Hawkwood made the best use he could of his well-earned patch of local military superiority, rampaging around burning and pillaging as you do, though he was rudely interrupted by the irritating presence of Tuscan and Pisan walls. But still, he threw some insults at the local, temporarily impotent bosses, before making himself feel better in 1370 by pillaging and burning the port of Livorno. In the summer, he was back in southern Lombardy; and to be brutal, his exploits at Cascina 2.0 made relatively little longer term strategic difference. Florence was just too well defended, and too well heeled; before the winter season was out, they would field a new army, including Hugh Despencer, whose attempt to hang on to Violante’s dowry had come to a violente end. Groan, sorry.
Bernabo’s next tactic was to put pressure on the Pope and his allies in Mantua by threatening the Papal city of Bologna. He continued to try to deny that Hawkwood was anything other than a free company, out for their own gain as they ravaged the lands in Mantua on their way to Bologna, what a horrid lot he exclaimed – not that anyone believed him any more than they had before of course. By October 1371, it seems all of this was wearing a bit thin, not only with Bernabo’s opponents, but with Hawkwood himself. And we get one of the rare exchange of letters in which are some written by Hawkwood. We assume that Hawkwood’s Italian may not have been brilliant; or at very least it’s sure that we would not have written the letters himself, but used a scribe.
Anyway, the occasion came as a result of Hawkwood’s raids through Mantua territory. Since Bernabo was strenuously denying any responsibility for these supposedly free companies’ wrong doings, the Gonzaga wrote directly to Hawkwood for compensation. This is interesting – Gonzaga would hardly have written if he didn’t think he had a chance of achieving something; and it rather speaks to the idea that although the mercenary companies were condemned by many as simply vicious hired thugs, that’s not necessarily how their employers and city fathers saw them. They were instead men at arms, following in a noble and widely accepted profession of war, and part of the fabric of the Italian body politic and diplomatic framework. Medieval society was one where war was an established part of its tapestry.
Anyway, Hawkwood did what his employer would clearly believe was not according to the script. As far as Bernabo’s view of the world went, Hawkwood was there to soak up any responsibility and keep his name out of the blame game. But Hawkwood for once wasn’t playing. He wrote back to Gonzaga. He both ducked any blame
I hear that certain of the English brigade…inflicted damage on your territory. I am greatly grieved by the news. But since these Englishmen were soldiers of the magnificent lord of Milan there is nothing I can do
Hawkwood of course would never [clutches pearls] countenance such behaviour and that his men had inflicted no damage. He then, quite frankly, pushed it
May it please your lordship to send word through your territories that my associates be allowed to pass freely through your land and that they be allowed food and provisions in return for their money
Boom, as I believe they say.
Ok, so Bernabo was not best pleased at being exposed; and I suspect Hawkwood would have kept stum, if it hadn’t been that there was a problem. The problem was that Hawkwood was out of contract, probably due to Bernabo’s avoidance strategy, and whether being paid regularly or not, that would make Hawkwood nervous – he was responsible for making sure his captains and men were paid, without which he pretty soon wouldn’t have any captains or men. His action with Gonzaga then were evidence Hawkwood himself playing politics – putting pressure on Bernabo to pay for the loyalty he so apparently demanded. It worked; that same month, October 1371, Hawkwood and Bernabo Visconti met at Parma, and a new pact was completed. To seal the deal, Hawkwood wrote to Gonzaga, and fessed up
My dearest friend…I am as sorry as I can be…
Sweet. Mission accomplished. No compensatory payments forthcoming, of course. There were negotiations as it happens between Hawkwood and the Mantuans in person – Hawkwood ducked and Hawkwood dived, until the news came that the Visconti and Papacy had signed a truce. So Hawkwood scarpered. Job done.
The Truce turned out to be just that – a truce, not meant to last. Not one of those truces that gave time to negotiate the arrival of a full peace, and the light of truth and justice, but the kind of truce to allow the combatants to get their weapons sharpened, mercenaries hired, armour burnished, and then back to it. By June 1372 they were back at it hammer and tongs, and Hawkwood would record a second of his greatest victories as an independent Captain General.
