So, the story in the New York media in 1943 records an anecdote told by Johan Smuts of South Africa, relating a conversation between Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Winston suggested to Stalin the possibility of the Pope’s being associated with some of the decisions taken at the Conference. Stalin thought about this and replied to a question with his own question
The Pope. How many divisions has he?
Funny Joe Joe, sharp eh? Well, if that discussion had taken place 600 years earlier, it would not of course have been a rhetorical question. The Pope did indeed have divisions – 2,000 paid lances in Bologna alone. So we might ask the question – what was the Holy Father doing scrabbling around in the guts and entrails of War?
Well you know the answer already to a degree – very few people saw a problem with the Pope being both a spiritual and Temporal leader at the time. Interesting, nor was the Pope above using spiritual weapons in support of his temporal squabbles – the Florentines would be up next to be excommunicated in 1374 when they captured Bologna from his holiness, and from under Hawkwood’s not inconsiderable hooter it should be noted.
But more specifically, who was this Pope, and why was he so keen to stick it to the Visconti? Pope Gregory XI had been elected in 1370 in Avignon, and would be the last of the French Popes – or the last French Pope recognised by the church anyway. His ambition was to bring the Papacy out of the Babylonian Captivity at Avignon, and it was an ambition he would achieve – just. In this he was driven by the hammering Avignon had given the Papal reputation; Petrarch condemned Avignon as
The nest of treachery in which is hatched
All evil that today spreads round the world
A slave of wine, of bedrooms and of food
High testing ground for every kind of lust
Oo-er. Petrarch would have had a hoot on Twitter; as far as he was concerned, the regeneration of Rome, the Renaissance you might decide to call it, could not happen unless the Pope returned to his city and quelled the constant rivalry between the noble Roman families of Colonna and Orsini that had caused the pope to flee in the first place. Anyway, Petrarch’s analysis was not good positioning for a spiritual leader. Saintly figures like St Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena were constantly writing to him to get back to where he belonged – after all he was Bishop of Rome, not Bishop of Avignon. And his role as a peacemaker wasn’t much helped by the fact that many secular rulers saw him as being in the pocket of the French.
The papacy saw their temporal possessions and revenue as critical to maintaining any independence in Rome from the various people that would control it – Emperor, France, Aragon, even the local families, Colonna and Orsini. They must not be dependent on others, if they were, how could they be spiritually independent? The more of Italy they controlled, the more independent they would be.
The obvious place to start was their Patrimony, the Papal States. The papal states might well have agreed, but the power of the Nimby is paramount. In this case meaning that the Pope surely needed their own lands and resources certainly agree with that – but just not mine thank you very much. So just like every other city and it’s contado, they sought for it not to be them, and did their very best to be independent. Lazio, Marche, Umbria, Romagna, parts of Emilia – all tried to break free. And in the earlier 14th century many had done a jolly good job.
Bringing them back under direct control was not Gregory XI’s brainchild; many Popes before had sought to do so. Innocent VI had therefore employed a character across whose path our hero has crossed, Cardinal Albornez. The fighting cardinal did a good job from 1355, bringing the cities of Rimini, Ancona and Urbino to heel, then Cesena and Forli, and most of Romagna was back in the tent, when Bologna was added too. The Popes fortified towns like Viterbo so they could hold on to them and as we have already seen that worked against Hawkwood very well. By Gregory’s time Popes had already tried to return to Rome – come close but never quite managed to get hold of the cigar. Now Gregory XI could smell it.
The trouble is that the Papal mission brought them not only into conflict with the cities over whom they could justifiably claim jurisdiction, but with places whose lordship was disputed. That includes the Visconti, who had already come to blows over Bologna, and now feared that the further extension of papal authority would start cramping their own expansionist style. Florence, although a traditionally Guelph city, was also starting to find it hard to remain a supporter as they expanded heir sphere of control.
It was his old employers the Visconti then, against whom Hawkwood was deployed first; and 1373 is a case of raid and counter raid too for which there’s not really time, and anyway it could get boring. There’s the odd highlight and lowlight. Bologna formed one of the focusses of the war; and John’s defection brought him in conflict with old friends again – specifically Ambroglio Visconti, who raided Bologna’s contado, only to be caught going home with his goodies by Hawkwood at Crevalcuroe and soundly beaten. None the less, it wasn’t until April 1373 that Hawkwood and De Coucy were ordered to attack the heartlands of Visconti Lombardy; the objective now to link up with Amadeus of Savoy who, surprise surprise, had re-entered the fray.
