The Magna Carta Project

Original Latin


Omnes obsides et cartas statim reddemus quae liberatae fuerunt nobis ab Anglicis in securitatem pacis vel fidelis servitii.


We will immediately surrender all hostages and charters which have been handed over to us by Englishmen as security for peace or loyal service.

Commentary for general audience

The giving and taking of hostages – living pledges that the person giving them would fulfil obligations towards, or refrain from hostile acts against, whoever received them – was generally regarded as an acceptable practice on the part of European rulers in the years around 1200. Richard I had had to find a total of sixty-seven hostages for the payment of his ransom in 1194. Clause 49 did not forbid King John to take hostages in future, but in its wording it pin-pointed what was most objectionable in his exploitation of them, that he took hostages and also charters – written documents promising faithful service on pain of perpetual forfeiture of lands – from his own subjects, and did so in large numbers. That he did so reflected his own suspicious personality, and his inability to govern except through threats and fear. He took hostages at all times in his reign, sometimes holding them for several years, when they might be detained in castles, monasteries and towns, or even in the keeping of the queen. Contemporary law distinguished hostages from prisoners, but both might be kept in chains, while hostages lived under threat to life and limb. This especially applied to those from countries outside England’s borders – John notoriously had some thirty Welsh hostages hanged in 1212. That year’s conspiracy against the king’s life led to a quantum leap in hostage-taking, creating whole networks of intimidation which extended throughout the kingdom – a development which explains the inclusion of Clause 49 in Magna Carta. Some hostages were then released, but the outbreak of civil war later in 1215 saw John revert to his previous practices, and rebels who surrendered in the last months of the reign were regularly required to pay a fine and give hostages, together with a charter pledging future loyalty. Such constraints were still needed by the minority government at the start of Henry III’s reign, but were soon dispensed with, and were very seldom revived thereafter.

Commentary for secondary school students

At the time of Magna Carta taking hostages – living guarantees for the fulfilment of obligations – was widely regarded as an acceptable practice on the part of European rulers. Archbishop Stephen Langton himself declared that a king was entitled to take them from potential rebels, preferably their sons. Henry II and Richard I both took hostages when occasion demanded, and also sometimes gave them – in 1194 Richard was obliged to give a total of sixty-seven hostages when he negotiated his ransom and release from captivity. But John not only took hostages throughout his reign but did so in unprecedented numbers. His inability to trust his own subjects meant that he mostly took them as guarantees of loyalty, but they might also be given as security for the payment of debts. Many were children, with sons being preferred to daughters, while legitimate birth was often also required – the hostage had to be someone who mattered to the giver. Contemporary law distinguished hostages from prisoners, but both might be held in chains, from which release could be granted as a favour. Some hostages were maintained at the expense of the king, others at that of those who gave them, while one group of Welsh hostages may have lived by begging. They were often held in castles, but some were placed in monasteries (like the daughter of the piratical Eustace the Monk, who was entrusted to the nuns of Wilton Abbey), or handed over to towns, while the children of magnates might be kept at court.

Hostages stood in imminent danger if the person who gave them reneged on his or her obligations. The developing code of chivalric conduct conveyed doubts about the rightfulness of hostage-taking – William Marshal, who had himself come close to death as a hostage in Stephen’s reign, once pronounced it a shameful practice – but such reservations meant nothing to King John, or to any English lord who had dealings with the Scots, Irish and Welsh. In 1212 John notoriously had some thirty Welsh hostages hanged at Nottingham, while immediately afterwards the discovery of a conspiracy against his life led to a large-scale campaign of repression in which the taking of English hostages featured prominently. Many were taken from members of the nobility, but the king’s efforts to impose loyalty ramified far beyond their ranks, sometimes to whole communities (the men of the Channel Islands gave hostages, as did the townsmen of Dunwich), but more often to individual landowners. A number of the tenants in Essex of Robert FitzWalter, one of the foremost conspirators in 1212, were obliged to give hostages, who were then entrusted to neighbouring landowners who themselves had to give charters to the king in which each offered himself and his land as a guarantee of the hostage-giver’s faithful service in future. The keepers of hostages thus became effectively hostages themselves.

Such charters were increasingly used as an alternative, or supplement, to hostages, becoming increasingly stereotyped pledges of loyalty, on pain of perpetual forfeiture of lands. Clause 49 thus struck at practices which had become central to John’s style of government. Some hostages were released in the weeks immediately after Runnymede, though not all were, and when civil war broke out later in 1215 the king took them as whole-heartedly as before. Rebels coerced back into their allegiance were routinely required to give a fine, hostages and a charter. In the very early years of the following reign the minority government found that it could not dispense with such useful methods of enforcing obedience, but with the return of peace they were increasingly dispensed with. Clause 49 had not forbidden hostage-taking as such, but later governments found other ways of maintaining control over their subjects.

Commentary for academic researchers

 Context and objectives

 1: The scope of the clause

Clause 49 was based on Article 38 among the Articles of the Barons, and made the same basic point concerning the release of hostages, but with some significant alterations. Its beneficiaries were to be English, no doubt because provision was made in Clauses 58 and 59 for the surrender of Welsh and Scottish hostages (any hostages John may have had from France or the Low Countries would have been regarded as outside the Charter’s remit, while Ireland only came within it after the reissue of Magna Carta in November 1216). The Clause also prescribed greater urgency than the Article, in demanding the immediate surrender of hostages and charters, and was more exact, and also limited, in identifying the relevant charters as ones made specifically as guarantees of peace and loyalty – since such documents were also drawn up for other purposes, notably to ensure repayments of debts, the greater precision may have represented a modest gain for the king. Neither the Article nor the Clause made any attempt to forbid the taking of hostages and charters in the future. Clause 48, demanding the abolition of evil customs connected with the royal forests, laid down that they were never to be resuscitated (nunquam revocentur), but there was nothing to that effect in Clause 49. This may show that the barons accepted that there could be circumstances when hostage-taking was, or at any rate might be, an acceptable practice on the part of the king, and, indeed, of others. Clause 49, however, applied to the king alone; it did not order the release of hostages taken by anyone else, although for a great baron like William Marshal the taking of hostages clearly represented one of the ways in which he might enforce his will,1 and might also be a means of bringing negotiations to completion in much less elevated circles.

It should be said that the term `hostage’ was potentially one of wide application, and that the extent of the coercion implicit in it could vary considerably. In May 1207 the sheriff of Devon was instructed to order Hervey de Heliun to pay William the cook, through William’s nephew Alan of Rising, the ransom he owed him for his daughter, whom William was holding hostage, and if he failed to do so then the sheriff was to put Alan, again acting on William’s behalf, in possession of Hervey’s Devonshire lands. Hervey failed to respond and was therefore disseised, but probably then paid the ransom, because on 7 July the sheriff was commanded to put him back in possession of his lands, while safeguarding the interests of Alan of Rising (now described as William’s servant) arising from the agreement which Hervey had made with him, `for giving him his land with his daughter whom he gives to him in marriage.’ It would appear from these two orders that William and Alan had negotiated the latter’s marriage to Hervey’s daughter, on terms which included a payment to them (the `ransom’ referred to – most likely the marriage portion, or part of it), for which the daughter was placed in their keeping as a hostage. Hervey had had to be compelled to pay up, but the marriage was still expected to take place.2 There is no record of any payment to the king for exercising his power on behalf of William and Alan (which need not mean, of course, that none was made), rather the details of the case suggest that he was acting in a routine manner to enforce a no less routine agreement between some of his free subjects, one in which the giving of a hostage (who in this case seems to have been merely entrusted to the keeping of a marriage-broker) was an unexceptionable constituent.

Arrangements like those made for the marriage of Hervey de Heliun’s daughter were manifestly not what Clause 49 was concerned with. Rather it focused upon an issue of immediate urgency to the barons, reflecting above all their determination to strike from King John’s hand one of the principal weapons in his armoury of intimidation and control, one which he had wielded principally against themselves. Hostages were essentially living guarantees for the performance of obligations towards, or for the non-performance of acts detrimental to, the person to whom the hostages were given.3 In contemporary law and custom they were not prisoners, and the distinction was upheld in commands like the one which the king sent to Robert de Vieuxpont on 18 March 1213, that he should hand Salisbury Castle over to Ernulf of Auckland, `with the prisoners and hostages who are in it ...’.4 In reality, however, the difference between the two conditions must often have been small, and was indeed sometimes elided, to the extent that when in July 1215 orders were issued for their English warders to transfer a number of Irish hostages into the keeping of others, the king’s directives were entered on the patent roll with the annotation `Deliberacio prisonum’.5  Hostages might even be fettered, to be freed from their chains only when order was given to that effect (this may explain why only one instance has been noticed of a hostage escaping from his confinement – a Welshman named Owen, who was recorded as fleeing from Berkhampstead Castle in 1172).6 Thus the Poitevin nobleman Savaric de Mauléon, captured at Mirebeau in 1202, subsequently became King John’s liegeman, and in 1205 gave hostages for his loyalty, including his nephew Hugh of Germany, who was at first in the custody of the king’s chamberlain Warin FitzGerold.7 In May 1206, however, Hugh was transferred to the keeping of William de Ferrers, earl of Derby, with instructions that he was to be guarded `without irons’, as he presumably was, most conscientiously, for he was only released from William’s keeping eight years later.8


