Tag Archives: Sir John Hawkwood

Mercenary versus Condottiero

John Hawkwood

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.

Sources:
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.

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Soldiers for Hire

Battle_of_Crecy_(crossbowmen)

Following on from last week’s post about paid soldiers, this week I’m looking at the ultimate paid soldier:  the mercenary.

Some great soldiers became mercenaries in the fourteenth century, including Bertrand du Guesclin, who later became Constable of France and was buried near his king in St-Denis. It was du Guesclin who led the Great Company and was also the leader of the mercenaries who fought against the Black Prince at the battle of Nájera in 1367. One of his companions in that army was the English knight Sir Hugh Calvely, who changed sides and proved very useful to the Black Prince by securing the route through Navarre to Castile for the English and Gascon army. Robert Knolles was another sometime mercenary greatly valued by the Prince and his father, although his lowly origins sometimes caused problems for the nobles who served under him.

Mercenaries were used from the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War and the crossbowmen who formed the first wave of the French attack against the English army at Crécy were Genoese mercenaries. The English also used mercenaries in their garrisons in Brittany in the 1340s and 1350s, although they learned the hard way that mercenaries were difficult to control.

It was in peacetime that mercenaries became a real problem. King Jean II was captured at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. This led to a series of peace negotiations culminating in the treaty of Brétigny in 1360.With much of the French nobility dead or captured and the king a prisoner in London, it was almost impossible for the French to continue the war.

Men who were used to being paid to fight didn’t have anything to return to in England. Soldiers at a loose end joined together to form the free (not controlled by kings or governments) companies. They made money in two ways. One was a form of protection money. They would threaten towns and villages and allow themselves to be paid not to attack them. The money they collected was called a patis. The other was to be paid to fight on behalf of a lord, king or, in the case of Italy, city state.

After the Jacquerie, the French peasants’ revolt in 1358, the Dauphin (the heir to the French crown) had internal problems to deal with as well. This meant that there were thousands of soldiers in France with nothing to do and no way to earn money. Mostly these were English soldiers, but there were also French soldiers who thought that hiring themselves out would increase their wealth and social standing.

The best known of the free companies was the Great Company. It was made up of ever-changing smaller bands of mercenaries. It was originally formed out of some small Gascon groups, and the Gascons remained as its core, which goes a long way to explaining why Aquitaine was rarely troubled by them. Not surprisingly the free companies tended to be unstable. They were made up of the worst kinds of men from all social classes except the nobility. Many of them were criminals and thieves on the run from justice. All were self-seeking and ambitious. Interestingly it was the English groups that were the most stable. This was possibly because they had become used to fighting together in various campaigns, were better disciplined and tended to trust one another.

The bands of mercenaries became a great menace and Charles V used them creatively by hiring the Great Company to aid his ally Enrique de Trastámara in Castile when the king, Don Pedro, gave his support to Edward III. Du Guesclin led a band of French and English mercenaries into Spain to help depose Don Pedro. Most of the English mercenaries in the Great Company fought against their captain when they joined the Black Prince to fight on the side of Don Pedro.

One of the most famous and most successful English mercenaries was Sir John Hawkwood, who spent most of his career in Italy. One of the reasons why the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon at the beginning of the fourteenth century was the incessant fighting in the north of Italy, which made it dangerous for the pope to remain in Rome. There was much work there for mercenaries. Hawkwood was completely ruthless and fought for most of the Italian states before ending up in Florence in 1380. Although he was known as Sir John, he was probably not made a knight by Edward III or by the Black Prince.

He was part of du Guesclin’s Great Company that attacked Avignon in 1361, but he later joined the army Innocent VI hired in order to move the papacy back to Rome. This became the White Company, which he eventually commanded. The White Company did in Italy what the Great Company was doing in France. It didn’t take long for the White Company to become known for its brutality. Eventually Hawkwood became commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces in the 1390s. At the end of his life he wanted to return to England, but died before he could do so.

Hawkwood was the orchestrator of more than one atrocity and had a reputation for brutality. Despite this, unlike many other mercenary captains, some of whom were killed by their own men, he died in his bed in 1394. At his death he was very wealthy, owning property and even a castle in Tuscany.

Avignon and, therefore, the pope, was forced to pay to rid itself of  mercenaries four times: in 1357, 1361, 1365 and 1368. By 1368 the pope had returned to Rome, but Provence was still perceived to be a place of wealth compared to France, which had been stripped bare by thirty years of war.

Whilst a mercenary might hope to become very rich, his fate was more likely to be that of the Genoese crossbowmen at Crécy who were either killed by the English and Welsh archers or trampled by the advancing knights behind them.

Fighting as a mercenary does not seem to have harmed the careers of the captains, as many of them returned to fight for their kings when hostilities began again in earnest in the 1370s. Being a mercenary wasn’t seen as incompatible with chivalry. Some praised knights for taking the opportunity to gain experience, but for many towns and villages in France their presence meant that there was never peace.

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