It’s not often that I go into my local and the barman greets me with “what’s the difference between a mercenary and a condottiero?”, but since Greg asked, I thought about it and said that I thought a mercenary was someone who sold himself to the highest bidder, but a condottiero was someone who was part of a group that sold itself to the highest bidder in Italy. Then I thought about it a bit more. We bandied some names about. I mentioned John Hawkwood, the famous fourteenth-century mercenary who is celebrated by a painting in Florence Cathedral. He mentioned Richard I’s head mercenary and right hand man, Mercadier, who is said to have avenged the king’s death by murdering the man who had killed him, before being assassinated in turn by a mercenary employed by King John.
As it turns out, my initial answer was incorrect. According to Treccani.it, the great Italian online dictionary and encyclopaedia, a condottiero was the leader of a group of mercenaries. John Hawkwood was, therefore, both a mercenary and a condottiero.
Mercenaries have a bad reputation today and it wasn’t much better in the fourteenth century, at least among the people they terrorised for money. Among knights, however, it was different. Being a mercenary was a perfectly respectable way to make a living. What else was a knight supposed to do when he wasn’t required by his king? Geoffroi de Charny, who wrote the book on chivalry, said that it was a good way for a knight to gain experience.
Most knights didn’t come from a noble background and didn’t have a large sum of money to fall back on during the very long periods when wars weren’t being fought. Although the name the Hundred Years War implies that war was being waged continuously, it wasn’t. There were treaties that meant that there was a peace of sorts for several years at a time and there were other times when Edward III simply couldn’t afford to take an army to France. A professional knight had no other skills than fighting. He had trained hard to become a knight and he had many expenses once he became one. Apart from his armour and his arms, he had to have horses and he had to have servants who needed to be fed and clothed. A pause in the fighting in France meant that he was no longer being paid, but his expenses continued. Some men banded together to hold local towns to ransom, but others decided to go to Italy where there was very good money to be made.
Italy wasn’t a single state in the fourteenth century: it was many, often small, states based around cities. In the north and centre of Italy those states were almost constantly at war. The large states overpowered the small states, who employed mercenaries to fight back on their behalf. The large states fought one another by proxy, employing mercenaries. Even the papacy employed mercenaries, whilst at the same time deploring their activities. There were fortunes to be made here, even for men who didn’t end up leading their own company of mercenaries.
Italy’s situation was a bit of a vicious circle. The fighting had been going on for some time, making Italy so unsafe that Clement V decided in 1309 that it would be sensible set up the papal court in Avignon. The fact that he was French played no part in this decision, allegedly. Most European armies employed a few mercenaries, so it wasn’t unusual that some English and German mercenaries went to join Italian armies. I’ve been to Italy and fallen in love with it, so I can easily believe that these northern Europeans did the same and encouraged others to join them, until the numbers of mercenaries in Italy became a real problem. They formed themselves into armies called companies and the city states found that they either had to employ them or have them as their enemies.
A mercenary company in Italy was a business. It made contracts with its clients, necessitating the employment of lawyers, usually Italian. It had full-time accountants who were responsible for collecting the fees and dividing them up among the members of the company. The condottiero, of course, received the largest share. The company also employed women to do the washing, cooking and, as my source puts it, provide other services.
Being a condottiero was far from safe, even when they weren’t fighting. Some were assassinated by their own men, who had ambitions to lead the company themselves. Others were assassinated by a former employer they had abandoned when they received a better offer. A few, like John Hawkwood, managed to grow old. He lived into his seventies, having served a single employer, Florence, for several years. Some condottieri even became heads of states: Biordo Michelotti became lord of Perugia, but he was ultimately assassinated.
English mercenaries did rather well in Italy. They had a reputation for being very loud (how little times change) and being able to shout was useful for frightening the opposition, apparently. Loud music was also used. I’m beginning to suspect that my neighbours are descended from mercenaries. English mercenaries also had the useful ability to travel long distances, sometimes overnight, which some of them probably learned whilst on chevauchée with Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) in the south-west of France in the 1350s. This meant that they could appear somewhere long before they were expected and take the enemy by surprise.
At the end of the fourteenth century there was very little work for English knights in France. The young Richard II preferred peace and his uncle, John of Gaunt, was nowhere near the soldier Richard’s father had been. It wasn’t until the time of John of Gaunt’s grandson, Henry V, that English knights were needed in France again. Most English knights in Italy remained loyal to their king and John Hawkwood even had it written into his contracts that he wouldn’t fight against England’s allies.
Knight by Michael Prestwich
Hawkwood by Frances Stonor Saunders
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.