2: Precedents and practices

The practice of taking hostages was widespread in medieval Europe, not least as a means of guaranteeing the observance of international treaties. Thus Malcolm IV, king of Scots, underlined his submission to Henry II when in 1163 he not only did homage to the English king at Woodstock but also surrendered a number of hostages, headed by his owns youngest brother, David.9 Twelve years later the terms of the treaty of Falaise, which concluded the Anglo-Scottish hostilities of 1173/4, included a further hand-over of Scottish hostages, again led by David, together with a further twenty nobles, four of them earls, who were all to be released when they had handed over their heirs in their stead (there is no evidence that King Henry insisted on the observance of this part of the treaty).10 When Richard I negotiated his release from German captivity in 1193, his ransom was set at 150,000 marks, of which 100,000 were to be paid before the king’s release; for the rest, 30,000 marks were to be paid to the emperor, who was to receive sixty hostages as sureties for payment, and 20,000 to the duke of Austria, to whom seven hostages were to be handed over.11 When King John entered into an alliance with Renaud de Dammartin, count of Boulogne, in 1212, the count undertook to surrender hostages who were to include his own wife as well as ten of the children of his leading followers; for his part, John agreed (unusually) that if Renaud gave faithful service for a full four years, then the hostages would be returned to him.12 Philip Augustus refused to allow his son to accept the offer of the English throne in 1216 until the rebellious barons provided him with the twenty-four noble hostages he demanded (they were placed in safe custody at Compiègne).13

For a king to take hostages from his own subjects was not unknown but seems usually to have been confined to exceptional circumstances. The aftermath of the great revolt of 1173/4 against Henry II was probably one such; according to Ralph de Diceto, the king was left in possession of 969 knightly prisoners, but he did not exact ransoms from them, preferring instead to release them after either taking hostages or binding them to obedience by oath (fidei sponsione).14 On the whole, however, King Henry does not seem to have taken hostages in England as he did from the countries around, and it is noteworthy that doing so was practically the only misdeed not to be laid to his charge in Ralph Niger’s extended diatribe against him.15 Richard I’s reign saw hostages being taken on a number of occasions, especially in its early years, when the justiciar William de Longchamp reinforced his authority by taking hostages from potential trouble-makers, notably Count John, the king’s brother,16 and Hugh du Puiset, bishop of Durham,17 and also from the men of Lincoln, Stamford and York, all towns where there were outbreaks of violent anti-Jewish rioting in 1190.18 One of the consequences of Longchamp’s ruin late in 1191 was that his own brother, Henry de Longchamp, was taken as a hostage for the fallen minister’s surrender of castles and held for a long time at Cardiff, in prison and in chains, to Gerald of Wales’s intense satisfaction.19 But William’s response to urban violence, at least, was later matched by that of his successor as justiciar, Hubert Walter, who in 1196 forcibly suppressed disorders in London by hanging its leader, William FitzOsbert, and made sure of peace thereafter by taking hostages from a number of the `middling sort’ of citizens and placing them in castles around the country.20

When John came to the throne in 1199, he thus had a variety of precedents for the taking of hostages by the king or his ministers; indeed, he himself had been constrained in this way. Hostages were not, of course, the only method whereby a ruler could enforce the obedience or loyalty of his subjects. Charters are discussed below. Much more commonly used than either hostages or charters were financial pledges – it was conventional practice throughout the reign for crown debtors to find sureties (sometimes in large numbers) who could guarantee the payment of the money owed, while in the second half of John’s reign, in particular, they might have to offer their lands and chattels as pledges as well.21 The dividing line between pledges and hostages could be narrow, however, as can be seen in transactions recorded in 1213, in which Mabel de Clere, successively the widow of the Yorkshire landowner Ralph de Clere and the Northumberland baron Robert Bertram, proffered 500 marks (£333. 6s. 8d.) for the wardship of her son Richard Bertram, and for the dower to which she was entitled from her first marriage. The only pledges she could find were two members of her own family, a younger son and a daughter, and these were inadequate as guarantors, so the sheriff of Northumberland was ordered to take them as hostages instead, to ensure that Mabel paid her fine within the next three years.22


3: Setting the tone: hostage-taking in John’s early reign, 1199-1204

Such a case points to a readiness to cross the line separating pledges from hostages (if, indeed, it was perceived as such), and also to take hostages generally, which was to become typical of John’s style of government. He took hostages from the beginning of his reign, and eventually did so on a scale which, even when allowances have been made for the more plentiful evidence supplied by much fuller records, appears to have been without precedent. The need to establish his regime against the background of outbreaks of disorder and a potentially contested succession perhaps helps to explain why in May 1199, within weeks, or even days, of his accession he should have entrusted Pontefract Castle to Roger de Lacy only after taking Roger’s son and heir as a hostage23 (though it is hard to see what grounds he can have had for distrusting Roger, who later conducted a heroic defence of Château Gaillard on John’s behalf). But John’s response to opposition to his 1201 overseas campaign shows that he had begun as he meant to continue, for he demanded that the recalcitrant barons surrender their castles to him, and started with William d’Aubigné’s castle of Belvoir, only giving it back when he had received William’s son as a hostage.24

John’s own personality seems inseparable from such measures. It may be going too far to talk of paranoia, but John’s fear of treachery, noted by Gervase of Canterbury and Ralph of Coggeshall in their accounts of events early in his reign,25 and his attempts to counter it through methods which must often have increased the danger of betrayal, certainly began to characterise his rule from an early stage. Although he had soon displayed his inability to trust his own subjects in England, this aspect of his style of government (`he always feared betrayal by his own men’, in Coggeshall’s words) was at first particularly apparent in Normandy, where his readiness to suspect the trustworthiness of even his greatest subjects is vividly shown by his conduct in April 1203, at a time when the strength of his hold on the duchy, undermined by rumours of the fate of Arthur of Brittany, was coming to seem doubtful. Rumours that the Ranulf, earl of Chester, Fulk Paynel and others were thinking of withdrawing from his allegiance had come to the king’s ears. Ranulf and Fulk at once presented themselves before John at Vire Castle, and succeeded in allaying John’s fears, but Ranulf still had to offer the constable of Normandy, William du Hommet, as a pledge for his loyalty, to which his own lordship over Roger de Lacy, constable of Chester, was added as a further hostage-like security (liberavit ... in obsidem), so that Roger and the entire fief which he held from the earl would pass into the king’s immediate lordship if Ranulf deserted John. Fulk Paynel (who surrendered his son) and four other Norman lords also gave hostages to the king26 – to no avail, as it turned out, since before long all the suspects except Ranulf switched their allegiance to Philip Augustus.

Such methods proved readily transferable to England, as John’s action against William d’Aubigné (and no doubt others) had already shown. He had seized Belvoir Castle and taken a hostage before returning it to its lord. In 1205, at a time of serious tension in the north of England, the Lancastrian baron Roger de Montbegun had to give four hostages before he could be permitted to hold his own castle of Hornby.27 But John took similar precautions when the castles were his own, and the men placed in charge of them appointed by himself. When in 1203 William of Huntingfield was given custody of Dover Castle (probably under Hubert de Burgh), he was obliged to surrender a son and a daughter as hostages, to be detained until he was relieved of his charge.28 Dover was arguably the most important castle in England, and Corfe Castle, Dorset, probably held from around the same time by William de Blundeville, who also had to give a hostage before he took up office as constable,29 was of similar consequence, but no such claims can be made for Whitwick, Leicestershire, where a modest castle (also described as `a house’) came into the king’s hands following the death of Earl Robert of Leicester in October 1204 – when on 10 December following it was entrusted to William de Seneville, he, too, was required to give hostages (his two sons) before assuming responsibility for it.30 For anyone who failed to provide a hostage as demanded, or as pledged, the king’s response was at all times likely to be stern: in March 1205 the sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire was ordered to take into the king’s hand all the land, and chattels, of Henry de la Pomeroy in his bailiwick, `as he did not surrender his son as a hostage as he promised.’31

It should be kept in mind, however, that hostages were not taken only as an extension of measures intended to enforce political or administrative reliability. In particular they might also be demanded either as additional assurances for the payment of large debts or as guarantees that pledges would be found for their payment. Between 1200 and 1203 the king paid for the maintenance of hostages given by the Devon landowner Hugh de Courtenay for the payment of a debt of 2000 marks (£1333. 6s. 8d.), probably owed for a share of the barony of Bradninch.32 Guy de Vo, who owed large sums from the time he held the royal exchange under Richard I, in 1205 gave his two sons as hostages for his payment of 700 marks (£466. 13s. 4d.), though in the end most of his debt seems to have been written off.33 The king’s henchman Robert de Vieuxpont was appointed to receive the money from Guy. When in 1208 Robert himself fell into disgrace and had to proffer 4000 marks to recover the king’s good will, he gave his nephew as a hostage for his paying this considerable sum (the king’s capricious favour soon pardoned three quarters of the debt, and the nephew was released in March 1209).34 Hugh de Hodingseles and his wife Basilia, who in 1213 agreed to pay the king 500 marks for half the Suffolk barony of Cavendish, had to hand over their two sons as hostages for their finding pledges for paying the money, and also for their clearing their debt within three years.35 The effects in such cases were doubtless much the same as those felt by men and women obliged to give hostages for political or administrative reasons, but their purposes, as recorded, were not the same, and Clause 49 was probably not intended to apply to them.  


