We left Hawkwood and his band of merry men and women crossing the Maritime Alps as part of the company led by Albert Sterz, or Albert the German as he was affectionately and quite accurately known. Well, accurately. They immediately headed north into Piedmont to meet up with their employer Montferrat.
It might be worth noting that nationality mattered to the companies. Contemporaries regularly referred to them by the nationality of their constituents – the English, despite the fact that the Company became known as the Great Company of English and Germans – probably more to do with the fact that the boss was German in this case. There is a bit of a paradox here; in many senses the Companies were the ultimate in social and national mixing. They brought together people from across the social spectrum to live, fight and work together in close proximity almost permanently, in a way quite unlike the normal rural society to which they were accustomed. And the companies were usually very heterodox in terms of nationalities – German, Catalan, Italian, Breton, English, Hungarian, Provencal. And yet nationality definitely remains important. Hawkwood gathered around him English Lieutenants who would work with and for him over a long term; the identity of groups working and fighting in a foreign country would become maybe even stronger than they had been before. In return, the sense of being Italian, despite, as already described, the rampant and overwhelming strength of regional loyalties also became more defined in opposition. Pope Urban VI in 1378 for example, after the defeat of a company of Breton mercenaries, wrote of ‘the liberation of Italy from barbarians’; the Florentine chancellor celebrated the same victory as down to the ‘strength and virtue of Italians’. Interestingly, the contract between Sterz’s company and the Marquis of Montferrat under which they fought now, included the clause that, unless directly employed by the enemy, the company
Refused to oppose another society of other Englishmen or other subjects of the lord King of England.’
As ever, war tended to focus peoples’ minds on identity and those in and those out.
Well, as it happens Sterz’s campaign in Piedmont didn’t get off to the most straightforward of starts. The idea had been of course to have a hack at the Visconti of Milan, and for that reason, Amadeus of Savoy, the Green Knight, had been involved in the discussions and it was agreed that in the coming fight he would remain neutral. But hey, that’s all very well and all, but it turns out Montferrat was harbouring a grudge against some previous predations visited on his lands by the Lords of Savoy, and he had in his hands a rather shiny sharp edged weapon in the form of 2,800 horsemen and maybe 2,000 infantry; seemed silly not to make full and proper use of it. So instead of heading for the Lombardy, the Visconti, and their armies of Lombards and the Great Company of von Landau, they headed north instead for Savoy. And they would be there for a year, ravaging away as they went. They first of all set their sights on the Town of Rivarolo which lies about 20 miles north of Turin. If your geography of Italy is not brilliant, like mine, then that’s sort of top left. Unless you are from Australia or New Zealand in which case it would be bottom right – is that right?
Anyway, it has to be said in general that the Companies were not brilliant at taking well defended towns with big walls; in fact they’d already failed to take the well defended town of Saviglano. Because you see by and large they could not drag or afford large scale artillery, communal citizen armies were the only forces that could really afford such kit, if really needed. Though as an aside, capturing towns wasn’t necessarily the point of 14th century warfare. Just like the 100YW, the point was really to devastate your enemy’s farms and economic capability, and demonstrate in no uncertain terms how unfit they were to rule and protect. None the less, Sterz and his company wanted a base; so in the absence of a trebuchet or 6, they chose stealth as their weapon of choice.
One summer night, then, the citizens of Rivarolo were sleeping peacefully through yet another quiet night, possibly after a heavy meal of pasta. I noodled around a bit on pasta, wondering if in 1361 the citizens of Rivarolo would know what pasta was, and found out that yes, pasta is regularly referred to from the 13th century, with various traditions about where it originated going back to the ancient Greeks. Though amusingly, there is a tradition that Marco Polo actually brought pasta back from the east on his travels. I say amusingly, because this turns out to have originated with an advert in the 1920s from a Canadian Spaghetti manufacturer. If only more people appreciated the value of history in marketing.
Anyway, sleeping away behind their town walls, the guards as there were probably nodding off, the tops of long scaling ladders quietly appeared at the top of the town walls, to be followed by a horde of determined looking English. Before you could say shiny sharp knife, the good citizens found themselves watching helplessly as they were robbed. Over the following few days the farms and villages outside found them going through the same process. Sterz & Co had their base. And they set to the ravaging, proving Amadeus was a rubbish lord thing with a will, while killing two birds with one proverbial stone by making a bob or two for themselves; for example they went and captured the local Bishop, and ransomed him off for a tidy sum.
