Maurice Keen

  • Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders
    Faber, 366 pp, £17.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 571 21908 X

‘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.

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