The period between 1365 and 1368 was a very confusing period for John Hawkwood, and it’s really not very clear for whom he was fighting. There are two candidates really – or both. One is the new eccentric and extrovert boss of Pisa, Giovanni Agnello, with whom Hawkwood was clearly still friendly and possibly in the pay of, certainly he was during 1365. I say extrovert – Agnello apparently liked to sit in a window holding a golden rod and sitting on golden cushions so that everyone could gawp. I might be the same if I could afford a golden cushion. The other was Bernabo Visconti – oh yes, we haven’t really got going on the Visconti yet. Hawkwood appears to have met with Bernabo in early 1365, and you’d have to think there was a reason for that, and I doubt it was to view the Visconti stamp collection, given they hadn’t been invented yet.
However to give some sort of idea of the general environment in which Hawkwood was operating at the time, the various political eddies which would twist and turn Hawkwood.. Firstly, although Pisa and Florence were at peace, they are still locked in a mortal struggle, nothing has changed in that regard. So, Pisa’s enemy was Florence’s enemy – if Florence could bring Hawkwood down or get him out of the way, then that would weaken Pisa; Hawkwood was definitely on the Florentine strategy mind map. So for example they maintained a Hawkwood specialist diplomat, which rather put Florence at the top of the diplomatic tree, but then they were a very international place, what with their international money lending from the Bardi bank. And in fact that money lending, to the king of England included of course, they thought gave them a bit of an ‘in’, a bit of a connection – because they knew Hawkwood’s heart danced still to an English beat. So they consistently used Doffo Dei Bardi as his go between, since he had a good knowledge of English language and culture – Yorkshire puddings that sort of thing. In July 1365 for example, they offered to pay Hawkwood’s way to the Middle East, because surely a gentil knight like hm should go on crusade? Hawkwood’s answer is not recorded in detail, but it was evidently not a yes.
So that’s Florence. Then southwards towards Siena and Perugia. Siena had fractured relationships with Florence; as did Perugia, but Perugia was in an odd position – claimed by the Pope as one of his cities. A claim fiercely denied and rejected by Perugia with more or less success. So potentially both could have been friendly to Hawkwood, but they were most certainly not – because they’d had a deal of mercenary trouble and were anti Company generally, German or English. Which brings us to the Pope and the Visconti, and they were back at it hammering away at each other – Popes still feared Visconti power and ambition towards Bologna. The Papacy also was going through a period where they had a bit of a downer about mercenary companies, and would try to take action against them.
1365 to 1367, though were largely taken up by inter-mercenary warfare. The German Company of the Star under Sterz and the White Company which had deserted Pisa were involved in various ventures around Siena and Perugia; but they had also fallen out between each other. In November 1364, the English White company under Belmont and de la Zouche had been defeated by the Star, and in the summer of 1365 were about to fight off again; the White Company was in a bad way, suffering from disease and hunger, and Hawkwood rode out from Pisa to join them – but was too late; in July 1365 outside Perugia at San Mariano, the English were defeated again, and Andrew Belmont incarcerated in a Perugian goal.
The remnants of the English fled to join Hawkwood. The events of the year rather confirmed him as the leader of the English in Italy. He would now pursue and pester Perugia to free his English companions of yester year. It was he that would now pull the English iron out of the fire, fleeing Sienese territory northwards with the Company of the Star, in the pay of the Pope, in hot pursuit.
He gave the White company more than a temporary reprieve however; more importantly, Hawkwood gave the company new direction, purpose and identity. In this he was helped by the arrival in the band of one of Bernabo Visconti’s illegitimate sons, Ambrogio Visconti, who we have come across before as I am sure you will remember. Ambrogio and Hawkwood rebranded the company the Company of St George. It became a bit of a sink, drawing in the lost and homeless, such as the soldiers from the disbanded Company of the Hat; and political exiles such as the competent military commander Ubaldini. The Company of St George was transformed; from a beaten group of English mercenaries caught alone in the wilderness pursued on all times, they became a massive company – fully 7,000 horse.
