”Taken into the king’s hands”: Prisoners of War and English Kings

By Peter Konieczny

Let us begin with a tale of two kings, both of whom were taken prisoner in battle. They were both Scottish kings, taken in attempts to invade England. While the accounts of their capture are interesting in themselves, this article is more interested in what happened after they were captured.

The first Scottish king to be captured was William the Lion, a young and brash ruler from the twelfth century. It was relatively early in his rule when he fought against King Henry II of England, as part of a coalition that included Henry’s eldest son and the French. In 1174 William led an army south into England and laid siege to Alnwick. However, an English force under one of Henry’s lieutenants was able to surprise the Scots, and in a reckless charge William was unhorsed and captured. When word reached Henry of this victory, the English king sent orders to his lieutenant for William to be sent to him, adding in threats of punishment if this was not carried out immediately. The Scottish king was ultimately transported to Normandy, and he would remain in captivity for several months before having to pay a large ransom and acknowledge Henry as his feudal superior to gain his release.


In 1346 another Scottish army invaded England, this time led by King David II. King Edward III had already left England for the Continent in order to fight the French as part of the Hundred Years’ War, so it might have seemed to David that northern England was a vulnerable target. However, an English force met him at the Battle of Neville’s Cross, and the Scots were routed. King David, having been badly wounded by two arrow shots to his face, tried to retreat, but he was pursued. John de Coupland, a squire from Northumberland, was able to find David as he hid underneath a bridge. They had a fight and David managed to knock out two of Coupland’s teeth. In the end, the squire captured the king.

Queen Philippa was not too far away from the battle, and when she heard that the Scottish king had been captured, she ordered Coupland to bring the captive to her. The squire refused – instead he had David locked away in a castle and then travelled himself, first to Dover, then across the sea to Calais, where he met with Edward III. He was able to negotiate a deal with the English king in which he received a new title, a payment of £500 a year for the rest of his life for the prisoner, and another £100 annually so he could serve the king with 20 men-at-arms. Only then did Coupland, now an extremely rich man, return back to England and hand over David to his queen.


What is so odd about these cases is that one would probably think that they should not have happened in that order. The English monarchy of the fourteenth century was much stronger than its twelfth-century counterpart. Yet we have a situation where Henry II demanded (and got) an important captive delivered to him immediately, while Edward III had to make a deal with a low-ranking nobleman to get his man.

To better understand what was happening we need to explore the role of English kings in the treatment of prisoners of war, in particular the Anglo-Norman and Angevin rulers from William I to Henry III. It reveals that these kings had quite a lot of power over any captives, but they also had a lot of responsibility to help their own soldiers if they had been taken prisoner.

Handing over to the king

In short, the rule was that any enemy soldier that was captured during wartime was supposed to be handed over to the king. This would be more than just the high-ranking captives, for chroniclers speak of how even the lowliest crossbowmen would become the king’s prisoners – and often these would be in quite large numbers. This can be seen at the Battle of Tinchebray, in 1106, where Henry I defeated and captured his brother Robert Curthose. In a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury following the victory, the English ruler explained that all the prisoners were delivered into his hands, numbering them at 400 knights and 1,000 footmen. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis added that Henry’s only trouble in getting these captives came not from his own men, but from his Breton allies, who were unwilling to surrender Count William of Mortain, but eventually they did concede the prisoner to the king.

Henry II’s war with his sons, the French, and the Scots, in 1173 and 1174, also saw the English monarch gaining huge numbers of prisoners. Among Henry’s triumphs was the capture of Dol-de-Bretagne, which brought with it 81 important captives. Robert of Torigni notes that “the king distributed them among his castles, where they were committed to prison, but some of them he kept near to himself.” When the war was finished, Henry had netted over a thousand prisoners of war.


Of course, some captives could figure out ways to get themselves released before they were delivered to the king. Bribing their initial captors was always an option, but other methods could be used as well. In 1138, fighting around the city of Bath led to the capture of a prominent soldier named Geoffrey Talbot. But soon after he was imprisoned, Geoffrey’s kinsmen managed to seize the Bishop of Bath and forced him to release Geoffrey in exchange for his own freedom. When King Stephen arrived in Bath to take custody of the prisoner, he was outraged to learn that Geoffrey got away, and even threatened to strip the bishop of his office. The king was eventually mollified when he learned the bishop’s life was in danger, and as Stephen’s biographer wrote in the Gesta Stephani, “there is no obligation on him… to give his own life in exchange for another’s.”

