Well, here we are at the start of another of my extended biographies, and since we are going boy girl boy girl, it’s the blokes turn – and I have selected John Hawkwood. I should note by the way, that if you have not heard my interview with Mike Corradi, then you should, since it gives a sort of background to the series, though I should also warn you that for completeness I fully intend to duplicate a bit.
So, why John Hawkwood I hear you ask, and who is he anyway? Well, after I left university I was a member of the Ancient and Medieval history book club, where I got cheap books, and one of them was about Hawkwood. I always meant to read it, as indeed I meant to read the one about Celtic art of the 8th century, but instead the book sat on various shelves over the years and acted as a dust collector; and yet guilt figures highly in my life and the book has always looked at me reproachfully and in an accusatory way. And so I thought I should put it to good use. The book, incidentally, is called Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders, published in 2004, of which more later.
John Hawkwood then was a 14th century military adventurer, a man of relatively lowly birth, whose skills were forged in the French wars of Edward III. When peace came along, like so many others, and indeed in common with the aftermath of so many wars, he found himself a man with a set of skills and a CV unsuited for times of peace. In the 14th century in particular though, you never needed to worry about finding somewhere to pick a fight, and so off to Italy he went. Over a career in Italy of around 30 years, John Hawkwood would end up feted and recognised as the leading warrior of his age, and in receipt of a grand fresco by Paolo Uccello in Florence cathedral.
Now this is surely a grand story, and I chose it therefore with some enthusiasm. In the course of reading about the lad’s life, however, I have to admit that the serpent of doubt has slithered into the shed of eden, and I noo hae ma doots. Because as a history go, it’s terribly terribly fighty. In retrospect, I realise of course that this is as obvious as a melon in a cornfield, but as I trawled through a litany of battles and bust ups, I realised that some people may not appreciate all the military stuff.
So, I am here to at least partially reassure you; I mean yes, sadly there’s a lot of fighting. But there is also the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the world that Hawkwood inhabited; and 14th century Italy is a fascinating place, the age of the Florentine republic, the Visconti of Milan, the ins and outs of the Avignon papacy. And that’s before we’ve even started on the Great Companies, and their organisation and impact in Italy; the diplomacy and intrigues of foreign princes, and the rather interesting relationship between Hawkwood and the English crown. So, I promise it’s not just going to be able people hitting each other though inevitably, that will indeed loom large.
You might want to read up about Hawkwood, and if so let me direct you to the website, and the first post in the Hawkwood series, where you will find a short bibliography and maps, or links to maps possibly. Broadly there are 4 books I would direct you to for different reasons. The book that made me feel guilty is by Frances Stonor Saunders, and it is a popular history. It was the subject of one of the funniest reviews I have ever read – the reviewer basically said he’d been to talk to the editor of the journal, who had told him that no, the pages of this journal are not suited to a scream of rage. And so the review therefore consisted of the line – the maps are good. Other reviews were less restrained honestly, it seems to have put a few backs up. But don’t be too hard on the book; actually the author takes trouble to paint a picture of the 14th century more broadly, and it has a distinctive style you might like, but is very personal; so for example it includes a completely out of place personal rant about the English Reformation, and who cares about the authors personal prejudices when they are not even related to the subject matter, references are far and few between, and it includes the odd insult towards academic historians which I think may have got the reviewers’ collective goat. But as I say, it’s readable, and broad.
At the other end is the sort of historian’s bible I think you might say – William Caferro’s John Hawkwood. Here you are in the hands of a thoroughly competent academic. it’s an excellent thoroughly referenced book, but there are not many laughs it has to be said – it’s a readable but in an academic style. The one I’d probably point you too is Stephen Cooper’s Sir John Hawkwood: Chivalry and the art of War; it’s more the accessible style and it separates the fighty career stuff into one section – and then covers a variety of themes like diplomacy, social organistion and so on into thematic chapters – and so avoids over emphasising the process of people hitting each other. And then finally if you want a military background to the 14th and 15th century go for Michael Mallett, Mercenaries and their Masters. Absolutely finally, for a general history of Italy, The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour was recommended to me by Mike Corradi – I assume that’s not you know, Dave Gilmour.
