The contract Pisa signed with the Great Company in 1364 was significant. Because it names as commander not Sterz, no no no, but Hawkwood – our hero. Sterz was now to serve under Hawkwood. Now the historian Caferro, from under whose table I am not qualified to eat the crumbs, none the less takes a view on this which I have to doubt. I don’t know what personal experience you have of someone you used to manage being promoted over your head to become instead your boss, but I think it is at least likely to be a little awkward. Caferro thinks not, but I suspect later events cast doubt on that.
Though true enough, this was a business of collections of small companies, which disperse and coalesce constantly so maybe Caferro is right, that this is normal practice hardly worthy of comment. It seems that the White Company was so dominated by English that it must have appeared much more sensible to have an English man in control. So after what, after 20 plus years of warfare, Hawkwood had finally reached at least the first rung of the greasy pole; although I suppose rungs in a greasy pole would rather spoil the effect of a greasy pole. But you know what I mean. We get a brief and rare snippet of some of the other English around Hawkwood, since the contract names his corporals, William Gold and Richard Romsey. There are some other soldiers’ names too which are a bit more informal; Jack of London and a man affectionately known as ‘The Bastard’. Whether this was a comment on his lineage or character, we do not know. Maybe both. William Gold will pop up again though; Andrew Belmont is presumably still around, but not named.
Having a mercenary army camping with you turns out not to be a comfortable experience, who knew? The Pisans certainly found it tough; there were loutish English soldiers swaggering around hassling the locals and taking over some of the grander palaces. There were incidents of violence, almost as though this was a European cup final, though there were no reports of people inserting lighted flares in bottoms. Many women took the chance to go and spend some time in Genoa where they ‘were able to sleep honestly’. Maybe that influenced Hawkwood, who chose to campaign in winter and so to the relief of the locals he took the company out, heading toward Vinci, a town ready to rebel against Florentine rule and come over to Pisa. But it was a cold winter, and harsh; Hawkwood got stuck in the passes north East of Florence where some locals from Pistoia organised a defence in the passes, some men were lost, and Hawkwood retired back to Pisa. His first campaign had been a failure.
Meanwhile Florence had made a big decision. Up to now, despite their attempt to hire Sterz, it had relied principally on its own city levies, with maybe a smattering of Mercenary captains. In the face of the threat from Hawkwood, the Treasurer of the Florentine republic, Spinello thought this was a good time to spend money – or lose the farm. So they now hired larger contingents of mercenaries, and hired a new Italian Mercenary Captain of war, Pandolfo Malatesta. Malatesta was a lord in Rimini where the Malatesta held sway and was considered the most daring military commander in Italy, and a thorough going renaissance man – a poet and patron of the arts, and he would later command the Venetian forces against the Ottomans in 1465. Hawkwood found him an awkward companion.
When Hawkwood sallied out from Pisa for a second time in the spring of 1364 he took with him a new German contingent, commanded by Hannekin Baumgarten which sounds like a techno pop group to be honest. But look – it showed just how serious Pisa was about this war. And with these extra troops, Malatesta was rather limited to manoeuvre. They went to the north of Florence again, to Florence’s client cities Prato and Pistoia, but then found themselves cut off from Florence by Malatesta, trapped and forced to retreat into the hills. Now, not for nothing would Hawkwood be known by the Italians as Acuto – a word which seems to be both an attenuation of Hawkwood, and a derivation of a word which means ‘cunning’. Somehow, Hawkwood managed to escape the trap and take a southerly route, link up with Baumgarten and burn his way towards Florence. Spinello and the Florentine Council were unimpressed at this – and Malatesta was fired. It’s a bit like being a football manager, only as good as your last game. Pandolfo Malatesta would have to achieve his plaudits elsewhere.
