‘The greatest mercenary of an age when soldiers of fortune flourished,’ says the cover flap of Frances Stonor Saunders’s biography of Sir John Hawkwood (c.1320-94), one-time leader of the White Company made famous by Conan Doyle’s historical novels. The 14th century was indeed an age of opportunity for military adventurers, and for mercenary soldiers in particular. Independent companies, led by seasoned captains, and with their own internal discipline and organisation, came to constitute effectively an independent factor in the warfare and politics of an age when states had not as yet learned to maintain standing armies. Ready to hire themselves out to any prince, city or lord prepared to pay for their services, such companies could make their paymasters militarily very formidable. Their martial skills were matched by their skills in pillaging, looting and burning, and in bullying towns and often whole regions into paying exorbitant tributes to be left in peace. Their activities were one of the most intractable political and social problems of the period.
The confused fighting in the Hundred Years War between England and France offered adventurers eager for gain a fine apprenticeship in fighting and plundering, and spread freebooter companies across much of the French kingdom, reducing rich provinces to economic ruin in the course of the 1340s, 1350s and 1360s. Italy offered even more enticing opportunities. Its wealth was an obvious magnet, and the rivalries of city republics and of local signori, and the territorial ambitions of the popes in their central Italian patrimony and of the Visconti of Milan in Lombardy, made sure that there would never be a shortage of employers interested in engaging their services. The business of hiring mercenaries, and their business of hiring themselves out under carefully negotiated contracts (condotte, whence condottieri) developed into what was in effect a specialised branch of Italian diplomatic activity.
The leaders of mercenary companies came to be well-known figures on the political scene. Chroniclers such as Froissart (for France) and Villani (for Italy) furnish us with a host of names, once formidable but now largely forgotten: Seguin de Badefol, le Petit Meschin, Conrad Landau, Jacopo dal Verme. A handful rose clear of the ordinary run of successful adventurers to higher influence and more lasting fame. No 14th-century mercenary captain rose as high as Francesco Sforza did in the 15th century: he married the only child and heiress of Filippo Maria, last of the Visconti of Milan, and used his condottieri companies to secure his own succession as duke three years after his father-in-law’s death. But there were spectacular achievements in the earlier age, too. Roger Flor, leader of the Catalan companies that overran Frankish Greece, married into the Byzantine imperial family and was hailed in Constantinople with the title ‘Caesar’. Bertrand du Guesclin, the Breton adventurer who led a mixed host of French, Gascon and English free soldiers into Castile to destool King Pedro the Cruel in favour of his bastard brother Henry, rose ultimately to be constable of France.
A good many English captains made considerable names for themselves in France under Edward III and the Black Prince, and independently on their own account: Robert Knowles and Hugh Calverley for instance. But none achieved quite such fame or rose quite so high as Sir John Hawkwood, the ‘diabolical Englishman’ of Stonor Saunders’s book, did in Italy. His military achievement and reputation carried him steadily forward to the edge of the princely aristocracy, with his marriage in 1377 to Donnina, illegitimate daughter of Bernarbò Visconti; to the title of gonfalonier of the Church, for Urban VI; and to the office of captain general for the proud republic of Florence, whose grateful citizens honoured him with a state funeral.
The story that Stonor Saunders traces is a truly remarkable one. John Hawkwood was born the younger son of Gilbert Hawkwood, a tanner and minor landowner at Sible Hedingham in Essex. There is a story that he was briefly apprenticed to a tailor, but he probably went to the wars early, maybe on the 1342 Breton expedition. Unverified tradition has him present at the great battles of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), but his early military career is deeply obscure; it is not even clear when or how he received his knighthood. Around 1359 he seems to have been leading a small freelance company in Gascony. The first really clear glimpse we get of him is as one of the leaders of the ‘Great Company’ of freebooting soldiers who, left without employment after the 1360 Peace of Brétigny between France and England, banded together to seize the key crossing of the Rhône at Pont St Esprit, and forced Pope Innocent VI to buy them off from before his city of Avignon for 30,000 florins. It was an extraordinarily spectacular coup, news of which resounded through Christian Europe.
