At the end of the last episode we’d talked about the Great Company – a mass of men accustomed to making a living by fighting, left a bit high and dry by the most unfortunate arrival of the P word, a 5 letter word rather than the more disreputable 4, but nonetheless an unwelcome word. By the terms of the Treaty of Bretigny, in return for picking up a fair proportion of what we now know as France, and vast amounts of money to pay for a return label for the French king, Edward III of England was supposed to decommission all of the people that had been feeding so voraciously on the fallen body of France – the routier, the sons of Belial according to Jean de Venette the French Chronicler. Or, according to the English chronicler, Knighton, the
Brave and battle hardened men, experienced and vigorous, who lived by what they could win in war
Interesting difference of emphasis between the English and French observers there. Anyway, as we heard, this mass of fighting men, clutching their P45’s, had conceived a plan to earn themselves a few quid, from the richest man on earth – the Pope.
The problem was that the papal palace at Avignon was something of a beast; successive Popes had built castles and walls to protect their administration and – their treasury, not the treasury of merit, the treasury of spondulikes. Avignon was also a centre of trade, and earned its own solid walls. The mercenary companies always struggled to capture well defended cities, but even the most powerful king would have struggled with this place. But – to the north of Avignon, about 25 miles, there was a more vulnerable target – the town of Pont St Esprit. From there came the trade to feed the great city of Avignon, using its famous and quite magnificent bridge which is still there by the way. So there also tolls and taxes were collected from all these traders. Not only that, but it was rumoured that a lot of money was on its way to the town, part of the massive fee for King Jean le Bel of France’s return label. If they could get a piece of that, they would not need to worry about paying the grocery bills for a good while.
So the captains of the Great Company decided that Pont St Esprit would be their target. The captains of the mass of Bretons, Germans, Gascons and English came themselves from many different places; one seems to have been the Scot Walter Leslie, Earl of Ross; another was a German of whom we will hear more later in Hawkwood’s career, Albert Sterz. And even Frenchmen, formerly in the employ of the French king on who’s lands they now fed – Helie Meschin, often called Petit Meschin, once a valet in the French royal court, now a captain of adventurers. These people had been in the same trade for a long time; as Hawkwood’s later career will show, many of these captains knew each other pretty well, just as many of the Condottieri would keep in touch with each other when they were wandering around Italy campaigning away. A bit like a bun fight at the Publishers association I suppose – guarded conversation about how things are going what’s business like – always brilliant of course, even if the company you are with has just gone into receivership; the point is they were in the same line of trade, and it pays to keep up to date. It appears that Hawkwood was not one of these greater captains at this moment in time at Pont St Esprit; but it does seem that he might have been significant enough even now to be courted by the pope, who may have addressed him as marshal, a post just below Captain.
The great Company descended on Pont St Esprit like the proverbial wolf on the fold, at the break of day having apparently ridden through night so as to arrive unannounced. And a spectacularly poorly prepared fold it was. The wolves took the town by force with great ease, leaving the Walled section of the town and its garrison to fight on under their commander Jean Souvain. Meanwhile the wolves spread out across the countryside pillaging and destroying everything in their path; news soon reached Souvain that nearby Chuslan and Codolet had been ravahged by the wolves. When Souvain fell from a scaffold and broke his leg, it also broke his will to resist – and after just 3 days, the garrison came to terms – their lives would be spared for the fee of 6,000 florins. That all sounds good – except for one weak point, being that they didn’t actually have 6,000 florins which to be honest doesn’t sound like great negotiating, someone would have been for it when he got back I imagine. So that meant the town was fair game for the routiers.
Game it certainly was, though only fair in a very medieval warfare sense rather than fair like, say the Fair Rosamund. I remember telling you about that clever historian who always asks the question ‘Who paid the Price?’ well all the good citizens of Pont St Esprit paid the price, especially the women. It seems that the Great Company did not put people to the sword, but certainly families were robbed and the town picked clean of valuables. Women, as will almost routinely be the case, suffered most; women and girls, including nuns, were euphemistically made to ‘join the company’s service’, which almost certainly means rape and being forced into sexual slavery for want of a better phrase.