4: Spreading the net: hostage-taking 1204-1212

King John much more often had recourse to hostage-taking as a means of securing the loyalty of his subjects than of ensuring the payment of their debts, and in either case normally directed it against individuals. But it could also be used against whole communities. In 1208, according to Gervase of Canterbury, his suspicions fell upon the men of the Cinque Ports, with dire results for them – some were hanged, others killed by the sword, many imprisoned in chains, `and at length, having given hostages, they were grievously redeemed for money ...’ – the adverb is confirmed by their recorded fine of 1000 marks to have the king’s benevolence.36 In the same year, moreover, he was described by Roger of Wendover as spreading his net even wider, to target most of the great men of the realm. Fearing that the interdict laid upon England by Innocent III in March 1208 might be followed by harsher measures, including the release of the magnates from their allegiance to him, John sent armed bands to `all the men of power in the realm, and those whom he held in particular suspicion, demanding hostages from them ...’, his intention being to use them as a means to recall to his service any who looked like failing in obedience to himself. Most did as commanded, variously handing over their sons, nephews or near relations, but Matilda de Briouze refused, with dreadful consequences for herself and her family; her reported words, accusing the king of murdering his nephew Arthur, `whom he should have kept in honourable custody’, suggest something of the fears for the safety of hostages which John’s demands for their surrender could arouse.37

The disappearance of the chancery rolls from the years 1208/9-1212 has deprived us of information which might confirm the extent and impact of John’s hostage-taking in 1208. But the surviving sources do at least indicate that hostages continued to be taken, and in much the same way as before. The king himself acknowledged that despite Matilda de Briouze’s resistance, her husband did after all hand over three of his grandsons to him, together with the sons of four retainers (John appears to have taken the grandsons to France with him in 1214),38 while in 1210 Richard de Cumbe, a landowner in south-west England, proffered forty marks, two palfreys and a goshawk, and also undertook to give hostages, in return for being allowed to return to the king’s allegiance and to recover his land `of which he was disseised because he withdrew to William de Briouze in Ireland.’39  Walter de Turberville, a Wiltshire landowner who was charged with a forest offence, having previously fallen into the king’s mercy for apparently failing to produce a man in court, proffered 1000 marks in the same year for the king’s benevolence and to be quit of the charges against him. To guarantee payment of just half this sum he was to hand over his son and two stepsons as hostages, along with all his land, and if he did not meet the prescribed deadline for payment the hostages would face the consequences (incurrent), while the land would become the king’s.40 In the following year Earl Roger Bigod, having successfully proffered 2000 marks for a reduction in the military service he owed to the crown, gave five hostages both for paying his debt `and for his faithful service’.41

As such cases show, King John was prepared to take hostages from his English subjects, to enforce their loyalty or to ensure that they paid their debts, whenever it suited him to do so. Even so, up to this point in his reign it is probably true that it was his subjects in other lands who suffered most in this respect, that he was more likely to take hostages from Irish lords like John de Courcy or Walter de Lacy (William Marshal, who was compelled to give his two oldest sons into the king’s hands, probably comes as least partly into this category), or from a Poitevin magnate like Savaric de Mauléon, whose loyalty after he came into John’s allegiance was retained by no fewer than seventeen hostages, headed by his wife and mother; a list made in 1205 shows that they were placed in socially-distinguished hands but widely distributed geographically, so that while one stayed with the king, three were entrusted to the archbishop of Canterbury, one to the justiciar, one to the bishop of Chichester, and others to magnates and ministers like Roger Bigod, Aubrey de Vere, William de Ferrers, Warin FitzGerold and Simon of Kyme.42 And there they seem mostly to have stayed, for John kept them in his own, or his servants’ hands, until long after Savaric might have been thought to have proved his loyalty ‒ one of them was not handed back until March 1215.43 In 1208 it was the turn of the Welsh, when Gwenwynwyn of Powys was compelled to find twenty hostages for his doing faithful service `in perpetuity’, and given only eight days to produce the first twelve of them.44 And then when John forced an equally humiliating surrender of independence upon the king of Scots in 1209, he similarly reinforced the written treaty by taking hostages, at least thirteen sons and daughters of leading Scottish barons, and placing them in the hands of mostly northern English lords. The value he placed on them is suggested by his order of 13 June 1213, in advance of a planned expedition to France, that all the surviving hostages (one had died) should be brought to him at Portsmouth, presumably so that they should accompany him to Poitou.45


5: The 1212 conspiracy and its impact

No campaign took place, and on the evidence of a subsequent order that the earl of Strathearn’s son should be handed back to William d’Aubigné, who had been directed to bring him to Portsmouth, the Scottish hostages were returned to their previous keepers.46 John clearly intended to maintain his grip on the king of Scots, but by this time he was coming under increasing pressure in England, a development which was reflected in his increasing willingness to take hostages from his subjects there. In this respect, as in so many others, the discovery of a conspiracy against his life in mid-August 1212 seems to have marked a turning-point. The effect on John certainly appears to have been cataclysmic, arousing fear and mistrust in equal measure. According to the Waverley annalist, `holding almost all his own men in suspicion, he shut himself up in Nottingham Castle for some time, hiring foreign crossbowmen to protect him ...’.47 The Crowland chronicler likewise recorded the king’s universal distrust, and how he never went out except when armed and surrounded by armed men, arrested many of the men who had previously seemed closest to him, and abruptly seized the castles of earls and barons,48 while Roger of Wendover added that he sent messengers to all the magnates whom he suspected of disloyalty and demanded hostages from them. Most of them responded by surrendering sons, nephews and kinsmen, and so allayed the king’s wrath, but Robert FitzWalter and Eustace de Vescy fled the country.49

Of the demand for hostages, and of the urgency with which it was pressed, there can be no doubt. On 24 August Richard de Umfraville undertook to hand over his castle of Prudhoe within a week, and to deliver the hostages only five days later.50 Two other Northumbrian barons, Roger de Merlay of Morpeth,51 and Robert de Muschamp of Wooler,52 similarly gave their sons as hostages, as did Geoffrey de Say, whose interests lay primarily in Kent but who also had estates at Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, only a few miles from Robert FitzWalter’s castle of Benington.53 FitzWalter’s sister Alice, whose husband Geoffrey Peche died in 1212 as lord of the minor Suffolk barony of Great Bealings, was also obliged to give hostages, including her daughter, another Alice.54 But not only members of the baronage were targeted, and the way in which the widening of the king’s suspicions could cause the effects of hostage-taking to ramify is shown by John’s dealings with a group of FitzWalter’s Essex tenants, probably recorded at around the same time that their lord and his immediate associates were outlawed in January 1213. Nine men and a woman gave hostages, usually one apiece, though William FitzSewal gave two, a son and a daughter. Each hostage was then entrusted to a neighbour, who himself gave a charter to the king, guaranteeing the faithfulness of the hostage-giver `on my body and my land’, and also undertaking to surrender the hostage to the king when called upon to do so.55 Such an arrangement effectively made the keepers of hostages into hostages themselves.


6: Charters

The charters referred to here were probably of the kind condemned in Clause 49. Such documents were occasionally referred in earlier dealings between the king and subjects who owed him money or whose loyalty he wished to secure. When for instance the Cumbrian magnate Robert de Vaux came to terms with John in 1211, proffering 2000 marks for the king’s grace and the settlement of his debts, he paid £330 at once and undertook to pay a further 500 marks before he left prison, while before he was released he was to give security `by safe pledges and by charter and by hostages’ for the payment of the rest.56 Here charter and hostages supplemented one another, as they did, but in a different way, in the case of the Hampshire baron Adam de Port, when in May 1212 he acknowledged that the king had at his request returned the hostage he had given, but undertook to surrender him to the king `at his reasonable summons’; Adam set out his obligation in a charter which was to be taken to the exchequer and placed in the treasury.57 In other cases a charter alone was thought sufficient to enforce obedience. It is unfortunate that none of the documents condemned in 1215 appear to have survived. Several earls were compelled to give them in the aftermath of the 1212 conspiracy – the earls of Clare (together with his son), Warenne and Arundel all did so,58 after which the charters (like that given by Adam de Port) were sent to the treasury at Westminster, from which they were doubtless abstracted either after the baronial occupation of London in May 1215 or following the issue of Magna Carta a month later.

