostages received in good faith might find that if the hostage giver didn’t meet his/her obligations that life could become very painful, very short or possibly both. You’ll all be delighted to hear that I have no intention of running a series of posts about the demise of some of history’s more unfortunate hostages.

Kosto, Adam J., Hostages in the Middle Ages

2 thoughts on “Medieval hostages

  1. Thank you, I have loved historical matter for 50 yrs. At uni I was told to call myself an Historian but never followed through with that as an occupation only a hobby.
    Lately I’ve been reading so much about this family, fiction & non-fiction books & loving it for the intrigue & precarious lives they lived back then. Also because I am descended from their daughters Maud (from both husbands), Isabel (from husband Gilbert de Clare), Eva & Joan.

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