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An unsung villain: the reputation of a condottiere: Stephen Cooper describes how John Hawkwood, a tanner's son from Essex, became a mercenary in late fourteenth-century Italy, and after his death acquired a reputation as a first-class general and as a model of chivalry.

IF YOU GO INTO THE DUOMO in Florence, you will see a splendid equestrian portrait of the Englishman Sir John Hawkwood (d.1394). It was painted by Paolo Uccello in 1436 and shows Hawkwood as Captain-General of Florence, the position he held in the early 1390s, at the end of a long life. Astride a magnificent stallion, he carries a commander's baton in his right hand and wears an elaborate version of the plate armour that had once made the White Company famous. As Frances Stonor Saunders has vividly written, his face and neck may be 'cadaverous' but the image is noble, and the message is both chivalrous and classical at the same time:

   (John Hawkwood the British Knight,
   who was regarded as the most
   prudent commander of his age, and
   the most experienced in military

Yet this fine figure was also one of the most ruthless mercenaries of his day, and not always a loyal servant of the Florentine republic. Before he entered her service in 1380, he had fought for all her enemies and extorted thousands of florins from her exchequer.

For many years Hawkwood's modus operandi, when short of cash, was to demand money with menaces. The joint letter which he and the German Conrad Hechilberg wrote to the Priors of Siena on August 8th, 1374, was typical of many:
   Magnificent and powerful lords, and
   dearest friends. So that your
   magnificences should not be
   surprised ... we are letting you
   know ... that a large number
   of men-at-arms has gathered
   outside the boundaries of your
   territory ... As a result, if it
   pleases your lordships to spend
   some amount of money on
   this Company, as customarily
   ought to be done with men-at-arms,
   we will refrain from
   damaging your territories and
   keep them free from harm as
   far as we can: but if not, we will
   send out pillagers ... to do
   whatever they like. Let us know
   without delay what course of
   action you propose to take.

Here indeed was 'the protection racket writ large', thinly disguised in the diplomatic Latin of the notary.

The ambiguities begin very early with Sir John Hawkwood, and they start with the knighthood. It is not clear how he came by this. There were traditions that he fought at Crecy (1346) and at Poitiers (1356) and that he gained his spurs at one or other of these battles; but there is no hard evidence that he took part in either, or that he was ever dubbed by Edward III or the Black Prince. It is just as likely that he got his companions to make him a knight, as others are known to have done.

John Hawkwood was the second son of a tanner. He was born in Sible Hedingham in Essex in about 1320; and he may (possibly) have been a tailor in his youth. He served the Crown in France, in the first phase of what later became known as the Hundred Years' War; but his service ended when the Treaty of Bretigny was signed in 1360. Made redundant by the peace, he joined the free companies that continued to terrorize France and was part of a so-called Great Company that attacked papal territory near Avignon. He and others were persuaded by the Pope to invade Italy, with a view to fighting the Visconti, who ruled Lombardy. Apart from one brief return to France, he stayed in Italy for the rest of his life. Though no knighterrant, he was a wanderer, and he fought for money in almost every part of that much-divided peninsula.

Like many mercenary captains, Hawkwood acquired a nickname--L'Acuto (the keen one). He fought many battles and won many victories--while suffering some defeats--and rose to be commander of the White Company in the 1360s before attaining the position of commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces in the 1390s.

Though he fought for princes, republics and the Church, he also continued to engage in 'freelance' activity. He was controversially involved in atrocities at Faenza and Cesena in the 1370s. He acquired estates in the Romagna and a castle at Montecchio Vesponi in Tuscany, which has now been partially restored. In his late fifties he married an illegitimate daughter of Bernabo Visconti and had three children by her; but at the end of his life it is clear that he wanted to return to England. He died in Florence in 1394 before he could realize this ambition; but his body was (probably) brought back here soon afterwards, at the request of Richard II. His son was naturalized as an Englishman by Henry IV, and was recorded as living in Essex in 1464.

The circumstances of Hawkwood's death were as important as those of his life for his subsequent reputation. He died in his bed, having been honoured by the Florentines with citizenship and a pension, and his funeral was particularly magnificent. By way of contrast, many captains of the Great Companies in France came to a bad end, some were killed by their own men, while others were executed for treason. This was also the fate of some condottieri in Italy, notably Albert Sterz, first commander of the White Company (beheaded in Perugia in 1366) and the great 'Carmagnola' (despatched in similar fashion in St Mark's Square in Venice in 1432).