It’s a point worth making right here and now I think; Hawkwood did not invent the ever-present predation on women and subjection to rape and enforced prostitution; but despite generally escaping a life of warfare with a contemporary reputation intact, neither did he in anyway show any especial leniency or humanity. He was a ruthless man, in a ruthless profession, in ruthless situations. The English and his company were as bad as anyone else – though the Germans and Bretons seem to get a particularly bad reputation. Hawkwood is connected to two events which were seen even by contemporary standards as outside the bounds of acceptable warfare behaviour – which we’ll come to; but for us here and now, a lot more of what Hawkwood and the various companies ad armies did would leave to war crime prosecutions. And for women as always it was the worst. At Pisa, the historian there protested that the English
Insulted the wives of the Pisans with intercourse and adultery, with or without consent
Just for example. The experience of the women of Pont St Esprit would not have been unusual, and this is a situation where the Great Company did not necessarily want to subject the town to a full sack but to preserve because they wanted stay a while, to wring a deal out of the Pope.
Well, the ransom money had not arrived, but pickings aplenty there were still, and more routiers flocked to St Esprit, and the countryside all the way to the walls of Avignon was subjected to raids and plunder, including three monasteries. The Rhone, the artery for trade and traffic was closed at the bridge by the Company. Throughout the winter of 1360-1 the Great Company held Pont St Esprit and Avignon in its tightly clenched fist. That, incidentally, is the second time I have used the phrase routiers, so I should explain it; though, rabbit hole coming up. Because in my youth it was usually the name for a kind of tourist guide for finding your way around France, along with recommendations for B&Bs, Relais Routiers; in that sense of finding your way, it also lent its name to a Rutter, which was a detailed set of marine instructions, in the days before longtitude and latitude – so, for example, get to the Indies by sailing x days due east at y knots, that sort of thing. So quite how it came to mean a company of mercenaries is a bit obscure, but the idea is that it seems to come from the sense of people who know the road very well; which you might expect of highwaymen or robbers. The term is first used in this sense for a band of mercenaries from the 12th century, who were referred to as a rout, a group.So Hawkwood would have arrived at Pont St Esprit with his rout, or band.
The Pope of course was outraged. He ordered the invaders to depart immediately. Agh, sorry your holiness! Sterz, Meschin gathered up their men, tents were packed away, the Great Company slunk off to seek meaningful employment in the woollen manufacturing industry.
So the Pope excommunicated them and ordered a crusade. Really, by 1360 crusades had become as common as muck, the local corner shop could be excommunicated for running out of milk. The deal was that people should flock to the Pope and carry out the crusade against the excommunicate, in return for a special deal on puirgatoru – i.e. your soul would spend less time there after you croaked, and you’d get to paradise earlier. The first question from interested parties was, well, good news about spending less time in purgatory and all, but, um, what’s the daily rate in the here and now just out of curiosity? The response was that Purgatory was it, Well this time round, the corresponding response from potential crusaders was – that The Purgatory is not enough. The Pope realised that the mercenaries would have to die another day, despite his desire to live and let die, because this was no time to die. So he was delighted when a Spy, who very probably almost certainly loved him, came with a proposal marked for your eyes only. Its content gave him a quantum of Solace, even though the love didn’t come from Russia, but instead from a place called Montferrat.
Montferrat – time for some geography. So Montferrat is in Piedmont. Piedmont is a large region in the north west of Italy, about half of it mountainous, Alps-wise, bordering as it does on the land of the Switzers. Montferrat is in its eastern region, between modern day Turin and Milan, and today it’s an important wine growing region. Back in the 14th century, it was ruled by the Marquis of Montferrat, John II of that ilk. Interestingly, John belonged to the Palaeologus family, which is a bit of a hoot; as you may know from your Byzantine history, the Palaeolgi were the Emperors of the Byzantine Empire. Such as remained to it. The Cadet branch in Montferrat had acquired the marquisate by inheritance in 1306.
