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The meaning and origin of the expression: A king's ransom

A king's ransom

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'A king's ransom'?

A king's ransom is an unspecified but exceedingly large amount of money.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A king's ransom'?

The present use of the expression 'a king's ransom' is simply to denote a large amount of money. Originally though, in the early Middle Ages, it referred to an actual sum - the amount required to obtain the freedom of a king who was held prisoner.

In medieval warfare each participant had a price on their head - the richer an more influential the person captured the more money could be obtained to secure their release. Of course, kings were the wealthiest and provided the greatest bounty.

Recent historical research has shown that there was a well-organised trade in the captives of war and the capturing of high-ranking prisoners led to a significant bonus in the income of the capturing forces.

There are documented records showing that an English archer called William Callowe obtained almost £100 from the ransom of an important prisoner taken at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. Callowes' usual wages as an archer would have been sixpence a day.

A king's ransomRansoms were certainly paid to obtain the release of kings. The English king Richard I was captured by the Duke of Austria in 1192 and a price of 100,000 pounds in silver was demanded (and eventually obtained) for his release.

The transition in meaning of the phrase 'a king's ransom' from the literal price for the release of a king to a figurative name for an exceedingly large sum of money came very early. The word 'ransom', in various spellings, entered the English language in the early 14th century. By at least as early 1525, when the text Talis Fyve Bestes was printed, 'a king's ransom' was being used simply to denote a large amount of money - no kings or their release being involved. That text includes the line:

A kyngis ransoun it was worth & maire.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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