A key element of the agreement between the pope and the Great Company’s leaders was that after leaving the Avignon region they would take service (at papal expense) under the Marquis of Montferrat in his and the pope’s war against the Visconti. So in 1361 Hawkwood and his companions rode away for Italy in what came to be known there as the White Company (from the polish of its bright armour). There Sir John remained till his death, 33 years later, and made his name as the most formidable mercenary captain of his age. Amid the kaleidoscopic changes of alliance and of internal regimes that characterised Italian politics he served many masters, but he was more consistent in his loyalties and changed sides for cash offers less often than most of his fellow captains. Between 1363 and 1368 he fought principally in the employ of the republic of Pisa, between 1368 and 1372 principally in that of Bernarbò Visconti, between 1372 and 1377 in that of Gregory XI. In 1377 he returned to Bernarbò, when the latter was briefly in alliance with Florence, in the War of the Eight Saints. From 1380 on, he was more or less continuously in the pay of Florence, though he commanded armies also for the house of Durazzo in the succession war in Naples (1382-83, 1387-88) and for the Carrara of Padua against Verona (1386-87). In his last campaigns (1390-92) he led Florence’s forces as captain general in the first stage of the great confrontation with Gian Galeazzo Visconti; he won his last victory when he defeated Jacopo dal Verme, captain for Milan, at Val di Nievole in September 1391.
At the end of his life he enjoyed an unrivalled reputation in Italy as a military commander. Speed of movement, shrewd use of ground and an acute understanding of the importance of intelligence (supplied through a skilfully organised network of spies and correspondents) were among the secrets of his success. There were, naturally, downs as well as ups in his long military career. He defeated the youthful Gian Galeazzo dramatically at Montechiari in 1373, and won a brilliant victory for Padua over the Veronese at Castagnaro (1387). But there were nearly as many reverses, especially in the early years: he was disastrously defeated by Albert Sterz (in the pay of the pope) at San Mariano in 1365; at Mezzo in 1368 he was taken prisoner by papal troops and put to ransom; in 1391 he lost almost half his force when Jacopo dal Verme’s engineers broke the embankment along the Adige and flooded the plain where he was encamped. Full-scale engagements were of course not all that common in these wars; Hawkwood’s swiftness of manoeuvre, his understanding of when to strike and when to hold back, of when to threaten and when to withdraw, usually gave him the better of the campaigns in which he was engaged. That, to his employers, was the kind of success that mattered most.
There are some curious omissions in Stonor Saunders’s account of the military events of Hawkwood’s career. His last victory at Val di Nievole scores no mention; nor, much earlier, does his presence among the freelance captains at the extraordinary battle of Brignais in 1362, where a coalition of free companies fighting for no one but themselves routed the French royal army under the Duke of Bourbon, which had been dispatched to clear them off the land. One gets the impression that the strictly martial side of his achievement is not what most excites Stonor Saunders’s interest, which is probably why her book does not attempt a full assessment of his abilities as a commander. It may be for the same reason that there is no serious exploration of the tension, which she has clearly observed, between divergent contemporary perceptions of him. On the one hand, he inspired the comment ‘an Englishman gone Italian is the devil incarnate,’ and for Sachetti his motto was: ‘You rob on that side and I will rob on this.’ In contrast, Vergerio hailed him as one who for generous spirit and valour could be compared with the great Romans, and the equestrian fresco painting of him by Uccello (replacing an earlier one by Gaddi) in the duomo of Florence is still there in witness to the respect in which her citizens held the ‘late brave soldier’, whose ashes and bones ‘it reflected glory on us and our people to preserve.’ To his countryman Caxton in 15th-century England he appeared as among the knightly heroes of the recent past who should serve as models of chivalry to his generation.
Two other intriguing aspects of Hawkwood’s career receive admirably careful and perceptive treatment from Stonor Saunders. One is the matter of his profits from war, a problematic issue because though there are plenty of records from which to compute the costs of mercenaries to their employers, there is much less evidence by which to gauge the profits cleared by individual captains. She calculates that over his thirty odd years in Italy receipts of up to four million florins must have passed through his hands, and possibly more. As his condotte show, his fame enabled him to charge very high rates for his services, and payments negotiated with him by cities that he might leave their territories undisturbed were often of an astronomic order. Condotte and payments such as these were a major strain on the resources of Italian cities and lords, and kept taxation at unacceptably high levels. Very large sums also became due to him for the ransom of prisoners of war. In later years he enjoyed besides a handsome annuity from Florence (1200 florins per annum). His marriage to Donnina Visconti brought him a substantial cash dowry as well as lands in Lombardy, and he himself acquired property (mostly ultimately sold) in the kingdom of Naples, in the Romagna and in Florence.
It is therefore rather surprising to find evidence that towards the end he was finding himself in financial difficulties, and it is not easy to pin down the explanation. Some of the very large payments that passed through his hands had to be shared with subordinate leaders of his companies, and much no doubt went on wages and salaries and on keeping his bands together in the interludes between paid employment. Some of his paymasters (notably the popes) failed to meet their full obligations, and not all his prisoners found their full ransoms, while he himself on one occasion at least had to shoulder a ransom payment. A Lucchese banker with whom he had made substantial deposits defaulted in 1377. It is clear moreover that on a number of occasions he advanced substantial sums to companions in his company to help them meet debts, some of which were probably never repaid; and no doubt he himself lived high, if only to maintain his dignity. If he ‘turned the business of war into an exorbitant art’, as Stonor Saunders neatly puts it, it proved an art in which, from a business point of view, keeping the profit and loss accounts in favourable balance could be problematic.
