John Hawkwood came from obscurity in Essex to fight with distinction in the early part of the Hundred Years War when he was knighted. With the coming of peace in 1360 he went with other “unemployed” soldiers to Italy, where he became a famous mercenary captain. He was appointed Captain General of the armies of Florence and in old age was planning to return to England when he died.
John Hawkwood was the second of three son’s of a prosperous tanner, Gilbert Hawkwood of Sible Hedingham in Essex, very close to the home of the powerful DeVere family at Hedingham Castle.
John’s elder brother who was the DeVere’s steward was also called John and inherited Hawkwood Manor as was the custom of the day. John only received a modest inheritance of £20 and a quantity of corn. He also as was the custom was given a bed and maintenance for a year. After that he left home and ended up in the army. The records do not recount his early life. There is unsubstantiated legend that he was a tailor but this seems unlikely. What is certain is that he took part in the battles of the early part of the Hundred Years War and there is no reason not to accept that he was at both the famous battle of Crecy and Poitiers ten years later and that he distinguished himself sufficiently to have knighthood conferred upon him.
Hawkwood learned his trade as the English battled the French for twenty years. It was during this time that the tactics of the English with their men at arms supported ably by the dreaded longbowmen meant that money was to be made for soldiers and nobles alike and it was Hawkwoods’ only source of income. Therefore when the peace treaty of Bretigny was signed in 1360 John and thousands of other soldiers were out of a job. He was, according to the famous chronicler Froissart, “a poor Knight with nothing but his spurs”.
Being out of a job in a foreign land with literally thousands of others in the same boat, Hawkwood joined and eventually came to lead a number of free companies who would work for who would pay them or when no pay was available they would help themselves to whatever the local countryside, town or village had to offer; much to the horror of those who happened to be living there at the time.
The free companies decided to pay the Pope a visit in Avignon. Understandably the Pope was not to keen about large numbers of pillage experts in his neighbourhood and suggested that they might find gainful employment in the Italian city states.
Once in Italy, John rose to command of the free company which became known as the White Company; so called because the armour which they wore was polished to mirror brightness.
Turning up with a ready made and efficient army meant that you did not have too much trouble in finding employment in 14 th Century Italy and John was soon working for Pisa against Florence, Florence against Pisa, etc. The English were much sought after because they were tough, professional and if they were on your border with an army it might just be a good idea to get them on your side.
Hawkwood was fighting in Italy for over 20 years and had notable employers during that time including the Pope, the Visconti’s of Milan and the city states of Pisa, Padua and Florence.
Never known for his prowess as a combatant, he excelled as a general. He fought many successful battles, the high point being the Battle of Castagnaro (1387) between Padua and Verona, whose army was led by Hawkwood. Following a strategic withdrawal from his siege lines due to a brilliant outflanking move, Hawkwood won the day.
His lowest and most infamous action was at Cesena (1377) when under the direct order of Cardinal Robert, Count of Geneva (a future pope) the inhabitants of the town were massacred and 8,000 died. Although Hawkwood sent about a thousand women to Rimini and safety.
Hawkwood was probably first married during the early years of the Hundred Years War but no detail is known about his first wife. His daughter from that marriage, Antioca, married into the Coggeshall family. A descendant of hers was the poet Shelly.
Later in life, he married Donina Visconti, illigitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, his employer on many occasions. He was loyal to England, the Country of his birth, and stressed that he would not take up arms against his homeland. He was a man of simple tastes who spent almost his entire life soldiering. In his later years he was appointed the Captain General of the armies of Florence but never retired. In his final years he resolved to return to the country of his birth, but died before he could do so.
It was Hawkwoods intention to return to England and he was in the process of selling up his estates so that he could do so when in 1394 aged 68 that he died. The Florentines gave him a state funeral and after his death the famous artist Paolo Ucello in 1436 painted a great equestrian fresco in the Duomo in Florence. John Hawkwood may have finally been buried at Sible Hadingham.
If you travel to Florence and enter the Douomo you will see displayed a massive fresco of an equestrian statue of Hawkwood painted by Paulo Uchello. The statue is of the monument that the Florentine’s intended to build but never did. On a more modest note, if you travel to the Parish Church of Sible Headingham in Essex you will see a much more modest monument to Hawkwood, which may or may not contain his mortal remains. The monument once boasted a picture of the knight and his two wives, now long gone.
In Caxton’s translation of Ramon Lull’s “Book of the Order of Chivalry”, there is a reference to Sir John Hawkwood as the epitome of chivalry. Perhaps it’s not true, but perhaps this is the best monument of all.