Let us turn at this point away, very briefly, from John Hawkwood and talk of another captain with whom he will spend some time sparring in the not too distant future. I speak of one Jacopo Dal Verme. Dal Verme was a citizen of Verona, born about 30 years later than John Hawkwood, around 1350, and was a chip off the old block – his old man had been a mercenary captain, Lucchino dal Verme, who had commanded a Venetian army in Crete in the 1360s. As it happens, Dal Verme’s own son Luigi will also be a mercenary so it’s obviously in the blood. Dal Verme was quickly part of the ever interchanging community of mercenary captains that dance with, together and against each other throughout the 14th century; he started his career under one Alberico da Barbiano, a condottorre who will end up with the Visconti as will Jacopo. Dal Verme fought under Barbiano in 1366, and then for other campaigns for Verona. In 1370 he started his first contract with the Visconti, and fought alongside John Hawkwood; he then returned to Verona, but in 1378, at the age of just 28 he returned long term as Gian Galeazzo’s Captain General at Pavia. For such a young man, this was a massive comment on his talent, and by and large he would not disappoint. He carved out a reputation as a highly effective captain, cautious and conservative in the field, but very successful at instilling discipline in the ranks, and capable of winning politically significant engagements – such as we will see at Alessandria in 1391.
Dal Verme’s career is also a sign of a new breed of mercenary captain replacing the frontier years of the early and mid 14th century. Dal Verme will be part of the cultured and colourful Visconti court at Pavia and Milan, and be Gian Galeazzo’s right hand man; it was he that was trusted to lay hands on Bernabo in his master’s dramatic coup. He stayed at Milan well beyond Gian Galeazzo’s death and into that of his successor Giovanni Maria Visconti, although in 1407 the increasingly toxic world of the Visconti court would encourage him to leave and end his career with Venice. But the length of his career with one employer is instructive and a new dominant model; it’s interesting also that Gian Galeazzo consciously looked to employ captains for the long term, as part of the permanent military staff like we’re used to in more modern armies. So, Barbiano would be employed in 1392 by Gian Galeazzo on the basis on a 10 year contract, very different to the continual 6 month renewals and re-negotiations of Hawkwood and his earlier contemporaries. It’s a transitional period of course – the assembly of all talents Gian Galeazzo will put together for the Visconti include captains like Facino Cane who fought for many employers, and fought for Milan on an occasional basis. But it is very much the direction of travel, towards permanent staff, and career generals.
Whether Hawkwood would have liked that approach is a bit moot I think; it is pretty clear on several occasions that he gets itchy fingers when things get dull, and heads off for a bit of light pillaging. But then Hawkwood was part of the old world, and it’s not clear he was ever offered the job as a staff officer type role – the next few years, in fact, will see him get as close to it as he ever had. So when your employer, even Florence to this point, is constantly renegotiating or cancelling your contract, and you have a contingent of English mercenaries dependent on you to feed – you need to keep moving on.
I say Hawkwood will get as close as he ever has to a permanent employer over the next few years, and that is true – the story from 1387 ‘til John’s death, will be fairly continuous employment with Florence. But there’s been constant nit picking to this point about contractual terms, and things don’t change until we are well into the war with Milan, when the Florentines suddenly wake up to the fact that they’d better avoid the Big Yellow Taxi moment. I’m not going to go into all the discussions ‘cos they are a bit dull, but in the Florentine council there’s was a constant stream of agonising about whether to keep Hawkwood on, and if so for how much and how long. In the end, they stick with it, and a jolly good thing too.
We will now spend some time on the big campaigns, but just as a note, the area that usually gets ignored is probably where there are no big sexy set pieces; I talk of the border war between Florence and Siena. Here the warfare is low level but constant – a stream of raiding, burning and killing
For everyone of ours killed we killed one of theirs and many villagers from those castles of Valdini-evole who descend to the plains to do business are killed, for no one wants prisoners
Wrote the Sienese ambassador; and it gives a flavour of the wearyingly brutal nature of continuous warfare.
