The imposition of ransom….



Brest Castle, from Wikipedia

My latest target for research is the English garrison/bastion of Brest, on the coast of Brittany, specifically the final years of the 14th century before it was handed back to the Bretons. My interest had been aroused when reading Ducal Brittany 1364-1399, by Michael Jones.

In it I learned of the practice of “ransoming” Breton villages within a 25-mile radius of Brest. This was to support the garrison and its upkeep but was obviously very unpopular with the Bretons because they found themselves being fleeced under duress. However, it wasn’t entirely money-grabbing on the part of the English captains, because in the absence of much financial support from the English government, they had to support their garrison as best they could.

Siege of Brest, 1386

Not that I’m saying some more unscrupulous captains and their officials didn’t make fortunes from it all, because some certainly did. According to this very informative site  “….Some captains took proportions of the loot gathered in addition to indentures making them fantastically wealthy: Donnington Castle in Berkshire was paid for almost entirely from Sir Richard Abberbury’s proceeds from his joint command at Brest….”

Donnington Castle by Turner. From

Another who screwed all he could from the system was Sir William Windsor, who married Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III. As Deputy of Ireland (King’s Lieutenant of Ireland) he also twisted the Irish all he could and was loathed there. His activities at Brest were equally unpopular. I think if there was one thing Sir William knew how to do, it was extort money. If everything that’s said of Alice Perrers is true, he and she deserved each other.

William of Windsor on the Waterford Charter Roll
in the Waterford Museum of Treasures, City of Waterford, Ireland

While embarking on my usual Google searches, the first site I came upon was this with its picture of Robert Hardy and Judi Dench in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Judi Dench and Robert Hardy in Henry V

Why Henry V? Well, although I’m interested in Brest in the late 14th century, the practice of ransom was still widespread in his reign. We mainly connect ransoming with the capture of enemy nobles and soldiers by one side and then selling them back for hefty sums. But it was also used to extort money from those unfortunate enough to reside within that all-important 25-mile radius of bastions like Brest.

Now a friend has pointed me toward this book by Dr Rémy Ambühl, which is packed with details of ransoming. The book is indeed a mine of information, but not for my purposes because it concentrates on two periods, the 1370s and then the 15th century, neatly passing over my years of interest at Brest.


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