Let me take you away, ladies and gentlemen to the powerhouse of trade and commerce in northern Europe – to the Marketplace in Ghent, Flanders. It is winter, the 26th January, and the year is 1340. A platform has been assembled in the centre of the market place decked with banners, and on the platform stood a young man and his queen, a local, Phillipa of Hainault. Around him were gathered his great men, including his son John, who had been borne here and would be known to history as John of Gaunt because of it. But most importantly were gathered the magistrates of the 3 great towns of Flanders, including Jacob Artevelde of Ghent. These men were determined to protect the wool trade with England on which their livelihood depended, that trade had been banned by the French king Philip VI.
The crowd had gathered in the market place to see and hear what the excitement was all about. The people of time would have known how to read an heraldic symbol, and they would therefore have starred with open mouthed amazement at the flag of the English king – no longer simply the 3 lions, but now quartered with the gold fleur de lys of the French throne. While they were busy dealing with this little bombshell, the richly dressed young man stepped forward and in a loud voice addressed them all. He grandly announced his claim to the throne of France by right of inheritance. And he asked for their help. With their eyes firmly fixed on the valuable English trade, the crowd roared back their support.
Now listeners to the history of England will know that while Edward III’s opening salvo in what became known as the mathematically challenged 100 Years War was not simply the medieval and chivalric desire for glory and his rights to the French throne. Although for a young and thrusting medieval king like Edward, who had been forced to wrest his throne from the grasping hands of his mother and usurping stepfather and who dreamt of chivalric glory, that would have been reason enough. But no, you will know that Edward had little choice but to take the war to France. Because the French king Philip had been a master if duplicity, bad faith and double dealing determined to throw the Plantagenets out of their ancestral lands in France. He had consistently challenged English interests in its major market in the low countries, embargoing trade to destroy their merchants commerce. He had encouraged and financed the Scots to stick the Sgian-dubh into the English back while pretending to mediate for peace. And he’d misused his position as feudal overlord in Aquitaine to try to strip Edward of his lands. So by the time Edward took to the market place at Ghent, he had little choice. But the decision would affect England in many ways.
It would affect one of the inhabitants in a small village in south East England, in Essex, very intimately. Sible Hedingham lay in the north of Essex, away from the coast, in ancient landscape, and its connection with Flanders over the channel might not have been too distant; because the village farming was based mainly on sheep, and their wool would no doubt have been sold in Flanders. One of the families at Sible Hedingham was the Hawkwood family, and Gilbert Hawkwood and his wife were reasonably well to do members of the middling sort. Gilbert’s eldest son, also John but not our John would be recorded as a Franklin; a Franklin was the top rank of the peasantry, below Gentry and all that, a leader of the village rather than Parish sort of level, but a man with public responsibilities. He seems to have been a tanner, but held two parcels of land, and was therefore quite well up the local social hierarchy.
Incidentally, before we move on a rabbit hole appears below us; I mean giving two of your children the same name. I realise that the past is a different country and they do things differently there, but surely it was no more convenient back then then it is now, and I mean distributing the chores would have been super complicated. So I looked into it a bit. The motivation seems to be a particular love of the patronymic and a desire to see it survive; and given levels of mortality and the dangers of childbirth, even if your first child was still alive, it might be worth the risk to baptise the second child with the favoured name even if child number one was still living. I did discover that this seems to be the case with Edward Gibbon, you know decline and fall of the Roman Empire bloke. His father and his grandfather were both Edwards, and Edward of course was, well called Edward to continue the tradition. Then the historian himself picks up the story
So feeble was my constitution, so precarious my life, that in the baptism of each of my brothers, my father’s prudence successively repeated my Christian name of Edward, that in case of the departure of the eldest son, this patronymic appellation might still be perpetuated in the family.
Apparently Gibbon’s memory played him false and it was only one other brother, who died anyway at 3, but it displays the principle. In the 16th century the practice was still going on; in Morebath for example it was quite common practice to give the same name to living siblings; there was even one example from 1534 of three unmarried brothers, all named John. Which seems daft, and required the application of major, minor and minimus to when distributing chores. It seems to be of a level above eyebrow raising – so it wouldn’t be a shock to anyone, but reasonably rare – so around the 1 to 2% level, and really dying out in England by the late 19th century. But in the west of Scotland it was much, much more common – 30% or more on Skye, and carried on into the early 20th century. Houdi Elbow. I must admit I then got into naming conventions of which there are many – so the second son was often named after the mother’s father, the first daughter after the mother’s mother which is all very interesting but look I’ve got to get on. Oh, and that twins were sometimes called twindles, which is cute.
And anyway, since the father here was called Gilbert, it’s not quite clear why they were all so obsessed with John, but maybe Gilbert’s father, of whom we have no record, was called John, it being the naming convention that the eldest was named after the father’s father.
