Ransom - Encyclopedia

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RANSOM (from Lat. redemptio, through Fr. rancon), the price for which a captive in war redeemed his life or his freedom, a town secured immunity from sack, and a ship was repurchased from her captors. The practice of taking ransom arose in the middle ages, and had perhaps a connexion with the common Teutonic custom of commuting for crimes by money payments. It may, however, have no such historic descent. The desire to make profit out of the risks of battle, even when they were notably diminished by the use of armour, would account for it sufficiently. The right to ransom was recognized by law. One of the obligations of a feudal tenant was to contribute towards paying the ransom of his lord. England was taxed for the ransom of Richard the Lion Hearted, France for King John taken at Poitiers, and Scotland for King David when he was captured at Durham. The prospect of gaining the ransom of a prisoner must have tended to diminish the ferocity of medieval war, even when it did not reduce the fighting between the knights to a form of athletic sport in which the loser paid a forfeit. Readers of Froissart will find frequent mention of this decidedly commercial aspect of the chivalrous wars of the time. He often records how victors and vanquished arranged their "financing." The mercenary views of the military adventuers were not disguised. Froissart repeats the story that the English "free companions" or mercenaries, who sold their services to the king of Portugal, grumbled at the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, because he ordered their prisoners to be killed, and would not pursue the defeated French and Spaniards, whereby they lost lucrative captures. The ransom of a king belonged to the king of the enemy by whom he was taken. The actual captor was rewarded at the pleasure of his lord. King Edward III. paid over instalments of the ransom of the king of France to the Black Prince, to pay the expenses of his expedition into Spain in 1367. Occasionally, as in the notable case of Bertrand du Guesclin, the ransom of a valuable knight or leader would be paid by his own sovereign. To trade in ransoms became a form of financial speculation. Sir John Fastolf in the time of King Henry V. is said to have made a large fortune by buying prisoners, and then screwing heavy ransoms out of them by ill-usage. The humane influence of ransom was of course confined to the knights who could pay. The common men, who were too poor, were massacred. Thus Lord Grey, Queen Elizabeth's lord deputy in Ireland, spared the officers of the Spaniards and Italians he took at Smerwick, but slaughtered the common men. Among the professional soldiers of Italy in the 15th century the hope of gaining ransom tended to reduce war to a farce. They would not lose their profits by killing their opponents. The disuse of the practice was no doubt largely due to the discovery that men who were serving for this form of gain could not be trusted to fight seriously.

Instances in which towns paid to avoid being plundered are innumerable. So late as the war in the Peninsula, 1808-14, it was the belief of the English soldiers that a town taken by storm was liable to sack for three days, and they acted on their conviction at Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian. It was a question whether ransoms paid by merchant ships to escape were or were not among the commercia belli. In the early 18th century the custom was that the captain of a captured vessel gave a bond or "ransom bill," leaving one of his crew as hostage or "ransomer" in the hands of the captor. Frequent mention is made of the taking of French privateers which had in them ten or a dozen ransomers. The owner could be sued on his bond. At the beginning of the Seven Years' War ransoming was forbidden by act of parliament. But it was afterwards at least partially recognized by Great Britain, and was generally allowed by other nations. In recent times - for instance in the Russo-Japanese War - no mention was made of ransom, and with the disappearance of privateering, which was conducted wholly for gain, it has ceased to have any place in war at sea, but the contributions levied by invading armies might still be accurately described by the name.

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