John Hawkwood story is remarkable. Born to a minor gentry family in Sible Hedington Essex, he became a child of the hundred years war. He became a soldier, whose skills were forged in the French wars of Edward III. When peace came along he found himself a man with a set of skills unsuited for times of peace. So he became a mercenary and military adventurer, and teamed up with the Free Companies, and eventually found himself in Italy. Over a career in Italy of around 30 years, John Hawkwood would go from an ordinary professional soldier, to being feted and recognised as the leading warrior of his age, and the subject of a grand fresco by Paolo Uccello in Florence cathedral.
His life and story has been told in many different ways. One contemporary Italian described him as ‘The most brave and wise captain Italy has seen in the last hundred years.’ Others called him the ‘diabolical Englishman’, or the ‘Serpent’. He acquired a reputation for loyalty to his employers – and for a grasping mercenary’s greed for money; as at once a model of chivalry – and for being involved in perpetrating two massacres of innocents. His story, and the that of the mercenary companies he led, gives us a window int 14th century Italy.