At which point I should pause to give you a bit of a thumbnail sketch on the world into which Hawkwood and his company marched in June 1361; the country in which Hawkwood will basically spend all his life.
Once upon a time, in the 19th century, there was a very famous Austro Hungarian Chancellor of the empire called Klemens von Metternich. He was a deeply conservative man, who spent his life trying to keep the crumbly falafel ball he had made, stop from falling apart. This is weak simile, but I have been making falafel recently and know how hard it is to stop them turning into bits. Anyway, Metternich was faced with the idea of Italian unification to his south, of which he was not a fan, and so when he very famously said that Italy ‘is only a geographical expression’, he was being a bit inflammatory, honestly. If he’d been talking about 14th century Italy on the other hand – he’d simply gave been telling it how it was. There was no concept that there would or should be one Italy; while there was a shared language and religion, there was a wealth of separate political traditions and loyalties.
Broadly speaking we might think of Italy in three parts. In the North in the regions, left to right, Piedmont, Lombardy and the Veneto, and below them Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, we are talking a world of city states, on which we’ll spend a bit more time. South of that lot, in central Italy, we find the papal states. The Pope is a substantial secular ruler, as well as claiming a role as the spiritual an on occasion temporal leader of Christendom; this led the papacy into more scrapes and moral absurdities than you can imagine, but it is so, and at the time the Popes didn’t see a problem with it. It is worth noting that papal states as a phrase does hide a rather broad multitude of sins – many of the cities were either semi-autonomous or trying to be so; one centralised firmly governed state it was not. This meant that the Pope was engaged both in Italian wide wars and diplomacy; and at the same time trying to keep his slippered feet more firmly on the necks of his supposedly loyal provinces. This is interesting when it comes to dealing with mercenary companies; in terms of moral leadership the Papacy was clear – these mercenaries were vermin. When it came to fighting wars or police actions – well, how much do you cost and when could you start? A tricky moral and political tightrope to walk.
Southern Italy was very different, much more the sort of feudal set up we are used to in Western Europe, with monarchs. All of Italy at one time had been under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, and that time was much more recent in the south. During our period however southern Italy was something of a battlefield, between the kingdom Aragorn in Spain, with a maritime empire that included Corsica and Sicily, and the Kingdom of Naples held by the Counts of Anjou.
Back up north then, and let us talk about northern Italy, which will be the playground for most of Hawkwood’s life, though not all. The thirteenth century had seen the final struggles of the Empire to retain some sort of control in Lombardy and the north of Italy; so you might have heard of the division between Guelph and Ghibbeline; Guelph cities were for the Pope, Ghibbeline for Emperor. Those days were fading now though; the Emperors no longer play much if any role, and the identities of the cities were no longer really tied up with them, with maybe just a shadow left.
What you do have is a very wide array of political systems; in the 13th century in particular, the political map is a mosaic of small, city states and communes; there’s a map on the history of england.co.uk, it’s still very useful for following the 14th century story because you can see where all these cities are that we will be talking about, so check it out. By the mid 14th century, some sort of consolidation is going on. The Cities were in constant competition with each other, constantly trying to expand; in the process, there were winners and losers. So let us take Florence for example. Once her development had lagged behind Tuscan cities like Lucca and Pisa; by the time Hawkwood arrived it was in retrospect becoming clear that Florence was destined to dominate Tuscany. Prato was absorbed into its state by 1350, to be followed by Arezzo, and she was threatening Pisa and Siena. In the north, Venice and Genoa generally at this time kept out of most of the land based struggles and concentrated on their maritime empires – a struggle in itself which Venice was starting to win, and Genoa would be constantly threatened by Milan. And in Lombardy, it was Milan that was fixing to dominate the political landscape.
Meanwhile, politically these states were a patchwork of different structures; though the general trend I suppose you might say, was from the republican, communal government to the rule of the signori – authoritarian, dynastic rulers from one of the greater families in the city that had come out on top of the factional infighting. Because factionalism, whatever your political system, was a fact of life in 14th century Italy. You’ll probably know about all the towers in the Italian cities – towers built by signori both for defence in the constant in-fighting, but also for Status, look how big mine is. The town of San Gimignano is still famous for their towers that survive – but the bigger cities like Florence were the same. A set of armed camps.
