Should you ever make it to Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, you should of course gawk at the beautiful cupola, but don’t miss the gigantic mural depicting a ma in armour astride a magnificent horse. Move close enough to read the inscription, and you may also begin to wonder what on earth an English mercenary named John Hawkwood could possibly have done to deserve being honoured in this way.
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 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 it seems that John was born in Essex, somewhere round 1320. His father was a well-to-do minor landowner, which ensured John survived 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.
In 1342, John was a simple archer. At the battle of Crécy, four years later, he was in command of 250 archers, a crucial component in the strategy that led to victory for the English. Obviously, John must have been a gifted leader of men – and an able archer, one would assume. He was also, as would be proven throughout his long and colourful career, a naturally gifted strategist. It was John’s fortune that he was born into the tumultuous times of the Hundred Years’ War, thereby finding ample use for his somewhat bellicose talents.
The Hundred Year’s War was not a chivalric little outing in which noble knights jousted, parlayed and did some more jousting. No, this was a long, 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 between the mercenaries themselves and the middle-hand, the ever more powerful merchants.
We tend to forget that war – even today – always has an economic aspect to it, making rich men out of those who supply the fighting parties with food, armour and weapons. English and Hanseatic merchants made fortunes during Edward III’s stubborn attempt to claim the French crown. Bankers invested (and lost) huge amounts in this venture, and most of those bankers were Italian, and so Edward III’s ambition became a multinational venture, involving Italian money, Hanseatic merchants, Breton mercenaries – well, mercenaries from almost everywhere – and, of course, the stalwart English and Welsh soldiers who bled and died en masse on fields very distant from their homes.
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.
In essence, this is what happened to our John. After the glory of Crecy, he did go back home for some years, but when he and a friend severely mistreated another man, he found it best to flee the country of his birth, uncomfortable with being labelled a “miscreant” and potentially risking the noose. So John kicked his heels on the Continent, rode to more glory at Poitiers in 1356 where he finally won his spurs, and then in 1360 it seemed the war was over, leaving Hawkwood an impoverished knight with nothing to return to.
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 who banded together to form the Great Company – attacked the papal seat in Avignon, ultimately wresting a huge ransom from the pope.
Eventually, France had been so thoroughly robbed there were no pickings left. And so the mercenary armies lifted their eyes from the previously so fertile French soil and looked about for new horizons, eagerly urged on by the impoverished Pope who wanted nothing more than to see these Free Companies ride off into the sunset never to return. And what did they find? La Bella Italia!
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, Innocent 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 coda to their long, unwelcome stay in France.
I suspect the White company was lured by more than the pay: at the time, the Italian city states were the Promised Land to many of their fellow Europeans. Lands of plenty, of culture, of a benign climate, the Italian city states beckoned with the promise of a delightful place to retire – supposing you were rich enough. Not that much different from today, come to think of it, given how many of the truly well-off acquire a villa in Tuscany in which to spend the sunset years of their lives…
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 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.
The White Company was not named for the innocence of its members, but rather for the uniform worn by the soldiers. In white (most impractical one would think) and with selected pieces 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 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 shifting allegiances depending on who 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. With 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.
After close to two decades in Italy, most of that time spent fighting for one side or the other, Hawkwood decided it was time to settle down. By now, he was well into his fifties, and when he was offered one of the illegitimate Visconti daughters as a bride he gladly accepted before resigning from his mercenary gig and moving to Florence – a mortal enemy of the Milanese – in 1377, assuming command of this city’s defences. One suspects that must have put something of a strain on his marital relations.
There may have been another reason for Hawkwood’s decision to leave the hire-a-fighting man business, and that reason is spelled Cesena. Hawkwood lived by his sword and his skill as a soldier, 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 blood bath, 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 the fate worse than death of becoming a Milanese vassal state.
That, of course, is why John Hawkwood ended up commemorated in the Basilica, while Dante wasn’t. Not that strange, when one considers the fact that whatever great literary masterpieces he created, that Aligheri dude never lifted a finger in defence of his city. Why should he? That’s what mercenaries were for, right?
In actual fact, John had no 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. As some sort of compensation, he got a magnificent funeral in Florence, although likely he was entirely unaware of the honours heaped upon his dead body.
At the time of his death, Hawkwood was a major celebrity which was why, in 1395, Richard II requested that his body be returned to England. 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 probably 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!