It was the practice in Milan to walk outside the walls of the city after nightfall to socialise with other walkers, or maybe sit down and pay a leisurely game of draughts with your friends. And in January 1363, a group of noblemen and women were amusing themselves in this very way. They’d heard that mercenaries had been fighting east of the city, ravaging the towns of Lagnago, Nerviano and Castano, but surely they were far away, and the Milanese militia would prevent anyone getting close to mighty, all powerful Milan.
Wah wah ooops
Wrong. A band of the English White Company appeared in the suburbs. Everyone was caught by surprise, men were robbed, tied up and taken away for ransom, women robbed of their jewelery. The raid was satisfactorily profitable for the White Company – ‘fat spoils’ it was said, as much as 100,000 florins in one single raid.
Before the raid, a new contract with Montferrat had been signed in November 1361, in which Hawkwood was named specifically this time, in the role of a ‘constable’, and now Sterz was energetically seeking to show the world that the Visconti, far from being the Vipers of their coat of arms, were no more than slow worms. Galeazzo and Bernabo were furious with their captains; the commander of the Italian forces, Luchino del Verme had failed to halt the White Company advance, Landau had seemed completely supine. In desperation, the Visconti had tried buying the mercenaries off. Possibly surprisingly the tactic failed – surprisingly because it was a tactic that often did work, this was business after all. But Hawkwood refused to be turned aside. The Visconti tried to make peace and negotiations were held – but they failed too, Sterz was not to be diverted. Interestingly, Hawkwood was named as being involved in these talks, which is significant; his star was clearly rising.
Stung by his failure and the fury of his paymasters, Landau decided to turn to desperate measures – a pitched battle; which despite the constant flightiness was not the normal approach. Raiding was where things were at normally, risking everything on the throw of a dice was such a poor business practice. But needs must. So in April 1363 Landau advanced towards the White Company’s camp in Piedmont at Romagna and surprised the English at the bridge at Canturino. And at first things went well for the German; but Sterz and Hawkwood ordered their cavalry to dismount and defend their position on foot, and the battle started to waver. What seems to have swung it though was nationality; many of Landau’s cavalry came from a large Hungarian contingent, and they learned that the White Company also contained many of their countrymen – and they decided this fight was not for them, brother against brother. And so they made like Sir Robin and when danger reared its ugly head they bravely turned their tails and fled. Landau was devastated and cried out for them to stop. The Italian chronicler Azario, who was not a fan of the lumpen Landau had some innocent pleasure recalling how Landau called out to them to stop – in German, not knowing the Hungarian. Though to be fair to Landau, I am guessing they got the message, but just showed their captain the Medieval Hungarian equivalent of the Hand.
The battle was finished for Landau though by what happened immediately afterwards – he was hit in the face by a rock. Distracted, as you would be, he was caught by a lance under the arm, and the another in the mouth. And Landau’s career and indeed life came to an end. Azario was not sympathetic
He had terrorized the whole of Italy and yet the clever count died indiscreetly, snuffed out by robbers and unarmed infantrymen
In the east, the Pope had also won a victory against the Visconti, and captured one of Bernabo’s illegitimate sons, Ambrogio. It seemed like a good time for Pope Urban V to suggest the Visconti might like to avoid any further kicking and agree to a peace; and despite his fury, Bernabo agreed, and the deal was done. Bernabo would have to get used to the humiliation of losing Bologna to the Papacy; but the Visconti brothers would be given a salve of 500,000 florins to help heal the wound. Hawkwood’s first commission and contract in Italy was duly put at an end by the peace.
Well of course this was not the end, otherwise this would be a short shedcast series indeed. Seeing the way the land lay, there were flies round the honey pot, flies in the form of hiring agents. The good thing about being in the war and killing trade in 14th century Italy was that it was always a sellers market. Now as it happens two tribes were going to war, two Tuscan tribes linked by the thread of the River Arno and much else; but two tribes struggling for supremacy of their corner of the world – Pisa and Florence. Both were looking for an advantage and their representatives snuck between White Company tents and made their pitch, if you’ll pardon the pun – and surprisingly it was Pisa that won the bidding war. Surprisingly maybe because Florence was both bigger than Pisa, and had so many close links with England. And yet Pisa was desperate, and bid something up to 11,500 florins a month for the White Company’s services – this was about half Pisa’s total annual income. Pisa won the game because Pisa needed it more. By July 1363, the White Company was off south, given passage through Lombard lands by a relieved Visconti who would have been delighted to see the back of them.