Although the move was towards rule by the signori, in a search for political stability and strong government, the movement was by no means smooth or inevitable. In our period in Tuscany Florence, Pisa, Siena and Lucca, lovely, lovely Volterra, Arezzo, Sam Gimignano and Cortona were all republics. Other cities like Milan, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Cremona, Pavia and Piacenza were ruled by signori; Genoa, Bologna and Perugia oscillated between the two of them. It is a real patchwork, and enormously fun. I remember as a kid reading lots and lots of my Dad’s Raphael Sabatini books which I found on his shelf, some of which were set in Renaisance Italy and good lord, the politics, spies, plotting – well, perfect material for the historical novelist, a playground. I haven’t read one for decades and I suspect they haven’t aged well, but they did give my father his favourite quote, after Timeo danaos et dona ferrentes – which was a line he gave to Scaramouche, which goes “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” A great line. Anyway, why am I telling you all of this?
Anyway, what we get, which again is fabulous material for the novelist, is a number of families and dynasties, a world in which you could quickly get sucked and never escape. They were all steeped in dynastic pride. The Della Scala family in Verona, with their emblem of a mastiff on a ladder, where Guglielmo della Scala assassinated his father in 1359, which is nice. The Carrara family of Padua, with the glittering court of the great artistic patron Francesco il Vecchio, fighting to stay out of the clutches of Venice and Milan with their emblem of the chariot; the Malatesta of Rimini, and of course the Colleoni of Venice with their emblem of the three, um, testicles. Because you know you want to, always good to be proud of your testicles. I kid you not. And of course, the Visconti of Milan, with their emblem of the Viper swallowing a child, or sometimes a Saracen.
I could go on; and of course the republican towns have their emblems too, such as the Lion of Florence, the Pisan fox and eagle. The point is that northern Italy is a hot bed of competition, pride and loyalties, which is almost a machine for making war.
The other thing which would make Italy fertile ground for Hawkwood was that it was rich. Rich, rich, rich. I have at many times reminded you that England was but a small, damp and soggy island off the coast of the European continent, especially compared to the glories of Italy. England was traditionally sniggered over by its neighbours, including by the great Petrach, the father of Italian humanism and the renaissance. The Sienese Pope Pius II described England as ‘utterly unlike the country we inhabit, being rude, uncultivated and unvisited by the winter sun’. To be fair, we are still rude. On the eve of the Great Famine of 1315, England’s population had hit maybe 5 million, which plummeted to 2 ½ afterwards. The population of Italy as Hawkwood came over the alps without any elephants was between 7 and 9 million. Not only that but northern Italy was an urban environment; Florence was also hit hard by the Black Death when its population was at 100,000 maybe more than double the size of London; even in 1360, its population had risen back to 70,000; and Milan was relatively unaffected by the Plague.
And Italy’s economy was vibrant; its merchants travelled all over Europe, including England of course. Florence’s economy was built on textiles, including silk, and from the wealth of their industry grew some of the wealthiest bankers in Europe. This meant that when you look at the geographical map these states look quite small, their rulers had immense resources to play with. The income of the Visconti of Milan, for example, was greater than the income of King Edward III.
Now then, so we’ve got a deeply fractured political structure of cities; we’ve got bags of patriotic pride towards the home city, we’ve got lots of cash washing around, and we’ve got a Darwinian battle for trade and political supremacy. Which frequently tuned violent.
By and large, that violence had not been based on mercenary armies but rather using citizen militias. The militias were recruited according to companies from different regions of the city, and each region itself might command strong loyalties. Those communal militias were primarily infantry, because few of them could command the cash to buy themselves a horse; but do not suppose that cavalry was unimportant, because the horse continued to play a central role in warfare; some provided by the aristocracies in the cities, some maybe mercenary. In the 13th century, a change began to emerge, as these city states began to see the advantage of sprinkling their militias with some battle hardened professionals, some mercenaries. In the south, this was particularly so much earlier – at the battle of Benevento in 1266 2/3rds of Manfred’s cavalry were German and Italian mercenaries; both Manfred and Charles of Anjou employed specialist Pisan and Genoese crossbowmen. I am sure in all the rollicking adventure stories of war in which I gloried as a lad, the crossbowmen were always Genoese, tell me if I am wrong.