Still in the Po valley then, Hawkwood came near the small city of Rubiera. He had resumed an old acquaintance as it happens – his old colleague for a year back in the difficult days of the 1360’s Ambroglio Visconti, bastard scion of the Visconti. It’s like that in business isn’t it? You keep meeting up with old faces over and over. Where are you working now? Oh yes…
Anyway Hawkwood and Ambroglio came into contact with the papal army of 1,200 lance of cavalry, and foot of an unspecified number, Commanded by Lutz von Landau. It was a dangerous moment; it was an impressive force compared to Hawkwood. Hawkwood’s army was both smaller at only 1000 lances, and contained only cavalry and no foot. He was, on paper, out-numbered and outgunned. The Papal commanders must have thought they were in for a killing. So Landau & Team probably weren’t surprised when Hawkwood asked for discussions about peace, and in their numerical superiority felt secure. It was a false sense of security, as senses of security so often seem to be! It was another trick; Hawkwood carried out a flanking maneouvre, no doubt taking full advantage of his cavalry’s speed; the papal forces were surrounded and overwhelmed. A few days later the news reached Bernabo’s happy ears – and he proudly announced his success to the Gonzaga.
Rubiera was an impressive victory against the odds. William Cafferro notes that as a general rule, Hawkwood’s skills tended to mean that his greatest successes came in the open plains like the Po valley, where he could freely manoeuvre, and less often in the constricted environment of the hills and Appenines. Coming on the back of Cascina, Rubiera did much for Hawkwood’s prestige; it also forced the Pope back to the negotiating table, and the result was another truce. You would think that it would also have had the effect of cementing Hawkwood’s profitable relationship with the Visconti; and no doubt it would have appeared to do just that, for Hawkwood would almost immediately be back on campaign at their side. But as Harold MacMillan once observed, the problem with politics was ‘Events, dear boy, events’ – said in suitably patrician tones of course. And events are what happened to bring about a 180 degree change of air and scenery.
Let me take you to the city of Asti in the North West, back to Hawkwood’s first stomping ground in Piedmont. Not content with fighting the Pope, the Visconti in the form of Galeazzo continued their age old three way struggle for supremacy with the Counts of Savoy and Montferrat. Asti was an important city continually changing hands more times than vignt et un addict. John and Ambroglio, released from the Po Valley by the truce, joined Galeazzo’s army in besieging Asti. Now one story is that there was an artistic disagreement at this point between Hawkwood and Bernabo. Artistic in the sense of how best to kick seven bells, or rather 8 bells out of the opposition, for that was of course Hawkwood’s art. We all have our talents. John wanted an active, aggressive strategy – to attack and destroy the Count of Savoy, who was approaching Asti with re-inforcements and attempting to raise the siege; but he lost the argument with his employers and stormed off in fury, angered at his professional opinion and expertise being taken so lightly, and he took his men with him. He blamed the dispute four square on ‘scribbling notaries’:
He never believed that he should be ruled in the feats of arms by a council of notaries
Well, I’m sure all of us have nightmares about nibbling scrotaries. Essentially, the idea is that the resulting off-storming, along with his brigade of Englishmen was a matter of professional honour that his judgement had been overridden, and he left the band to pursue a solo career. Well, actually he took his band with him, but you know what I mean. The Mercenary formerly known as Bernabo’s.
It’s probably actually more complicated and more practical than that. I mean yes, they may have disagreed, but Hawkwood and his Englishmen were coming to the end of their contract – and they had not been paid. It’s no mystery that the way to a mercenary’s heart is through his pocket, after all, it’s their living. Now early in a contract you could afford to be patient; but at the end of a contract, it was important to get the cash in hand before the P45 arrived, and the English were at the end of their contract. Hawkwood also wanted to increase the size of his rout from its current size of 300 lances, to 500 lances and an extra 200 archers. Bernabo took a different view; he wanted them to stay the same size, and despite the triumphs of Cascina and Rubiera took a dim view of Hawkwood’s recent performance around Asti.
So what we are seeing in September 1372, then, is a good old contract negotiation. Hawkwood was a manager as well as a warrior; it was his job to look out for the welfare of his men, to make sure they could earn the daily bread – and remember they must have felt pretty temporary about their situation, in a foreign land, a certain amount of vulnerability.