In another dramatic episode, William of Grandcourt was fighting on the side of Henry I at the Battle of Bourgthéroulde in 1124, where he captured the Count of Evreux. William knew that the count would suffer a long imprisonment or worse fate if he was turned over to the English king. Therefore, in the words of the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, “out of human compassion [he] took pity on a man of such great valour” and released him. Moreover, to avoid the punishment he would have received from King Henry, William also decided to accompany the count into exile in France.

Deciding your fate

Once the prisoners were delivered to the king, we can see what rules the rulers had to follow in treating them. One might expect that the dictates of chivalry would make sure that prisoners of war were to be well treated while in captivity and could pay a ransom to arrange for their release. This was not the reality between the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, for English kings were free to impose very harsh punishments on their prisoners. They could face exile, mutilation, imprisonment for life, or even death, although these sterner punishments were usually only reserved for those who rebelled against the monarchy. These punishments were also far more common during the reigns of William the Conqueror and his two sons than they were with later kings. William I would often remove the hands or eyes of captured rebels, while his son William Rufus had William of Eu blinded and castrated for his disloyalty, and Eu’s steward was hanged as well. Orderic Vitalis wrote that the prisoners of Henry I often “died in his fetters, and could neither gain release through kinship or noble birth, nor ransom themselves with money.”

A group of knights leads a prisoner on foot in this page from an early twelfth-century edition of Pruden- tius’s Conflict Of The Soul, which was probably created in St. Albans – British Library, BL Cotton MS Titus D XVI fol. 02v

While it would be very rare for a king to actually execute a high-ranking nobleman, the chronicles from this period do record several instances where less valuable captives would be executed. One story about Richard I has him learning that one of his Welsh contingents had been destroyed in France and responding by ordering three French captives thrown off a cliff, and then blinding fifteen others. The French king Philip Augustus reciprocated with some of his English captives. Later on, in the year 1224, Henry III fought a bitter siege against the castle of Bedford. When the garrison surrendered, the king had most of these men hanged.

Why did these monarchs believe that they had the power to impose such harsh punishments, and why were medieval chroniclers, who usually detested such practices when done by counts or knights, willing to accept it when kings did them? The answer lies with medieval notions of royal justice, where a king had a sacred duty to enforce peace and curb violence by any means necessary. Furthermore, severe punishments would also be seen as a deterrent, done to prevent others from even entertaining rebellious thoughts.

A good illustration of this notion comes after the Battle of Bourgthéroulde, where Henry I decided to blind three of the important men captured in the fight. Charles the Good, Count of Flanders, was with Henry when he made these judgements, and he objected to the king, believing that it was wrong to punish knights in this fashion. The English king replied that two of these prisoners were his liegemen and that they had betrayed him by going to war against him, therefore deserving a punishment of mutilation. As for the third captive, Luke of La Barre, he had previously mocked Henry with scurrilous songs, and by blinding this man, he would force him to give up this practice and serve as an example for others who might think to ridicule a king.

Those kings who did not impose harsh punishments could find themselves criticized by chroniclers, as happened to King Stephen. After he captured a castle of rebellious troops in the early part of his reign, Henry of Huntingdon remarked that the king “did not execute punishment on those who had betrayed him. For if he had done so at that time, there would not have been so many castles held against him later.”


There were more practical reasons for kings to impose severe punishments. In times of war, the threat of death or torture towards an important prisoner could be used to make other gains. One typical practice was for a monarch to force a captive nobleman to surrender his castles to the king. Often the prisoner would be brought to just outside a castle, where he would be tortured or prepared for execution unless the garrison surrendered. King Stephen was perhaps the most notorious practitioner of this method, but William Rufus and John were both able to gain the surrender of key castles by threatening to kill or mutilate their captive owners.

Although monarchs could impose harsh punishments on these prisoners, in many cases they were also willing to act in a more magnanimous fashion. Henry I, for example, showed leniency towards Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, who was also captured at Bourgthéroulde: he was kept imprisoned for five years, but after he was released the king also restored to him much of his land and power. Waleran, in fact, would go on to become an important part of Henry’s royal household and was said to have become a good friend of the king.

