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This edited article about mercenaries originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 619 published on 24 November 1973.
It was 30th April, 1363, and the city of Florence went to bed late. The next day, May Day, was traditionally one of merrymaking and preparations lasted into the small hours of the morning. From the wooded heights above the city a knot of soldiers looked thoughtfully as the lights went out one by one and the city grew quiet. “Did you notice the crossbows on the walls?” asked one. “And the barricades,” muttered a second. But the third shrugged. “We’ll be all right,” he said. “They won’t expect us.” Turning, he led the party back into the trees. He was Sir John Hawkwood. He was the commander of the White Company. And he did not dare let his captains smell defeat.
The White Company was one of the most successful mercenary bands in the Middle Ages. Like many others it was formed during the 14th century from soldiers who had been fighting in the Hundred Years’ War and who found themselves unemployed when the diplomats on either side managed to concoct treaties of peace.
Europe at that time was divided into many small states whose princes constantly fought each other. They were often unable to field armies of their own and, in consequence, were glad to hire trained men to fight for them. This was particularly true in Italy where the merchants of states which had grown wealthy by trade or commerce preferred to dig into their coffers rather than risk their own portly bodies in the city’s defence.
The White Company quickly became famous among the mercenary armies because of its efficiency and its distinctive appearance. Its men wore white surcoats and its standard bearers carried white banners. Under its founder, a German called Albert Sterz, it was well-organised and equipped. It contained 3,500 horsemen and 2,000 foot soldiers. Among the latter were skilled slingsmen, long-bowmen, engineers to lay mines and assemble scaling-ladders and towers, and incendiaries who could burn anything from a cottage to a castle.
When the company attacked, the horsemen dismounted and joined the infantry on foot. Together they advanced, a bristling hedge of lances, under covering fire from the bows, walking steadily and shouting rhythmically. Its remorseless, machine-like approach terrified soldiers who were used to untidy charges.
In 1360 Albert Sterz took the company into Italy to seek its fortune. On the way he recruited an English knight, John Hawkwood. Hawkwood was the son of an Essex tanner, who had followed the earl of Oxford into battle in France, where he had been knighted by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers.
He quickly made a place for himself among the leaders of the White Company and proved himself an able negotiator. When he successfully arranged a contract for the company to fight for the city-state of Pisa against Florence at a handsome price, the men were so impressed that they deposed Sterz to second-in-command and made Hawkwood their captain-general. This made Sterz jealous – with unfortunate consequences.
Having won command, primarily as a manager, Hawkwood had now to prove himself as a commander. When the Pisans asked him to lead the company in an attack on Florence, he knew that this was his testing-time. Unfortunately, he could not have been given a tougher assignment. Florence was strong. If he failed – or even if he succeeded but lost too many men – he would forfeit the confidence of the company. That is why, when he and his captains looked at the city from the hills above, he did not reveal his true opinion – that Florence would not be taken by assault.
The Florentines had made thorough preparation against a Pisan attack. They had brought in bands of German mercenaries, mainly cavalry and crossbowmen. The latter manned the city walls. Hawkwood had also noticed huge piles of stones heaped on the battlements to be dropped on the heads of the besiegers. And around the city temporary fortifications had been thrown up to impede any attack. He had to get his assault-party under the walls, where the crossbows could not reach them, and into the shelter of a covered battering-ram, to protect them from the stone-throwers, before the enemy had time to realise what was happening. That was why he decided on the surprise attack on May Day.
Early in the morning he brought the company down from the hills. He kept a sharp watch for patrols of heavily-armoured German cavalry. The Company had already experienced some brushes with them and its horsemen, who were less heavily-armed, had been mauled on each occasion.
As the sun rose and the first of the merrymakers danced into the streets, Hawkwood struck. His assault-force raced forward and got their rams into position as quickly as they could. Accurate covering-fire from the long-bowmen, who were well out of range of the German crossbows, kept the defenders pinned down. Soon the rams were ready and an attempt was made to breach the gates. But the gates of Florence had withstood many an attack in the past and did not yield. The longer the time spent swinging the ram, the greater the number of reinforcements the defenders were able to rush to the gate. When the engineers paused, a sudden charge of German knights put them to flight and destroyed their equipment.
Hawkwood watched impassively. The advantage of surprise had been lost. Now his men would have to fight it out for as long as their fee warranted. To restore some of their confidence, Hawkwood entered the thick of the fighting and knighted some of the officers who had distinguished themselves in the opening stages of the attack. Then he sent them forward again. But it was no use. The mercenaries were prepared to take so much damage and no more. Hawkwood sensed this as runners came in from each part of the battle and, without more consideration, he withdrew from the city.
But that was not the end; and he could not allow the company to think that it was, otherwise it would disintegrate. The same night, while the Florentines celebrated their apparent victory and thought themselves safe, Hawkwood amused his men by sending down trumpeters and drummers to sound an attack. In panic, thinking that the besiegers had been reinforced the Florentines ran to the walls again and spent the whole night watching for an attack that never came.
Meanwhile Hawkwood was putting into effect his second plan. It was one that he knew would work. Atrition. He divided his men into groups and set them to devastate systematically the area around the city. The Florentines might not be defeated in assault; but they could be starved into submission.
It was the right move to make. But presented Hawkwood with an insoluble problem. While the company was engaged on simple destruction, its members were open individually to approaches from other sources. The Florentines, experienced in this sort of ploy, exploited the situation quickly. They sent out agents to contact Sterz and others who had lost confidence in Hawkwood after the failure outside the walls. They bought their loyalty. They ordered them to desert. And the company disintegrated. Suddenly Hawkwood found himself with only 800 men.
He learned then the harsh reality of the mercenary business. He served the remainder of his contracted time with Pisa, and, with the remainder of the company, was nearly annihilated when the Florentines counter-attacked. But, after that time, he never forgot the essential rule of his trade: to stay with the highest bidder. By playing the market in this way he gradually rebuilt the fortunes of the company, and ultimately made it a vital factor in Italian politics for the next 30 years.
Sir John Hawkwood died in 1394 and was buried with great ceremony in Italy. Later his body was brought back to England and placed in his parish church. He left behind him in Italy a reputation which many envied but few could match. He was supreme in an age when the successful mercenary leader had to be part soldier, part diplomat and part merchant, and to excel in all.