Anywho, we do not know the name of Mrs Gilbert Hawkwood, but together John and the Missus had 7 children, 3 boys and 4 girls. That must have taken quite a while of course, basic maffs innit, but John’s mother seems to have been dead quite early in his life. Although we are girded round here with supposition and guesswork; the Hawkwoods are not the type of people that attracted much record in the 14th century, so we don’t even know the date of his birth – but most people go for somewhere between 1320 and 1323. So Hawkwood was probably 17 to 20 ish when Edward raised his banner in the market place at Ghent, and of an age where maybe looking around at career options would be a thing, as it tends to be. However, he was also at an age where he was very much part of the life of his country, his area of Essex. His circle included the more prosperous local families of the shire – not Cottons, Proudfeet, Brandybucks, Gamgees, Tooks, Baggins, and Sackville Baggins in this case, but the human equivalents – Baynards, Hodings, Ostags, Coggeshalls, Bourchiers and Listons. His sisters married into them, and Hawkwood would remain in contact with many – so one Thomas Coggeshall would be his agent in England, and a cousin of the Coggeshalls would marry Hawkwood’s daughter Antiocha. There is a point here; for some of us, we are international travellers who move around and find it easy to set up shop and become a citizen of a new place, wherever they lay their hat, in the words of Paul Young was it? For others. They never really stop being from the place of their birth. You might think Hawkwood would be from the former persuasion – so much of his life spent in France and Italy. But in fact it is a feature of his life that he always remained connected with both the country of his birth, working on diplomatic missions for the English king, and with the village of his parents. For Hawkwood, despite the wonders of Rome, Milan darling, Napoli – TOWIE was the thing. He wanted to go back. Whether or not he achieves that – well, you’ll have to find out
Well, Hawkwood pere took the opportunity to croak sometime after his wife, in the same year that Edward claimed the crown of France, in 1340. This left John with a few difficult decisions to make. John Major would get all the land and be the Franklin of the future and local dignitary thereby. All John Minor and his siblings would get would be a few quid and a year’s board until they had sorted their lives out. For the sisters, marriage beckoned or had already called. His younger brother Nicholas selected the church, and his life manages a small imprint on the record of history, no larger than a quark in a super collider, when he was mentioned as a poor priest of the diocese of London, and then managed to get a benefice in Normandy, where he then presumably lived and died.
It’s not clear what John was doing when his father died, and what his options were, but they were probably pretty limited; and there’s a hint that brotherly relations weren’t great. John Major had all the cash and the status, and could have been pretty condescending to his potential hearth brother, a sort of charity thing which must have stuck in the throat of John Minor, our hero. But he didn’t have a lot of skills; his education was probably both rude and bare – it seems later that he could probably read, but may not have been able to write – everything we have from him has been narrated and written by scribes. Nor does he seem anyway to have been a natural wordsmith; later in Italy Pier Paolo Vergerio would hear the man give a speech, and described him as
More able with hand and industry than with tongue
Which is sort of trying to be nice, a classic damming with faint praise. There is a disputed tradition that he’d been apprenticed to a tailor in London, and it’s entirely possible – it would have been a very traditional route for a family which though well off were very used to the world trade. So that might well be where he was before he took the other obvious route, once he’d presumably rejected the idea of going into the church. And in a very tangential sense, it was his king who had given him his opportunity in Ghent.
Now, if the Hawkwood’s were affluent dignitaries, they were though most definitely of the peasant class in terms of social status compared to the nobility and peerage. But there was, as always, a peer of the realm with power and authority in his corner of Essex – and that family was the De Vere family, whose caput was next door Castle Hedingham. And the current head of the De Veres was John de Vere, the 7th Earl of Oxford, and a youngish man in 1340 of around 28. De Vere had already started to fulfil the function of his class, namely hitting people very hard with a blunt instrument and taking their possessions, and had fought against the Scots in 1336, and the French in 1339. By 1340 de vere was once again going to war in Flanders.
De Vere would have been required to provide a contingent. The days of Norman feudalism had gone some time ago – the idea that a certain amount of land meant a certain about of military service; the king’s army were now constructed by a series of indentures. Basically, Edward would have told his earl of Oxford that he should provide contingents of men under contract; de Vere would go to his captains, and in term give them a contract or indenture, to provide a troop of a certain size and type. And his captains would have gone off to the villages of Essex and tried to persuade the young men that lived there that the pay was good, the prospects bright, the future breezy if only they signed up for the wars and de Vere’s shilling. Unless they got an arrow through their head of course but hey in the words of Lemmy, I don’t want to live for ever.
Well, many of Hawkwood’s friends heard the call, probably in 1342 to 3; members of the Liston family, including one John Liston, a knight. It’s been speculated that John Liston may have taken a hand in Hawkwood’s military training. This brings Hawkwood into rather tenuous contact with me, since my neighbour and co-author Mark is a Liston of that Essex family so good lord, houdi elbow. And there were others – John Bouchier, John and Thomas Coggeshall, Thomas Liston. So as you can guess from this, it was not just Hawkwood’s local friends who heard the call of Ares, Mars, Tyr, Anan, Menkit, Maru and other various deities of war – it was Hawkwood himself. It seems like the perfect way out of brotherly subservience or cloth cutting.