Sunday, March 13, 2011
Sir John Hawkwood and the White Company
He was born circa 1335. Hawkwood's youth is shrouded in tales and legends
and it is unclear how he exactly became a soldier. According to the most
accepted tales, he was a second son of a tanner in Sible Hedingham in Essex
and was apprenticed in London. Other tales also claim that he was a tailor before he became a
soldier. He began military service Hawkwood served in the English army in
France in the first stages of the Hundred Years' War under Edward III.
According to different traditions Hawkwood fought in the battles of Crécy
and/or Poitiers but there is no direct evidence of either. Different
traditions maintain that the King or Edward, the Black Prince knighted him.
It has also been speculated that he assumed the title with the support of
his soldiers. His service ended after the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360. He
Hawkwood moved to Burgundy and joined the small mercenary companies that
fought for money in France. Later he was part of the self-named Great
Company that fought against Papal troops near Avignon.
In the beginning of the 1360s Hawkwood had risen to be commander of the
White Company. In 1363 Hawkwood's men were part of the companies that the
marquis of Montferrat hired and led over the Alps to fight first against
the Green Count at Lanzo Torinese and then against Milan in the areas of
Alessandria, Tortona and Novara. Forced to leave Piedmont by the Visconti’s
condottiere Luchino dal Verme, Hawkwood and his troops nevertheless
remained in Italy in 1363. Under Hawkwood's command, the company gained
a good reputation and he became a popular mercenary commander. His success
was varied, but he exploited the shifting allegiances and power politics of
Italian factions for his own benefit.
Italian cities concentrated on trade and hired mercenaries instead of
forming standing armies. Hawkwood often played his employers and their
enemies against each other. He might get a contract to fight on one side
and then demand a payment from the other in order not to attack them. He
also could just change sides, keeping his original payment. Sometimes one
party hired him so that he would not work for their enemies.
If not paid, mercenaries like Hawkwood, could threaten their employers with
desertion or pillage. However part of the White Company's reputation was
built upon the fact that Sir John's men were far less likely to desert
dangerous situations than other mercenaries and Hawkwood soon grew much
richer than many other condottiere. He bought estates in the Romagna and in
Tuscany, a castle at Montecchio Vesponi. Despite all this, it is claimed
that he was illiterate. His education was rudimentary at best,
contemporaries specifically remarked at his lack of oratory skills, and
much of his business and correspondence was done by proxy and later his
wife. He He attended the wedding of Lionel of Antwerp to Violante,
daughter of Galeazzo II Visconti, in Milan. Also in attendance were the
literary stars of the era Chaucer, Jean Froissart and Petrarch in 1368.
When Hawkwood's company was fighting
for the Pope against Florence in the War of the Eight Saints, Florence made
an agreement with him and paid him not to attack for three months in 1375.
He married Donnina Visconti, daughter of Bernabo Visconti,
circa 1377. Hawkwood led the destruction of Cesena by mercenary armies,
acting in the name of Pope Gregory XI. One tale claims that he had promised
the people that they would be spared, but cardinal Robert of Geneva ordered
them all killed. Shortly after, he switched allegiance to the anti-papal
league and married Donnina Visconti, the illegitimate daughter of Bernabò
Visconti, the Duke of Milan. A quarrel with Bernardo soon ended the
alliance, and Hawkwood instead signed an agreement with Florence in 1377.
He Richard II of England appointed him as ambassador to the Roman Court in
1381. Hawkwood, fighting for Padova, fought Giovanni Ordelaffi from
Forlì, fighting for Verona in the Battle of Castagnaro, and won in 1387.
In the 1390s Hawkwood became a commander-in-chief of the army of
Florence in the war against the expansion of Gian Galeazzo Visconti of
Milan. Hawkwood's army invaded Lombardy and was within ten miles of Milan
before he had to retreat over Adige river. Later in the year, forces under
his command defended Florence and later defeated the Milanese force of
Jacopo dal Verme. Eventually Visconti sued for peace. Contemporary opinion
in Florence regards Hawkwood as a savior of Florence's independence against
At that stage Florence had given him citizenship and a pension. He spent
his latter years in a villa in the vicinity of Florence in 1390. He died
between 16 Mar 1394 and 17 Mar 1394 at Florence, Italy.
He was buried with state honors in the Duomo.
Shortly afterwards, Richard II asked for his body to be returned to his native England.
He is the ancestor of my husband's father, thru his daughter, Antiocha, who married
Sir William de Coggeshall.