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Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances…

Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman (2004)

by Frances Stonor Saunders

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Writing a biography of a medieval mercenary soldier (1323-1394) is always going to be difficult because of the lack of hard information on the chosen subject. Some biographers might resort to surmising on what could have happened or even inventing stuff from best guesses; Francis Stonor Saunders, does a little of this but on the whole she has chosen to provide the reader with a lively account of events on the continent in which Hawkwood may or may not have been involved.

After the battle of Poitiers 1356, where the French army was routed and the English Nobility returned home with their prize of the King of France, there was a lull in the fighting. Suddenly a large number of soldiers found themselves at a loose end, with no pay and no one to fight for. They had been campaigning for some months and many were loathe to return to rural England. The prize of more booty kept them under arms and they soon formed themselves into mercenary companies for hire. France without it’s king became a particularly lawless country and there was profits to be had, especially as the catholic church was in schism with one of the two Popes based at Avignon. Rich opportunities presented themselves and Hawkwood emerged as one of the leaders of the so called Companies. In 1361 Hawkwood and the White Company crossed into Italy where the warring Italian city states presented the mercenaries with plenty of opportunity.

The Companies were organised on military lines and were for hire by the highest bidder. No national loyalties meant that they could cross and double cross their employers as they saw fit. They became so powerful that the only method of securing a cities safety was to either buy them off or hire another company to fight them off. Hawkwood like the leaders of other companies was ruthless in the extreme. His mercenaries lived off the land, murder, rape, and ransom was the order of the day and many villages and towns were laid to waste. Crops and houses were burned and castles and strongholds were besieged. Historical records of contracts made and ransoms paid enable historians to follow the progress of men like Hawkwood, but details of their characters and motives (apart from their need for money) remain elusive and much of what we know about them comes from their reputations.

Francis Stonor Saunders wisely does far more than present just an historical record of Hawkwood’s exploits, she attempts to place the Companies themselves within the context of life in Italy and France during that time. In an excellent introductory chapter titled the fourteenth century she paints a lively picture of life and death in that turbulent time. Drawing on the work of historians Barbara Tuchman and Johan Huizinga she tells of the horrors of war and rapine that were a fact of life for many people, but she balances this out with the opportunities that were there for people to forge for themselves a better life. Visitations of the Plague had thinned the population, presenting opportunities for the survivors, medieval service to the Lords of the manor were breaking down, city states were emerging where trade and enterprise spoke louder than fealty, or the power of the clergy. In some respects a figure such as Hawkwood may appear as a murderous mercenary leader or as a Knight (but not quite in shinning armour).

It is a difficult task for an author to extract a narrative from the chaos of the Italian city states in the latter part of the fourteenth century, especially when her subject is a man who profited so much from the chaos that he helped to create, but by concentrating on the difficulties of the schismatic Popes and the powerful Visconti family of Milan and the city state of Florence she does present a story that holds together. The closest she gets to her hero is the Hawkwood in later life when he became the captain of the Florentine mercenary army. His marriage to a daughter of the Visconti family allows her to describe: from historical records, the life of a wealthy young wife, whose older warrior husband was busily still trying to maintain his lifestyle through warring.

The book contains much of what might interest the more general reader. There are of course vivid accounts of atrocities, with all their barbarity, of battles, of bravery and cowardice as well as Hawkwood’s abilities to keep himself alive and on top of his game, but this is offset by a more rounded portrayal of 14th century life. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has all of this life in abundance and surely it is not a coincidence that in his role as soldier diplomat in his younger years he would have negotiated with Sir John Hawkwood. Francis Stonor Saunders points out that some critics believe that Chaucer’s Knight ( one of the characters on the Pilgrimage to Canterbury) is partly based on Hawkwood.