Yet Hawkwood's remarkable career has not always attracted the attention it deserves. He soon ceased to have any connection with the fighting in France, and so distanced himself from most of his peers in England. His arrival in Italy was a novelty for the Italians but, by and large, they became more interested in their own heroes--for example Alberico da Barbiano (d. 1409), first in a school of home-grown mercenaries. Humanistic biographies of several of these Italians were written in the fifteenth century--of 'Braccio', Sforza, Colleoni, 'Pippo Spano' and 'Piccinino'; but there was no book about Hawkwood for nearly 400 years after his death, in English or Italian. In the 1990s, the former Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford, George Holmes, described Sir John as a 'great unsung villain'.

Villain or not, he is no longer unsung. 2001 saw the publication of Volume I of Kenneth Fowler's Medieval Mercenaries, which explains the background to Hawkwood's career in France, while Volume II promises to deal with Italy. Balestracci's study Le Armi, I Cavalli, L'Oro was published in 2003, while 2004 saw the publication of Fowler's article in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Most recently there is Frances Stonor Saunders' Hawkwood, Diabolical Englishman--published in the USA as The Devil's Broker. Sir John featured prominently in Terry Jones's books, Chaucer's Knight and Who Murdered Chaucer?; and also in his TV series, Medieval Lives. There have been several fictional accounts written in the last thirty years, in England, Italy and America, while the 600th anniversary of his death in 1994 was celebrated in Montecchio Vesponi and nearby Castiglion Fiorentino. An internet search for 'Sir John Hawkwood' currently yields over 18,000 results. There is a Hawkwood memorial chapel and a Hawkwood Road in Sible Hedingham, as well as a Strada Aguta in Bagnacavallo in the Romagna. Hawkwood's tower at Cotignola and his castle at Montecchio Vesponi both survive.

But although Hawkwood started his adult life as an obscure English mercenary, and became a legend in his own time for brutality, he also acquired a posthumous reputation for nobility. The explanation for this paradox lies in the idealized images of him created and cultivated in the century after his death, both in Florence and in England; and in the growth of the idea that he deserved a place in some hall of fame for military heroes.

Paolo Uccello's portrait of Hawkwood was commissioned and completed forty-two years after its subject's death, though it was modelled on an earlier fresco. As we have seen, Uccello shows us the face of a tired old man, but the image is nonetheless impressive. According to Vasari, Uccello was passionately interested both in animals and perspective, and this shows. The horse is wonderful, though its strange gait aroused controversy from the beginning; and the sarcophagus--though intended to be seen from a much lower position--still rises above us with great power. One would never know that Sir John once ran the palio under the walls of Florence, to show Pisan contempt for the Florentines.

The Italians of the Renaissance had many patriotisms, but they all referred back to ancient Rome, and Florence in particular liked to compare itself to the Roman Republic. It has even been suggested that Uccello's portrait reflects a vogue for Plutarch's Life of the Roman general Fabius Cunctator (the Delayer) who had opposed Hannibal in the Second Punic War; but the classical medium does not explain the message. Why did the Florentines honour this Englishman in the 1430s, when there must have been few alive then who remembered him personally?

Hawkwood's name still meant something to men who were interested in chivalry. There was no chivalric biography of him, as there was of the Black Prince and of Bertrand du Guesclin; but, at the time of Sir John's death, the Marquis of Saluzzo praised him in extravagant terms: 'en Ytale ne fu cent ans devant plus vaillant capitain ne plus sage de lui.' (There was no captain more valiant and wise than he in Italy in the last hundred years). Moreover, Saluzzo created two special seats for heroes in the mythical palace which he invented for Dame Fortune--one for du Guesclin, and the other for Hawkwood.

In Florence itself the key to Hawkwood's continuing fame was a renewed appreciation of his part in saving the city from Visconti tyranny. Milan posed a dire threat to Florence in the 1390s, and again between 1420 and 1450. In Sir John's time the 1st Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, had united Lombardy, by the simple expedient of kidnapping and (probably) murdering his uncle, Bernabo. Thereafter he pursued a policy of expansion and took over many smaller cities in Tuscany and Umbria. Florence felt obliged to respond, and in 1390-92 there was open war. It was now, when he was almost certainly a septuagenarian, that Hawkwood was employed by Florence as her commander-in-chief, and he made a good job of it. In 1390-91 he invaded Lombardy at the head of a large force, and advanced to within ten miles of Milan. When compelled to retreat, he brought the bulk of his men safely home, across a flooded Adige. Later in the same year, after a brilliant campaign in defence of Florence, he attacked and defeated the Milanese commander Jacopo dal Verme, forcing Gian Galeazzo to sue for peace. Contemporary Florentines regarded the conflict with the Visconti as a just war and thought that Hawkwood had saved them from absorption by a superstate. Following his death in 1394, they voted to honour him with a marble tomb in the Duomo.