So Hawkwood did as you do and played his hand as hard as he could. In the background he opened negotiations with a potential alternative employer, just in case things went pear shaped with Bernabo; the man he selected was a French knight leading a mercenary band on behalf of the Pope – Enguerrard de Coucy. At the same time, he made sure Bernabo was aware of the stakes here – by moving his rout towards Parma, closer to the Papal army.
Although the end of a contract is never a comfortable situation, Hawkwood was probably reasonably confident about playing hard ball with the Visconti. By 1372, he was in a strong position. He was much sought after following his recent victories, and news had got around; even all the way back to England, where the Chronicle of St Marys at York spoke of his activities in Lombardy, and described him as leader of ‘several other English companies’. Thomas of Walsingham wrote of this ‘Outstanding and famous knight’ who was ‘always victorious in battle’, which is a bit of hyperbole, but whatever, never let the truth get in the way of a good headline. The quotes indicate Hawkwood’s status in Italy as the de facto leader of the English mercenaries, after his formation of the Company of St George had saved the defeated White Company down in Tuscany. We see around him a core of English commanders staying with him long term – William Gold, William Boson, Richard Romsey, John Thornbury. At the same time, mercenaries elsewhere were becoming a bit harder to come by; because 1372 saw the start of a decline in the numbers of German soldiers coming to ply their trade in Italy; and as yet, a new wave of Italian commanders such as Jacopo del Verme, and Facino Cane had yet to emerge. English mercenaries were becoming smaller in quantity too – so it’s supply and demand innit, guv’. English soldiers were prized and their tactics so admired that all companies were now adopting the lance formation. Since Hawkwood’s star was on the rise, he was the biggest draw for English soldiers on the market. So with a good brand, if I may use that hideous terminology, and with scarcity, wages rose too.
But maybe the thing was that Bernabo simply no longer thought he had the need – news came of a new truce brokered by the King of France, announced on 21st September 1372. But the Pope, Gregory XI, now he was still in the market, anti mercenary league or no anti mercenary league. And he duly got his man – and the resulting deal gave Hawkwood all he wanted and more. He got his additional lances and archers, with a golden hello of 40,000 florins. Gregory wrote to Queen Johanna of Naples, and got her to restore an annual pension to Hawkwood, about which she would not be pleased. The Pope, who’d previously had something of a downer on mercenaries and the English in particular announced his triumph of the head hunting art without a trace of irony, calling him ‘our beloved son’. Bernabo meanwhile was steaming, so cross, he imprisoned John’s mistress and children at Parma. He may have tried to use this as leverage to coerce Hawkwood ; he twice contacted Him to try and persuade him to come back – but Hawkwood had moved on, and would neither shilly nor would he shally.
The company he and his English commanders brought to the papal army were mainly English. But as normal he joined a thoroughly international group. There was Enguerrard de Coucy, who’d played the part of intermediary to bring about this deal, and another Frenchman, Raymond of Turenne; Italian contingents, including his old adversary Galeato Malatesta; there were Germans like Otto of Brunswick, and a Gascon, Amanieu de Pommiers – Pommiers had served with Hawkwood for the BP at Poiters in 1356, and his teeth were appropriately long. But then John himself was probably 50 years old by this stage, rather old to be spending his life breaking heads. Altogether, the Papal army numbered maybe 2,000 lances. Hawkwood took his company to Bologna, the headquarters of the Papal army, and there the English company was joined with the Italians of Niccolo d’Este, who had been part of the defeated army at Rubiera, and Ugolino da Savignano, captured by Hawkwood in a fight at Siena in 1367. What fun they must have had catching up on the old times! Remember the time gave your arse a good kicking? Ha Haa!
Bernabo knew what was coming next, and was not idle. It had been 12 months with two truces – and you all have an idea of how permanent such things were in Great game of 14th century Italy. So he assembled his own Mercenary top Team; 600 German lances, 300 Hungarian, 200 Milanese 200 Piedmontese and even 300 English lances – so a total of 1400 lances or about 4,200 individuals, under another of Hawkwood’s old adversaries and brothers in arms, Hannekin Baumgarten.
The scene was set. The Diabolical Englishman had entered the service of God’s Vicar, the Pope.