Now then, I mentioned that in May 1368 John Hawkwood had gone to a wedding which is nice – everyone loves a wedding do they not? All the opportunities for Dad dancing and so on. Well we’ll come to Dad dancing or not in a moment, but first of all you all need a bit of background I deem. First of all remember that Charles IV, the Bohemian HRE, that is an Emperor who came from Bohemia rather than one that hung around wearing kaftans, is wondering round Italy with an army that reputedly reached 20,000, and seems to have been allied with the Pope against those gaudy upstarts – the Visconti of Milan. By 1367, that war was being fought in the Po Valley. You may well know of the Po valley, a famously rich and fertile region. And along the towns of the river, the two sides slugged it out, inevitably involving their allies – one of whom fighting with the Empire were the Gonzaga of Mantua and their contado, or region, hinterland as it were.
Obviously, this put the Visconti under a spot of pressure, and they looked around for some friendly faces, for allies. Bernabo Visconti was a man of wide vision; and he looked well beyond his borders – all the way to little old blighty, yes to England. You might ask why – given that really Edward III was quite a long way away. I can dig up three reasons why at the start of 1367, Bernabo had started a correspondence with Edward III about a bit of a hook up. Firstly, the Plantagenet dynasty was pretty glittering at this stage, and a marriage to the victors over France could be prestigious; together with the consideration that the blood that ran in Edward’s veins was a different colour – it was of course blue. Or should that be purple. Whatever – a marriage alliance with a royal house even for the massively powerful Counts of Milan was not to be sneezed at. It would be a feather in the cap, for sure. Secondly, Edward was in the anti-Papal camp, just like the Visconti. It had always annoyed Edward that the Pope, supposedly the leader of Christendom and above the petty loyalties of the various kingdoms, was in fact a Frenchman, and as far as Edward could see, behaved like it diplomatically. At this minute Edward was trying to get a papal dispensation for the marriage of a son Edward of Langley, and he needed a bit of leverage. Two good reasons, but was that enough? Well, there was a third, which was the continuing relationship between Hawkwood and the country of his birth. Edward still had influence with Hawkwood, and was able to use it to get Hawkwood to switch his own allegiances back to Bernabo.
In May 1367 then, Edward and Bernabo agreed a treaty, to be sealed by a marriage – between Edward’s son Lionel, Duke of Clarence and Galeazzo Visconti’s daughter Violante Visconti. Violante’s short life of 32 years would be marked by her usefulness as a token in the market of diplomacy, the poor thing. She would be married three times; this treaty, signed when Violante was but 12, was her first. By 1368, then, it appears that Hawkwood was fighting for Milan – he appears outside the gates of Mantua in the Po Valley at the time. I must ‘fess up here – it is by no means certain that Hawkwood would be present at Lionel and Violante’s wedding – the evidence is circumstantial. But look – he had been mentioned in correspondence between Bernabo and Edward and was important to both; he was fighting for Milan; he was in the broad part of the world at the time. It’s a fair bet.
Well, if you were a member of a royal family going to be married in far away and fabulously rich and gloriously beautiful Italy, you must cut a dash, and Dash is exactly what Lionel tried to cut. He set out from Dover in April 1368 with a few of his nearest and dearest companions – 457 of his nearest and dearest companions to be precise, along with 1280 horses, all carried in 52 ships. Now that my friend is a wedding party, a proper wedding party. Through France they rode and into Savoy and over the alps, all glitz and glamour at every stop, feted by Charles V of France, and Duke Amadeus of Savoy, precious gifts being exchanged like topsy. Until near the end of May they arrived in Milan, to be greeted by Bernabo and Galeazzo.
The timing was a little awkward to be fair – Charles and the Pope had just launched a massive offensive against a Visconti held castle in the Po valley. But armies found it difficult to take castles, even the HRE. And so Bernabo felt able to leave the campaign for a while to be at the wedding.
Violante, just 13 now would be believe, was married to the 30 year old Lionel in extravagant ceremony. They would have been married at the doors of Santa Maria Maggiore. There would have been an absolute melee of Milanese there to watch the ceremony. Given that marriages have nothing to do with the Bride and Groom and everything to do with the family, the boat was then pushed out. The wedding celebrations thereafter were pretty ocean going liner in the boat pushing hierarchy; if you are planning a grand wedding, you might want to take notes.