But the sad truth is that the war would not be resolved in the south – it was in the north against Milan where the big story would be played out. And the first focus of Dal Verme’s campaign for the Gian Galeazzo was Bologna – that fulcrum around which Visconti ambitions turned. Within a few weeks though, in May 1390, Hawkwood and his contingent arrived at Bologna – and dal Verme backed off
The fled because they saw the great multitude of men joining our camp and because John Hawkwood came to our camp; so that they fled from fear
I doubt dal Verme saw it that way, but certainly he was too canny to risk a battle without having a clear advantage; and so what transpires for the next few weeks is a rather formless period of raid and counter raid, constant moving of camps, forced on by fear of plague and shortage of provisions. Into this is cautious, thoughtful game of chess, seeking for the gap and opportunity between two masters of their craft, dal Verme and Hawkwood, came, a a bull in a China shop, il Vecchio of Padua. Il Vecchio was not patient with all of this clever stuff – he wanted Padua back, not to watch two professionals pussy footing around. He raised his own army – 500 lances and 2000 infantry. The Sienese ambassador saw them and was not impressed with what he saw, calling them a group of ‘unwarlike peasants not accustomsed to the exercise of arms’. Well, up yours said il Vecchio and he and the unwarlike peasants proceeded to cut the gordian’s knot of march and counter march and storm right up to Padua and retake it from under the Milanese nose; because il Vecchio knew his people and knew they’d had their fill of Visconti rule. So when he arrived with his rag tag army they rose up in revolt and chucked the invader out – although the fortress remained in Visconti hands.
Hawkwood acted quickly to make the most of this surprise win – by sending the bloody glove of challenge to dal Verme to battle. In fact his aim was not to fight, but to distract, to give il Vecchio time. But Dal Verme was not to be distracted and moved north towards Padua, but could do nothing – Hawkwood constantly harassed his rear guard. Encouraged, Verona rose in revolt too against Milan – to be bloodily repressed by Gian Galeazzo who slaughtered 1,500 of its inhabitants. Meanwhile il Vecchio was having a good war – while Hawkwood and dal Verme continued to manoeuvre, he attacked the Este of Ferrara and forced him to declared his neutrality rather than supporting Milan. The advantage was now with Florence.
Florence and the alliance had learned something about Visconti’s weakness; despite massive financial wealth and a talented military commander, her grip on the cities of Lombardy seemed weak especially in those cities that had recently lost their independence – Padua, Verona, Vicenza. If they could get Gian Galeazzo on the run, they could encourage further revolt. If I may make so bold, it’s a little tiny bit like Hannibal wandering around the Italian peninsula a few years before, beating up Romans and hoping their Italian allies would jump ship. Obviously, it’s like Hannibal without the elephants. So a new factor was needed to push Gian Galeazzo firmly onto the defensive.
The Florentine council came up with a tiebreaker – a third party that could swing the balance of power decisively to their side, so let me introduce you, or possibly remind you, of the Counts of Armagnac.
I say remind you because you might remember the name from the hundred years war on the HoE, and the struggles on Gascony. The Armagnac were a powerful noble family that started their rise to prominence in the 10th century, and became part of a soup of local powers in Gascony whose complexity would eventually overwhelm the English. They would eventually submit in the 16th century to the Capetian kings of France. Local politics in Gascony in the 14th century though was a case of constantly shifting alliances with the likes of the Armagnac and the d’Albret. The Armagnac were consistently aligned against the Burgundians, so that when the English allied with Burgundy, they won the opposition of the Armagnac. In 1380, the Count was the 31 year old Jean III, and a man of wide ambitions; already in 1390 he’d claimed the throne of Mallorca and launched an invasion – only to run up against the greater grunt of Aragon, and suffer defeat there at Navata. But now he was persuaded to join the battle against the Visconti. Ostensibly in support of his cousin, Carlo Visconti.
And so a grand plan emerged – 1391 would be the year that broke the seemingly unstoppable rise of Visconti power. Hawkwood, Bologna and allies would lead a grand army from Padua to attack Milan from the east. Jean Armagnac would cross the alps from the west, and Gian Galeazzo and dal Verme would be caught in a trap, a pincher movement, and crushed like bugs.
Now I don’t know if you have ever been involved in a pincher movement. I mean personally I have, trying to get a stick off the dog with help from a small child, and personally I think they suck, unless you are looking for a way for the dog to have a hoot and dance rings round you. But from my extensive military research, it seems to me that they are jolly difficult to co-ordinate, and usually crash and burn. Obviously this time was going to be different; the date was set for Spring 1391, and there was substantial build-up of forces in and around Padua under Hawkwood. Florence busily employed more mercenaries – some of whose arrival did not make Hawkwood happy – namely a contingent under his arch enemy Astorre Manfredi. Hopefully Hawkwood gave this contingent a place to camp in the local swamp. Shipments of arms streamed into the city, and in January they were ready to roll – Hawkwood was to head towards Vicenza and Verona, raise them in revolt and then hook up with Armagnac under the walls of Milan with Lombardy in flames to burn Visconti power for ever.
