Killing or Clemency? Ransom, Chivalry and Changing Attitudes to Defeated Opponents in Britain and Northern France, 7-12th centuries

Killing or Clemency? Ransom, Chivalry and Changing Attitudes to Defeated Opponents in Britain and Northern France, 7-12th centuries

By Matthew Strickland

Krieg im Mittelalter, edited by Hans-Henning Kortum (Akademie Verlag GmbH, 2001)

medieval battle - from Science and literature in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1878)

Introduction: On 25 September, 1066, the forces of King Harold II of England fell upon the unsuspecting Norwegian army of Harald Hadraada at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. In the fierce battle which ensued, the English lost many of their best warriors, but both Hardraada and his ally Tosti Godwineson, Harold’s own brother, were slain and the Norwegians virtually annihilated. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the English king gave quarter to the Norwegian reserve force under Olaf, Hardraada’s son, and the earl of Orkney, who had not been present at the main battle, but of 300 ships which had sailed into the Humber earlier that month, only 24 were needed to carry away the survivors. We hear of no prisoners, no ransom.

Less than sixty years later, in 1119, another king of England, Henry I, but now also duke of Normandy, met an invading French army under Louis VI at Brémule in the Norman Vexin. The battle was a resounding victory for the Anglo-Normans, yet of the 900 or so knights engaged, only three were killed. The Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis, writing at the monastery of St Evroult in southern Normandy and one of our finest sources for the nature of contemporary warfare, offered his own explanation for this striking lack of casualties:

They were all clad in mail and spared each other on both sides, out of fear of God and fellowship in arms (notitia contubernii); they were more concerned to capture than kill the  fugitives. As Christian soldiers, they did not thirst for the blood of their brothers, but rejoiced in a just victory given by God for the good of Holy Church and the peace of the faithful.

We must treat Orderic’s interpretation with caution, for it was influenced not only by his monastic vocation, but also his desire to portray Henry I’s wars as fully in accordance with Augustinian concepts of the just war; Henry’s soldiers fight not only a war of defence but fight with right intent, devoid of hatred. In this context, mention of ransom is studiously avoided, though we know from many other references by Orderic himself that the ransoming of knightly captives was in practice widespread. Moreover, while killing tended to be remarkably constrained in several major battles fought within the Anglo-Norman regnum in a context of civil war, the very low casualties at Brémule were more exceptional compared to other Franco-Norman engagements, where considerably higher casualties might occur in far smaller skirmishes. Nevertheless, the contrast with the battle of Stamford Bridge highlights one of the fundamental distinctions between Anglo-Scandinavian and Franco-Norman conduct in warfare that is the subject of my discussion here, namely the treatment of enemy warriors and developing concepts of ransom.

The Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England from 1066 and the subsequent penetration into the Celtic lands of Wales, Scotland and Ireland has been characterised by Robert Bartlett in his The Making of Europe as part of a wider aristocratic diaspora from the Frankish heartlands to the peripheries of Europe, achieved in large part by the superior military technology of castles and cavalry.[6] While this model is largely valid for the Celtic lands, I have argued elsewhere that it is more problematic for late Anglo-Saxon England, which possessed sophisticated military institutions, including a well-organized army, a network of fortifications or burghs and a powerful fleet. Indeed, though the Anglo-Saxons fought predominantly on foot and not as cavalry, there were many similarities between the warrior aristocracies of Normandy and late Anglo-Saxon England. As the Bayeux Tapestry makes clear, their arms and equipment were virtually identical, while the military households of Anglo-Scandinavian lords had much in common with their Norman and Frankish counterparts. Both aristocracies, moreover, shared many of the essential martial values; while not identical, the ethos of the Song of Roland is close indeed to that of the great Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon , which commemorates the heroic last-stand of Ealdorman Byrhtnoth of Essex and his men against the Vikings in 991.

This is unsurprising, for core virtues – courage, loyalty to one’s lord and comrades, generosity, and a jealously guarded sense of honour and reputation – have had an almost universal validity among warrior elites. Yet although such virtues operated within the war-band (comitatus, familia, mesnie), between a lord and his military following or between comrades in arms, they were not necessarily extended to their opponents. Indeed, where notions of conduct might fundamentally differ between warrior aristocracies was in the treatment of the enemy and attitudes towards prisoners. In the British Isles before 1066, the general fate of those defeated in battle or taken in war was either death or enslavement. The Norman Conquest, however, was to mark the importation into England of a differing military ethos, which placed an increasing stress on ransom and the sparing of knightly captives, and which eschewed the enslavement of prisoners of war as a token of barbarism.

Nevertheless, Anglo-Norman advances first into Wales then Ireland and intermittent warfare with Scotland brought them into direct and sustained conflict with peoples whose methods of warfare still involved the killing or enslavement of captives until well into the twelfth century. As a result, a combination of military factors and cultural preconceptions which cast the Celtic peoples as uncivilised barbarians, ensured that Anglo-Norman conduct towards the Welsh and Irish was marked by a ruthlessness and cruelty rarely exhibited in theatres of war within England or France. Given the scope of the subject, what follows can only be a broad overview, but one which, however impressionistic, attempts to map a fundamental shift in the nature of behaviour in war.

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