7 – John Hawkwood and the White Company Wreaked Havoc in Italy
Europe’s greatest mercenary of the 14th century was Sir John Hawkwood (1320 – 1394. An English soldier of fortune, he is best known for plying his trade as a condotierre in Italy, where he was known as Giovani Acuto, meaning “John the Astute”. As captain of a powerful mercenary band, Hawkwood played a significant role in the wars and politics of fourteenth century Italy, switching sides on numerous occasions between the peninsula’s competing states and factions.
He began his military career in France during the Hundred Years War in the armies of England’s king Edward III, who knighted Hawkwood for exemplary military service. However, that war was temporarily interrupted by a peace treaty in 1360, so Hawkwood left France for greener pastures in Italy at the head of a company of mercenaries.
Upon arrival in Italy, he joined an English mercenary unit known as the White Company. Hawkwood rose through its ranks, and in 1364, he was elected captain-general. He swiftly put his stamp on the White Company by adopting the English longbow and tactics successfully used in France. He also instilled strict discipline, and lightened his men’s armor and equipment, which made them famous for the rapidity of their movements. Hawkwood’s reforms transformed the White Company into an elite and highly sought after mercenary unit.
In the 1370s, the White Company and Hawkwood served the Pope, but when the Holy Father stiffed them on payment, the mercenary bided his time. When the Pope sent him to put down a rebellion in Citta di Castello, Hawkwood captured and kept the city in order to compel payment. Strapped for cash, the Pope was forced to invest Hawkwood with the city, granting it to him in return for uncompensated services.
Between 1372 and 1378, Hawkwood repeatedly switched sides, alternately serving the Pope and his rival, the duke of Milan, whose illegitimate daughter Hawkwood married in 1377. In 1378, after quarreling with his new father in law, Hawkwood switched sides and signed a contract with Milan’s rival, the city of Florence, and was appointed its captain-general. He remained in Florence until he finally decided to sell his Italian properties and retire to England to spend his last years, but died in 1394 before he could do so.