Gian Galeazzo Visconti died prematurely in 1401 and the state he had created fell apart. The threat to Florence receded, but was soon renewed by his younger son Filippo Maria, who ruled as third duke between 1412 and 1447. A struggle ensued between a resurgent Milan and the Venetian Republic, in which Florence was the ally of Venice. She participated in many of the battles between the two Northern powers, in which Italian condottieri (now employed on a semi-permanent basis) played an essential part. A famous skirmish, later dignified as the 'Battle of San Romano' in the painting by Uccello, took place in 1432, when the Visconti instigated an attack on Florentine territory by the Sienese. The invaders attacked fortifications at Montopoli in the Val d'Arno, which had originally been constructed by Hawkwood; but they were defeated by Niccolo da Tolentino. When the great Cosimo de Medici returned to Florence from exile in 1434, he pursued an anti-Milanese foreign policy, until the Visconti era came to an end with Filippo Maria's death.

Coluccio Salutati, Florentine chancellor between 1375 and 1406, predicted that Hawkwood would win 'eternal and inextinguishable fame' if he defeated Gian Galeazzo. As Salutati's successor Leonardo Bruni confirmed in his History of the Florentine People, this prediction came true. But it was in the visual arts that the fifteenth-century Florentines truly immortalized Sir John. This was the age of Donatello, Ghiberti, Fra Angelico and Masaccio. In the 1430s Brunelleschi's Dome was nearing completion and the civic authorities were anxious that their cathedral should house the finest works of art. So it was that Paolo Uccello was employed to paint Hawkwood, just as he was commissioned to paint Niccolo da Tolentino in the Battle of San Romano. A few years later Andrea del Castagno painted a series of 'Illustrious Men of Florentine Origin', including several mercenary captains. Among these was Niccolo da Tolentino. Castagno's equestrian portrait of Niccolo is still in the Duomo today, where it hangs next to Hawkwood's.

No portrait of Hawkwood was ever painted in England; but a tradition survived here too that Sir John was a model of chivalry. The starting point for this was Froissart's Chronicles, where the Bascot of Mauleon calls Hawkwood 'a fine English knight'. In his Prologue, Froissart (1337-c.1404) declared that he wanted to preserve 'the honourable enterprises, noble adventures and deeds of arms which took place during the wars waged by France and England'. Froissart's audience thought well of men who displayed martial prowess and were brave and true to their friends; it did not much matter which lord or cause they served. This being the case, we can see how Hawkwood's noble reputation was earned, and survived, despite the fact that he never served the English crown in a military capacity after 1360, and despite his involvement in events--like the massacre at Cesena in 1377--which would nowadays render him liable to indictment as an international war criminal. After all, the Black Prince's involvement in a similar atrocity at Limoges in 1370 does not seem to have dented his reputation.

Terry Jones has argued that Chaucer's Knight (a character he believes is modelled on Hawkwood) would have been recognized by the poet's audience as a new type of 'shabby mercenary;' but this seems unhistorical. The better view is that the English remembered Sir John as nothing of the kind, but as a fine specimen of English knighthood. In his later years he was certainly approved of at court, for he acted as an English ambassador in Italy on several occasions: why else did the King ask for the return of his body when he died?

Literacy increased substantially in the later Middle Ages, and a fierce English patriotism emerged; but the favourite reading-matter was still 'the knightly epic'. The classic text was Malory's Morte d'Arthur, completed in 1469 and printed by Caxton in 1485. In his preface, Caxton referred to the nine recognized 'worthies' or champions of chivalry: the Maccabees from Biblical times; Hector, Alexander and Julius Caesar from the classical period; and Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon from the Christian era. Caxton did not add Hawkwood's name to this list, but he did name him as one of a select group of knights mentioned in his translation of Ramon Lull's Book of the Order of Chivalry. In a lament for England's lost glories, Caxton put Hawkwood on a pedestal with Sir John Chandos, Sir Robert Knowles and Sir Walter Manny.

Why did Caxton bracket these four together? Unlike Hawkwood, the other three had become close companions of Edward III and the Black Prince, and they had achieved fame and fortune in France, as servants of the crown. John Chandos was one of the founder knights of the Order of the Garter, and Constable of English Gascony for the Black Prince. Robert Knowles' early career was somewhat irregular, like Hawkwood's; but later on he fought for the Black Prince in Spain and he took part in 'official' chevauchees in France in 1370 and 1380. Walter Manny was a household knight who distinguished himself both by land and by sea, and was also a Knight of the Garter. There were as many contrasts as comparisons to be made between the careers of these men and Hawkwood's.

