In the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye,
When looking westward, I beheld
A something in the sky.
I accept that starting with a poetry quote is both surprisingly and impressively pretentious, and also in this context almost entirely inappropriate, but look I learned one piece of poetry when I was a lad and I see no reason not to make you suffer for it. The fig leaf for my inappropriate quote is there to make the point that after the few snippets we have about the first 20 years of Hawkwood’s life, which are poor gruel indeed, we have even less for the next 20 years or so. I mean in biography terms, it really is a busted flush.
The assumption is, and only an assumption it must definitely be, that in 1342 to 3, John Hawkwood and some of his Essex companions passed over to Brittany to take part in Edward III’s attempt to free himself of French aggression. Edward’s campaign had so far been marked by a definite lack of success, but by getting involved in the succession crisis in Brittany, he began to acquire a bit of leverage, and the rock started to move a little. I remember very fondly indeed just how much suffering I put you all through with Edward III and the hundred years war, and part of your suffering I believe was that I spent an inappropriate amount of time on small skirmishes like the battle of Morlaix. Well I don’t know, it’s never been suggested but maybe Hawkwood was at that little triumph of English arms in the Breton wood, who knows. It has been noted though, that if he was in Brittany, which would accord with that being the focus of the war in 1342-3, then it would have been under William of Bohun’s command that he would have operated, rather than John de Vere.
So now then, it might be that for close to 20 years we have now shot our historical bolt; history was not really interested in this lowly commoner, possibly an archer attached to Bohun and de Vere, maybe not even a man at arms. And so history, and it’s patron saint who I understand is the Venemous Bede, was not at this time interested in social equality. It looked only at the great, the good and the religious. Therefore, the historical story teller and podcaster faces a problem; how to fill in these missing 20 years?
There are a couple of options – one is to give you another 6 months of the Hundred Years war which honestly, I ache to do, but I must show some restraint, because I have already done that. The other option is to speculate, as sensibly as possible, which is what I shall do. The first pillar which underpins the speculation is to suggest that there are a few occasions later in Italy where Hawkwood’s tactics suggest English tactics in the war in France. We will talk more of this another time but essentially you know the drill – a defensive approach in the hope the enemy will impale itself on your engine of war, which the French did very obligingly until Bertrand du Guecslin came along and imitated the great days of the Fabians. Armoured men at arms dismounted and fought on foot, archers interspersed or on the wings to mow done any unwary mounted knights.
Pillar number two notes that there’s little evidence of any sort that Hawkwood returns from France; and why should he? The pickings in France would become rich indeed; and so we might look at where Hawkwood’s natural leaders went, John de Vere and William de Bohun. And then there is the odd slightly dogy reference so you know the story you have been warned – the following 20 years is as through a glass, darkly.
Outside of Brittany, the war went poorly for Edward until we get to the super famous Crecy campaign in 1346; at the battle, both de Vere and Bohun were commanders, and so it seems a fair bet Hawkwood was there while the French went through the self impalement process. De Vere was behind the Vanguard with Edward III. 1347 followed with the 11 month siege of Calais. And then, well, even guess work fails us for a while. It is a fair bet that whatever he did and wherever he was, Hawkwood became well acquainted with the Chevaucee. This word, after Chevalier I assume, horseman, was the modus operandum of 14th century warfare, an army advancing on a front many miles wide, burning pillaging and stealing as they went, both generating bags of revenue and demonstrating the inability of the opposing lord to rule and protect his subjects. Hawkwood spent a lot of time doing that in his life, and it’s possible that he went with de Vere in 1355 on the Black Prince’s famed chevaucee into Langedoc.
But there seems to be more certainty about Hawkwood’s presence at the other great battle of the age, the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Once again de Vere was there, this time in the vanguard. There are rumours and tradition that Hawkwood won his spurs and was knighted by the BP here – which sounds like a bit of later buffing to me but who knows. It could be; there’s an alternative tradition which has Hawkwood knighted in Italy. But by the time he got to Italy, he would claim to be a knight, as would Froissart. There was also a tradition of knighting the deserving before a battle, and the ceremony back then was not necessarily elaborate – maybe nothing more than a blow on the chest. So, it’s possible he won his spurs at Poitiers. There’s then another record which suggest Hawkwood had his own substantial contingent of 250 soldiers at the battle.
At very least it seems clear that Hawkwood had an extensive and long military education, and an education from the shop floor upwards, not one of these fast track, helicopter merchants with skinny jeans and a sharp jacket. University of life stuff. As I say, there’s no evidence he came home at all, except that his arms appear in an Anglo-Scottish roll of arms, and could indicate he took part in a tournament at Smithfield on St George’s day 1358.
Well, the French by 1360 had been well and truly beaten all ends up, King John le Bel was in London as a hostage. The reputation of English arms had been the laughing stock of Christendom 20 years before, now it had never been higher. The result was the treaty of Bretigny 1360, which ceded all of Aquitaine to Edward among other vast tracts of land, as well as a stonking ransom payment. Peace of course you might expect would have been greeted with joy by all and sundry, a chance to beat swords into ploughshares and return to your valleys and your farms, to no longer be Brothers in Arms. Hawkwood must surely breathed a sigh of relief and headed off back to Essex to sit at the hearth of his condescending brother.
