Researching for this answer to another question I found the martial law and "Articulsbrief" (norms for the mercenary soldiers) of Sweden after the reform of the military of King Gustav II Adolf (1611-1632) in a German print of 1632.

In this law there are rules regarding prisoners of war (tit. XIX, §§ 87 ff.; copied exactly from original incl. ortography):

  1. Da vom Feind gefangene eingebracht worden / soll niemand weder hohe noch nidere Officirer / noch die RegimentsProfosen / dieselben uber 36. Stund bey sich behalten / viel weniger ohn unser Vorwissen und Bewilligung loß lassen / sondern dem General-Gewaltiger / oder in dessen Abwesenheit / seinem Leutnant zur Verwahrung uberantworten / es were dann von Uns oder unserem FeldMarschallen ein anderes befohlen.

  2. Alle Gefangene sollen Uns zuvor repräsentirt / und zuhanden gestellet werdern / seind nun etliche Qualificirte darunder / so Wir zubehalten gesonnen / darvon wollen Wir / nach derselben Stand und Condition / eine gebürliche Recompens geben: Die anderen aber / sollen Unsere Soldaten behalten / und deren Rantzionen / die doch allwege mit Unserem und deß FeldMarschallen Vorbewust und Zulassung / bey vermeydung Leibs und Lebens straff geschehen sollen / geniessen.

  3. So soll auch keiner dem andern seine Gefangene unnd gewonnene Leuth mit Gewalt nemmen / oder sonsten entfrembden / sondern sollen sich deß ihrer Irr[?]ungen halber / so deßwegen zwischen ihnen vorlauffen möchten / durch die Obersten und derselben Rittmeister erledigen und entscheiden lassen. In Verweigerung dessen / sollen dem so Gewallt geschehen / die abgenommene Leuth restituiret / und der Gewaltverubet hat / darumb gebürlich gestrafft werden.

My bad translation:

  1. When prisoners of the enemy are made, no one - neither high nor low ranked officers and not the provosts of the regiment [Regimentsprofosen] - shall keep them more than 36 hours, not to mention set them free without our [the King's] knowledge and approval; but shall hand them over to the provost marshal [Generalgewaltiger] or in case of his absence his lieutenants, if not we or our field marshal [Feldmarschall] ordered something else.

  2. All prisoners shall be presented to us. If among them are qualified ones, that we want to keep, we will give a due recompense according to rank and fitness. Our soldiers shall keep the others and get their ransom [Ranzion]. The ransoming shall occur with knowledge and license of us or the field marshal [Feldmarschall] and with avoidance of corporal and capital punishment. [The last sentence is a bit obscure.]

  3. No one shall take away prisoners of someone else with violence or otherwise. But they shall let decide occurring conflict by the chiefs and their riding master [Rittmeister]. When this is violated, the prisoners shall be restituted to the one to whom was violence done and the other shall get a due punishment.

So, some of the prisoners were given to the King and his officers, some were kept by the soldiers. At least the latter are ransomed. But how did this take place? Did small groups of soldiers organize ransoms with the enemy, or was this done on a larger scale? How were the prisoners kept and fed until the ransoming? Where did the ransom take place? What happened to the ones taken by the king?

English Wikipedia only knows release of prisoners with the Peace of Westphalia (Art XVI § 7 IPO). German Wikipedia knows of treaties between the parties of the Thirty Years War on tariffs for the ransom of soldiers of different ranks. But they give no details on the organization.

If there are no sources on the practice of the Swedish army, accounts for other parties of the war are also OK. I suspect the practice was similar.

  • As your quote already says: POWs cannot be freed without the knowledge and consent of the king or field marshal. This strongly implies that this was organized in official negotiations. In case you speak German, there are some sources on the details: Read this article and footnote 8 here. "Kartelle" seem to have played a role in ransoming of POWs too.
    – 0range
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 15:12

1 Answer 1


Some aspects of the below were specific to Sweden while others common to most belligerents in the war. Where possible, I used Swedish examples as that was the OP's topic of interest.

Changes during the Thirty Years War

The long period of warfare seems to have been the cause for changes in how prisoners were dealt with. This is a general overview which works as a quick summary, but is not intended to reflect Sweden-specific items. Many of the topics are also covered in more detail below.

One symptom of the changes which took place during the 1630s and 1640s was the different treatment received by prisoners-of-war, in particular officers. Whereas simply soldiers who had been taken prisoner were often incorporated into the victorious army, officers were released provided they could pay a high enough ransom. During the early years of the war it was normally the commander of the regiment or other military unit which had captured the prisoners who received the ransom, but on the other hand, an officer who had been taken prisoner had to pay the ransom out of his own pocket. ... During the last years of the war it became normal practice for the rulers and princes for whom the various armies fought to pay their soldiers' and officers' ransoms when they were taken prisoner, or to exchange them for prisoners which their own forces had taken. Formal agreements were now signed which fixed the amount of money to be paid for each officer according to his rank. [Asch, 'The Thirty Years War']

Forced Labour

A late 16th century description noted forced labour in particular for Sweden:

The Swedes presented a problem, because the slave markets had declined there in the early fourteenth century, so there were no real instruments to deal with slaves. Perhaps the Swedes were only interested in the ransom business. Yet the ongoing settlement and forced labour policy of the Swedish crown hardly distinguished between military and other prisoners. The King of Sweden used prisoners like proper slaves-owner societies used slaves, especially in the mines, so for him, poor Livonians could have been just one resource among others. [Korpela, 'Slaves from the North']

Though a slightly different context, the premise is collaborated by Osieja in 'Indigenous Educational Policies in Yucatán and Swedish Lapland' which focusses on the Sami and notes how the King used them as forced labour in Nasafjäll silver mines after ore was discovered there in 1634.