There was enough food apparently to feed 10,000 people; I assume that’s an exaggeration, but not necessarily of course, since I assume the tradition to be that the ordinary locals and poor could tuck in once their social superiors were done – a form of social security. Feeding of the 5,000 v 2.0 sort of thing. The banquet provided for the well heeled was spread over 18 courses, the thought of which gives me a nose bleed to be honest. Some examples of the courses; they started off with gilded suckling pig and crabs; then there was roasted hare and pike; followed swiftly by gilded calf and trout – is this making you hungry by the way? I don’t believe there was a vegan option, though I could be wrong
Gifts were showered on the bride and groom, to keep interest up in between courses – gifts of six great coursers with gilded saddles and trimmings emblazoned with the arms of Galeazzo and the Duke, six shields, lances and steel hats and other items. There were presents for Lionel’s mates too, the likes of Edward and Hugh Despenser. For those that like to push connections further, there is also a suggestion, dodgier than Hawkwood’s presence, that maybe Geoffrey Chaucer was there, met Hawkwood, and thus provided grist for the Hawkwood as Chaucer’s gentil knight theory. Petrarch was definitely there, however.
Now it could be that Lionel simply admired his bride for her mind, but it might not be irrelevant to know that Violante also brought with her a vast dowry of 100,000 florins and a substantial range of castles and lands in Piedmont. and all of that gives a pretty strong suggestion that here was a lengthy alliance planned; Lionel was a younger son, and therefore pretty useless dynastically speaking, so here would be a new lord of Lombardy and loyal ally of the Visconti, with prestige and links to English muscle.
Now as it happens, this was all for nought. Within 4 short months, Lionel was dead, and buried at Pavia. The Despencers, in the finest robber baron tradition tried to claim he’d been poisoned and hold onto Violante’s dowry. But really although political poisoning was definitely a thing in 14th century Italy, there can have been no earthly reason for Galeazzo and Bernabo to do such a thing. Violante would have a bit more time to grow up, but 9 years later in 1377 she was married to the Marquis of Montferrat, again obviously in support of a local alliance. That didn’t last either though – the good Marquis was assassinated after 18 months of marital bliss. Third time lucky – married to a cousin, Ludovico Visconti, Bernabo’s son of all things; this time the marriage lasted 5 years, until Violante’s death at the age of 32.
Now given that Lionel died sharpish you might ask why I have spent so long telling you all of this, and it would be a fair question honestly. Well, I am constantly looking for ways to make Hawkwood’s story a little less fighty, and I thought you might like ideas for that wedding you were planning. But also, it does reinforce one of the themes of Hawkwood’s life; his constant if not always very visible connection with blighty and the English royal family.
Anywho, we’d better get back to the fighty stuff. Now it seems that Hawkwood was fully employed by Bernabo therefore, but honestly Benarbo was something of a tinker and was not keen to advertise the fact of Hawkwood’s new employment, so he rather denied it. Which was a little difficult to sustain as Hawkwood carried out devastating raids on papal territories in 1369, all the way southwards to arrive at Perugia, which was in revolt against the Holy Father. In his way, Bernabo, quite shamelessly, distanced himself from this deadly horde; he signed up to the Papal league against mercenaries; he described Hawkwood as simply a band of free mercenaries, and had the nerve to write to the Pope to warn him he was coming. All, I am told, is fair in love and war. Sadly, Bernabo was spotted in Hawkwood’s camp by the Sienese Ambassador, who didn’t keep the information to himself, as you might imagine. So, everyone knew full well the value of the word of Bernabo Visconti.
In Perugia, Hawkwood teamed up with the city’s militia and took it to the Papal army – a mercenary army would you believe led by a German Johann von Reitheim. And not to put too fine a point of it, Hawkwood made a complete Horlicks of the whole thing; outside the walls of Arezzo he was surprised by a citizens army as he fought Reitheim. The result, wrote a happy Aretine chronicler was that
They made a terrible fight in which … many were killed and almost all the remaining men were taken captive, including the Captain John Hawkwood
Oops. Just to make the point again, Hawkwood famous captain though he was, hardly had a 100% record, he’s no Napoleon Bonaparte. Having said that being captured was pretty standard fare among mercenary captains – the Captain that had beaten him at Cascina for example, Galeotto Malatesta, was captured three times in his career.