The charters given by the Clares were described as being `for their faithful service’, but nothing was said of what might happen if that was not forthcoming. The best evidence for their terms, rather ironically, is probably supplied by the surviving charters given by rebels returning to their allegiance after King John’s death, which show the minority government taking assurances of future loyalty in terms which in all likelihood differed little – except, perhaps, for the more measured tones in which they were set out – from those contained in the charters condemned in 1215. Well-nigh uniform in construction, they consisted of a solemn promise of loyalty to the king and his heirs, and a declaration that the protagonist had placed all his land in surety, so that it would be forfeited in perpetuity if he ever withdrew his fealty.59

Passing references suggest that charters given to John were much the same, and that they also became standardised – in April 1216 the king sent instructions to the sheriff of Norfolk ordering him to receive William de Bosco and his father back into his allegiance, once they had given in `their charter for faithful service in the form which I send you enclosed with these ...’.60 When John de Lacy negotiated his coming into his inheritance in 1213, he conceded that `if he ever withdraws from the service of the lord king and goes over to the lord king’s enemies, all his lands and his tenements are to be forfeited to the lord king ...’,61 and similar undertakings were found in deeds of surrender given to the king after the outbreak of the civil war in the autumn of 1215, though they received additional teeth from a rider spelling out that the loss of lands would be perpetual. When the northern baron Henry de Neville returned to his allegiance in January 1216, for instance, he `gave the lord king his charter for his faithful service, so that if he ever happens to withdraw from his service, all his land will be forfeited, to the perpetual disinheritance of himself and his heirs, and will for ever pass into the possession of the lord king and of his heirs ...’.62 It is easy to see why the barons should have been anxious to recover documents containing such stringent terms, but also why Henry III’s minority government did not carry Clause 49 over into any of the reissues of Magna Carta – for the time being, at least, it needed to be able to take both hostages and charters.


Hostages and hostageship

1: The preferred captives

In the last years of John’s reign charters and hostages were increasingly used, sometimes together but more often separately, as means to coerce men and women, and sometimes whole communities, into loyalty and obedience. At all times the preferred hostages were the eldest legitimate sons, and thus the heirs, of those who gave them, and steps were sometimes taken to have their identities checked before they were handed over. At the very beginning of his reign, when informing two of his officers in France that three knights of Maine or Normandy had given named hostages, all of them either their own sons or kinsmen or the sons or kinsmen of tenants, for serving the king, and in particular for waging war against Juhel de Mayenne, John also let it be known that three others of his followers had pledged all the land which they held of him `that the hostages of the aforesaid [three men] are such as are recorded in this writ ...’.63 It was noted in 1201 that a man of Anjou who should have given his son as a hostage had handed over his nephew instead,64 and at the very end of his reign John was still making sure that the hostages he received were indeed the ones he had been promised, in September 1216 instructing Peter de Maulay to receive the son and nephew of the Kentish rebel William de Ros as hostages for his ransom and faithful service – `and be you very sure that they are his son and nephew ...’.65

Identity was important, and so was legitimacy. In 1208 one Amphusus de Till’ or Thilion, identifiable as Don Alfonso Tellez de Meneses, an important figure at the court of King Alfonso VIII of Castile, who had presumably been captured during that king’s intermittent attempts to conquer Gascony in 1204-6, made arrangements for the payment of his ransom to King John, after negotiations which began no later than September 1207.66 Don Alfonso was a wealthy man, with a following which included a number of knights who had been captured with him, and a high price was therefore set upon his freedom. His ransom was fixed at 10,000 marks, and the complicated arrangements for its payment included the stipulation that before he could be released he was to pay 2000 marks and either ten horses, each worth £20 (Spanish horses were highly prized in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England, and in 1215 King John was recorded as owning some),67 or £200 instead of them. As hostages for the remaining 7,700 marks Don Alfonso was to hand over his brother, his son, two daughters and five of his knights as hostages; he was also to give the king assurances that the hostages were `his close kinsfolk and born in wedlock (germani et de matrimonio)’. He must have been able to do so, for he was back in Castile by 5 February 1209,68 but although he seems to have arranged for envoys to go to England to settle the payment of his ransom shortly afterwards, his brother, son and daughters were still in King John’s hands in July 1213.

The case of Alfonso Tellez was not the only one in which women were given as hostages. A list of eight `hostages from Bristol’, entered on the fine roll without explanation in 1205, records two daughters as well as six sons.69 Robert de Vaux secured his release from prison in December 1212 by handing over his mother and sister, along with his son, his bastard brother and a cousin, as hostages,70 and Earl Richard of Clare gave his daughter Matilda, indeed, he appears to have had to hand her over to the king twice. On 21 July 1213 John ordered that she be returned to her father,71 who had doubtless placed her in the king’s hands following the 1212 conspiracy, but then in 1214 Earl Richard was compelled to give her back again, to act together with a charter as a guarantee of his faithful service.72

The fullest light on the sort of hostages regarded as acceptable by the king and his agents is supplied by the entries on the close rolls recording the terms on which former rebels came into the king’s allegiance during the civil war of 1215/16.73 In the case of Gilbert FitzReinfred, who submitted at Berwick on 22 January 1216, they can be supplemented by Gilbert’s own charter.74 As a trusted royal servant who had gone over to the rebels (his son and two of his knights had been captured when Rochester Castle fell to the king’s army) he was treated with exceptional severity. To recover John’s benevolence and grace, and to earn remission of his rancour, he had to proffer a fine of £8000, place two of his castles in the king’s hands, renounce his allegiance both to his baronial allies and to Magna Carta, and accept that if ever again he failed in loyalty all his lands would be forfeited in perpetuity. And as security for his faithful service he was obliged to give ten hostages, all of them the sons or daughters of his knights, two of them related closely in blood to himself. If any of the hostages died, a replacement was to be provided. One of the hostages was named as the eldest son, a further six, whether male or female, were referred to as the heirs, of followers of Gilbert’s, who were thus forced to stake their own lineages on their lord’s future loyalty.

The terms dictated to other rebels who submitted were less drastic in detail but similar in outline. In nearly every case they involved a threefold penalty, comprising a fine, a charter pledging future loyalty, and the surrender of a hostage, occasionally more than one. In the great majority of cases the hostage was a son, occasionally identified as the eldest, once as a younger son. In one case a brother was given, but the king ordered that a son be taken in his place,75 in another a daughter, who was to be held only until her father had surrendered his eldest son instead.76 It was presumably from those who had no sons that daughters were usually taken, as with William de Bayeux, who surrendered his eldest daughter Beatrice,77 and Ralph of Cromwell, a fee-farm tenant in Nottinghamshire, who handed over the eldest of his three daughters.78 When the fine was a large one a second hostage might be taken. Sometimes this was a woman, as in the cases of Hugh Ruffus (£100), who gave up his daughter and his nephew,79 and William FitzRoscelin (200 marks), an influential man in East Anglia, who gave his son and grand-daughter,80 but here too males were preferred. Ralph de Normanville (500 marks and two palfreys) handed over two sons as hostages,81 while Robert of Ruxley (500 marks) surrendered two sons and a nephew.82


2: Confinement and custody

When hostages were handed over they were often kept in castles. Many of the major royal castles were used in this way at some point in John’s reign, for instance Gloucester, Salisbury, Corfe, Hereford, Wallingford, Northampton, Kenilworth and Windsor, and so were some of the less important ones, like Orford, Framlingham, Ludgershall and Folkestone. In a number of cases hostages were entrusted to individuals, though these must often have been chosen because they had castles in their charge. The eight hostages provided by John de Courcy in 1205 were variously sent to the sheriff of Cornwall, the constables of Corfe and Dunster (the latter in the king’s hand through a minority), Robert de Vieuxpont (sheriff of Nottinghamshire), Hugh de Neville (keeper of Marlborough Castle) and William Brewer, sheriff of Devon, and so with Exeter and Lydford Castles at his disposal, though he could also have kept his hostage in his own new castle at Bridgwater.83 This may also have been true of the barons whom the king sometimes ordered to take charge of hostages – when in 1207 John ordered that the son of Robert de Ros be temporarily returned to his parents, the boy had already been in the keeping successively of Aubrey de Vere and William d’Aubigné.84 But the bishop of London, to whom a hostage was entrusted in 1204, hardly came into this category – William de Sainte Mère-Église was no doubt chosen to take charge of Oliver Avenel because he was a long-serving royal servant whose loyalty and efficiency could be relied on,85 and the same must also have been true of William of Cornhill, bishop of Coventry, a royal intimate and experienced administrator into whose keeping one of Robert of Ruxley’s hostages was delivered in 1216. It was probably from awareness of John’s outlook and methods that Cornhill provided a written document containing both a receipt for the hostage and an undertaking to surrender him at the king’s pleasure.86