Also, we have evidence of the counter-example to this where the Swedes taken prisoner at Poltava were used for forced labour by the Russians while being kept in captivity from 1709 until the Treaty of Uusikaupunki in 1721.

...on 1 July 1709, at Perovolochna in the Ukraine, 20,000 Swedish soldiers, their families, servants and artisans were marched into captivity. ... The majority of these would be released after the signing of the Treaty of Nystadt, in 1721. [Konstam, 'Poltava 1709']

Petersburg itself stands on what was once Swedish territory, and its streets were first paved by Swedish prisoners of war, thousands of whom perished in draining the marshes around it. ['Observations on the Policy of the War...']

Rank-and-File Exchanges

Prisoner exchanges seem to have been primarily arranged in official treaties. One such example (beyond Westphalia) is in the 1635 Peace of Prague (with Saxony). Wilson's 'The Thirty Years War' comments on Article 53 arranging the exchange of prisoners. I couldn't find a version of this online.

The cartels (or kartelle) which featured more in later prisoner exchanges are a 17th century development. Scheipers' 'Prisoners in War'] lists eight documented cartels before 1639, and these involved Spain, the Netherlands, and France. Perhaps Scheipers didn't go all-in with the documentation because elsewhere she writes:

Yet from the beginning of the 17th century exchanging prisoners with the opponent slowly became a common practice that considerably enhanced the captives' chances of survival. The system of prisoner exchange through bilaterally negotiated cartels continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Prisoner exchange was a rational solution, since soldiers held captive were of no use to either side. Prisoners were either exchanged man-for-man or for ransom. Considerable efforts were made to specify "exchange rates" for different military ranks accurately. ... Ordinary soldiers were more likely to be induced to switch sides and join the adversary's armed forces if exchanging them was not possible.[Scheipers, 'Prisoners and Detainees in War']

Pressed Rank-and-File

Pressing captures rank-and-file into service on ones' own side was common for all armies of the time. Some Swedish examples are noted below along with a longer description of the process.

But the common soldiers, especially those raised in Germany, were normally neither ransomed nor exchanged: either they were freed, after swearing not to bear arms against the victor for a certain period, or they were encouraged to join the army that had captured them - a development often facilitated in the later phases of the war by the presence in every army of at least a few men who had fought on all sides and might therefore know the captives, and ease their scurples on transferring from one allegiance to another. In 1631, even the Italians captured by Gustavus Adolphus in his Rhineland campaign were welcomed into the Swedish army (though they deserted as soon as they reached the foot-hills of the Alps the following summer). [Parker, 'The Thirty Years' War']

The Swedes pressed entire imperial garrisons during their conquest of Pomerania and Mecklenburg in 1631, despite promising them free passage. The drawbacks swiftly became clear. Two-fifths of the Donauwörth garrison were forced into the Swedish army in April 1632, 'but being Papists of Bavaria, as soone as they smelt the smell of their Fathers houses in lesse than ten dayes they were all gone.' [Scheipers, 'Prisoners in War']

Supplying Prisoners

Scheipers' overview is good, but with no specific Thirty Years War statements:

In line with civil penal practice, captors were not held responsible for their prisoners' material needs. ... It was still common at this point [1710] for bankers to offer credit for governments to pay soldiers held on enemy soil. [Scheipers, 'Prisoners in War']


Officers were, perhaps obviously, considered a notch above the rank-and-file. Most officers had the expectation of a quick ransom and some ensured that this ransom would have to be paid by their King -- in a development from earlier precedent where officers would ransom themselves.

Sometimes prisoners were simply exchanged, as Torstensson (the Swedish general) was traded for Count Harrach (the Imperial treasurer). It was rare for a commander to be refused the chance of release, but it sometimes happened. Thus Gustav Horn, Oxenstierna's son-in-law, was kept in prison for eight years after his capture at Nordlingen in 1634 (although Maximilian of Bavaria did contemplate, at one point, bartering Horn against all the treasures plundered from Munich during the Swedish occupation; Stockholm, however, was not interested in the deal). [Parker's 'The Thirty Years' War']

Scheipers also details how parole was considered more and more an alternative to exchanges:

An alternative to exchange was release on parole. Officers were allowed to return to their home country or to reside on their own in certain designated "parole towns" on condition that they gave their word of honour to refrain from returning to the on-going conflict. [Scheipers, 'Prisoners and Detainees in War']

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.