Now it seems that Hawkwood and Pisa’s intentions this time round were a little different to the normal raiding and attrition one; this time they were looking to do real damage, to take and hold, not just to raid. Because Hawkwood had a brigade of sappers with him, specialists, guastatori, with a range of skills. Part of their role was to concentrate on the pillaging and wasting of territory through which to army had passed, now subdued and empty of people, and to make sure the job was finished and all the booty gathered up and carted away. This meant that the soldiers could concentrate on new targets. They then might work with the butiniers – other specialists who took account of said booty, sold it on, organised auctions, and carefully divided the spoils up according to the contracts involved. I’m telling you, this wasting and pillaging stuff was big business. Anyway, the Guastatori had another specialism; they were tunnellers, with the skills to dig beneath city walls, fire the posts that held the tunnels and so and bring the walls down. Hawkwood intended to attack Florence itself, he was looking this time for the full four giraffe haul.
On May Day 1364, Hawkwood attacked Florence outside the gate of San Gallo. William Gold led the first charge against the barricades, English archers duelled with Florentine crossbowmen, the attack reached the town walls but then withdrew with nightfall. All night they feasted in front of the city walls – sledging again, they sent drummers and trumpeters to make a right old racket and keep the Florentines up all night. In following days they rampaged round the suburbs burning and looting while the citizens inside the walls panicked and ran around like blue arsed flies. Yet, those guastatori don’t seem to have been seriously used; so Hawkwood and Baumgarten returned to Pisa – the second campaign in command had been a bit more the ticket. Pisa was on top of the world. But Fortune is a fickle mistress.
So, let us return to the Treasurer of Florence, Spinelli. Florence had decided that if force of arms had failed to do the trick, then Florence’s economic superiority would just have to do the job. And so a special envoy, Luca di Panzano was commissioned to find a way into the White Company, and see if he could appeal to some of the mercenaries’ more, well, mercenary motivations. Panzano found a pair of brothers, two Scotsmen Walter and Norman Lesley, and they liked the look and smell of Florentine gold, and there was quite a lot of it – 3,000 florins if they could find a way to undo the ties that held Pisa and the Great Company together. Now it’s possible that it was not just gold that motivated Lesley – he had been a captain in the Great Company at Pont St Esprit, one of the men to whom the Pope himself had written. Now this upstart Hawkwood had jumped the queue. And Lesley figured there were others who felt the same way; and so he had a quiet word in Sterz’s shell-like, maybe told him he could be the boss of his own company again, and earn a bundle into the process. And they found others willing to listen also – Baumgarten, Hugo de la Zouche, and they all found a way to meet with Panzano below the walls of Florence, and plot and conspire, Double double toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble. And thus the deal was done – 114,000 Florins for Jacob’s favourite son.
So, just as they looked set to bring Florence to her knees, Pisa’s Great Company turned itself into Pisa’s tiddly little Company instead. Sterz, Baumgarten and Andrew Belmont interestingly declared they had come to the end of their contract and were no longer bound to Pisa. And off they set. Sterz re-formed them into the Company of the Star, and they headed south to Sienese territory to the south, and extorted 40,000 florins during the raid. All that remained to Pisa was John Hawkwood and 1,200 men, who renamed themselves the English company – which would probably have irritated the substantial contingent of Hungarians, but hey. The Pisans were gutted
It is certain that they would have ruled all of Italy if they had not broken apart, as powerful and valiant were they
Wrote a devastated Pisan. With maybe just a tinge, a soupcon, a smidge-et of hyperbole.
It’s not necessarily the case that bad blood was involved here; actually Hawkwood doesn’t seem to have borne a grudge and would later re-employ some of these deserters – Belmont in particular. It might also be that the mercenaries hadn’t been paid properly; Pisa was after all not as flush as she used to be, and the way to a Mercenary’s heart is definitely through his wallet. If you take one thing away from this biography let it be that if you employ a bloodthirsty mercenary for any reason, because, I don’t know, the neighbour hasn’t been putting the bins out or something, then don’t let them get in arrears on pay. Not that I am advocating the employment of bloodthirsty mercenaries, you understand.
