As dal Verme contemplated his fox in a cage and rubbed his hands with glee, Hawkwood and Florence faced the ruin of all their hopes, the absence of Armagnac, the impending destruction of the allies’ mighty army by the Milanese captain in the risen waters of the Adige. Hawkwood had been caught by the same trap he’d sprung many years before, in the waters of the river.
Maybe Hawkwood consulted his history books, and took a leaf from said books from the story of Mithridates king of Pontus when trapped by Pompey. Rather than trying to make himself small, he moved his camp aggressively towards dal Verme and made camp within a mile. Very publicly Hawkwood prepared for battle – the banners were tied high on the trees cloaked in defiance. As General of the army, Hawkwood carried out a knighting ceremony in front of all, the normal precursor to the fight that was presumably due to follow next day. All night the camp fires burned as dal Verme’s spies watched. The sound of trumpets carried on through the night.
Dal Verme was up for the challenge; this was the moment he would crush Florence, and in the morning he advanced to take up to bring the hammer down on all her hopes and dreams. But when he arrived in front of Hawkwood’s camp – it was silent, and deserted. Hawkwood had left quietly and carefully the night before, leaving his trumpeters making a noise to the very last moment before riding away. The fox had found a way through the waters, and escaped the trap while the Milanese watched. Dal Verme pursued Hawkwood to the Oglio river but then was forced to turn away; Armagnac may not have appeared, but the danger that he would, remained ever present, and dal Verme could not afford to pursue too far from the west. So before July was out, Hawkwood was back in the safety of Castelbardo near Padua.
Hawkwood’s exploits were greeted a little like Dunkirk if I can draw an admittedly extremely dodgy parallel; that is to say, a daring escape from annihilation was greeted as a victory. He was described as a ‘wise old man who escaped danger through his wisdom’; another wrote that
No other captain but John Hawkwood would have been able to save the army from such difficulty
And so on. But when they declared a great victory, they were clearly going to far; and it might be noted that dal Verme is surely also worthy of praise. He faced a double invasion, and he’s managed to see one of the pinchers off, without decimating or even risking his army. Which was a good thing because now, far too late of course, Armagnac finally appeared in North West Italy in Piedmont. At Alessandria on 24th July dal Verme met the invader, and in the ensuing battle Jean III was completely defeated. He himself was wounded, and died later of his wounds – although predictably the Florentines immediately accused the Visconti of using poison.
The great campaign in the north was over. Now the initiative decisively shifted in favour of Gian Galeazzo and Milan, and rather than fighting this war on Milanese soil, they decided it would be better fought on Tuscan lands. And so southwards went dal Verme and the Milanese army, an army of over 10,000 troops – 2,500 lances and 3,000 infantry advanced to Sarrzana at the northern edge of Tuscany, and Florence and their allies quaked. More than ever their future relied on Hawkwood’s talents and the army he had saved from destruction. Bologna voted him a gift of 1,000 florins as encouragement, and Hawkwood took command in Tuscany. As Dal Verme and Hawkwood manoeuvred for advantage and an opening again, Florence pulled out all the stops, ordering the militia to assemble to bolster Hawkwood’s army; whether the arrival of 10,000 poorly trained Florentine citizens made his life easier or harder is anyone’s guess. I vote the latter, especially since the people’s army was raised by offering a pardon to any convicted murderers or criminals if they joined Hawkwood.
Dal Verme worked his way around the River Arno towards Florence, and crossed the mountains at Monte Albano to take up a position at Poggio a Caiano just 10 miles north of Florence. In Florence, eggs were being laid. In Hawkwood’s camp, no eggs were being laid; I assume that Hawkwood was absolutely aware that dal Verme would find it every bit as difficult to get inside Florence as he had to get inside Milan. The clearly clever bit about Hawkwood’s next move was not that though, but his calculation that the best thing he could do to unsettle and panic dal Verme was not to move to attack in a panicky and risky throw of the dice. He had a different way of pushing Dal Verme’s buttons.
Down the south and opposite side of the Arno, marched Hawkwood, and crossed the river at a small town called Signa, then he swung around dal Verme and appeared on the slopes of Monte Albano at Tizana – 10 miles behind dal Verme’s position. Sitting between dal Verme and his route back to Milan and safety.
I have to say it is a move of some genius and courage. It risked everything about Hawkwood’s career – here he was 71 years old, finally feted, wined and dined and lauded throughout Italy as a great military leader and chivalric knight, no more condemned as a murdering mercenary and scourge of devil. He could have sat safely in front of or inside Florence and waited, but then Dal Verme would have been free to visit destruction on Tuscan countryside; but now what would Dal Verme do – would he move south and visit destruction on the exposed Florentine hinterlands, try and link up with Siena?
