Saturday, 23 March 2013

The White Company - Sir John Hawkwood

Soldier of Fortune
Castle Hedingham
John Hawkwood was the second son of an Essex minor landowner, living at Sible Hedingham, and apocryphally had been a tailor’s apprentice. Born circa 1320 he was the son of Gilbert Hawkwood, a tenant of the earl of Oxford and one of seven surviving siblings. The eldest of the siblings was steward of the nearby de Vere household at Castle Hedingham.
Hawkwood left home with the princely sum of £20.10 shillings[i], when his brother[ii] inherited the manor in July 1340. The younger John also inherited five bushels of wheat and five of oats, a bed and some land. The elder John was to be responsible for his younger namesake’s living expenses for one year.

Apparently finding tailoring of little if any interest, Hawkwood signed up to fight for the earl of Oxford, John de Vere, who was assembling a war party for his king, when Edward III decided to make good on his claim to the throne of France. Hawkwood may have served as an archer on the first expedition.
De Vere was a commander at the battle of Crécy in 1346, and Hawkwood was captain of a company of 250 archers in the fight under de Vere’s command.
It would appear that Hawkwood returned to Essex for a time; in June 1350 he and an accomplice
‘Attacked and savagely beat (‘so that his life was despaired of’) a man in Finchingfield.’[iii] 
This was not the last time he was to show gratuitous violence. A year later Hawkwood stole a plough horse from a neighbour, using it with his own plough for three days. Like so many discharged soldiers before and since Hawkwood was now a registered

‘Common malefactor and disturber of the peace.’[iv]
Hawkwood possibly found time before he left England again to marry, but he is certainly recorded as fathering a daughter named Antiocha. There is mention of Hawkwood again after the Treaty of Brétigny, which ended the first phase of the Hundred Years War, in 1360 he was

‘Still a poor knight who had gained nothing but his spurs.’[v]
It was then that he, like many discharged soldiers, joined the mercenary bands rampaging across Europe. He was about 40 years old and for the next thirty five years he would find fame and fortune abroad. Froissart, the French chronicler believed that Edward deliberately encouraged his former soldiers to become mercenaries to prevent their wreaking havoc at home.

In the two hundred years between 1350 and 1550 the art of ruling in Italy was heavily influenced by the groups of condottieri[vi], hired out to the highest bidder to increase or in place of a standing army. These bands of soldiers were formed from groups of three, consisting of a mounted soldier, his squire and a lancer[vii]. Innocent VI deplored them in a pastoral letter of 1360;

‘Insensible to the fear of God the sons of iniquity……invade and wreck churches, steal their books, chalices, crosses, relics and vessels of the divine ritual and make them their booty.’[viii]

The Free Companies[ix] were also prevalent in the rest of Europe; the disbanded soldiers would roam seizing castles and pillaging churches and the countryside as they pleased. In the absence of allies Free Companies might be engaged to strengthen standing armies or stand in place of a militia of some sort.
‘We would leap upon rich merchants from Toulouse, or La Riolle or Bergerac. Never did a day fail to bring us some fine prize for our enrichment and good cheer.’[x]
Wrote one retired soldier of fortune.

The White Company
The White Company, so named because of their white flags and tunics and highly polished breastplates, had a strength of 3,500 mounted men and 2,000 foot. Hawkwood was one of the most highly paid commanders of the free companies. The uncontrolled fury of the English soldiers gained them the reputation of being perfidious and most wicked. As time went by

‘Nothing was more terrible to hear than the name of the English.’[xi]
Hawkwood’s men’s methods were ruthless, inspiring the proverb

‘An Italianised Englishman is a devil incarnate.’[xii]
War was business to Hawkwood, whose contracts exempted him from fighting against the king of England. The historian Giovanni Villani described the Hawkwood’s men tactics;

‘With slow steps and terrible outcry, they advanced upon the enemy and very difficult it was to break or disunite them.’[xiii]
The Chronicles of Hawkwood

In 1361 Hawkwood and his Hawkwood’s men were one of a number of companies[xiv] besieging Avignon;
‘When he reached Avignon the Pope and cardinals made an agreement with him [the Marquis of Montferrat] and he talked to the English, Gascon and German captains. On payment of sixty thousand francs by the Pope and cardinals, several captains of companies, such as Sir John Hawkwood, a fine English knight, Sir Robert Briquet, Carsuelle……………and several others gave up Pont-Saint-Esprit and went off to Lombardy, taking three fifths of all men with them.’[xv]

Urban V
In April 1367 the Doge of Pisa, Giovanni Agnello, was at Leghorn to meet the Pope, who was returning from exile in Avignon, much to the chagrin of many of his cardinals. Agnello was escorted by Hawkwood and 1,000 of his men. The Pope refused to disembark; it was not until he had assembled an army of his own that Urban V was able to return the papacy temporarily to Rome in the October.
The following year Hawkwood attended the marriage of Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence and third son of Edward III, to the daughter of Galeazzo Visconti on 28th May 1368. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer, Petrarch and Froissart were also present.