Right so it is customary to talk about the historiography at the start, although I approach this now with some trepidation, since someone copied me a Tweet recently saying that only academic historians are interested in the historiography so you know, leave it ‘arrt mate’. But look I think it’s interesting, and it’s my podcast so I’ll pontificate if I want to. The historiography, if Terry Jones is to be believed, started pretty much with Hawkwood’s life; because Terry advances the view that Geoffrey Chaucer was actually choosing Hawkwood as his model for his ‘champion of the church, the righteous and implacable enemy of the infidel’ his knight; and if so then Chaucer must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek with his supposedly positive image of his knight. The thing is that Chaucer possibly met Hawkwood at the wedding of the Duke of Clarence in Milan, or again in an embassy in 1378 – but actually it’s entirely supposition that they met; and Maurice Keen argues that a knight called Nicholas Sabraham whom Chaucer possibly maybe perhaps met is a better model for Chaucer’s knight than Hawkwood – and anyway is not convinced Chaucer had many doubts about the validity of a knight’s violent and military calling. So – one for the perhaps and speculate file.
The problem of course is that we don’t have much information about Hawkwood’s early life, and almost none of his voice at all; there’s the odd business like letter; one of the first mentions is from one Jean Froissart, the colourful chronicler of the 14th century, who described Hawkwood as a ‘valiant knight’; but doesn’t make any real judgement on his qualities either way really, apart from making the point that he was a ‘poor bachelor knight’ so, on the very bottom rung of the ladder of knighthood effectively.
Hawkwood’s reputation was immediately tied up in the controversy of the time which we will explore as we go through our biography, in which was a broad band of fury at the foreign mercenaries trampling over the soil of Italy, despoiling and ravaging the land and its people. At various times, writers like Petrarch lamented the plague visited on their land, Catherine of Siena demanded Hawkwood go on Crusade to atone for his sins, the Pope constructed leagues to remove them. And of course also recruited them liberally, including Hawkwood as it happens. Florence was a good case in point in this two-faced approach – rubbishing Hawkwood when on the other side, lionising him when he was employed by the city. The point is that the mercenaries in all their horror existed in Italy largely because of the economic, social and political conditions of the time.
However, it’s quite clear that while city leaders and Pope might rub their hands with delight when they managed to recruit the right band of mercenaries, there were writers like Petrarch and a storyteller called Franco Sacchetti who hated it. So Sachetti has Hawkwood in one of his Novella, having a debate with a couple of monks, and snarling at them
Don’t you know that I live from war and that peace would destroy me?
Sacchetti remarked later that
He managed his affairs so well that there was little peace in Italy in his times
The Tuscan poet Antonio Pucci called him the English serpent. But there was an alternative tradition, a noble one. For after all the attitude towards the art of war was very different to that of today – for most of European history, the art of war was a noble profession, and much of the brutality that went along with it; there appeared to be no problem reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable of the brutal chevaucee, burning and destroying the farms and livelihood of ordinary people, and the chivalric tradition of the gentil knight defending the poor and the weak, in the same way as the Pope had no problem preaching the message of the church while hiring mercenaries to despoil his enemy’s lands and people. So the Marquis of Saluzzo described Hawkwood as
The most brave and wise captain Italy has seen in the last hundred years
Filippo Villani called him the ‘grand master of war’. Froissart has a knight describe Hawkwood as ‘a fine English Knight’.
Thereafter, Hawkwood tended to pass more into obscurity; afterall, given the strong local nationalistic feeling, there was little incentive for the Italians to keep an English mercenary at the front of historical memory. News had managed to reach back to England of his exploits though; the Westminster Chronicle for example enthused that his deeds were
So marvellous that their like has never been seen here
William Caxton a hundred years later tried to revive his reputation and the good old days of English arms, exhorting readers to remember ‘this renowned knight, celebrated abroad, forgotten at home.’ But with the exception of antiquarians like William Camden he was largely forgotten; though in 1776 Richard Gough was commissioned to write his memoir. I think someone declared him to be an ‘unsung villain’ at the time also, however Gough’s memoirs described him as a great soldier, a man of fidelity, a mercenary who avoided the cruelty and injustice of his type.