It may be worth at this point very briefly returning to Canturino and picking up on something Azario wrote – that the English changed the flow of the battle by dismounting and fighting on foot. These English soldiers were of course released into the Italian bloodstream by the ending of the 100YW, albeit temporarily, and they brought with them the tactics that had won them such astounding success in that war. Some of those tactics worked and flourished in Italy; others were less in evidence. Obviously the thing every Tom, Dick and Harriet know about the 100YW was of course that it was the Longbow stupid, that’s what did it for us. And there is clearly reference to the Longbow in the chronicles of a Pisan who saw the English Companies arrive in 1363 – one Fillipo Villani.
Others among them were archers. Their bows long and made of yew. They were very expert and dextrous in using them and did great service in action
Azario had made the same observation
They carry bows on their backs…the foot soldiers have big and powerful bows that reach from their heads to the ground and being drawn shoot great long arrows
And yet, and yet…the longbow does not get anything like a consistent mench in the description of battles; we don’t get legends like Crecy or Auray, stories of enemies breaking themselves against a deadly hail of arrows. Hawkwood did not build his reputation on the Longbow. The reason is probably about numbers; in the 100YW, Edward’s armies made archers central to his strategy, and the numbers recruited were counted in the thousands. The most ever mentioned in Hawkwood’s campaigns were in the hundreds, and in this lies the great weakness of the Longbow – to use it effectively required a lifetime of practice from an early age, to the extent of warping an archer’s skeleton. While on the other hand any old idiot could use a Crossbow, just wind and point, close your eyes and pull the trigger, cogito ergo sum. Well I exaggerate for effect, but you know what I mean. Crossbowmen in the Italian wars were legion.
What might have had more impact in Italy was the far less sexy but no less important tactic – of fighting on foot, and organising the infantry around an effective weapon and structure. This was based on the lance, which was both a weapon, and a fighting organisation. Now the lance wasn’t new in Italy – they were used to the German system already, where infantry would use a cut down, shortened version of the cavalry lance, worked by a pair of men. But the English lance was a group of 3 people – the captain, presumably the men at arms, a squire and a pageboy. The extra boy was probably used in a non combatant role of looking after the equipment and getting the horse when the time arrived for a cavalry charge, but we are clearly still talking about a system that put boys into the midst of battle. And you tell the young of today and they won’t’ believe you. Together, then, with the practice of retaining a long lance, the enemy was faced with something like the later pike formations I guess, a hedge of long spears. The lance and fighting on foot probably arrived in Italy in 1361 and was there to stay.
The lance also formed the basis of English organisation; a lance was three men, five lances made up a company probably headed by a constable, and five companies made up a troop, or bandiera. That the lance was ubiquitous from here on is demonstrated that numbers of infantry were often quoted not in the number of individuals, but in the number of lances.
One thing that didn’t change was the dominance of cavalry. You might think cavalry had met it’s Waterloo by this time – afterall there was evidence that its day was over. The Fleming infantry slaughtered French cavalry at Courtai in 1302, the Swiss did the same at Morgarten in 1315 and of course the Inglesi did it at at Crecy. But cavalry was most definitively still queen. There were many reasons for this. One was cultural – we are slap bang in the middle of the age of Chivalry, the honourable mounted knight was still central in aristocratic minds and culture, as they burned farms, slaughtered farmers, raped women and robbed everyone. The extraordinary two brainedness of medieval warfare was in full flow. Secondly of course there is simply the military effectiveness of mounted warfare. The shock of the heavy cavalry charge, the mobility and speed.
But then finally, there is the strategic point of 14th century warfare. The point was not usually to capture cities, fight set piece battles; the point was to destroy trade, reduce the enemy’s economic strength and by reducing their lands to a desert of burned farms to persuade peasants and minor lords that if they wanted to keep their patrimony and wealth they’d better find a lord that could better protect them – maybe the one that was proving so good at burning them, perhaps? It was a war of attrition, and central to the war of attrition was the chevaucee, the raid on horse back on a wide front burning and destroying everything in your path. The horse was crucial for doing that in a punctual and timely manner.