Galeazzo Visconti sought to block this invasion at the town of Montechiari, in the north of Lombardy at the foot of the Alps and its passes, with an army of 1500 lances and 500 foot. In the resulting fiercely fought battle, it was reported that his son, Gian Galeazzo, one of the best known and famous of the Visconti, destined to be the first Duke of Milan, took part. This despite the fears of his Mum, Bianca of Savoy who had pleaded with Bernarbo and Galeazzo in the past to keep her boy out of danger. Well, at Montechiari trouble found him; Gian Galeazzo was knocked from his horse and forced to leave helmet and lance on the battlefield to get away. Montechiari was another of Hawkwood’s great victories. But once more, its lasting impact was small; Amadeus of Savoy failed to join up, and despite there being no army left between him and Milan, yet Hawkwood stayed his hand and retired to Bologna.
Why we might ask? Various theories have been advanced; the absence of Amadeus, the prospect of the Visconti re-assembling its avengers and taking, well, revenge, or a desire on Hawkwood’s part not to completely destroy his old employers or the impossibility of taking many walled Milan. Possibly it was none of these – possibly it was simply a matter of the shiny stuff – money,
John Brice had already been sent by Hawkwood to Avignon to complain to the Pope about the lack of pay. Gregory was in a financial mess; he apparently told John to be patient, and even gave him the same advice my mother, frequently gave to me as a kiddie – not to look for reward now since I would get my reward in heaven. Which to be honest, was no more of a compelling offer for a 12 year old that it had been to a condottiere with a lot of well armed and potentially violent men relying on him. Not much money was forthcoming – though Gregory tried to keep John sweet by granting his illegitimate child, John, the right to ordination back in London. There was a kicker – the grant was on the proviso that the son not ‘imitate his father’s incontinence’, which appears to be a comment on Hawkwood’s warlike affairs but maybe also unmarried adventures with mistresses. Still, Until Gregory could pay up, Hawkwood’s activities were limited – though in July he did manage to encourage rebellion against the Visconti in the city of Bergamo, as a result of which his old friend Ambroglio Visconti was killed, trying to restore control.
But more than that, little happened. Gregory’s representatives met with the Visconti in Bologna for intensive peace discussions. Gregory continued to attempt to bribe Hawkwood with offers of personal land grants; and with plans for a ‘deadly blow’ against the Visconti; but no parsnips were buttered thereby. Hawkwood needed proper payment for his men, or there was no deal. By May 1375, Gregory admitted to John Brice that he was worried the English company would leave him.
Within a month, Hawkwood’s world and the world of Italian politics were stunned by the most extraordinary volte face by Gregory. Let’s return to the thing about growing worried on the part of Florence towards Papal ambitions. While they worried, Gregory also fretted. The war against the Visconti was going nowhere, and Florentine support was lukewarm at best, absent at worst. Meanwhile the tensions were upped significantly when Gregory forbade the export of grain from Bologna for fear of a famine there. Florence loudly objected; they relied on such imports to feed their own citizens. Furthermore, they were worried that Hawkwood was rumoured to be planning an attack on their very own territory, and they knew Hawkwood of old and had shadowed his career, so that was an unattractive proposition. As a result Gregory sent a delegation under one Berengar to Florence, apparently to repair relations, and to re-invigorate the war against the Visconti.
When I say apparently, I mean – that’s what he said he was doing. He also claimed that there was no need to worry about Hawkwood – he’s not being paid, he’ll do nothing, can afford to do nothing. So, they were, Florence and Berengar, negotiating away, picking over the details, working to establish a good, trusting, powerful relationship, when in June 1375 the news broke. In Bologna, Gregory and the Visconti had come to terms and agreed to love each other forever in peace and harmony. There was uproar at the Congress in Florence. Berengar acted embarrassed and claimed he’d been mislead, he knew nothing, John Snow. No one believed him and the Florentine’s produced letters which showed Hawkwood was on a 10,000 florin monthly stipend, the other with evidence Berengar was not to be trusted. And within a week as Berengar and delegation fled from Florence, the Florentines were proved right in their suspicions. Gregory had switched horses. And Hawkwood was on his way to Florence with all the force he could muster, and a massive siege train. A Sienese envoy met Hawkwood as he travelled and admitted that he has ‘never been so frightened’, and that the army and siege train made a procession 10 miles long. The poor man was right – it does sound scary.
But, however, and having said all that, Florence had mighty walls, imposing towers and was well manned. Its defences were nice and modern too – updated in 1333. It’s difficult to think that Gregory really believed that he was going to break in and take possession of one of the mightiest city states in Italy, especially in light of the general inexperience of the Great Companies to prosecute siege warfare, and indeed carry out protracted campaigns. It’s more likely that they expected what happened – that Hawkwood would march up and down the walls of Florence for a while, like Achilles riding his chariot of bronze outside many towered Illium, and eventually they’d pay him to buzz off and devastate someone else’s contado. And indeed maybe the whole thing was an exercise in revenue generation by Pope and Condottiere. You know – I don’t have the money to pay you; well that lot over there look pretty flush; go and get your pay off them. OK Boss.