Well Amadeus of Savoy the Green knight was understandably miffed at all of this, this wasn’t the plan at all, and he resolved to do something about it; and so he took himself to a town called Lanzo, preparatory to taking said action, with his inner circle of advisers which included another English adventurer as it happens, one Roger Musard, known as the black squire. Anyway, the Green Knight did what Green Knights are wont to do before the big match, and according to the Savoyard Servion, spent the night singing, dancing and feasting with the local ladies of the town, ‘as befits his youth’ wrote Servion. When God was in his heaven, he stumbled off to bed in the fortress, completely ignoring the idea that he should post guards – afterall, Sterz and his company would be miles away.
Sterz and his company were not, in fact miles away. That very night they crept into the town, which was without walls, and in the morning the Green Knight, as he munched on his toast and marmalade in the castle, was forced to watch as the likes of Hawkwood and Sterz determinedly removed anything of value from the town below.
Clearly the concept of neutrality was, as far as Savoy was concerned, something of a hollow joke. And Amadeus knew full well that when you are being beaten up in the schoolyard, the thing you need is either very quick legs and a place to run to, or a bigger, butcher friend. The Green Knight chose the later and on 26 December 1361 he allied with the Visconti of Milan. The Treaty of course could have been composed with subtle and diplomatic language, to obscure its purpose from its enemies. But in fact it included the lines that it was
First and foremost for the destruction of the society of Engishmen
So, rather than beat up the Green monkey any further, Sterz and Montferrat agreed that it was time to take the battle to the Organ Grinder. Who lived in Lombardy, Milan specifically, and who also had a big mercenary brother called Konrad von Landau. It is time, gentle listeners, to talk about the Visconti.
The family were originally a minor noble family, who acquired the hereditary title of viscount of Milan – and Visconti became their surname. So a bit like you, if promoted to the role of pencil monitor at school changed your surname to Monitori. They beat up their local rivals in the city as Ottone Visconti got himself made Archbishop of Milan by the Pope, and in the mercy of God gave the Della Torre family a bloody drubbing in battle, and then half inched the temporal powers of the Archbishop. It is around this time that the Popes realised they had created a monstrous snake, and started to try and stamp on said snake’s head. It would prove a difficult monstrous snake to kill, and before long the Visconti had made the title of signore of the city hereditary. The Visconti were here to stay.
Milan was fabulously wealthy. Its position dominating communications in northern Lombardy and the passes through the alps allowed enormous profits from tolls, its luxury textiles industry and production of armour generating trading wealth, and of course it sat full square in the two most densely populated and economically advanced regions of Europe, Lombardy. I should give you an idea of the scale of this, because I have always found it impossible to think well, how rich could such a small place really be? Well, in our period the annual income of the signori of Milan was about 700,000 Florins. Compared to the income of Edward III which was around only 550,000 florins. The Visconti were enormously rich.
The history of the Visconti family is presumably the stuff of various novels and gaudy mini series, and if it isn’t – well, it jolly well ought to be, what ARE you doing out there? It would surely be over the top to go into it in too great a depth so let me summarise in 10 episodes…Briefly then. By the time Hawkwood and Sterz appeared in Piedmont, Milan was ruled by two brothers, Bernabo and Galeazzo Visconti, who had inherited Lombardy from their uncle, Giovanni. There had been three where there were now two, because there had been three brothers, but Bernabo and Galeazzo did not like the cut of Matteo II’s jib, they did not think the trim was at all correct, do pull on those sheets man – and so, they do what you do in these circumstances – they poisoned him after a dinner. So there shall only be two.
Bernabo and Galeazzo divi’d up Lombardy between the two of them – Bernabo taking the east, bordering Veronese and Mantuan territories and Galeazzo the west, bordering on Piedmont and Genoa. But both of them worked together – it would not be until Galeazzo’s son, Gian Gaelazzo got involved that things would go pear shaped. None the less, it was often Bernabo with whom Hawkwood will have dealings.