Great companies like this were likened by contemporaries to a city on the move, and one historian describes them as nomad military states. I keep talking about the soldiers and captains and all that, and to an employer of course that’s the thing everyone’s interested in. But alongside and around the fighting men was a whole society of women and no doubt children. We already know that pageboys were involved in fighting; it was not unusual to have 13 or 14 years olds as part of a lance, and 12 was not considered strange for a boy to be starting military training. Although the Companies would have taken or even bought what they needed from towns, villages and cities along the way, there would have been a permanent set of forges working in the camp, and probably many other essential crafts.
And of course there would be women. Without doubt some of those women had not chosen to be there; the stories of the wars are full of rape and sexual coercion. In 1376 just for one example at Faenza the English were accused of choosing women to keep in the town ‘for their own pleasure’ – continuously raped essentially we must assume. One chronicler relates that the soldiers treated
Virgins and married women ignominiously as if they were prostitutes or slaves to be sold
There is no doubt that there were multiple atrocities and lives ruined. I’m not saying that there was anything exceptional about the English mercenaries or indeed these wars, afterall this is a feature of many wars but nonetheless it’s an important story of the time that should be remembered. And yet there are other sides to it. There were certainly also women who wanted and chose to be there, and that doesn’t mean they were all, as the assumption often seems to be in the books, prostitutes or as Temple Leader had it ‘voluntary courtesans’. Many were wives, lovers, partners; mothers, workers, cooks, weavers, essential parts of the working of the camp; am I being naïve to say that some of these women chose the life for the same sense of freedom and way of making a living that many of the soldiers did? It’s speculation but could well be. There was a clause in one Florentine contract about the number of soldiers which promised to pay a fee for every soldier ‘but no women’. That assumes that when a company was formed, women were very much going to be part of it whether the employer liked it or not.
Strong relationships formed in the companies might of course give commanders a problem – of discipline maybe, and control. There is a story of his constable William Gold travelling to Venice and offering to work for the Gonzaga if he could find the whereabouts of his lover Janet, because as he says in his letter ‘sweet love overcomes proud hearts’ and his heart in ‘yearning so much towards her’. Hawkwood lets him go and even writes a letter of recommendation for him. A pain to lose a trusted constable of course, but the companies were democratic places; companies formed within the companies. They might chose to sign up for a campaign, equally they might not. For the likes of Hawkwood and Sterz, managing their armies was not like being in a state military command. These highly socially integrated and heterogenous mini states were pretty much as democratic as you get in the middle ages.
Anyway, three more things I need to tell you about this period. One is the Papal league of 1366. The Popes were very schizophrenic about the companies; on the one hand they saw them as locusts, predators, robbers and thieves. On the other hand – they employed and used them for their own ends. During the long negotiations at Avignon with various city states about forming a league to get rid of the scourge, the Florentine delegation drily observed that they didn’t think paying a bunch of mercenaries to try and defeat another group of mercenaries was an effective way of ridding Italy of them. Vortigern would have been nodding furiously in agreement while Hengest and Horsa chuckled behind their hands. The Florentines suggested they should instead pay to get them to leave – as Aethelred the Unready had already learned, that’s an equally ineffective strategy, since they’ll just come back for a bit more. The truth is that the mercenaries were not an alien parasite on the Italian states; they were an integral part of the system, and they would survive just as long as the states chose to pay and use them. By the 15th century they would be gone, replaced once more by Italian commanders and militia companies.
Anyway, eventually in September 1366 the Pope Urban V managed to coax a number of city states into a papal league – Siena, Perugia, Pisa, Florence, Arezzo, Cortona and Naples. The Visconti were invited but were not going to play ball – they smelled a plot by the Pope to tie them in, remove their freedom of action and limit their power. Bernabo wasn’t having it thanks for asking.
With deep irony that leads us on the second thing I need to tell you – the outcome of Albert Sterz’s story. Deep irony, because it will involve mayhem and violence the very following year in the pay of the man supposedly trying to get rid of them all – that’s right, you guessed it, the Pope. Ah the tangled web we weave.