You might think that the experience of paying off Vikings only to see them return would have warned people that such an approach was a short term strategy. Well, in Italy in particular the environment was rather different I suspect – I am busking, I must admit I mean first of all you are paying off mercenaries, who are used to doing stuff for money. And secondly, if you paid them to go and bother someone else, you could be sure there would be a nice fat target relatively nearby. In this campaign then, Hawkwood would carry on with his company, and raise extortion money in the same way from Arezzo, Lucca, Siena and Pisa. From Florence alone he was paid 130,000 florins, a lot of money, and in all he probably brought home 215,000 florins.
It was clearly an accepted strategy this extortion thing, and we have a letter from 1374 from Hawkwood and his notaries to the Priors of Siena. It’s a triumph of diplomatic language, so I might give you the whole of it, and it could be a standard letter you might want to use yourself maybe. Here goes
Magnificent and powerful lords and dearest friends
[Dearest friends – nice touch that don’t you think? So personal, respectful helpful, even intimate]
So that your magnificences should not be surprised, [thoughtful I think you will agree] we are letting you know that we had heard that a large company of men-at-arms was gathering outside the boundaries of your territories in order to fight with us, and for that reason we came here to find out if the facts correspond with reports. [Again, helpful, friendly, informational – should be a regular newsletter really, as part of the Companies’ Outreach programme] As a result, if it pleases your lordships to spend a certain sum of money on this company, as customarily ought to be spent on men at arms, [so – nothing new here of course, MAA need to be paid, so of course you will want to oblige. The fact they are not your MAA is of course hardly relevant] we will abstain from damage [oh how thoroughly abstemious and noble!] and, so far as we can, we will keep your territory free from harm: [wait for it – here coms the iron fist bit from the velvet glove] but if not we will allow Pillagers from our company to do whatever they wish. [ooh, there’s a bit of a change in tone!]
Let us know your disposition in regard to these matters.
So, all done in the best possible taste.
While we are on the topic, there’s another letter about Hawkwood from this time also – but one written to Hawkwood. It was from Saint Catherine of Siena. She of course was horrified at these men of violence, and wanted him instead of persecuting the good, honest, peaceful Christians of Italy to go on crusade and persecute the infidel instead. She starts
Oh dearest and most gentle brother in Christ, would it really be such a great effort to look into your heart and consider the stresses and strains you have endured in serving the devil for money’
That is a nice touch I must admit – this is hurting you more than me sort of thing. Anyway St Cat then advises he go and ‘fight the infidel dogs who possess our holy places’ and so on.
We don’t have a reply from John. He might I suppose have mentioned that he was currently fighting for the Pope, under a banner that had the legend The Holy Company. Either way, the letter doesn’t seem to have made him mend his ways to look for a career change.
A little wrinkle about Hawkwood’s campaign to Florence, is that Florence also awarded Hawkwood an annual pension of 1,200 florins a year in the expectation that this would stay the hand of the executioner in future. It’s interesting I think for a couple of reasons; firstly that such things must surely have compromised Hawkwood’s freedom of action for other employers. And secondly, it’s further evidence that Florence put the threat posed by Hawkwood at the very highest priority; we’ve seen that before as they attached a diplomat specifically to follow Hawkwood in the late 1360s. Hawkwood was increasingly a player, an identified player and possibly free agent for the right offer; he was becoming part of the political system. And Florence was moving towards a position that trying to manage Hawkwood was proving impossible – they couldn’t seem to get rid of him. So – maybe it would be better to have him on their side, inside the tent, and have done.
But not yet. For the moment, the Florentines were livid with the Pope and the church. Florence turned on the clergy in its territory and angrily levied a tax to pay for the bribe. Immediately after Hawkwood’s visit, Florentine emissaries fanned out from the city – the Pope must pay for this, Florence decided a league must be formed, not against the mercenaries this time – but against the Pope. The time was right – Milan joined, followed by all the city states that had seen the Papal banners in Hawkwood’s band, robbing them, essentially in the Pope’s service – Siena, Lucca, Pisa, Arezzo – even Johanna of Naples, still cross about that forced pension. Eight men were elected in Florence to co-ordinate this bright new league, and they earned the name of the Eight Saints. Their first act was to commission a special banner for the League of Eight Saints sent to all allied cities – emblazoned with the word Liberta!