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An Unsung Villain: The Reputation of a Condottiere

John Hawkwood, a tanner’s son from Essex, became a mercenary in late fourteenth-century Italy, and after his death acquired a reputation as a first-class general and as a model of chivalry.

If you go into the Duomo in Florence, you will see a splendid equestrian portrait of the Englishman Sir John Hawkwood (d.1394). It was painted by Paolo Uccello in 1436 and shows Hawkwood as Captain-General of Florence, the position he held in the early 1390s, at the end of a long life. Astride a magnificent stallion, he carries a commander's baton in his right hand and wears an elaborate version of the plate armour that had once made the White Company famous. As Frances Stonor Saunders has vividly written, his face and neck may be 'cadaverous' but the image is noble, and the message is both chivalrous and classical at the same time:

JOHANNES ACUTUS EQUES BRITANNICUS DUX AETATIS SUAE CAUTISSIMUS ET REI MILITARIS PERITISSIMUS HABITUS EST

 

(John Hawkwood the British Knight, who was regarded as the most prudent commander of his age, and the most experienced in military affairs.)

Yet this fine figure was also one of the most ruthless mercenaries of his day, and not always a loyal servant of the Florentine republic. Before he entered her service in 1380, he had fought for all her enemies and extorted thousands of florins from her exchequer.

For many years Hawkwood's modus operandi, when short of cash, was to demand money with menaces. The joint letter which he and the German Conrad Hechilberg wrote to the Priors of Siena on August 8th, 1374, was typical of many:

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