Gregory XI
In September 1370, at the urging of his cardinals and as a result of the wars raging throughout central Italy, Urban returned to Avignon; he died in December 1370 and his successor was Gregory XI who did not return to Rome until 1377.

Bernabo Visconti Lord of Milan
By 1372 Hawkwood’s company was in the pay of Milan and at the siege of Asti was prevented from making a frontal assault on the city by the guardians of the Visconti heir, who was nominally in command of the siege. Furious at the unwanted intervention Hawkwood struck camp; as a result of which his pay was cut in half by Bernabo Visconti, Count of Milan. In retaliation Hawkwood and his men joined the Papal service.
In Papal Service
Hawkwood and his men marched towards Milan, where the Pope and his allies hoped to surround the city. By April 1373 Hawkwood was 40 miles east of Milan, at Montichiari. He was in command of over one thousand lances and accompanied by the Lord of Coucy, a French noble. According to Froissart, during the fighting Coucy was rescued by Hawkwood

‘Who came to his aid with five hundred because the Lord of Coucy had wedded the kynge of England’s daughter[xvi] and for none other cause.’[xvii]

Arms of the Lord of Coucy
The pair and their men retreated and regrouped, attacking the Milanese, whose soldiers were happily looting believing the battle won. The Visconti heir was hustled from the field, leaving the mercenaries in possession. The Papal forces left the field with Visconti banners and 200 prisoners.
The Pope pronounced the victory a miracle. He was not so pleased when the battered Hawkwood-Coucy forces withdrew to Bologna to regroup. However the Pope had not been paying the Hawkwood’s men, which was growing restive. Passing through Mantua the men caused such mayhem that the citizens complained to the Pope to no avail.

By July the Coucy-Hawkwood forces had joined up with those of the Count of Savoy at Bologna. Marching westward the troops upset the citizens of Modena and then laid siege to Piacenza. Following bad weather and Savoy’s falling ill the siege disintegrated. The re-appearance of the Black Death in Italy and southern France, in combination with a shortage of cash, meant that Gregory’s martial activities fizzled out.
Massacre at Cesena
In 1375 the war to control the Papal States was re-invigorated by  Robert of Geneva[xviii], the Pope’s Legate in Italy. Robert persuaded Gregory to hire a mercenary band with the most appalling of reputations, the Bretons, the worst of the Free Companies. The Bretons failed to take Bologna and, following several defeats by Florentine forces, the Bretons were quartered in Cesena. The troops refused to pay for supplies, provoking an uprising of the citizens.

La Rocca Malatestiana at Cesena
Robert persuaded the people of Cesena to lay down their arms and then summonsed his mercenaries, including Hawkwood’s men, to exercise a general massacre. For three days in February 1377 the streets of Cesena ran with blood. Between 2,500 to 5,000 men, women and children were killed and the town plundered.
‘All the squares were full of dead………..and what could not be carried away, they burned, made unfit for use or spilled upon the ground.’[xix]
It is alleged that Hawkwood allowed one thousand women to leave for Ravenna, as well as some men; but to settle a dispute between two of his men, over a nun, cut the woman in half with his sword.

In October 1376 Pope granted Hawkwood lands in the Romagna; Bagnacavallo, Cotignola and Conselice, of which Cotignola with its castle and 720 inhabitants was the most substantial.

Italian Dynasties – Edward Burman, Thorsons Publishing 1989
Chronicles – Froissart, Penguin Classics 1968

The Fourteenth Century – May McKisack, Oxford University Press 1997
A History of Venice – John Julius Norwich, Penguin Books 1982

Hawkwood – Frances Stonor Saunders, Faber & Faber Ltd 2004
A Distant Mirror – Barbara Tuchman, Pan MacMillan Publishers Ltd 1989


[i] £13,700.00 the retail price index £262,000.00 average earnings, source
[ii] Confusingly also named John
[iii] Hawkwood – Stonor Saunders
[iv] Ibid
[v] A Distant Mirror - Tuchman
[vi] Derived from the word condotta meaning a contract
[vii] Lances who changed employer frequently were known as free-lances.
[viii] A Distant Mirror - Tuchman
[ix] As the condottieri were known outside of Italy
[x] A Distant Mirror - Tuchman
[xi] Ibid
[xii] Ibid
[xiii] Ibid
[xiv] Known jointly as the Great Company
[xv] Chronicles - Froissart
[xvi] He married Isabella, the daughter of Edward III, whilst a hostage in England
[xvii] A Distant Mirror - Tuchman
[xviii] Who was to become the first anti-Pope of the western schism
[xix] A Distant Mirror - Tuchman

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