John Hawkwood is not a name much bandied about these days, but back in 14th century Italy he was a force to be reckoned with, a man of martial skills everyone wanted on their side. (Not that the medieval Italians ever could get his name right, which is why Machiavelli calls him Giovanni Acuto.) Being gifted with an ample conscience and a constant hunger for gold, John took the opportunity to sell himself to the highest bidder – and this man, as per his inscription “the most skilled and cautious of generals”, did not come cheap.
To provide some background for our John, we need to start at the beginning. As always, this tends to be a bit murky when going this far back in history, but we know John was born in Essex, somewhere round 1320. His father was a well-to-do minor landowner, which ensured John thrived despite the rampant starvation that characterised England during his early years. Upon his father’s death, John as a younger son was not left much of an inheritance, but it helped that his family had close ties to the de Vere family, and it was as an archer under de Vere’s command that Hawkwood first bursts into the annals of history.
The Hundred Years' War was not a chivalric little outing in which noble knights jousted, parlayed and did some more jousting. No, this was an extended rape of France, perpetrated by the English aggressors, but, just as often, by the bands of mercenaries hired by the desperate French to defend themselves. Problem with mercenaries is that if you don’t pay them – and pay them well – they will take their payment where they can find it. Or join the other side…
While using mercenaries was nothing new, it was during this extended conflict that the commercial community discovered just what a commodity a group of fighting men could be. The mercenary went from being badly paid cannon fodder to highly salaried experts, and the resulting profit was evenly shared by the mercenaries themselves and the middle-hand, the ever more powerful merchants.
Despite being labelled as a war that extended over a century, in actual fact this war was fought in innings, with long periods of fighting ending in an uneasy truce, thereby giving both sides the opportunity to get their breaths back. Now, these little breaks were excellent if you were a nobleman needing to trot back home to inspect your lands, make your wife pregnant, and generally lie about for some time. If, however, you happened to be a common soldier, chances are these extended pauses were quite the headache, starting with the fact that soldiers weren't paid if there was no fighting going on.
This is when he joined the Free Companies, at first riding with the tard-venues (the latecomers) but relatively quickly transferring to the White Company, a well-organised mercenary venture headed by a German called Albert Stertz who had made it his task in life to enrich himself – and his men – by selling his company to whoever bid the highest. And when there were no takers for his services, our German captain decided to go creative, which is why he – together with several other mercenary captains – attacked the papal seat in Avignon, ultimately wresting a huge ransom from the pope.
At the time, La Bella Italia did not exist – at least not as more than a geographical region. Europe’s favourite boot was a collection of fiercely independent and competitive city states constantly at war with each other. And where there are miniature wars brewing, there one needs a mercenary army or two, right?
The pope obviously thought so: Innocentius VI actively participated in brokering the contract that finally rid Avignon of the mercenaries. He convinced the Marquis of Monferrato to hire the White Company and use them to smite the hated Visconti, rulers of Milan, hard. As the pay was good, the White company gladly went, stopping only to set half of Marseilles on fire as one final destructive coda to their long, unwelcome stay in France.
By the early 1360’s, Hawkwood had assumed control over the White Company despite being illiterate. Not that being incapable of reading was much of an issue for the captain-general as the White Company boasted an excellent administrative system complete with its own lawyers, clerks and purchasers. Other than the fighting men, the company also had its fair share of priests, prostitutes and physicians – plus a minor army of servants.
Contrary to what one may think (or not), the White Company was not named for the innocence of its members, but rather for the uniform worn by the soldiers. In white surcoats, (most impractical one would think) and with selected pieces of armour polished until they glittered like mirrors, these mercenaries exuded a certain style. (Mercenaries depended on speed, so very few of them wore full body armour, choosing instead to wear whatever piece they felt suited their needs best.) Accompanied by a bevy of pages, the mercenaries rode from battlefield to battlefield but often dismounted to fight on foot, assuming a hedgehog formation that bristled with lances. Pitted against the mostly civilian militia of the various city states, the White Company’s hardened soldiers generally came out the victors, leaving a trail of blood and suffering in their wake.
The English mercenaries quickly acquired a reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency. Spawn of the devil, some of their reluctant hosts would mutter, son of Belsebub they whispered behind Hawkwood’s back. Not that he cared: after having spent some years fighting the Milanese Visconti on behalf of the pope, the company then spent the coming decade fighting for whoever dangled the biggest purse before Hawkwood’s nose. From having fought for Monferrato, the company ended up fighting against him at the Visconti’s side, and they were sometimes on the papal side of the constant conflicts, at others on the side of one city state or another. In time, Hawkwood acquired the reputation of being a mercenary one could trust (well…) which put him in the agreeable position of being able to pick and choose.
There may have been another reason for Hawkwood’s decision to leave the soldier-for-hire business. Hawkwood lived by his sword, and it is difficult for a man to spend his whole life fighting and come out untarnished. In Hawkwood’s case, his huge blemish is the massacre of Cesena in 1377. At the time, Hawkwood was serving the pope, and it was Robert, Cardinal of Genoa, who insisted all the inhabitants of this little town be put to the sword. Approximately 5 000 civilians lost their lives in that bloodbath, and it would seem Hawkwood was quite disgusted by the entire matter. Whatever the case, he never actively fought for the pope again…
Anyway, from 1377 and onwards, Hawkwood was the effective commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces. And in 1390 he defended Florence against the expansive ambition of the Visconti by defeating the Milanese forces, thereby saving the fiercely independent Florence from that fate worse than death of becoming a Milanese vassal state.
That, of course, is why John Hawkwood ended up commemorated in the Básilica, remembered as one of Florence's true heroes. (Someone conveniently forgot that during his first time in Italy, Hawkwood repeatedly fought against Florence, killing a number of its citizens) Not that John had any intention of being buried in Florence. He wanted to return home, and spent his last few years planning his move. Unfortunately for him, he died before he could realise his dream of going home.
In 1395, Richard II requested that his body be returned to England, and the Florentine authorities acquiesced. Whether this happened or not remains an open question, but by now John Hawkwood probably no longer cares where his mortal remains lie buried. As to his spirit, I dare say it hovers over the rolling hills of Tuscany, but now and then his restless soul dives down to inspect that seven metre high mural of himself and howls with laughter. After all, whatever else he was, John Hawkwood was not a man who deserved to be commemorated in a church!
If you want to know more about John Hawkwood, I warmly recommend "Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman" by Frances Stonor Saunders.
The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, this is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.
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