Kindness was sometimes extended to less important prisoners as well. In 1097 William Rufus arrived at a castle where a large number of prisoners of war were being held. As they heard William approaching, the captives shouted out for the king to help them. William did just that, not only releasing them from their cells, but also giving them a good meal and allowing the captives to walk where they pleased inside the castle. When some of William’s followers objected to this leniency, pointing out that a prisoner might easily escape this way, the king rebuked them for their severity.

Imprisoned by the king

Once an English monarch had the prisoners and had decided to hold them in captivity, he was faced with the problem of where to keep them. As seen before, the king might have hundreds of prisoners of war in his custody at any one time, and they all needed to be accommodated. Government records reveal that prisoners were usually split up into small groups and sent to various places throughout the kingdom, where they would be in the custody of lords and nobles. This can be considered as another feudal service that vassals owed to their English rulers: they were expected to care for and guard prisoners of war, as well as hostages and other captives.

A good example of this movement of prisoners of war can be seen in the Pipe Rolls following King John’s victory at Mirebeau in 1202. While the king took his defeated nephew Arthur to Falaise in Normandy, many of the other prisoners were shipped across the English Channel to Portsmouth. From there, the records show that the captives were sent to various places in England, including London, York, Lancaster, Corfe, Wallingford, Sherburn, Nottingham, Doncaster, and Newcastle. It would be preferable for the king not to have too many prisoners kept in any one place, since problems could arise, such as at Corfe, where the Mirebeau captives overpowered their guards and took control of the castle for a brief period of time.

Matthew Paris depicts the prisoners hanged by Henry III after the Siege of Bedford Castle in 1224 – Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 016II fol. 64r

Those who had to take care of and guard these prisoners could expect at least some compensation from the king. Hubert de Burgh received £4 from John for having to handle several Mirebeau prisoners. Government documents also show that many payments were made for transporting captives from place to place, and even for the costs of iron chains.

One might suspect that these guards could get somewhat careless in their duties, or were tempted by bribes, which allowed for prisoners to escape. English monarchs were not pleased to lose their prisoners if this happened, and they exacted harsh punishments on negligent jailors. The huge debt of £2,200 owed by William de Mandeville to Henry I in 1101 was probably due to when William was in command of the Tower of London and allowed one of his important captives to slide down a rope from a tower window and escape.

Another irresponsible jailor was Robert de Ros. In 1196 he had one of his charges, an important French prisoner, escape, leading to Richard I fining him £800. The sergeant that Robert had watching the prisoner, and who may have been complicit in the escape, was executed. Robert apparently did not learn his lesson, however, since eleven years later he was punished with a £200 fine for losing more captives.

The king helps his men

If these English kings had such strong rights to take prisoners of war for themselves, what kind of trade-off was there for the rest of the army, the people who did the actual capturing? It was the knowledge that these kings also had a responsibility to make sure their own men would be freed if captured, either through prisoner exchanges or by paying for their ransoms.

It was not just that kings had a duty to their men to help free them from captivity. These were the same nobles and knights that they needed to fight their wars, so it was often imperative that kings made sure they would be quickly freed from enemy prisons. Moreover, knowing that their king would come to their aid was a good way of ensuring their continued loyalty. When Prince Louis of France invaded England in 1216, the government of Henry III sent a letter to a castle garrison holding out against the French, encouraging them not to give up and promising them that any reasonable ransom would be paid if they were forced to capitulate.

Those kings who did not live up this standard could quickly lose the support of their followers. For example, when one of King Stephen’s counts switched sides to support the Angevins, he did so because, according to Orderic Vitalis, “he had recently had cause to be angry with the king, because he had sought his help over the release of his nephew and got no satisfaction through him.”

There are several recorded instances of prisoner exchanges taking place, either as part of a truce or through a peace agreement. The first known exchange took place in 1098 between William Rufus and the Count of Anjou, where both sides released their prisoners. In 1120 Henry I and French king Louis VI set free all their captive knights. The war between Henry II and his sons ended in 1175 with a prisoner exchange that involved more than 1,000 captives. Richard I and another French monarch, Philip Augustus, included prisoner exchanges during truces on two occasions, the first in 1194 and then again in 1197. Finally, when the regents for Henry III made peace with the French prince Louis after the battles of Lincoln and Sandwich in 1215, the agreement included a clause for all prisoners to be released, including those taken at the two battles.