Religious houses were sometimes used to accommodate royal hostages, usually during vacancies when the monasteries involved were in the king’s hands. In November 1214 orders for the release of hostages from the Channel Islands were sent to the prior of Winchester and the abbots of Gloucester, St Albans and Ramsey87 (hostages were also recorded at Ramsey in 1211 and 1212),88 and a year later the prior of Glastonbury was among those instructed to send hostages to the justiciar of Ireland.89 One of the hostages for Savaric de Mauléon came to be entrusted to the abbot of Muchelney.90 Even nunneries might be pressed into service in this way. In 1211 two hostages for the mercenary captain, pirate and alleged sorcerer Eustace the Monk were recorded as being held in the Tower of London.91 Eustace had entered King John’s service in 1205, and when he deserted him for the French in 1212, the English king clearly held on to the hostages, for one of them, described as Eustace’s daughter, was subsequently parked upon Wilton Abbey. If she was anything like her father, the order for her release, issued on 21 June 1215, must have come as a great relief to the sisters.92

At the highest level of lay society, even the queen might be given custody of a hostage. King John could probably have cited a precedent for this in his father’s reign – £28 were spent on the maintenance of Queen Margaret, the wife of Henry the Young King, `and hostages’ at Devizes in 1174, following the great revolt against Henry II.93 Two of the sons of Richard de Umfraville were sent to Queen Isabella in 1212,94 while in 1215, when she was probably at Berkhampstead, she had John de Lacy’s brother Roger in her keeping as a hostage.95 But hostages of inferior rank were placed in less exalted hands, including those of townsmen. In 1210 ten hostages of unknown origins were sent from Bristol to Lynn,96 while in March 1215 the king ordered the release of hostages given by the men of Dunwich (perhaps in connection to their undertaking to keep the sea recorded in the previous September) who had been entrusted to the citizens of London.97 Hostages from the Channel Isles, possibly taken following the recovery of the islands after their brief occupation by the French in 1204-5, could also be placed in the custody of English townsmen. On 2 November 1214 the king announced that he was releasing his hostages from Jersey and Guernsey as the reward for their loyalty and good service.98 Most of the individual orders for the implementation of this favour were sent to officials and monasteries, but one was directed to the mayor and townsmen of Winchester, and later writs show that the burgesses of Northampton, too, had been made responsible for at least one man from Guernsey,99 while the mayors and townsmen of Norwich and Ipswich had hostages from Sark in their keeping.100 Urban communities might also be required to give hostages. Dunwich did so, as noted above, and during the civil war both York and Grimsby did likewise – in March 1216 nineteen citizens of York were handed over as hostages to Brian de Lisle,101 while the townsmen of Grimsby surrendered four hostages as sureties for the fine of 100 marks and two palfreys which they had recently made with the king.102


3: Treatment and mistreatment

Hostages might die while they were in custody. When William the Lion, king of Scots, submitted to King John at Norham in 1209, a number of Scottish magnates gave their children as hostages for the observance of the treaty, among them Alan, lord of Galloway, who handed over a daughter – her death, while she was in the keeping of Robert FitzRoger, lord of Warkworth, was reported in 1213.103 King John seems to have been suspicious over several years of John of Monmouth, a powerful baron in the Welsh marches, and at various times held three of his sons as hostages. In August 1213 one of them, William, fell seriously ill, and the sheriff of Gloucestershire was ordered to hand him over to his father, but not before the king had received guarantees that William would be given back when demanded, `unless he dies first’.104 The possibility that hostages would die, or suffer grievous injury, was in any case inseparable from their condition, one that was always precarious and could become dangerous. A story told by Orderic Vitalis of Henry I, that in 1119 he allowed vengeance for the blinding of a hostage to be taken on two of his own grand-daughters, who were likewise being held hostage, so that the girls’ eyes were put out and the ends of their noses cut off, has been pronounced incredible by one modern historian,105 but the possibility that such measures would be taken was real. The pleasant details and happy outcome of the tale of the five-year-old William Marshal’s escape from death in 1152, after he had been handed over by his father as a hostage for the surrender of Newbury Castle and then placed in great peril when the fortress was reinforced, can too easily conceal how endangered the boy’s life had been.106

In 1194, according to Roger of Howden, the duke of Austria threatened the lives of the hostages (capitalem subirent sententiam) given to him by Richard I for the fulfillment of the agreement under which Richard had obtained his release from the duke’s captivity.107 For the chronicler this was further proof of Leopold’s wickedness, and an additional justification for his miserable death at the end of that year. By the end of the twelfth century the chivalric ethos which increasingly permeated the upper reaches of aristocratic society in western Christendom seems to have made it increasingly unfashionable to harm hostages, and even, in some quarters, to take them – in 1207 William Marshal himself, when advised to take hostages from his own men for their continuing allegiance, indignantly rejected the suggestion as shameful.108

No such inhibitions, however, were felt among ‒ and as far as the English were concerned, probably also towards ‒ the people of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.109 The ferocious violence which underlay political rivalries in those lands, where hostages continued to be killed or mutilated – in 1170, for instance, Ruaidri Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), high-king of Ireland, slew a number of hostages taken from his arch-rival Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster, including a son and grandson of Diarmait’s,110 while in about 1201 William the Lion, king of Scots, ordered the blinding and castration of the son and heir of the earl of Orkney, previously handed over as a hostage by his father111 – may have been regarded as justifying English kings in treating the hostages handed over to them by Celtic rulers with a similar brutality. Henry II, enraged by the failure of his Welsh expedition of 1165, mutilated a number of hostages of both sexes;112 that one of the victims, a son of Rhys of Deheubarth, survived until 1239 as a Cistercian monk at Whitland is a clear pointer to his youth when his eyes were put out.113 King John had at least four Welsh hostages mutilated in 1211 (two of them died as a result),114 and a year later, faced with a major Welsh revolt, he ordered the hanging at Nottingham of the hostages who had been handed over to him twelve months earlier – twenty-eight of them in one account, thirty-two in another.115 No doubt it was as an extension of this savagery that in the same year Robert de Vieuxpont, the king’s lieutenant in Powys, `hanged at Shrewsbury Rhys ap Maelgwn, an excellent boy not yet seven years old, who was a hostage with the king ...’.116

In 1199 Aubrey de Curtun proffered £40 `for redeeming the members of his son’, who had stood hostage for Gilbert de Angulo, an important landowner in Meath in central Ireland.117 Five years later, on 1 September 1204, the barons of Ulster were ordered to cause their rebellious lord, John de Courcy, to appear before the king, and reminded that they had sworn oaths and given hostages to make him do so; this they were to do `as you love the same hostages and your fees, knowing that if he has not come into our service within the term assigned to him for this by our justiciar, we will betake ourselves to your hostages and to your fees.’118 Such implicit threats of physical violence to hostages seem unexpected in the context of Irish `settler’ society, whose members doubtless saw themselves as entitled to be spared the sort of treatment that could be meted out to (and also by) the native Irish. It is possible that John, the first English king to bear the title `lord of Ireland’, regarded himself as freed from the usual constraints of aristocratic conduct when he was dealing with Irish barons. And even if King John did not consciously imitate the native rulers, the fact that there were societies upon or close to the borders of England, in which violence to the lives and limbs of hostages remained a genuine possibility, may well have coloured the light in which such living pledges were seen by those who were compelled to give them, creating a kind of frisson about hostages which resulted in their being regarded as in greater danger than they truly were – a feeling which could, of course, have worked to the advantage of the king or any other lord who held them.

That does not mean, of course, that hostages were invariably protected against every kind of ill-usage and misfortune. The recorded response of Matilda de Briouze to the demand that her husband should give hostages to the king in 1207 shows that their future well-being was not regarded as something that could be taken for granted, and this was confirmed in 1210, when King John, in one of his many spasms of suspicion towards William Marshal, demanded hostages from him, and when five retainers were handed over, had them kept under guard in five different locations.119 Walter Purcel (a future seneschal of Leinster)120 was well looked after by Peter FitzHerbert, a staunch royalist but also a friend of the Marshal’s, but John of Earley, entrusted to Philip Marc at Nottingham, `suffered much hardship and tribulation’, while the fate of Geoffrey FitzRobert at Hereford, in the hands of Engelard de Cigogné, was even worse – `he took ill ... and never came out of the prison alive ...’. Perhaps Geoffrey succumbed to some kind of gaol fever, but the mistreatment of hostages could be deliberate. In September 1218, shortly after the end of the civil war, the papal legate Guala wrote to William Marshal demanding that he take action to secure the release of the men of the Cinque Ports who had earlier been handed over as hostages to Prince Louis. Ignoring the negotiated peace-terms, Louis was keeping these men in prison, where some of them had died as a result of their close confinement and lack of food, while others, according to the legate, were so worn down `by pains and afflictions’ that their lives were despaired of.121