The fact that Hawkwood stayed has been seen as further proof of a more noble nature in the lad – afterall, this is the second time that Hawkwood has resisted a bribe, first from the Visconti, now from Florence. However, hold onto that thought – L’Acuto would prove to be no angel.
Florence now employed another Malatesta to lead their army, now the tables were turned, Giovanni Malatesta, an old warrior of the grizzled nature. And in July 1364, he led Florence’s army of 4,000 horse and 11,000 foot down the Arno onto the offensive, and took up position 6 miles from Pisa at Cascina.
Pisa emptied their city in a mammoth effort to turn this around – recruiting some extra German mercenaries, but mainly by raising a civilian militia of Pisans. And Hawkwood was ordered to attack the position at Cascina and drive the Florentines back to where they’d come.
Hawkwood was a professional, an experienced man of war; he did his homework, making sure his position meant that the hot summer dust would blow into his enemies faces; he attacked during the late afternoon to make full use of the sun which shone into the enemies eyes. He ordered his men onto foot to try and get as close to the Florentine position as possible before they were seen – and then they charged the barricades behind which Malatesta had deployed his men. The battle went on for hours; but then Malatesta sent a contingent of Florentines on a flanking march and they cut the Pisan army into two. Hawkwood immediately ordered a retreat, abandoning the advance section, but saving the main body. It was a bad defeat; he may have lost 2,000 men, and Florence took 356 prisoners. Partly it might have been Hawkwood’s fault although the Pisan’s blamed their own militia, accusing them of ill discipline; but Hawkwood seems to have misjudged the length of the plain, so that by the time his men had slogged over to the barricades in the summer heat and dust in full metal jackets they were understandably not in the best nick. On the other hand, he’d saved the Pisan army from worse annihilation, and I guess that, in the words of that great military strategist Kenny, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em, and so on, including knowing when to run.
Florence proved a little ungracious as winners I am afraid to inform you. They took the prisoners back to Florence in 42 carts and paraded them though the city. No one uttered words of consolation like ‘oh hard luck, but you fought well and d’you know – it’s not about the wining it’s the taking part that counts’. Instead they jeered and all that, and set them to forced labour on a the roof of the Palazzo dei Priori. Also they introduced a nice little refinement. Florence has a couple of emblems, one of course the Lily, but another was the Lion, the Marzocco Lion. So someone brought out a lion cub, and each of the prisoners were forced to pucker up, the lion cub was held up to their faces and they were forced to kiss the Lion’s bottom. Now doubt there were cheers with each loving kiss. All deeply symbolic of course – the Florentine Lion had humiliated the Pisan fox.
Pisa meanwhile erupted into rebellion. In August 1365, as the Florentine army flaunted its victory in front of the walls of Pisa, in conscious imitation of the sledging they’d suffered at the hands of the Hawkwood, a merchant called Giovanni dell Agnello came to Hawkwood and paid him a fee of 30,000 florins. The money was to ensure his loyalty for what happened next – a coup. While Agnello seized power and installed himself as ‘Doge for life’, Hawkwood’s men ostentatiously took up positions in the central piazza and communal palace. Agnelo knew there was only one way to rebuild, and by the end of August he and Florence had come to a peace. Only one small town changed hands, but Pisa was forced to allow Florentine trade to pass unmolested to its harbour, and paid 150,000 florins as an indemnity and to get their hostages back, presumably with the taste of Lion’s bottom still on their lips. The deal was several giraffe’s worth, but probably a fair deal for both cities – certainly it was criticised in both cities, and when that happens a bit like the BBC getting criticised by both left and right, you know it’s doing a good job. Sorry, bit of contemporary culture war creeping in there.
Well, Peace; as Hawkwood had apparently said to that pair of Monks, Hawkwood hated peace – it put him out of a job. What exactly was he going to do now to earn an honest crust?