Once upon a time, when the Pisans came looking for military help against its neighbour Florence, 50 miles to the west along the Arno, they might have been looking for support for the Emperor against the Pope; because Pisa was traditionally Ghibbeline, whereas Florence had been a Guelph town. But things had changed and time moved on, and the war between 1362 and 1364 was a trade war. Florence needed an outlet to the sea – and Pisa had traditionally provided it. But Pisa had started to impose higher customs duties, at a level Florence did not want to pay, partly for hard faced commercial reasons but partly also because to be forced to pay what the Pisans demanded would be a humiliation. To give you a flavour of the time, there was a saying the Florentines liked to use – ‘better a death in the house than a Pisan at the door’. Which I think could be considered rude, but tell me if I am just being a snowflake. And so Pisa must be forced to submit for the sake of pride and trade. Trade and particularly the textile trade, was the lifeblood of Florence’s wealth. Pisa, so dominant in the 11th and 12th century, had been outstripped now by Florence. So, for Pisa in particular this was not just a matter of pride wealth – it was a matter of survival.
Sterz took the White Company out of Pisa in the late summer of 1363, and for the first few months of their contracts they all had a jolly good time – if you happen to be a mercenary, probably not great if you happened to be a farming family. They were accompanied by the Pisan host at first, commanded by a Florentine ironically, and they raided along the Arno and then to northern Florentine territory towards Pistoia. They were a substantial army, 3,200 horse and 6,000 foot and Pisa’s hire had clearly caught the Florentine’s hopping. There seems to have been no one to stop them.
So, in the interests of diplomatic harmony, they headed south to do some good, honest sledging of the Florentines. They camped outside the walls in full view, demonstrating to the Florentines that their leaders were helpless to support them. They ran races and shot arrows, having a good time. And slightly shall we say, um cheekily, they hung three dead donkey’s from the walls with the message ‘Pisa sends you this!’, and they hung signs from said corpses with the names of leading Florentine families, such as the Strozzi. A level of sledging of which even the Australian Cricket team would be proud.
The Pisans then returned to the city to, you know, get some honest work done while the White company swept south of Florence, rather annoying the Sienese through whose territory they went, until they came to the town of Figline e Incisa. Now they at last they encountered some resistance from Florence – but it was swept aside, and many Florentine commanders captured and ransomed, and the town of Figline captured. It was another humiliation for the Florentines; one of the defeated commanders wrote that
I was wounded in the face and lead away…I lost that day horses, arms, supplies a silver belt and gold rings
Sterz used Figline as the base for more raiding for a couple of months. While they were there a name emerges, that of Andrew Belmont, one of the English corporals. His reputation as a handsome man survives down the centuries, and he came across one of the local leading citizens Guido della Forresta. Well. Guido’s wife, Mona Tancia, seems to have taken a fancy to the good looking corporal, and according to the Chronicler Villani, they had something of an affair, full of ‘good knightly love’. Guido seems not to have minded – and anyway Belmont protected his lands from being plundered in return. Now, who knows about this story? Maybe this was good knightly love as Villani claims, maybe it wasn’t, sounds much more likely to have been rather coercive, but you may choose to take the more positive, courtly view.
The first campaign then had been a success for Sterz and his company of Englishmen, and despite the cost Pisa was well pleased. In Florence, they tried to gloss the whole thing, and after the Company had returned to Pisa for the winter, they wrote dismissively
Then they made peace, but all they got was three giraffes
I suspect three giraffes is a way of saying they got naff all, but well, I’d rather like three giraffes I must admit – though I’m probably not prepared to pillage south Oxfordshire with my mates to get them. Still from now on, maybe we should use the expression three giraffes, in appropriate circumstances, instead of the rough end of a pineapple.
Well the Pisans were pleased. And so they decided to re-sign the company and try some more. And so in February 1364 a new contract was prepared, in which Hawkwood’s name would appear.