One further reason why Sir John may in his latter days in Florence have faced financial embarrassment is that he had been, over a long period, transferring a portion of his Italian profits of war home to England, to be invested on his behalf in lands and manors in his native Essex and the purchase of properties elsewhere (including the Leadenhall in London, sold later by his heir to the real Dick Whittington). Stonor Saunders examines with care this second intriguing aspect of Hawkwood’s story, his relations with England and his apparent nostalgia for his homeland. His countrymen were well aware of his growing reputation in Italy, and so, as she explains, were their rulers; Richard II and his councillors recognised clearly his value in his own independent right as an ally and agent in Anglo-Italian diplomacy. They sought his support and advice for Chaucer in 1378 when the poet was commissioned to conduct exploratory negotiations for a marriage of the boy king to Bernarbò’s daughter Caterina, and in 1381 and 1385 he was named among the king’s ambassadors to Pope Urban VI. He had been in touch with English governing circles since the mid 1370s, and the royal pardon that he sued out in 1377 (covering offences committed in the French wars) suggests that the possibility of return was then already in his mind.
In his last years, it grew into a firm intention. Stonor Saunders quotes in full the letter in English that in 1393 his faithful squire John Sampson sent to his English agent Thomas Coggeshall, announcing that his master was planning to return, with Donnina, to England, ‘unless he die before his coming home’. The letter, which serves in effect as a nuncupative will, at the same time conveys Hawkwood’s instructions for the sale of properties to maintain chantry priests to sing masses for his soul, and for the souls of companions slain in his service, in chantries to be founded in the parish church of Sible Hedingham, and in the convent of Castle Hedingham. Death overtook him before he could set out on his homeward journey, on 17 March 1394. It is a measure of how he was esteemed in England that a year later King Richard wrote formally to the Florentine Signoria, asking that his remains be returned to his homeland. An elaborate tomb, now vanished, was erected for him in Sible Hedingham church; it was seen and well described by the antiquary William Holman in 1715.
Stonor Saunders’s book has been planned as more than just a biography; it gives very ample coverage to the social, political and cultural background which is the setting of Hawkwood’s story. In this, as in other respects, it has much in common with Barbara Tuchman’s justly applauded A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Both authors came to the Middle Ages after making their mark with writing on the 20th century; and both use the story of a warrior leader through which to present their impressions of the 14th. Tuchman’s hero, Enguerrand de Coucy, was born, it’s true, into a much higher rank in society than Hawkwood, coming of an ancient aristocratic family with royal blood in its ancestry; but the wars threw the two together, in the service of Gregory XI against the Visconti, and they were companions in arms in their great victory at Montechiari in 1373. Both authors display a comparable taste for the lurid in writing of such matters as the symptoms of bubonic plague, the inedia and St Catherine of Siena’s preoccupation with the physically disgusting, or the horrors of the indiscriminate massacre of men, women and children at Cesena in 1376, in which Hawkwood’s men took part on the orders of Cardinal Robert of Geneva. Both authors leave their readers at the end of their studies with a very clear perception of why it was that the Italian historian Sismondi could sum up the 14th century succinctly as ‘a bad time for humanity’.
Stonor Saunders’s book does not have quite the thematic coherence of Tuchman’s Distant Mirror, though her consistent preoccupation with the way in which the story of the century’s apocalyptic woes, ‘distantly’ analogous with the woes of the 20th, may help towards understanding how humanity manages to cope with the experience of intensely calamitous periods. Stonor Saunders is also a shade the less careful of the two with her history, especially when she moves away from the Italian stage of Hawkwood’s most famous doings. Her description, for instance, of the English winnings from the battle of Poitiers (1356) throws into the 1356 account the ransom of Charles of Blois (taken prisoner by Thomas Dagworth at La Roche Derrien, 1347), and relates to the Poitiers campaign a quotation from the chronicler Walsingham about the riches brought home to England after the Crécy/Calais campaign of 1346-47. Her accounts of the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, and of the resumption of hostilities after the collapse of the Peace of Brétigny (1369), both muddle the chronological order of development. At the outbreak of the Great Schism in 1378 the Castilians are listed among the supporters of the Roman Pope Urban VI, whereas Castile in fact stood uncommitted for two years, then plumped for Clement VII of Avignon.
But blemishes such as these in this finely written book are of significance principally to the academic historian, and academe is not the audience at which it is aimed. Hawkwood’s was a remarkable career in a remarkable age, and well worth the retelling.