Sir John Hawkwood: The First Anglo-Florentine

A veteran of Poitiers, writes Neil Ritchie, John Hawkwood served as a mercenary in Italy; twenty years in the service of Florence.

Throughout the course of history mercenaries have had a bad press. The opprobrium with which the United Nations have sought to invest the profession ever since the civil wars in the Congo in the early 1960s, is nothing new.

Most classical authorities deplored the use of mercenaries. In fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy where wars were fought almost exclusively by mercenary armies, Petrarch and St Catherine of Siena, Pius II and Machiavelli all join together in a chorus of censure - each for his or her own reason.

For Pius mercenaries ‘reaped rich harvests without any danger to life or limb’, but he had in mind only condottieri who opposed Papal interests, such as Sigismondo Malatesta or Jacopo Piccinino: Federigo da Montefeltro as Papal Captain-General was - naturally - above reproach. Machiavelli, for his part, sweepingly castigates all mercenaries: he had an axe to grind, he wanted to see them replaced by national or citizen militias. 

Amid this welter of criticism it is instructive perhaps to reflect that Florence, which owed to mercenaries the security from which the civilisation of the Renaissance was able to develop and flower more profusely than anywhere else, did not share the views of more outspoken Tuscans. The city fathers were in fact profoundly grateful to the soldiers of fortune who defended the Republic and they showed their gratitude by raising memorials to them in the most prominent of places, the new cathedral.

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