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King’s Ransom

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 15, 2010

What exactly does it mean when someone says they’ve paid a King’s ransom for someone’s services or for an item?  A King’s ransom has always referred to the payment of a great deal of money to secure something the other person has in his or her possession, be it another person, an item, knowledge, experience, et al.

The History of American Yachts and Yachtsmen, published in 1901 spoke of a king’s ransom as it referred to Queen’s Cup:

Such is the brief history of the first dawn of American yachting history. A, comparatively speaking, valueless cup, but worth a king’s ransom by reason of the fifty years of glamour surrounding it, the cup which was presented under the now famous deed of gift to the New York Yacht Club July 8, 1867, to be preserved as a perpetual challenge trophy between the United States and foreign countries, not alone England, as is so often understood — but it hardly seems probable than any other country would now feel it exactly etiquette to try for it, at all events not until England has again won it, which seems a rather remote contingency,  judging from past history.

But almost 200 years before then, the British were desperate to rule the oceans.  In 1714, British Parliament passed the ‘Longitude Act’, stating that a reward of £20,000, a king’s ransom, was to be awarded to anyone who found a practical solution to the longitude problem. The longitude problem was the most exasperating scientific dilemma of the day and had been for centuries. In fact, the quest for a solution had occupied scientists for the better part of two centuries before the Longitude Act was passed.

In 1622, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha — carrying with it what was described as a king’s ransom in treasure consisting of 1,038 bars of silver, at least 7,175 ounces of gold (although gold smuggled aboard may have resulted in double or triple the amount recorded), and approximately 230,000 silver coins —  was sunk by driving wind and rain that tossed the ship onto the reefs and shoals off the Marquesas Keys, just off the coast of Florida. The ship went down in 50 feet of water and took all of the 260 lives aboard with her.

In 1525, during King Henry VIII‘s reign, according to public records held at the British Museum, Adrian de Croy, Lord of Beaurain entered into negotiations between Charles V of France and Henry VIII of England.  In a letter to a colleague, Beaurain wrote:

I cannot see how any peace be negotiated here for they are braver than ever.  As yet, the French show no intention of offering anything except their King’s ransom which is not our chief object.

In 1406, Prince James of Scotland had been sent to France to protect him from his uncle, the Duke of Albany, who had murdered James’s older brother, David.  However, before he could reach the safety of France, he was captured by the English off King’s Lynn and he spent the next 18 years of his life in the Tower of London, at the English court and in the English military service in France.  When Henry V died, the king’s ransom was negotiated and James was returned to Scotland (he was murdered some years later in 1437 at the Blackfriars Monastery in Perth by a group of lords led by the Earl of Atholl who just happened to be James’ uncle).

In 1346, King David of Scotland had assembled an army at Perth to invade England and on October 17, the Battle of Durham was fought.  The King was taken prisoner and held in the Tower of London.  While he was freed in 1357, the King’s ransom was outstanding 9 years later and the northern lords refused to give their rate towards the ransom and other financial obligations.

During the 7th crusade in 1260, Louis IX was taken prisoner in Egypt by the Turks who were in a position of strength and were led by the famous Mamluk general, Baybars.  They attacked Damietta and captured Louis IX and demanded that Louis IX‘s followers pay an enormous ransom worthy of a King’s place to secure his release. Prior to this event, no one had ever stated that they were holding a King ransom in exchange for financial enrichment, and for good reason.

The word ransom comes from the Old French word rançon, and earlier raenson which means”redemption.”   This comes from the Latin word redemptionem which means “a redeeming” from redimere. The verb is first recorded in the 13th century and therefore, it would be impossible to pay — much less demand — a king’s ransom prior to this date.


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