Galeazzo was family with Amadeus of Savoy, because he had married his sister Bianca; they had two children together, Gian Galeazzo and Violente both of whom will be part of our story. Bianca used her influence as she could; she worked hard to try to bring peace between her husband and John of Montferrat, with limited success it has to be said; she would support her son later when he started politicking, with much greater success. The Galeazzo and Bianca branch of the Visconti tended to lived in Pavia, after it was conquered by Milan, where they built the massive Castello Visconteo to house their court and Chancelery. They acquired a reputation for more than warfare through their patronage of Petrach, but also for the founding of Pavia University, with the help of the HRE. Bernabo on the other hand leaves a rather wilder reputation. He’s remembered as a tyrant and despot, who rained taxes on Milan, a man of frightening energy with a violent temper. He marries into the family of his neighbours – the della Scalla of Verona. Fortunately Beatrice Regina della Scala although 8 years younger than Bernabo was nobody’s pushover and had an iron will of her own; she was reputed to be the only person who could control her husband’s furies. People got to know this, and used Beatrice as an intermediary to her husband when they could; notably Catherine of Siena came to her. Another notable thing about Beatrice was that she sponsored the church in Milan on whose site would be built a super famous opera house; and so Beatrice Regina’s memory is preserved whenever people talk about the latest production at La Scalla Milan.
Beatrice Regina also gave birth to no fewer than 15 children with Bernabo, which is a genuinely terrifying prospect. Not content with that, Bernabo also played away with some regularity and is attributed with the same number of illegitimate children as Henry I of England – 21. One of them we will meet in these pages, Ambrogio.
Now the Visconti did not get where they were today by being shrinking violets who skipped and jumped, and enjoyed a quiet night in with a cup of cocoa and a pair of slippers. They were constantly and relentlessly aggressive, and sought always to extend Milan’s reach and patrimony. There were a group of cities for which Milan always fought hard to bring inside the tent – Lodi, Bergamo, Como, Pavia, Piacenza – and as you will have worked out from Pavia’s mention, often they succeeded. Others further afield were harder to dominate – Cremona, Brescia and others; and then the really big ones, Parma, Genoa and Bologna. It was Bologna which was the cause of this war that brought Hawkwood to Italy. Because Bologna was one of the most important cities in Italy, the oldest law school in Europe, the leading town in the Emilia region to the south East of Lombardy. The Visconti and the Pope both laid claim to it. The Visconti at one stage thought they’d taken possession good and proper – but then the illegitimate son of a Visconti Archbishop handed it over to the Pope through the offices of one Cardinal Albornoz. On receiving the news, a small explosion could be heard deep with the palazzo of Milan, and the noise of people calling for Beatrice Regina to go and work her magic on Bernabo. Bernabo fought back, and to keep him at bay the Pope put together an anti Visconti alliance – the Pope, the Marquis of Montferrat, the republic of Genoa – and for a short while, the Count of Savoy.
In addition to his civil militia of Lombards, Galeazzo Visconti had employed a famous Mercenary, the German Konrad von Landau. Landau had long experience of fighting in Italy, having arrived in 1349 to take the Venetian shilling. He was connected to probably the largest and longest lived company – the Great Company which went through various iterations, was dissolved and reformed, but under three commanders, Werner of Urslingen, Fra Moriale and now Konrad von Landau, had been fighting in Italy off and on since 1342. Look beneath the surface, and you might wonder, though, why people kept employing von Landau; he had more than his fair share of bad days at the office.
I need to make mention of one of those, because it’s rather unusual. Well – ‘need’. Not exactly need I have to say, ‘need’ in the sense my 7 year old children would have used it, to be met with my careful and painstaking explanation of the important differences between ‘need’ and ‘want’. I’m sure they’ve always appreciated the education I gave them. Anyway, in the 1340s, Landau was travelling across the Appenines to attack Perugia, on behalf of the Sienese in whose pay he was at the time. On the way, they helped themselves to the supplies of the town of Marradi, with some viciousness. Now, the ordinary folk of Italy were used to all this warfare; and by and large this was what city walls were for; when armies or mercenaries were in the area you got your cows, goats, sheep together plus your family and traipsed inside the walls. Endurance, resignation was the lot of the Italian villager.
Well the people of Marradi were different. They knew the high places and the passes through which Landau would need to travel. And they planned to make him pay Well, Landau was warned – and as a result from his tent was heard the sound of Germanic scoffing, pshaw, don’t try to scare me with a town militia, and they kept right on going. At a tiny pass called La Scalelle he was caught by the town militia and bombarded from the heights with rocks; when the mercenary column was sufficiently weakened they attacked and the mercenaries fled, broken. Landau was captured and paid a hefty ransom for his arrogance, over 1000 warhorses were captured, 300 cavalry killed. It is a very rare example of, for once, the locals turning the tables on their tormentors. Just needed, yes needed, to tell you that on the behalf of the ordinary Italian.
Anyway back to Sterz and Hawkwood. It was the big bruisers they had to take on now – the Visconti and his bully boy Landau.