Interest revived in the later 19th century, with biographies by John Temple Leader and Guiseppe Marcotti, but often driven by fiction rather than history. This might just have been because so much of Hawkwood’s life was obscure, coming as he did from a lowly sort of background. He appeared in Conan Doyle’s the White Company, though Conan Doyle clearly thought him little more than a robber, not a suitable subject for a great and noble story of the free, democratic and noble patriotic companies. There were then a series of novels with Hawkwood as a lead character in the early 20th century.
All of this has meant that Hawkwood is a bit cartoonish in places; in fiction he often falls into the Errol Flynn’s laughing, jolly miscreant, swashbuckling, brave, a knight errant; John Ruskin had him as a ‘decorous thief’. Temple Leader’s reading of his character identifies Hawkwood again as rather standing out from the crowd, a figure of much greater honour and loyalty than the mercenaries around him, and there’s that great tradition that the free companies were glorious expressions of the honourable free Englishmen, precocious examples of liberty and democracy.
Then early this century there has been something of a blizzard – already mentioned to a degree, Stonor Saunders, William Caferro, Stephen Cooper. The first may be an article in the ODNB by Kenneth Fowler; and Fowler rather follows the noble tradition, while covering his subject warts and all, but concluding
“There can be no doubt that Hawkwood was one of the greatest military commanders of his day, but what distinguished him from other condottieri of his own generation, and others who came before him, was the loyalty that he showed to his principal employers, firstly Pisa and then, more notably, Florence.”
William Cafferro begs to differ really, pointing out that Hawkwood was a product of the conditions in Italy, that like all the mercenaries it was money that mainly motivated him; and that his loyalties lasted just so long as his paycheck. Nonetheless he agrees that what marks him out was his military success – though don’t expect a Napoleon or a Marlborough I should warn you, the lad has his fair share of misses too.
So there had developed this image of Hawkwood, which at least for some was this exciting, adventurer type of thing; a rags to riches story, of a mercenary sure, but a cut above – a fine warrior, unusually loyal for a mercenary, a model of chivalry. And into that statue, has swung the wrecking ball of clearer-eyed modern historical analysis – and modern attitudes. This partly why I’m a bit worried you’ll all lose interest – because these days we are more likely empathise with the poor people subjected to the mercenaries’ wrath at places like Cesina than the perpetrators. However, there is still some of that older story which does stand up to the test of time; we need to see him as a soldier in a time where most of society recognised and accepted the difference between the grand philosophy of noble chivalry – and the reality of war on the ground. And by those codes of the time – Hawkwood was indeed a success who both ripped and roared.
Caferro, with his modern historical approach, nonetheless recognises this. The Hawkwood that emerges from his pages might not possess some unusual sense of loyalty; but he does stand out for the degree of his military success. He was intimately involved in diplomacy as well as war, often on behalf of the English king, and was a master at manipulation and negotiation, in an Italian world that specialised and revelled in such skills. He acquired and wore his authority with strength, and appears not to have suffered fools gladly, which I always thought a shame for us poor fools, but it’s supposed to be a virtue I suppose – I prefer personally those who suffer my tomfoolery gently though, just sose you know. Hawkwood was never spoken of really for his honesty at the time – but he was admired for his cunning, often referred to as the fox. He used spies widely and regularly – he knew what was going on, and was able to exploit the fissures and movements of the political tectonic plates as they shifted and groaned.
If the job of a mercenary was to acquire money, the jury is a little out; by the finish, Hawkwood was complaining a bit about his debts, but we think it was all just a game, and afterall he was a reasonably major landowner by that time, and manoeuvring for a move back to blighty. But what’s clear is that he acquired at some moments vast quantities of the spondulikes; but it looks as though he may have been pretty scrupulous in distributing said ill gotten gains to his companies, which is a finer attribute I guess. But there’s no doubting he could be and was, brutal; routinely sacking monasteries and holy places, and involved in two major massacres.
OK, so that is an introduction to our subject; in summary an ordinary lad with precious few privileges, who used all the force of his character to succeed in a brutal world to an extraordinary way, to end his life lionised by one of the most glittering ad majestic cities in Christendom, Florence. Next time, we will put our slippered foot on the first stone of the road from Sible Hedingham to glorious Chiantishire.