We don’t know anything about the terms of Hawkwood’s imprisonment, nor the colour of his cage, nor who or why paid the ransom that was presumably charged; but he seems to have been sprung within a couple of months, and quite rightly got right back up on that horse – fighting for the Visconti but not fighting for the Visconti as it were, carrying out a devastating raid on Papal territory up to the walls of Viterbo and Montefiascone; we are about 75 miles north of Rome at this point by the way. Both cities were however well defended and fortified, so Hawkwood had no chance of capturing them, even if he’d wanted to. But he burned the land around and shot arrows with nasty messages attached to them through the windows of the papal palace.
In November, though, Hawkwood received new orders – it was an instruction to take the fight to the old enemy, the graveyard of Hawkwood’s previous hopes – the mighty Florence, allied now with the papacy against Milan.
Hawkwood marched north, and was reinforced as he did so. Spookily, his reinforcements included a contingent commanded by the very man who had kicked his backside so recently at Arezzo – Johan von Retheim. Which interesting; not just as further evidence that this was a job, no hard feelings and all that, but also that somehow Bernabo must have paid Johann to switch sides pretty sharpish after seeing his success against Hawkwood. A ministry of all talents sort of thing.
Bernabo’s plan was to have Hawkwood once more try to cut Florence’s access to trade. In the dizzying twists of Italian politics, though, Pisa and Florence were this time working together, not against each other, which is confusing – so Hawkwood found his former employers, Pisa, distinctly unwelcoming; they cleared the land of hay and provisions to make it harder for Hawkwood to live off the land. And as it happens anyway, this was completely the wrong time of year to be fighting. And indeed the chronicler Sacchetti was livid that Hawkwood was wandering around in December of all months, when he should really be tucked up nice and snug in Winter quarters, singing songs and drinking hot chocolate while decent, honest citizens were able to catch a break from all the fighting. Sacchetti blamed Bernabo though
You snake, enemy of human reason
Who in winter, while others are underground
Goes on biting and making war
The snake of course, was the Visconti viper.
Anyway, welcome or not Hawkwood took up position cutting the river Arno, Florence’s main artery of trade to the coast. He took up position at the very place where he’d been handed his first defeat as an independent Captain – at Cascina, the mid point between Florence and Pisa. And there he waited for the arrival of the Florentine commander Giovanni Malatacca, who was hot on his tail in pursuit.
You might think returning to the site of his humiliation would fill Hawkwood fill foreboding. But Hawkwood had grown in experience of warfare in Italy, and in command knowledge and skills. The reverse at Arezzo was actually most untypical – Hawkwood was known for his careful preparation, and caution. He was also becoming known for his cunning, and the quality for which Gollum had accused Bilbo – that of tricksiness. He laid his plans carefully.
Arriving at Cascina, Malatacca saw a welcome scene – the back of Hawkwood’s men. It had been wet, and as you know from last time, Cascina was on the river Arno, and the backs of Hawkwood’s men seemed to suggest pretty strongly that Hawkwood was running away, crossing the river presumably across some ford or whatnot. Whatever – fortune favours the bold, haveatcha Giovanni my lad. Florentine Cavalry streaked across the plain closely followed by the man body of the army. Into the bend of the river they rode, closing down on Hawkwood’s desperate warriors.
Except they weren’t Hawkwood’s warriors – or well, they were, but more specifically they were the assembled page boys of the English lances, dressed in their masters’ shiny breastplates. And although they looked super vulnerable they were not as vulnerable as they seemed; the ground in the bend of the river was wet from the rain and marshy from the river. The horses sank up to their fettles…possibly, no idea where a fettle is, but they sank anyway, got stuck, milled. Neighed piteously. Riders swore, probably took the Lord’s name in vain, and struggled to get out. But from the left and right appeared the real Hawkwood army, and trapped, in chaos, Malatacca’s army either ran before they got into the trap, or like the Cavalry were killed or, most commonly, captured. 800 Florentine horse were killed, more captured.
For Hawkwood, it was vindication. He had put the Cascina of 1364 behind him, and the errors of Arezzo too. After his factors had carted off all the spoils of horses and armour to Pisa and sold them for the best price they could, for Hawkwood the next stage was to block Florence’s access to another of its trading ports – to Livorno.
And it is to Livorno that we shall go next week, as Hawkwood’s star was in the ascendant.