At the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1360 (more a breather than an end, but close enough for our purposes), the number of idle infantrymen and cavalry hanging around France was great enough to be a serious concern for both sides. The soldiers had been on campaign for years having a grand old time and didn’t want to go home, not after they had seen Paree so to speak. England didn’t want them, France certainly didn’t want them. Best thing for the reconciled monarchs now was to direct these troublesome fellows elsewhere. South, first, where they worried the pope who was then in Avignon. He suggested that they might find useful occupation in Italy.
And so it was the so-called Free Companies, lead by such men as Sir John Hawkwood, descended into Italy where they introduced the cities and republics of Italy into new realities of commercial warfare. Business was vicious in those days. For the next thirty years, he lead the White Company (source of Conan Doyle’s novel) and so long as peace did not break out, did remarkably well for himself.
As contractors, they were troublesome – payment did not guarantee loyalty, and Hawkwood might turn on their employers more or less at whim.
They also did not follow any military conventions beyond Might Makes Right. Fair fights were for losers. When, for example, 1377 the city of Cesena, having rebelled against being made part of the papal states, agreed to lay down its arms for a truce, Hawkwood (now known as Giovanni Acuto) under instruction of his clerical employer Roberto, the unconventional Cardinal of Geneva (later anti-pope Clement VII), brought his men into town and slaughtered over five thousand men women and children, sending thousands more fleeing to the countryside and anonymous poverty.
Hawkwood was, of course, only following orders, and orders from a cardinal, no less, but what happened there was egregiously bad form even by contemporary standards. Roberto got the sobriquet “butcher of Cesena”. Hawkwood got more offers for employment. Whatever else he might be, the Englishman was clearly someone who could get things done. Fourteenth Century Italy was a fertile ground for war.
The details and double-crosses are too many, too long and too tiresome to enumerate – enough to say that Hawkwood’s final position was as commander in chief of Florence the armies of Florence, for whom he quite likely prevented a takeover by Milan. It earned him a handsome pension and a villa (one of several he owned), where a few years later Hawkwood died of natural causes. His memory was so greatly prized that forty years after he did, Florence considered a bronze monument. The cost proved excessive, and he was, after all, not even Italian, and so they settled for a rendering of how it would have looked, a rendering still to be seen in the Duomo. The body, originally also in the Duomo, was later removed to England at the request of Richard II.
If it was to be some sort of talisman, it clearly didn’t work, not for Richard, at any rate. It would appear that the fellow simply could not be counted upon.
Not for nothing did, and do, the Italians say, “An Englishman gone native is a devil incarnate.”
(A more flattering rendering of the pope is below. I think the broken stone above gives a better view of the man, if perhaps in a Dorian Grey sort of way.)