Once arrived, the Palaeologi had been careful to assimilate into the local culture by trying to beat seven bells out of their neighbours. Incidentally, I was moved to wonder why seven bells in the beating; I learn that it’s a nautical expression. A 4 hour watch is punctuated by 8 half hour bells; so if you beat seven bells out of someone, then you almost beat them up all the way but just stop short of the ultimate; if you did, in theory, beat 8 bells out of someone, they’d be dead. So there you go. Maybe in the spirit of a calmer life, we should only be beating maybe 1 or 2 bells out of each other instead. Anyway, Montferrat was already part of the cut and thrust of Italian politics, because they were close to Milan and Milan was ruled by the aggressive and acquisitive Visconti family, about whom you will hear more in the series. So, given that there was a war on, Montferrat might well have a use for a few thousand hardened fighting men.
The negotiations between Pope, Montferrat and the Great Company were helped by another colourful figure, the Count of Savoy, Amadeus VI, the Green Count as he was known for his liking of turning up at tournaments all decked out in Green kit. Together, they stitched up a deal; Montferrat would invite the routiers into northern Italy, where they would help him in his war – for a suitable fee obviously. Meanwhile the Pope would oil the wheels of the arrangements – so in the words of the French chronicler, his gift to the routiers was that
He forgave them for their misdeeds and absolved them of all penalties and sin
Which, given that Hawkwood and his routiers had been sinning with brass knobs on, was handy. But it was probably the brass that came after the muck that really made the difference. The Great Company was paid 60,000 gold florins to go away, and the pope had to pass around the zucchetto to work up the money, with contributions from the French king and from the citizens of Pont St Esprit to add to the treasury in Avignon. Hawkwood’s rout seems to have got 14,500 of these florins so his rout a substantial proportion of the Great Company as a whole. Incidentally, converting Florins to Pounds for the 14th century is tricky and probably meaningless because of things like standard of living and cost of items and all that, but roughly let us say that there are 10 florins to a pound. This would mean that the great company were paid £6,000; in today’s money that’s about £3m. Which seems like a reasonable number; it would buy you, for example, 16,000 cows. If Hawkwood’s rout was in proportion to the payout that’s maybe £5 each, or £2,500 each in today’s money – though obviously the average soldier would not get as much as the Captains. There is a lovely historical currency conversion app, by the way, on the National Archives website.
It is a bit difficult to know exactly how money was divi’d up within the companies; and a constant question about how much money Hawkwood made over his career, and if he died a rich man – and despite the vast amount of money that passed through his hands, it’s not clear he ended his life wildly rich, and indeed he did rather complain about his debts. The tradition within Richard II and his military ordinances for dividing up ransoms was 30% to the Crown, 30% to the Captain and 30% therefore to the men; in the 100 years war, ordinary soldiers gave 30% of their pay to their Captain; in a contract with Florence, Hawkwood was allowed to keep 10% of his profits – after the men had been paid. Difficult to know what to make of all that; except to note that by and large Hawkwood had a reputation for looking after his men, and that he himself was not short of a bob or two, but neither was he rolling in it.
Anyway, the Pope and Marquis of Montferrat had made a significant investment to save Avignon and the Pont St Esprit from the wolves. In the spring of 1361, Hawkwood and his company decamped and headed for the southern coast of France; they burned the suburbs of Marseilles on the way, since it’s obviously important to keep idle hands busy and annoyingly the Marseilaise would not give them food for free, and then made their way to Nice and over the Alpes Maritime to arrive in the Plains of Lombardy in North West Italy in June 1361. Ready to make the acquaintance with Italy, Italian politics, and the Visconti of Milan.