However, they hit a few problems as they advanced, raiding and burning as per normal; Verona had been too beaten up by Gian Galeazzo and were not in any position to take to the streets in rebellion against their garrison again, so the gates remained stubbornly closed. Hawkwood swung East towards Mantua, turning to try to detach the Malatesta from alliance with the Visconti. But outside Mantua their progress came to a full stop; because there was trouble in their ranks – Astorre Manfredi was discovered in a plot to murder Hawkwood and Il Vecchio. Rumbled, he was forced to leave the army, but the damage was done. By March, Hawkwood was back in Padua where he’d started and Armagnac was nowhere to be seen. It was not a good start; dal Verme had been able to stay firmly in the east, watching for Armagnac, Milan never being threatened enough to have to return to deal with Hawkwood.
By this point, Florence had finally accepted just how critical Hawkwood was to their plans. It’s been said that Hawkwood was the only mercenary captain in Florentine employment, and while this is very much not true, he was simply the best, and better than all the rest. At Christmas 1390 they’d surprised Hawkwood, and themselves probably, by forking out on a 1,000 florin gift. Now they got serious; in April 1391 they bestowed on Hawkwood an annual pension of 2,000 florins, a 1,000 florin pension for Donnina and Florentine citizenship to John
his sons and descendants in the male line, born and yet to be born
They would provide 2,000 florin dowries for each of his legitimate daughters – of which there were three now, by the way; Anna had joined Catherine, Janet and John. Florence knew that Hawkwood was critical to their success; but it’s not quite as simply far sighted as it looks. Because just before this, Gian Galeazzo had given the same to dal Verme; the last thing Florence wanted was to see their military commander poached from under their noses. So – they issued the required golden handcuffs, the gilded cage.
By May 1391, Hawkwood was again ready to move from Padua to recreate the original plan. Frustratingly there was no news from Armagnac, but Hawkwood had consulted his astrologer – and he advised that 10th May was the perfect date to launch the attack Mark two on Milan. And so Hawkwood and his army of 2,00 lances, 1,200 crossbowmen and an unspecified mass of infantry left Padua on campaign, same plan in mind – raise the cities of Lombardy in revolt against the Visconti, meet Armagnac outside the walls of Milan, crush Visconti, go home for buttered toast and tea.
This time success was greater, and the Hawkwood had some neat tricks up his sleeves; On the Oglio river he was harassed by a Visconti force of 300 lances; he feigned retreat, leaving a contingent under the commander Aichelberg hidden away in secret. When they’d drawn the Visconti on far enough, he turned on the pursuing force. When the Visconti tried to retreat they found Aichelberg behind them, and were given a thorough thrashing. Hawkwood renewed his advance towards Mailan; near Bergamo he forced the valley of San Martino in the face of the enemy ‘contended with much blood’ according to the chronicler. By June the pressure on Gian Galeazzo was intense; the Bolognese now launched their own attack on Parma and Piacenza
The Count of virtue had the greatest fear he ever had of losing his state
Wrote Gregorio Dati. At Lodi, Hawkwood challenged dal Verme to a good old traditional test of champions to decide who should be the winner – a chivalric ploy often used, never taken up basically. And at the end of June in full view of Milan and the helpless dal Verme he organised a horse race, a Palio, projecting huge confidence in victory, and taunting the Milanese
But both Gian Galeazzo and his captain dal Verme knew that without Armagnac, Hawkwood could not take Milan; nor without more supplies could he stay outside the walls. And Gian Galeazzo was as clever as a fox; Armagnac did not appear, did not appear and did not appear; and the reason was sneaky renaissance espionage. Gian Galeazzo had bribed a Captain in Armagnac’s armyu – 50 Breton lances under Bernard de la Salle, who rebelled and forced a series of battles before they were defeated and la Salle executed. There was nothing for it – Hawkwood would once more be forced to retreat. Dal Verme was confident now that he had his man. As Hawkwood’s army fled and struggled to cross the rivers, dal Verme had the banks of the Adige River broken and the plains around Hawkwood flooded. That morning Hawkwood received a present from his opponent; a cage which contained a fox. The message was clear – Acuto, Hawkwood, was cunning as a fox, but dal Verme had the Englishman trapped. Hawkwood would need all his skills now to extract himself and his army from humiliation. And still Armagnac had not come.