Monday, February 3, 2014

An English Mercenary

Funerary monument to Hawkwood
This is the story of how an English soldier of no particular background rose to such prominence that a monument to him sits in Florence, Italy.

John Hawkwood was born about 1320, perhaps in Essex; anecdotes that he apprenticed in London as a tailor before becoming a soldier cannot be substantiated. He served in the Hundred Years War under Edward III. He may have fought at Crécy and Poitiers—again, we cannot be sure of his exact whereabouts during the war—but it is certain that he was no longer employed as a soldier once the Treaty of Brétigny was concluded in 1360.

The life of a soldier suited him, apparently—or he simply had no desire to find passage back to England. He joined one of the mercenary companies that sprang up on the continent. These groups, with no particular allegiance to any nationality and willing to fight for pay against anyone, were called Free Companies. He soon became a member of one called the "Great Company of English and Germans," also known as the White Company. By 1362 he was leading the White Company in battles all over Italy.

Hawkwood was shrewd—some would say "dishonest" or "unethical." Knowing that the White Company was a military force to be reckoned with, he would manipulate the Italian city-states that wanted help. If one offered a contract for the Company's services, he would go to their potential employer's enemy and ask for more money to refuse the initial contract. Sometimes he would be paid simply not to fight for the other side. Florence did this for three months in 1375, when the White Company was employed by Pope Gregory XI to fight Florence.

Despite this behavior, the White Company under Hawkwood gained a reputation for sticking to a contract and not deserting the battle or acting like lawless marauders once a battle was done. Military discipline was one of the commodities you gained when employing the White Company.

Besides being a mercenary, his life dovetailed with other historical events. In 1368, Edward III's son Lionel of Antwerp married Violante Visconti, daughter of then-ruler of Milan, Galeazzo II Visconti. Hawkwood was in attendance and might have met some of the other wedding guests: Geoffrey Chaucer, Petrarch, and the French chronicler Jean Froissart.

John Hawkwood died on 17 March 1394 in Florence. He had lived at that point for several years in peaceful retirement, enjoying the citizenship and pension and villa Florence had given him. Praised for his part in maintaining Florentine independence, he was buried with state honors. Plans for a bronze statue were abandoned due to cost, but 40 years later a monument was created for him by Paolo Uccello, a fresco designed to resemble bronze.

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