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John Hawkwood


John Hawkwood

Engraving representing John Hawkwood.

Sir John Hawkwood (born c. 1320, died 1394) was an English mercenary or condottiere who was active in 14th century Italy. The French chronicler Jean Froissart knew him as Jean Haccoude and the Italian statesman, Niccolò Machiavelli, as Giovanni Acuto. Hawkwood served first the Pope and then various factions in Italy for over 30 years, amassing a fortune in land and gold.


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
    • Mercenary in France 2.1
    • Serving Italian factions 2.2
    • Last years with Florence 2.3
  • Personal life 3

Early life

Hawkwood's youth is shrouded in tales and legends and it is not exactly clear how he became a soldier. According to the most accepted tales, he was a second son of a tanner in Sible Hedingham in Essex and was apprenticed in London. Other tales also claim that he was a tailor before he became a soldier.


Hawkwood served in the English army in France in the first stages of the Hundred Years' War under Edward III. According to different traditions Hawkwood fought in the battles of Crécy and/or Poitiers (1356), but there is no direct evidence of either. Different traditions maintain that the King or Edward, the Black Prince knighted him. It has also been speculated that he assumed the title with the support of his soldiers. His service ended after the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360.

Mercenary in France

Hawkwood moved to Burgundy and joined the small mercenary companies, also known as Free Companies, that fought for money in France. Later he was part of the self-named Great Company that fought against Papal troops near Avignon.

In the beginning of the 1360s Hawkwood had risen to be commander of the White Company. In 1362 Hawkwood's men were part of the companies that the marquis of Montferrat hired and led over the Alps to fight first against the Green Count at Lanzo Torinese and then against Milan in the areas of Alessandria, Tortona and Novara. Forced to leave Piedmont by the Visconti’s condottiere Luchino dal Verme, Hawkwood and his troops nevertheless remained in Italy.[1]

Serving Italian factions

In the following years, the White Company fought under many banners and switched sides many times. In 1364, it fought for Pisa against Florence. In 1369, Hawkwood fought for Perugia against the Papal forces. In 1370, he joined Bernabò Visconti in his war against an alliance of cities including Pisa and Florence. In 1372, he fought for Visconti against his former master, the Marquis of Monferrato. After that, he resigned his command and the White Company moved to the service of the Pope for a time.

Under Hawkwood's command, the company gained a good reputation and he became a popular mercenary commander. His success was varied but he exploited the shifting allegiances and power politics of Italian factions for his own benefit.

Italian cities concentrated on trade and hired mercenaries instead of forming standing armies. Hawkwood often played his employers and their enemies against each other. He might get a contract to fight on one side and then demand a payment from the other in order not to attack them. He also could just change sides, keeping his original payment. Sometimes one party hired him so that he would not work for their enemies.

If not paid, mercenaries like Hawkwood could threaten their employers with desertion or pillage and part of the White Company's reputation was built upon the fact that Sir John's men were far less likely to desert in dangerous situations than other mercenaries; Hawkwood soon grew much richer than many other condottieri. He bought estates in the Romagna and in Tuscany, and a castle at Montecchio Vesponi. Despite all this, it is claimed that he was illiterate. His education was rudimentary at best; contemporaries specifically remarked on his lack of oratorical skills and much of his business and correspondence was done by proxy and later by his wife.[2]

In 1375, when Hawkwood's company was fighting for the Pope against Florence in the War of the Eight Saints, Florence made an agreement with him and paid him not to attack for three months.

In 1377, Hawkwood led the destruction of Cesena by mercenary armies, acting in the name of Pope Gregory XI. One tale claims that he had promised the people that they would be spared but Cardinal Robert of Geneva ordered them all killed. Shortly after, he switched allegiance to the anti-papal league and married Donnina Visconti, the illegitimate daughter of Bernabò Visconti, the Duke of Milan. A quarrel with Bernardo soon ended the alliance and Hawkwood instead signed an agreement with Florence. In 1381, Richard II of England appointed him as ambassador to the Roman Court and in 1387, Hawkwood, fighting for Padua, fought Giovanni Ordelaffi from Forlì, fighting for Verona in the Battle of Castagnaro and won.

Last years with Florence

In the 1390s Hawkwood became a commander-in-chief of the army of Florence, in the war against the expansion of Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan. Hawkwood's army invaded Lombardy and was within 10 miles (16 km) of Milan, before he had to retreat over Adige river. Later in the year, forces under his command defended Florence and later defeated the Milanese force of Jacopo dal Verme. Eventually Visconti sued for peace. Contemporary opinion in Florence regards Hawkwood as a savior of Florence's independence against Milanese expansion. At that stage Florence had given him citizenship and a pension. He spent his latter years in a villa in the vicinity of Florence.

Personal life

In 1368, he attended the wedding of Lionel of Antwerp, younger son of King Edward III of England to Violante, daughter of Galeazzo II Visconti, in Milan. Also in attendance were the literary stars of the era Chaucer, Jean Froissart and

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