I am of course being ironic. For Hawkwood and many others like him, Bretigny was a nightmare prospect. Countless thousands of hardened fighting men were supposed to vacate the lands remaining to the French king and give a life of peace – doing what they might have asked? There was no standing army to go back to, no welcoming barracks to rest up and await the next war. Meanwhile France was in absolute chaos. In 1358 a massive uprising of the peasantry, the Jacquerie, had horrified French elites. Central authority was in meltdown, and crime and lawlessness had exploded. Now to add to it we had a bunch of veterans used to living off the land, issued with their demob suits. A chronicler captured the mood of men like Hawkwood at this disturbing moment in their lives
When this peace was concluded, one of its conditions was that all fighting men and companies in arms must clear out of the forts and castles they held. So large numbers of poor companions trained in war came out and collected together. Some of the leaders held a conference about where they should go and they said that, though the king made peace, they had to live somehow
Now some went home, some turned native, married the locals and turned to an honest life of toil and hard work. But many did not. France became a boiling piranha tank of freebooters. Some held on to their castles and taxed the local population, some went on routes of destruction to pay the bills, no one, not even Edward III, knew how to control this unholy violence.
It is at this point that history mentions Hawkwood, history in the form of Jean de Froissart
He was but a poor knight who thought it would not be of any advantage to him to return home. But when he saw that, by the treaties, all men of war would be forced to leave France, he made himself captain of a certain number of companies, called the late comers and so marched into Burgundy. And there assembled a great number of these bands of English, Bretons, Gascons, Germans and companies of all nations. And Hawkwood was one of the principal leaders
At this time then many of these rather desperate out of work warriors came together into an enormous company, called the Great Company. The idea of a company of mercenaries was not new, they had been marauding around France and Italy for a while. Jean de Venette described these Free Companies as the
Sons of Belial and men of iniquity, warriors from various lands who assailed other men with no right and no reason other than their own passions, iniquity and hope of gain
Usually at most the companies numbered in the hundreds. The Great Company was exceptional and enormous, maybe as many as 12,000 men. Surely no one could stand in its way; equally, what was it to do, how as it to feed itself? It needed an objective.
This seems to be a good point to talk about the Papacy in the 14th century because the Pope will be a constant player in the pages of our story. So as you all know, the pope was essentially the Bishop of Rome which was where he lived…well ha! I tricked you there, not necessarily, not necessarily. And not for many years of the 14th century in particular, when they set up shop in Avignon, in southern France, and a place you must visit once before you die. Not that your death looks imminent or anything, I’m sure you are fine, just a figure of speech. But it’s quite a place. To understand why we might need to return all the way back to the snows at Canossa, and the Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow as a supplicant to Hildebrand, Gregory VII. The point being that the relationship between ecclesiastical and temporal rulers, Kings and Popes, had always been a tussle. As far as many kings were concerned, Bishops and clergy were their people, living in their lands, and a valuable resource they were too, often possessing rich lands and being wealthy lords. As far as the more aggressive clergy were concerned, everything was subject to God and his kingdom, and the clergy answered only the Pope’s orders
By the start of the 14th century, the unity of Christendom was somewhat challenged by this festering difference of opinion, nut one day there came to the papal throne one Boniface VIII. Boniface was determined to re-establish that unity, under the leadership of course of the Pope. Of course many secular leaders begged to differ with the approach, and as part of this process of differing, Boniface got himself into something of an argy bargy with Phillip IV of France and the use of church funds.
Boniface decided the direct approach would be best here in arguing with the French. His bull of ‘Unam sanctam’ in November 1302 decreed that
it is necessary to salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff.
Phillip IV was unimpressed with this soul grab, and his response was that
Your venerable conceitedness may know that we are nobody’s vassal in temporal matters.
Boniface declared the naughty king excommunicate, and an interdict over all France, but he’d made a minor tactical error of doing this when he happened to be in the king of France’s back garden, so, Phillip simply broke his doors down and accused him of all sorts of nasty crimes. Boniface took the decision to die in 1303, and by 1305 a new Pope had been elected, a Frenchman, good pal of Philip, and spookily he installed himself not in Rome, but in France in Avignon as Clement V, to be near to his pal. The period known as the Babylonian captivity had begun.
Now, the phrase the Baylonian captivity probably comes from an Italian, Petrarch, and reflects to a degree the fury of the Italians who had become used to controlling the leader of the world, it was handy to have Italians as popes all the time. They vented their spleen – ‘the whore of France’ Dante called the Avignon papacy. But in fact the papacy was not necessarily quite in the pocket of the French, in the same way that the Pope had not necessarily always been in the pocket of the Roman nobility. But, having said all of that the period delivered great damage to the papacy’s reputation, and transformed it forever. With Boniface’s defeat came the end of any realistic for the church to achieve a unified Christendom under the pope. The Papacy increasingly looked to be a partisan creature of the French – certainly that’s what the English thought. Later a schism of Pope and anti Pope would lead to different kingdoms supporting different Popes, and the prestige of the Papacy sank still further, stone like.
The period does though demonstrate just how involved in temporal matters the church was and this also did not help its religious leadership; the Papacy held vast lands in Italy in particular, ruling them directly and as we will hear, and of course the church was fabulously, fabulously, extravagantly well heeled. And that wealth was very much on display at Avignon, which by 1360 was a vast, magnificent city, centre of papal administration and the papal treasury. So let’s just assume for the moment, that you are an out of work military man, used to either being paid to fight a war, or if not, taking what you need. Less assume that around you are 11,999 good fellows of the same persuasion and situation. And finally lets assumed you urgently need to feed yourself and find a pay day. And not a million miles away lies a vastly rich Papal palace stuffed with the proceeds of Peter’s pence and the sale of indulgences. What would you do? Go to present your best offices, receive a blessing light a candle and make a donation? Possibly perhaps maybe?