The Company of St George had lasted a year, and then disbanded by October 1366 – brought to an end voluntarily by the withdrawal of Ambrogio as part of a deal between Visconti and Pope. Hawkwood was now looking to fill his time with revenge; revenge against both Siena and Perugia. Siena was guilty of having harassed and chased the White Company to near extinction. Perugia had imprisoned his English companions, and they were still there. Hawkwood would have them freed if he could. But first of all he needed a company – at the moment he had but a handful of loyal followers after the end of the Company of St George.
Well let’s nip over to Perugia where Belmont is incarcerated. The Perugians were in something of a panic at the military situation and Hawkwood’s threats, not a man to be trifled with even if he was short of an army at the moment. Now normally you’d turn to your brave military captain to save you. Their military captain was actually Albert Sterz. The Company of the Star had fallen to pieces soon after the Company of St George had arisen, phonenix like from the ashes of the White Company, and Sterz had pitched up in Perugia as Captain of their forces. So that’s good. But within a short time, the Perugians had a problem again there – because said captain had then completely lost his head. Which was careless of him, but the Perugians were partly responsible, because they’d chopped it off. They discovered a plot that Sterz had in fact also been in league with Cardinal Albornez and the Papacy, and had been planning to hand over the Perugian client city Assis to the Pope in return for a pardon and payment for Sterz. Which seemed an inappropriate thing to do for your own captain with the city’s enemy, so in November 1366 Sterz went to the block. So no military captain again, oops. But hey, said one bright spark, we have one in prison – why not welease woderick, or Andrew Belmont as he’s really called, on condition that he work for us now – and no hard feelings about locking you up right?
Well Belmont happily and handsomely agreed. And then at the first opportunity he jumped ship and went to join Hawkwood. Clearly, Hawkwood bore no ill feelings towards Belmont for his desertion in 1364 from Pisa – and Belmont obviously didn’t expect him to, which is interesting, and is just further evidence of the fluid nature of the mercenary companies.
Well, given the rather duplicitous desire of the papacy to recover possession of Perugia, a city they’d just signed an anti Mercenary league with, Hawkwood beat a path straight to them, and reached a secret deal with Cardinal Albornez. Hawkwood and Belmont would put a company together, capture Perugia and return it to papal control.
Within short order, by March 1367, Hawkwood had put the word out and as he built it, people came. A new company had been constructed, and started his search for revenge. Siena, was first; in March 1367 they shattered the Sienese army at Montalcinello, and severely ravaged the countryside around. Next, they advanced on Perugia, and defeated them in a battle described as one of the bloodiest battles of the 14th century, leaving 1,500 dead and capturing so many prisoners that Perugia was forced to borrow money from Venice and Florence to redeem them. Oh, and Hawkwood extracted a bribe of 7,300 florins to go away just for good measure, and honour was satisfied.
Hawkwood returned to Pisa by April 1367, and we then have a rather curious little incident. Urban V made an effort to end the Babylonian captivity by returning to Rome from Avignon – it would be a short lived attempt as it happens, and Urban would die in Avignon in 1370. However, he did come back to Italy, and intended to land at Livorno in the Genoese Republic. But there on the shore to his horror he saw one the of the scourges of Italy against whom he was forming all these leagues – John Hawkwood the very same. Hawkwood had been taken there by his ally from Pisa, Giovanni Agnello. Well Urban was outraged – notwithstanding all those secret deals. He refused to allow Hawkwood to come aboard his ship to meet him – though he did admit Angello. Why did Agnello do it exactly? Was it just naïve? Or was it maybe it was some kind of threat that the Pope needed friends – like Agnello and Pisa? It’s not clear.
As it happens, Agnello’s political career was near it’s end, falling foul of a greater power in the form of the HRE, Charles IV. Charles IV was in Italy in 1368, and Agnello wanted recognition from him of his position as Doge of Pisa. Though, rather delightfully while he was negotiating the terms of said recognition, Agnelo was also plotting to murder said Emperor. Really – such a card. Sadly at the critical time in September, Agnello fell from a wooden veranda which broke under him, was incapacitated, and Charles took the opportunity to depose him. Agnello was forced into exile, and would die 20 years later in Genoa.
It’s possible Hawkwood might have wanted to help his old ally in his time of difficulty. But by this time, Hawkwood was no longer in Pisa. He was instead in Milan, planning to attend a very grand wedding.