These prisoner exchanges not only involved the captives held by the kings themselves, but even those held by their supporters. Understandably, some nobles did not want to go along with these deals if they held their own valuable prisoners, and they could often get their own way if the monarchy was not strong. The negotiations for a prisoner exchange between the forces of King Stephen and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, were scuttled by Stephen’s followers, because, according to William of Malmesbury, they did not want to give up their own captives and suffer “any loss of money to themselves.”

Even after an agreement was made, it might be difficult for English kings to have their vassals comply with the terms. When Prince Louis reached the French throne as Louis VIII in 1223, he was still complaining that many of his own men who were supposed to have been freed years earlier were still being kept in English dungeons until they paid a heavy ransom. Records from Henry III’s government reveal that they were sending out letters to the English nobility, demanding the release of French prisoners, but getting mixed results.

The other method used by kings to free their own followers was to pay for ransoms. Some chroniclers recorded this practice, such as when Roger of Wendover reported that Richard I paid over £2,000 in 1196 to free the garrison of a castle that had surrendered to the French. Stronger evidence that this was happening can be seen in the government documents found in the reigns of John and Henry III. Money was given out by these kings, ranging from large payments such £1,000 each for the ransoms of Roger de Lacy and the son of William Briewerre, to smaller amounts including 100 shillings paid to the wife of John de Talemund, so that she could free her husband from the French. These payments sometimes came in the form of a loan, but they would usually have these debts soon pardoned by the Crown.

A new way of doing things

If we move forward to the reign of Edward III (1327-77), when England was again at war with Scotland and France, we see something very different when it comes to the treatment of prisoners of war. There are no more reports of huge numbers of captives being handed to these kings, or of Edward inflicting executions or other brutal punishments on them. We do see him making deals with his soldiers where they would be paid handsomely in exchange for turning over an important captive. As for the vast bulk of men captured in warfare, it seems as if they would belong to the men who took them, and they would have had to pay ransoms to these captors for their freedom.

Meanwhile, despite their being many more surviving governmental records from the fourteenth century than we see in previous times, there is hardly any mention of English kings helping their soldiers when they were taken prisoner. No exchanges were arranged, nor was any money sent to pay for ransoms. An English soldier who happened to be captured in France or Scotland was largely on his own.

Why this change? A likely reason was that around the reign of Edward I armies grew significantly in size, from hundreds to tens of thousands. Many of these troops had little personal loyalty to the king and were taking part in campaigns for money. They were also largely expendable, as a longbowman or even a knight could be much more easily replaced than his twelfth-century counterpart.

For Edward III and other English kings of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there would have been little incentive to hold anyone but the most important captives. It would be a relief for them not to worry about the fate of their own men, or to have to put their considerations into play when negotiating peace agreements and truces.

As for the men who fought under the English king, there was risk and reward in this new system. If they were successful in their battles and sieges – and this was more likely than not for England in the fourteenth century – they could profit quite well by taking their own captives. Some men, like John de Coupland, became incredibly wealthy by capturing the right opponent. Meanwhile, others would see their fortunes ruined if they fell into an enemy’s hands, and they could spend years in prison before they or their families could raise the money to ransom themselves.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries would also see writers and soldiers addressing the topic of prisoners of war and their treatment, much of which advocated fair rules on how this was to be done. This was a huge change, for only a few generations earlier the treatment of these captives was largely determined by the king and his whims.

Peter Konieczny is Editor of

Further Readings:


Rémy Ambühl, Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War: Ransom Culture in the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Andy King, “‘Then a great misfortune befell them’: the laws of war on surrender and the killing of prisoners on the battlefield in the Hundred Years War,” Journal of Medieval History, 43.1 (2017), 106-117

Matthew Strickland, War and Chivalry: The Conduct and Perception of War in England and Normandy, 1066– 1217 (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

This article was first published in Medieval Warfare magazine. Click here to buy the issue.