4: Maintenance

Perhaps the relative social insignificance of men from English ports denied them the sort of consideration due to men and women of higher rank when the latter were obliged to act as hostages. If they were thought valuable enough, or were simply fortunate, they might be maintained at the king’s expense, receiving food and clothing from him, or small amounts of money; in 1212 a group of Irish and Spanish hostages received ½d. a day for their maintenance in Knaresborough Castle,122 while in 1168 the upkeep of some presumably very young Welsh hostages had included payments to their nanny, or possibly even their wet-nurse (nutrix).123 Other hostages may have had to work for their upkeep, at any rate up to a point. In the Treaty of Windsor negotiated between Henry II and the Irish high-king Ruaidri Ua Conchobair in 1175, the latter undertook to give hostages who would then be set to look after the English king’s dogs and horses, this being presumably regarded as a fitting employment for them.124 When the Northumbrian baron Richard de Umfraville, suspected of involvement in the 1212 conspiracy against the life of King John, handed over two of his sons as hostages for their father’s loyalty, the king sent them to his henchmen with instructions that they were to serve before the queen at dinner and sleep in the hall at night.125 They were to be accompanied by a master, suggesting that as well as making them do something useful while they were in his custody, John intended the boys to learn good manners along with their letters. He may have had similar plans for Robert, a younger son of Robert de Ros, another Northumbrian magnate, who seems to have been handed over to the king as the hostage for his father’s payment of a £200 debt. The debt was pardoned, and at the end of 1207 Robert junior was sent back to his parents, but with instructions that he was to be returned to the king at Easter – perhaps John wanted him to serve at court as a page when the great feast was celebrated, and in any case intended to keep his grip on his hostage.126

There is also evidence for hostages being maintained at the cost of the person who gave them. In 1212 a letter from King John to William Marshal concerning the latter’s eldest son, another William, then in the king’s hands as a hostage, referred to John’s expectations that the Marshal would reimburse him for his expenditure on the young man,127 and a lawsuit concluded some ten years later refers to the same practice.128 In Michaelmas term 1220 Falkes de Bréauté sued Roger le Manaunt in the Bench for 100 marks, a debt for whose payment Roger had handed over his daughter as a hostage to Falkes, who in addition now claimed the cost of the daughter’s maintenance, at the rate of 12d. a day. A landowner in Essex and Suffolk, Roger was probably a tenant of the Mandevilles in the former county, and had been a rebel against King John at the end of the latter’s reign.129 In all likelihood he was captured by Falkes during the civil war and forced to agree to a 100-mark ransom, giving his daughter as hostage for his release so that he could go away and raise the money. He claimed that he had collected and paid the first twenty-five marks, but that Falkes had not given his daughter back, and so he had refused to pay any more, though he would willingly do so, `if he could have his hostage’. Several adjournments followed, before Falkes notified the court in Hilary term 1223 that Roger had paid his debt in full, a total of 120 marks (£80), suggesting that the upkeep of his hostage had cost her father an additional £13. 6s. 8d.130 (At 12d. a day such a sum would only have covered the girl’s maintenance for about nine months; Falkes’s charges were, indeed, inordinately high, and the sum Roger eventually paid probably represented a negotiated, and more moderate, bill.)

The court record is silent on the fate of Roger’s daughter, but presumably she was returned to her father.131 Not all hostages were looked after in this way, however, even if they were held by the king. It was obviously in a hostage-taker’s interest to keep his charge alive, but some hostages may nonetheless have had to resort to uncomfortable shifts in order to feed and clothe themselves. The different possibilities are brought out by an order which John sent to the sheriff of Gloucestershire in 1214, telling him that if he had spent any money on the Welsh hostages whose release his illegitimate daughter Joan had just obtained, then he was to recover his outlay from them, but `if they have lived from charity (ex elemosina) we wish that they be quit’132 – the king’s expenditure was to be reimbursed, but money given in charity to these unfortunates was not to be taken back from them.


5: Release

The circumstances in which hostages were released varied. For the very fortunate, external intercession, by someone as influential as the king’s daughter, might bring a hostage his or her freedom. In other cases a payment could have the same effect. When Baldwin Wake, lord of Bourne, Lincolnshire, entered into his inheritance in 1204, the sheriff was ordered to take four hostages from him before giving him seisin of his lands. There was to have been a fifth, but Hugh of Boothby (a former sheriff of the county) proffered 100 marks `as he wished to release his son from being a hostage for his lord ...’.133 John frequently took hostages as a way of exercising control over Irish affairs. Late in the reign one Adam de Capella successfully proffered forty marks to obtain his own release and to have another man taken as hostage in his place.134 Roger de Tuit, a member of a prominent Anglo-Irish family who had been held hostage for his brother Richard, in February 1215 gave only twenty marks for his freedom, but in circumstances under which it seems reasonable to feel that he should have had it for nothing – Richard was dead.135 Roger was also required to find pledges for his paying the money, and his keeper was ordered not to release him until they had sent letters patent guaranteeing both the payment and Roger’s faithful service. The exploitation of the vulnerability of a hostage, and the way his status could be used to draw others (in this case Walter de Lacy and the prior of Llanthony Secunda) into a network of control could hardly be more clearly illustrated.

In 1211 Earl David of Huntingdon was recorded as owing two fine Norwegian falcons for having the custody of his son John, a hostage (no doubt for the Scottish king, under the Treaty of Norham).136 This may have been an example of an arrangement, recorded in more detail elsewhere, under which hostages were returned to those who had given them, after the latter had undertaken to surrender them again if called upon to do so. The beneficiaries were of various kinds. Robert de la Saucei was a former sheriff of Northamptonshire who left office owing the king 100 marks, a palfrey and a hawk.137 Having at some point given John two hostages, presumably for payment of this debt, in October 1213 he was himself granted the custody of one of them, while the other, at Robert’s request, was entrusted to the justice Simon of Pattishall, a Northamptonshire landowner and perhaps also a friend. Both were `to be surrendered to us at our summons ...’.138 But others were potential or actual adversaries of the king. Robert de Muschamp, lord of Wooler, gave two of his sons as hostages to King John, almost certainly after the 1212 conspiracy. The king entrusted them to Philip of Oldcoates, the sheriff of Northumberland, but on 20 November 1213 instructed Oldcoates to return them to Muschamp, and sent him instead the bond whereby Muschamp undertook to surrender his sons upon the king’s command. Oldcoates was also to take an oath from the sons that should their father fail in loyalty to the king, they were to present themselves before the king and become his hostages as before – fear of the possible consequences for them was presumably intended to recall Muschamp to his obedience.139 A similar scenario probably lay behind the order sent to another Northumberland baron, Gilbert de Laval, lord of Callerton, in March 1215, that he should surrender to Oldcoates `the hostages for yourself whom you delivered to us and we afterwards committed to you ...’.140


Clause 49

1: Enforcement

There were undoubtedly circumstances in which contemporary opinion regarded hostage-taking as an acceptable practice, and it is noteworthy that Clause 49 did not attempt to forbid it. No less an authority than Stephen Langton declared in one of his sermons that `If a king has some great princes in his kingdom, who are suspected of possible rebellion, he should demand hostages of them, lest they ever desert his cause, and they should hand over their sons’.141 But John’s taking of hostages went far beyond the limits seemingly envisaged by Langton, in terms of both rank and numbers, so much so that there were times in the later years of his reign when it must have seemed as if he had no subjects of any consequence who had not either given hostages, or become hostages themselves, or been made in some way responsible for the keeping of hostages, and who were not therefore caught up in the chains of obligation, strengthened by fear, which were created by such means. The king’s habitual distrustfulness, his almost total inability to govern without resort to coercion and threats, led to his taking hostages on a scale which created webs of constraint and menace extending into every part of the kingdom. Practices which generated so much anxiety and resentment were bound to be highly damaging to his rule, but perhaps John had become incapable of governing in any other way. On 17 May 1215, the same day on which London fell to the rebels, he wrote to Geoffrey de Martigny, the keeper of Northampton Castle, ordering him `to allow all those who were against us with our enemies, and who have wished to return to our fealty and service, to return safely to us, having accepted, however, security from them for doing us good and faithful service.’142 The studied moderation of the king’s command was belied by its demand for an undefined security, and it is not surprising that less than a month later Clause 49 demanded the instant surrender of all the hostages and charters which the king had taken.

According to the Crowland chronicler John complied at once (in continenti),143 and the chancery records provide at least partial confirmation of this. In letters patent sent on 18 June to Stephen Haringod, the constable of Colchester Castle (and presumably to other keepers of castles as well), he ordered that hostages and prisoners taken recently, after the beginning of hostilities (`occasione huius guerre’), should be released without delay,144 and soon afterwards he gave directions for the release of a small number of other, named, hostages. In at least one case these, too, must have been taken only very recently – on 24 June the constable of Northampton was told to release all the hostages and prisoners of that town whom he held, clearly seized in response to the rioting against the castle garrison which erupted in the aftermath of the baronial capture of London.145 But the hostages whose release was ordered on 19 June had probably been held for longer, much longer in some cases.146 Earl David’s hostages may well have been handed over as long ago as 1209, while John le Vicomte, lord of the Northumberland barony of Embleton, who had given two hostages, seems likely to have become yet another object of royal suspicion at the time of the 1212 conspiracy. The son of Roald FitzAlan, constable of Richmond, may have been taken at the same time and for the same reason, but Roger de Lacy was probably a hostage less for the loyalty of his brother John, the constable of Chester, than for the substantial fine which John agreed to pay for his inheritance in 1213 (in July 1214, when Roger was already in custody, he was made a hostage for his brother’s holding Castle Donington to King John’s advantage147 – it had earlier been handed over as a pledge for John de Lacy’s payment of his fine, but was now returned to him).