Yet Caxton pointed up the similarities, to shame the men of his own day out of their slothful ways. By the 1470s, when he started his printing business in London, it was over fifty years since Henry V's victory at Agincourt and over a hundred since the triumphs of Edward III. England's armies had suffered crushing defeats at the hands of the French, at Formigny in Normandy (1450), and at Castillon in Gascony (1451). The ancient French connection had been damaged irretrievably. In its place had come civil strife, and a disgraceful vulnerability to French invasion and piracy. Maurice Keen has described an almost post-colonial situation, with settlers expelled, soldiers returning to a life of unemployment and crime, and a nation whose pride had been deeply hurt. It was in this context that Caxton made his appeal to the achievements of a previous generation. John Hawkwood may not have served the national cause in quite the same way as Knowles, Chandos and Manny, but his was still a story of military success achieved in a foreign field by a knight who had remained English at heart. Hawkwood's name could now be used as a rallying cry in England, just as his image had been used as a symbol of patriotic endeavour in Florence.

There were later writers who also thought that Hawkwood deserved a place in some hall of fame, but their image of him was often distorted. The bishop and historian Paolo Giovio (1483-1552) called him 'fiercest warrior and extraordinary delayer' (accerrimus bellator et cunctator egregious); but he was completely wrong in saying that Sir John only arrived in Italy in 1368. Likewise, the woodcut Giovio used for his illustration of Hawkwood was crude and ugly. There is nothing even distinctively military about this portrait, and it has little in common with the Uccello, except for the Florentine cap. A more skilful woodcut was made by the Swiss Tobias Stimmer in 1582, though Stimmer still altered Hawkwood's face so as to make him young and handsome.

Caxton's patriotic view of Sir John was the forerunner of many later English accounts, some of them wildly inaccurate. Hawkwood was mentioned by Leland in Henry VIII's time, and Camden in James I's. The idea that he was once a tailor became popular. When the traveller Skippon visited Florence in 1663 he described Uccello's portrait as that of John Sharp 'an Englishman, who was a taylor in England, but here ... was preferred to a command in the army'. The Merchant Tailors boasted of Hawkwood in the Lord Mayor's Show of 1680.

In the eighteenth century there was a revival of interest among the Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries. Some of them thought that Hawkwood was a 'British worthy'--a term used in the hall of fame at Stowe. Philip Morant mentioned him in his History and Antiquities of the County of Essex (1763-68); and in 1771 the English expatriate Thomas Patch made an engraving, based on Uccello's portrait. In 1776 a paper, entitled Memoirs of Sir John Hawkwood, was read to the Society by John Nichols. He praised Sir John as one of the greatest soldiers of his age, and boldly asserted that he was 'a gentleman' and 'no mere mercenary soldier'.

In the middle of the nineteenth century Samuel Smiles mentioned Hawkwood in Self-Help (1859). Hawkwood appears there in a section on tailors, as 'the brave Sir John who so greatly distinguished himself at Poictiers [sic] and was knighted by Edward III for valour'. Unlike Nichols' Memoirs, Smiles' Self-Help was a huge popular success. In 1889 John Temple-Leader and Giuseppe Marcotti published Sir John Hawkwood (L'Acuto) Story of a Condottiere. These two were under no illusions about Hawkwood, but thought that, if his profession was scarcely honourable, he had at least done his duty by the Florentines. This remained the standard English work on Hawkwood for over a hundred years, and can now be read on the internet.

Sir John Hawkwood could neither read nor write, as is clear from the terms of a condotta of 1385, which had to be read out to him, and signed on his behalf, and he was never known as a patron of the arts, unlike his fifteenth-century successor Federigo da Montefeltro of Urbino. There is great irony in the fact that his reputation was preserved for posterity by Uccello, the great Renaissance artist, and by men of letters like Caxton, Nichols, Smiles and Temple-Leader. Hawkwood will always remain an enigma, for we will always see him through the images others have created.


Kenneth Fowler, Sir John Hawkwood (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography); Maurice Keen Chivalry (Yale, 1984); England in the Later Middle Ages (2nd edn. Routledge, 2003); Frances Stonor Saunders, Hawkwood, Diabolical Englishman (Faber & Faber, 2004);John Temple-Leader & Giuseppe Marcotti, Sir John Hawkwood (L'Acuto) Story of a Condottiere (T. Fisher Unwin, 1889); www.condottieridiventura;

Andrew Ayton 'War and the English Gentry Under Edward III' (March 1992) Richard Cavendish 'The End of the Hundred Years War' Oct 2003) Kenneth Fowler 'Froissart, Chronicler of Chivalry' (May 1986) Terry Jones 'History With the Boring Bits Put Back (Feb 2004) W.M. Ormrod 'Edward III' (June 2002) Juliet and Malcolm Vale 'Knightly Codes And Piety' (Nov 1987) Russel Tarr 'What Caused the Italian Wars of 1494-1516?' (History Review, March 2001)

Stephen Cooper is a lawyer.
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Author:Cooper, Stephen
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Date:Jan 1, 2006
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