In the north, this took longer to develop; also while there were many mercenaries serving for the northern cities by 1300, they were generally recruited and fought as individuals, or at most constabularies of 25. Florence was in the vanguard – at the battle of Campaldino in 1289, the Florentine victor had almost 200 Angevin cavalry in his following. Through the late 13th century and through the first half of the 14th, this changes. There is more specialisation in arms, like the crossbow, or the development of the 3 man lance based around the cavalry man; and this made it more important to hire specialist mercenaries. The threat of an aggressive Imperial army was now remote, so city states were freer to slug it out without fear of interruption. And more mercenaries became available; recession in Germany for example, made finding work in Italy for German soldiers particularly attractive; and between 1320 and 1360 there were something like 10,000 German mercenaries in Italy. From the late 1350s, as we have heard a new supply of experienced mercenaries would come on line from the 100 year’s war.
But also the great captain with large companies begins to appear. William della Torre, a Catalan adventurer appeared on the Sienese payroll in 1285 with 114 men. These larger companies were deeply multinational – at Florence, della Torre employed provencals, northern French, English, Flemings, Italians and Spaniards. Incidentally, Italians might well be described as foreigners – if you didn’t come from the region or city, then you were a foreigner. Remember – geographical expression. Loughburians against the barbarians of Leicester!
In 1305 another Catalan, Diego de Rat was working in Florence with a much larger contingent – 200-300 cavalry and 500 infantry, a truly enormous force for the time. Bear in mind also that with such large numbers of mercenaries we are talking a major shift in attitude and financial burden. This is a shift away from civilian armies raised for a specific purpose, to what were essentially becoming permanent, standing armies. A standing army might be useful for beating 8 bells out of your neighbour; they might also be useful for an ambitious signore to keep his own citizens on the straight and narrow. But meanwhile it’s a constant and major cost for which taxes or customs dues are required. In 1339, Lodrisio Visconti formed a company, the Company of St George, with 2,500 cavalry and 1,000 infantry, along side two German noblemen, Conrad von Landau and Werner of Urslingen. The numbers continued to grow; in 1353-4, a provencal knight called Fra Moriale controlled what was the size of a major city on the march, a triumph of organisation and coercion with 10,000 fighting men and 20,000 camp followers. It was called the Great Company – it has to be said that the originality of the naming of all these mercenary companies leaves a little to be desired.
In 1361, then, a new company fresh from Pont St Esprit joined the fray in Montferrat, the White Company. It’s not certain why they were called the White company; it’s thought that maybe it was because of the armour they wore, which was burnished to a dazzling silver, but here’s a bit of a barney about that. Caferro points out that no contemporaries explained it thus – and suggests instead that they had a practice of wearing white surcoats over their armour. A third alternative I would personally like to suggest, was that contemporaries recognised that their intentions were as pure and peaceful as the driven snow. I suspect that’s a theory unlikely to gain…what did they say in the corporate meetings, um, …traction that’s it. Unlikely to gain traction, but let me know. The commander of this company was a German, called Albert Sterz. But his company included Hawkwood, and many other English.
Let me take you back to Petrarch the great humanist, and the sniggering I mentioned about the English and their small, damp island. Here is the great man, and it is a nice quote in a way, because it rather demonstrates what Edward III’s military triumph had achieved for the reputation of English arms
In my youth, the English were regarded as the most timid of all the uncouth races…and men who were once lower even than the wretched Scots
Right let me break off here for a moment. I mean – rude! And good lord the English are supposed to be xenophobic! Well on behalf of all the ‘uncouth races’ whoever else is in that bag alongside the English, you know what you can do with your uncouth races talk! And – ‘even lower than the wretched Scots’? Wash out thy mouth with soap and water Signore Petrarch. Anyway, fortunately Petrarch goes on, reflecting on the recent sporting results from France
But today they are the supreme warriors; they have destroyed the reputation of the French in a succession of startling victories…and have crushed the realm of France with fire and steel
I mean, note no mention of the art and intellect there, but hey, I’m still taking that as a win. The reputation of the English was on the rise, and Hawkwood was now in Montferrat in the service of Sterz to prove that Petrarch’s transformed opinion was not wrong. If all went to plan.