A number of freed hostages were Irish, or given by Irish lords, and perhaps their status under Clause 49 was unclear, since its application was limited to hostages given by Englishmen. The king may nonetheless have been pleased to use it for the benefit of a follower of his own, when on 21 June he ordered the earl of Winchester to release David, the son of Philip of Prendergast, to the archbishop of Dublin.148 Philip was a retainer of William Marshal’s whom John had won over to his side in 1207/8 but who had then been involved in the defeat of the royalists by the Marshal’s retainers. They forced him to give his son as a hostage for his future good behaviour and sent him to England (that son had been Gerald; Philip secured his release in November 1214, but only by surrendering David in his place).149

On 10 July 1215 John issued letters patent acknowledging that on the previous day he had received Gilbert, son and heir of Walter de Lacy, and hostage for his father, at Ludgershall.150 The announcement was not, however, the prelude to Gilbert’s release. Walter was a magnate on both sides of the Irish Sea, lord of Meath in Ireland, of Weobley, Ludlow and much else in the Welsh marches.151 His relations with John were usually uneasy (he had had six hostages in John’s hands early in 1204, at least two of whom were still in the king’s keeping four years later),152 while from 1209 they became overtly hostile, through the support he gave to his son-in-law, William de Briouze, in the latter’s dealings with the king. In 1213, however, the ambitions of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth of Gwynedd, and his alliance with dissident English barons, prompted a reconciliation between King John and Walter de Lacy, but their settlement, drawn up on 29 July, was made on unequal terms (like all those entered into by John), and Lacy was obliged to give at least four more hostages.153 Gilbert was not one of them, and it is not known when he was handed over, only that he was in the king’s keeping by the summer of 1215 and stayed there. In early August 1215 Walter de Lacy agreed to pay 4000 marks to recover his Irish lands, and to find pledges for the payment of the money, while his son was to remain in the king’s hands, `as a hostage for his faithful service’, until his father’s fine was paid.154 Gilbert was then to be returned to his father, but any further hostage whom John wanted to have from Walter was to be handed over, and the king made it clear that he had in mind a son or daughter yet to be born to Walter’s wife, apparently regardless of his or her age. The six hostages whom the sheriff of Herefordshire was ordered to release to Walter on 2 August were presumably men of less importance in their recipient’s eyes.155


2: Relapse and oblivion

Although John may have felt that Walter de Lacy was excluded by his Irish associations from the benefits of Clause 49, it seems just as likely that his now making provision to keep Walter’s son as a hostage, together with his reserving the right to take another should he wish, constituted just one more sign among many that he had no intention of observing Magna Carta as a whole. The terms of his order of 2 August pointed in the same direction, since he made it clear that there were other hostages in Hereford Castle who were destined to remain there (those to be freed were just sex obsides illorum qui sunt in castro nostro de Hereford’). It is possible that there were unrecorded occasions on which hostages were freed, but the very nature of John’s rule, infused as it was with his own mistrustful personality, argues that it was in the breach, rather than the observance, that Clause 49 was most often observed. The sheer scale of John’s hostage-taking during the last months of his reign, once civil war had broken out, points in the same direction,156 suggesting yet again that he saw obedience to his rule as something which could never be effected by persuasion but only by force, or by the threat of it, and that he regarded hostages and charters as indispensable agencies of government, taking them in cases either where they were probably unnecessary – as when on 2 December 1215 he allowed Hugh de Loges to have custody of Cannock Forest (his hereditary right), and of the insignificant castle of Rodbaston which went with it, only after Hugh had given `good hostages for his faithful service’157 – or where their seizure only underlined the impulses to violence and mistrust which underlay such measures. It is probably significant that when in April 1216 John tried another strategy, and let it be known that he no longer wanted security in the form of money from his adversaries, but only their undertaking to do him good and faithful service, his new approach had no discernible effect – the rebels simply did not believe him.

John’s dealings with some of the rebels who did submit help to explain this. On 19 August 1216 he gave orders to his illegitimate son Richard concerning William of Hastings, an important landowner in the midlands.158 In April the king had commanded that William’s estates should be comprehensively devastated,159 but now he had returned to his allegiance, and so the sheriff of Oxfordshire was directed to return his hostage to him, while Richard was instructed to maintain and protect him, not allowing any injury to be done to him. These fair words did not, however, prevent Richard’s being ordered to take good care of another hostage (in fact the brother of the first) whom William had given, or the sheriff of Oxfordshire being told to receive a charter and `safe pledges for doing us faithful service’ from William, as well as giving him possession of a knight’s fee forfeited by two of his tenants. Forced into obedience through his having given a hostage, a charter and pledges, the erstwhile rebel cannot have felt much less under constraint than he did before.

The same grudging relief was given to Roger of Lenham, a landowner in Kent, East Anglia and Berkshire who was certainly a rebel by mid-October 1215 and may have been captured at the fall of Rochester Castle.160 Letters dated 26 August (probably misdated, and somewhat garbled in its content) and 1 October 1216 together show Peter de Maulay, as constable of Corfe Castle probably Roger’s gaoler, being informed that his captive had made fine by 500 marks for his release, and had undertaken to pay half that sum by 15 August.161 He had paid 214 marks by the end of September, and Peter was told that he could be released (`extracted from prison’ in the words of the first letter, `his prison alleviated’ according to the second) when he had paid a further thirty-six marks. But first he had to provide security, both `by good hostages for his faithful service’, and also `by his charter’ for paying the remaining 250 marks (which were subsequently assigned, and paid, to Walter de Lacy). Domination, rather than reconciliation, remained King John’s principal objective, though in Lenham’s case he clearly achieve neither, since Roger rebelled again, and did not return to the king’s allegiance until November 1217.162

Clause 49 had no equivalent in any of the re-issues of Magna Carta. In the crisis which followed the death of King John, the minority government of his son found charters and hostages (and especially the former) to be as useful as the late king had done as means of attaching actual or potential rebels to its cause. But they were never taken to the same extent,163 and as the new regime became established it felt increasingly able to dispense with them. In the years of his adult rule, Henry III only once demanded hostages from his subjects, when in 1233 a number of marcher barons gave them as pledges for their faithful service, and that may have been primarily the responsibility of the `Poitevin’ ministers, ex-servants of King John, who then largely controlled the central government.164 It was Simon de Montfort, not the king, who took hostages during the Barons’ Wars, and since they were the eldest sons of the king and the earl of Cornwall, their status was such as to deprive threats to their lives and limbs of any plausibility – `even Montfort, never a man for half measures though he was, might have baulked at hanging the heir to the throne ...’.165 Whether or not Clause 49 was responsible, hostage-taking effectively ceased to be an instrument of English government in the early decades of the thirteenth century, and died out completely in the course of it.



D. Crouch, William Marshal: knighthood, war and chivalry, 1147-1219 (2nd edn., 2002), 107-8, 111-12.


T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli litterarum clausarum i, 1204-1224 (Record Commission, 1833 – hereafter Rot.Lit.Claus. i), 83, 87.


See A.J. Kosto, Hostages in the middle ages (Oxford, 2012), esp. 9-11, for useful comments.


T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli litterarum patentium, 1201-1216 (Record Commission, 1835 – hereafter Rot.Lit.Pat.), 96.


Ib., 147-8.


PR 18 Henry II (1172), 46.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 55.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 71, 173 (the latter notice was cancelled, so Hugh may after all have remained in the earl’s keeping).


A.C. Lawrie (ed.), Annals of the reigns of Malcolm and William, kings of Scotland, A.D. 1153-1214 (Glasgow, 1910), 73 (citing Robert of Torigni).


W. Stubbs (ed.), Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Houedene, 4 vols. (Rolls Series, 1868-71), ii, 81; A.A.M. Duncan, Scotland: the making of the kingdom (Edinburgh, 1978), 230-1.


Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Houedene iii, 216.


T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli Chartarum, 1199-1216 (Record Commission, 1837 – hereafter Rot.Chart.), 186, 189.


H.G. Hewlett (ed.), Rogeri de Wendover liber qui dicitur flores historiarum, 3 vols. (Rolls Series, 1886-9), ii, 173; H.R. Luard (ed.), Annales monastici, 5 vols. (Rolls Series, 1864-9), iii (Annals of Dunstable), 45.


W. Stubbs (ed.), Radulfi de Diceto decani Lundoniensis opera historica, 2 vols. (Rolls Series, 1876), i, 395.


R. Anstruther (ed.), Radulfi Nigri Chronica: the chronicles of Ralph Niger, Caxton Society 13 (1851), 167-9.


PR 3 & 4 Richard I (1191-2), 60.