Hawkwood calculated not, and he was right. Instead, his move panicked dal Verme; he could not afford to disperse his forces to burn the countryside for Hawkwood was close, he could not attack Florence for fear of an enemy in the rear, it was September the season was getting late, so too late to move south to Siena, and his route home was potentially block and he was trapped. He responded by running for home – swinging east and north to get round Hawkwood towards Pistoia and the passes to the north. Hawkwood saw what was happening and took his chance – he detached a fast moving force of 1000 lances, mounted to hit the retreating dal Verme’s rearguard while he brought the main army to join, and those 1000 lances had a high old time – they caught the rearguard in the hills, the line of march strung out and they gave it a kicking; 2,400 dead and 200 captured, including dal Verme’s cousin, Taddeo. Tizzana is a much less famous victory than Castagnaro in Hawkwood’s story – but in its way just as brilliant. Dal Verme retreated north to the Ligurian coast near Genoa and the year’s campaigning was over. It had been a year when two of the greatest captains in Italy fought toe to toe; Dal Verme had seen off a double threat to the Visconti inheritance, but Hawkwood had more than held his own.
Though Hawkwood might not have realised it, I am going to let you into a secret; he had duly fought his last battle – and fortunately for his reputation, ended on a high. For this was the end of his major campaigns barring a few more policing duties against some stray mercenary companies. By January, Florence and Milan and their assorted allies had signed an agreement for peace; Florence gained something, keeping Montepulciano; il Vecchio was allowed to keep Padua, but forced to give up some minor towns to pay for it, and required to pay a tribute to Milan.
Right well, in a track metaphor we are now round the last corner, well down the home straight, there are no competitors close to us, the finish line is there in front of us, inviting us to thrust forward our collective breasts, break the tape, and collapse exhausted in front of the exultant coach, brandishing segments of orange to revive us.
It is probable that Hawkwood was now quite ill; and his focus was to get home to Essex, put his affairs in order, and have a bit of time to enjoy the fruits of his labours. Before he did that, he had to worry about the fruits of his loins – Catherine, Janet and Anna in particular. He and Donnina seem to have decided that as Italians born and bred, their future lay in the country of their birth, and of course the career of choice for young women in the 14th century was, you guessed it, marriage. Well, I say choice.
Janet was first, married to Brezaglia di Porciglia, a scion of the Este clan from Ferrara, with whom Hawkwood had established a relationship while in Romagna, and to whom he had sold his lands there. The couple don’t seem to have had any children. In January 1393, Catherine Hawkwood was married to the German Mercenary Konrad Pressburg. They would have three children together, though Konrad died in 1399 from a work related accident – someone stuck a spear through him on the battlefield. Catherine left Italy to live out her life on her husband’s estates in Germany, though her son Hartman would return as a mercenary to Italy. John Hawkwood Junior would make it back to blighty, so we’ll deal with him later; Anna would not be married by the time Hawkwood died – but would also marry an Italian soldier, and stay in Italy. We know of two illegitimate children – Thomas and John, but their futures are obscure.
John meanwhile was making preparations for he and Donnina, and possibly John and Anna at the time – to return to Essex, to where it had all started in Sible Hedingham. His squire, John Sampson was sent back on many trips during 1393; he would have been preparing the manors John had bought, gaining safe conducts, making travel arrangements. In the summer of 1393 Hawkwood liquidated his assets it Italy, not another euphemism for an industrial accidents this time, although he placed some property in the name of John Junior, who was just seven years old; presumably giving John the future option to return.
The Council in Florence knew what was going on; Hawkwood needed permission for much of this, and petitioned the Council. Hawkwood’s stock had never been higher, so there was much discussion about how to honour him, and in August they voted him a marble statue on the basis that
The magnificent and faithful achievements of John Hawkwood his fidelity and honour to the Florentine Republic should not only be rewarded but perpetually shown to his glory that brave men may know that the commune of Florence recompense true service with her recognition and beneficent gratitude
In the end of course that didn’t happen, nor did the planned tomb, but Florence did not forget; and in 1436 Ucello would create his magnificent fresco. Which is quite impressive – after all that time you think they’d just quietly drop the thing – but apparently in 1436 Florence’s existence was once more under threat from Milan, and so it formed a sort of confidence booster.
By March 1394 though, Hawkwood was failing; on 11th March he submitted his final accounts and in the prologue they described him as
Weary with age and burdened with infirmity
By 17th March his plans to return home lay in ruins – because he was dead, possibly from a heart attack – whatever it was, it was described as quick.