W. Stubbs (ed.), Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi Benedicti Abbatis, 2 vols. (Rolls Series, 1867), ii, 109.


PR 2 Richard I (1190), 26; PR 5 Richard I (1193), 72.


J.S. Brewer (ed.), Giraldi Cambrensis opera iv (Rolls Series, 1873), 407.


Radulfi de Diceto ... opera historica ii, 143-4.


Such pledges are discussed in the commentary on Clause 9.


Ib., 478


Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Houedene iv, 91-2.


Ib., 161.


W. Stubbs (ed.), The historical works of Gervase of Canterbury, 2 vols. (Rolls Series, 1879-80), ii, 95; J. Stevenson (ed.), Radulphi de Coggeshall Chronicon Anglicanum (Rolls Series, 1875), 144.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 29.  I am grateful to Paul Brand for assistance in interpreting these transactions.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 275.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 34.


Ib., 46.


Ib., 48; Rot.Ob.Fin., 226.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 25.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 69; PR 3 John (1201), 215; PR 4 John (1202), 244; PR 5 John (1203), 71.  For the background see S. Painter, The reign of King John (Baltimore, 1949), 38-9.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 290; Rot.Lit.Pat., 51, 59; PR 9 Richard I (1197), 167; PR 10 Richard I (1198), 171-2; PR 4 John (1202), 289; PR 6 John (1204), 97.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 88; Rot.Chart., 184.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 507; PR 16 John (1214), 113.


Historical works of Gervase of Canterbury, ii, 101-2; PR 10 John (1202), 72.


Rogeri de Wendover ... flores historiarum, ii, 48-9.


T. Rymer (ed.), Foedera I:i (1745), 52; Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 168.


PR 12 John (1210), 74.


Ib., 88.


PR 13 John (1211), 2.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 55.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 131.  It is not known when his mother and wife were retuned to Savaric.


Rymer, Foedera I;i, 48.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 137.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 104.


Luard, Annales monastici ii, 268.


W. Stubbs (ed.), Memoriale Walteri de Coventria, 2 vols (Rolls Series, 1872-3), ii, 206-7.


Rogeri de Wendover ... flores historiarum, ii, 61-2.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 122.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 99.


Ib., 106.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 124.  For Sawbridgeworth see J.C. Holt, Colonial England, 1066-1215 (1997), 316.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 101.  For the family see I.J. Sanders, English baronies: a study of their origin and descent, 1086-1307 (Oxford, 1960), 48.


Rot.Chart., 192; identified as FitzWalter’s tenants from Liber feodorum.  The book of fees commonly called Testa de Nevill, 2 vols. in 3 (1920-31), i, 576-9.


PR 13 John (1211), 157.


Rot.Chart., 191.


Ib., 192, 197.


TNA:PRO, C 47/34/8.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 258.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 494-5.


Ib., 572-3.


Rot.Chart., 9.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 192.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 197.


For the ransom see Ib., 75, 82-3, 89, 102; for Don Alfonso, J. Gonzalez, El reino de Castilla en la epoca de Alfonso VIII, 3 vols., Consejo superior de investigaciones cientificas, escuela de estudios medievales (Madrid, 1960), i, 349-51.  The war in Gascony is discussed by Gonzalez, i, 867-75, and Y. Renouard (ed.), Bordeaux sous les rois d’Angleterre (Bordeaux, 1965), 24-6.  


R.H.C. Davis, The medieval warhorse (1989), 84-5.


Gonzalez, iii, 467-9.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 274.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 96.


Ib., 101.


Rot.Chart., 197.


For what follows see also Holt, Colonial England, 233-4.


Rot.Ob.Fin, 570-1; Rot.Chart., 221.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 284.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 571.


Ib., 580.


Ib., 581.


Ib., 587-8.


Ib., 589.


Ib., 576-7.


Ib., 596-7.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 55.  For Bridgwater Castle see R.V. Turner, Men raised from the dust: administrative service and upward mobility in Angevin England (Philadelphia, 1988), 80.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 59 (this case is discussed further below).


Ib., 46.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 291.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 122.


PR 13 John (1211), 270; PR 14 John (1212), 6.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 147-8.


Ib., 132.


PR 13 John (1211), 109.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 144.


PR 20 Henry II (1174), 21.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 123.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 143.


PR 12 John (1210), 111.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 129; Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 211.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 122.


Ib., 129.


Ib., 131.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 269.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 168.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 137.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 103.


C.W. Hollister, Henry I (Yale, 2001), 253-4.


Crouch, William Marshal, 19-21.


Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Houedene iii, 275.


Kosto, Hostages in the middle ages, 208.


Cf. the comments of J. Gillingham, The English in the twelfth century: imperialism, national identity and political values (Woodbridge, 2000), esp. 53-5, 225-6.


M.T. Flanagan, `Mac Murchada, Diarmait (c. 1110-1171), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 13 July 2015].


Lawrie, Annals of the reigns of Malcolm and William, 305-9.


J. William ab Ithel (ed.), Annales Cambriae (Rolls Series, 1860), 50; T. Jones (ed.), Brut y Tywysogyon, or The chronicles of the princes: Peniarth MS 20 version, University of Wales Board of Celtic Studies, History and law series xi (Cardiff, 1952), 63-4.


R.R. Davies, The age of conquest: Wales, 1063-1415 (Oxford, 1991), 225.


Luard, Annales monastici i, 31 (Annals of Margam).


Rogeri de Wendover ... flores historiarum ii, 61; Luard, Annales monastici i, 31 (Annals of Margam).


Jones, Brut y Tywysogyon, 85-6.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 28.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 45.


A.J. Holden (ed.), History of William Marshal, trans. S. Gregory, historical notes by D. Crouch, Anglo-Norman Text Society occasional publication series 4-6, 3 vols. (2002-6), ii, 222-5.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 390.


N. Vincent (ed.), The letters and charters of Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, papal legate in England, 1216-1218, Canterbury and York Society 83 (1996) no. 133 (p. 96).


PR 14 John (1212), 169.


PR 14 Henry II (1168), 110.


Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Houedene ii, 85.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 123.


Ib., 99.  For the debt see Rot.Ob.Fin., 419,  PR 9 John (1207), 72.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 132.


Curia Regis Rolls ix, 4-5 Henry III, 1220  (1952), 226


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 332-3.


Curia Regis Rolls xi, 7-9 Henry III, 1223-1224 (1955), no. 30 (p. 5).


She could have been either Joan la Manaunte or Alice la Manante, both recorded in 1235/6, the former as a subtenant of Maud de Mandeville, countess of Essex, the latter as holding of the barony of Cavendish, Suffolk – Book of fees i, 481, 483.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 181.


Ib., 6; PR 6 John (1204), 78.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 186; Rot.Ob.Fin., 564.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 186; Rot.Lit.Pat., 128.


PR 13 John (1211), 98.


PR 7 John (1205), 262.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 104.


Ib., 106.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 192.


P.B. Roberts, Stephanus de Lingua-Tonante: studies in the sermons of Stephen Langton, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Studies and Texts 16 (Toronto, 1968), 128.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 137.


Memoriale fratris Walteri de Coventria ii, 221.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 143.


Ib., 144; Memoriale fratris Walteri de Coventria ii, 220-1.


Details on Rot.Lit.Pat., 143-4.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 169.


Rot.Lit.Pat., 144.


History of William Marshal ii, 194-5; Rot.Lit.Pat., 123.




See M.T. Flanagan, `Lacy, Walter de (d. 1241)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 13 July 2015.


T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli de liberate ac de misis et praestitis, regnante Johanne (Record Commission, 1844), 106 ‒ I owe this reference to Louise Wilkinson; Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 18, 100, 110 (Adam son of Hugh Hose and Hugh de Lascy, presumably the son of Roger de Lascy referred to in 1204.  In 1208 order was given for Hugh’s release from irons, but not from custody).


Ib., 147.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 562-4; Rot.Lit.Pat., 180.


Ib., 151.


Apparent in all the printed chancery rolls, but especially in Rot.Ob.Fin., 570-605, passim.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 239.  For Hugh’s rights in Cannock Forest see P. Dryburgh and B. Hartland (eds.), Calendar of the fine rolls of the reign of Henry III, 1216-1224 (Woodbridge, 2007), 231 (no. 6/18).


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 282.


Ib., 260.


Ib., 231.  See also Vincent, Letters and charters of Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, 80 (no. 108).  Details of Lenham’s landholding from Book of fees i, 231, 238, 253.


Rot.Lit.Claus. i, 283, 290.


Ib., 376.


J.C. Holt, Magna Carta (2nd edn., Cambridge, 1992), 101 provides examples.


Close rolls of the reign of Henry III, 1231-1234, 312-13.  I owe the suggestion about the Poitevins to David Carpenter.


J.R. Maddicott, Simon de Montfort (Cambridge, 1994), 284, Kosto, Hostages in the middle ages, 44.

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