The Funeral on 20th March was a whopper – no expense spared apparently. I mean seriously Hawkwood’s reputation had arrived in harbour, this was now a great man of one of the greatest cities in Italy. His bier was covered in vermillion cloth, placed in the Piazza della Signoria. Donnina and children were there with their retainers, the guild made contributions with banners and crests. The bier was carried to the Baptistry of San Giovani in a procession, and later transferred to the Cathedral. These sorts of celebrations were not unique to Hawkwood among mercenary captains – but they were considerably grander than any others. He was honoured and remembered as a man who stuck by Florence in its darkest hour.
Well, that left Donnina of course. She was well looked after by Florence, awarded a stipend and dowries for Anna; but she was not a native and did not want to stay, though given permission to do so. She took the decision to return to England, and at first everything seemed set fair, she had the support of Richard II for example. Richard had heard of John’s death, and the level of esteem he felt for his man in Italy was soon clear also – he asked Florence for the body to be returned. It seems that this never happened – Richard after all was soon to have his own problems. In all probability, the tomb at Sible Hedingham is just a memorial, the lights may be on, but no body is home.
However things then turned sour; Hawkwood had apparently failed to create a written will, and so his desires were disputed in England. Despite her efforts Donnina could get nowhere; and she returned to her home city of Milan, where eventually in 1403 she was given the dowry back that had been removed by Bernabo 25 years previously, and Milan was where she would die.
That leaves John Hawkwood Junior. In 1406 he returned to England to seek his inheritance, and this time had support from King Henry IV, who granted him his full rights to his father’s legacy. It took John a while to assemble them and get everyone to cough up – years in fact. By 1420 he was dead, and had never married. The only legacy in England then, was left through Antiocha, Hawkwood’s first daughter who had two girls Blanche and Alice with William Coggeshall.
Now look, we have come to the very end! Yes, the story of John Hawkwood has reached its conclusion, and as per normal I feel rather emotional about it. It’s taken us about a year. So what do we think about John Hawkwood? Despite having been through all this I am categorically no expert but for starters the Victorian and fictional presentation of Hawkwood as a perfect gentil knight sort of thing, loyal and true to his employers strikes absolutely no cord with me. I see no special sense of loyalty in John above and beyond his fellow mercenary captains; he sems to me to be a typical freelancer. His responsibility was to earn living and feed and maintain the men and women dependent on his as soldiers and camp followers. Furthermore, this is a man in a brutal profession, and I see no evidence of a shining example who kicks against the brutalities required; Hawkwood did what he needed to. And at Cascina and Faenza, that led him into atrocities the blame for which he seems to have avoided due to the chain of command; but for which he must be held partially responsible. He is shameless in visiting extortion on the cities through which he passed though that was entirely within the accepted idiom; the fact that he was entirely unexceptional in this, and had a responsibility to provide for men might excuse him, but can’t quite turn him into a shining example of chivalry; although given what Chivalry actually meant in practice maybe it does but you understand what I mean – it doesn’t make him a man to be emulated and held up as a example of noble behaviour.
Outside of that, I find him quite impressive. As far as the brutalities were concerned, it seems he does what he has to but no more; this is not a man like Robert of Geneva who seems to have taken pleasure in the violence. As a commander, his concern for his men comes across; by the time of his death he appears to have acquired a tidy sum in England, but by no means a fortune despite the vast sums of money that pass through his hands; he appears to be quite immune from mutiny and desertion and that speaks well for his relationship with his men. Despite my earlier comments about loyalty towards employers, there are very clearly things he believes in above and beyond the daily grind; his identity as an Englishman and towards his fellow Englishmen survives throughout the 30 year career in Italy and never wavers. To a patriotic Englishman like me, this is of course a fine and laudable attribute.
In the end his military reputation also holds up much better than I had expected. I mean this is not Subutai or Napoleon; he has his wobbles and failures. But by the end he is a consummate and efficient commander who clearly warranted the confidence Florence vested in him – he ends his career with a good run. He appears personally brave, frequently leading from the front, able to mix caution with boldness, and seize opportunities when they occur.
As for home life, it’s obviously impossible to really know of the quality of his relationship with Donnina. All we know is that they had 4 children together, Donnina seems to use his name and refer to her status with pride; and Hawkwood seems to have done everything he could to provide for her after he died – arranging the pensions with Florence, and land for her specific use in England – albeit the latter was highjacked by landowners in England.
In general he seems rather like Ucello’s picture; not a bundle of laughs I’ll bet, but then you don’t really want a mercenary captain to be a fun guy. He looks like a stickler for the rules, both for himself and others, straightforward, authoritarian, proud, competent, efficient. It’s not going to make him a world hero, but it’s not bad for the life of a man who started with precious few advantages as one archer amongst many at the start of the hundred Yeas War, and ended prized and regarded personally by his king and his city.