I have read widely of the history and literature from the fourteenth century, but I am still pleased to have read Francis Stonor Saunder’s Hawkwood. It paints a vivid and lively picture of many aspects of that time and while it does not really serve as an introduction to the period it enhances much of what has been written and would hold the interest of the more general reader. There are source notes a bibliography and an index and for me it was four star read. ( )
2 vote baswood | Jan 25, 2017 |
Saunders works hard to present a popular life of a mercenary captain whose success had an influence on the Renaissance. As he was a mover in the complex world of Italian politics using Hawkwood as a centrepiece allows considerable asides on the Great schism of the Papacy and Saint Catherine of Siena, and the Visconti of Milan. This is a book worth reading though it is short on footnotes, and on the minutae of running a mercenary company. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Jun 8, 2016 |
One thing is for sure: war is about money. Always has been and always will be. John Hawkwood was merely an excellent and unashamed practitioner of war as a revenue-generating activity. 1360, a treaty is signed and the Hundred Years War pauses, but people keep fighting, mostly English soldiers who stay in France to kill and burn and pillage because it beats going home and doing an honest day's work or dying of the plague. The soldiers coalesce into large companies who style themselves mercenaries, though instead of being paid to fight, they mostly just fight until they're paid to go away. Amongst the hordes laying waste to much of France is unassuming Essex man, John Hawkwood. They range far and wide until they finally threaten the pope, living in luxurious exile in Avignon. In sheer self-defence, the pope hires Hawkwood and tells him to go to Italy, and that's where Hawkwood goes, bringing an exciting new era of death and destruction with him.
Northern Italy is full of strong, prosperous city states like Milan, Florence and Siena, all of whom hate each other, a situation which Hawkwood coolly and calmly and ruthlessly exploits. Soon he and his men are killing peasants, raping women, burning crops, ransoming nobles and even defeating the odd army here and there, collecting vast sums from various signoria to go away and bother the other guy. Then the pope returns to Rome and tries to take charge and more people die and Hawkwood keeps raking it in.
Hawkwood, oddly enough, remains a cipher. We only know him through his actions, his clever maneuverings, his carefully controlled slaughtering and kidnapping and, oh yeah, that one really big massacre at Cesena. He left no writings behind to provide any sort of insight into his character or personality, and mostly he just kept soldiering and ransoming and robbing and threatening and killing because that's what he was good at. Instead we have walk-on parts by the likes of Chaucer, Boccaccio, Petrarch and Catherine of Siena to bring the age to life and illuminate the minds and souls of the players and the landscape they moved through: wealth, poverty, famine, plague, war, not to mention the obscene iniquity of holy mother church, outdoing all others in the atrocity stakes as it gropes for secular power, while its cardinals and prelates are ardent practitioners of the seven deadly sins.
This is a deeply interesting book, written with a cool, clear detachment that occasionally turns acerbic. It is an edifying and sobering piece of history, and if Hawkwood remains an enigma, it may be because we don't yet understand how much of history is carved out by cool, ruthless bastards doing whatever the hell they wanted.
( )
1 vote Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
Story of John Hawkwood's life as a mercenary captain, running protection
rackets in 14th century Italy. ( )
  cgodsil | Oct 17, 2009 |
This book will please all readers who love Barbara Tuchman's Distant Mirror. Following Tuchman's lead (and often citing her), Saunders uses the English soldier of fortune to present vignettes from the 14th century, a time of plague, famine, war which rivaled the first half of the 20th century in human suffering - but the rich and beautiful were merry still. This book isn't a conventional biography. Hawkwood's life ties together a wide range of factoids from a list of unholy sexual positions to banquet inventories. Various other persons (such as St. Catherine from Siena) are given extensive guest roles, probably because the source material about Hawkwood proper is limited. I wish the author had expanded the treatment of the military aspects and situated Hawkwood among his peers.

Hawkwood learned his trade in the dreadful chevauchées, the systematic plundering and rape of France during the Hundred Years War. When England and France were to exhausted to fight on, Hawkwood led his band of marauders to Italy where rivaling cities, locked in perpetual conflict, were limited by the costliness of standing armies. Hawkwood and many other foreigners (Saunders gives Hawkwood an undue historical prominence) saw the business opportunity in leasing their soldiers to the highest bidders while living off the land - torturing, plundering and raping the population, essentially as a sort of land-borne pirates. It is noteworthy that Hawkwood was already in his Forties when he came to Italy and continued to campaign up to old age. In a twist of irony, the humble Essex boy died honored by Florence, a city he tormented earlier, and bankrupt - despite the millions he earned and plundered. In contrast to the later Landsknechte, the (mounted) lances were terribly expensive in upkeep (warhorse, arms and armour).

Like a pirate, he had a good time at the expense of others. Like pirates, Hawkwood's image remains curiously untainted by all the mayhem he caused, especially the massacre of Cesena. Recommended as an introduction to the medieval world. ( )
1 vote jcbrunner | Dec 10, 2007 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Frances Stonor Saunders bok är ett förträffligt stycke populärhistoria. Den som läser skriften lär sig åtskilligt om inte bara Hawkwood utan även om senmedeltidens krig, politik, kultur och vardagsliv.
Den djävulske engelsmannen är en otäck, färgstark och välskriven skildring av ett senmedeltida århundrade fyllt inte bara av infernaliska händelser utan också exempel på kommersiell och konstnärlig vitalitet.

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Saunders, Frances Stonorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Eklöf, MargaretaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hartmans, RobTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In the third bay of the north aisle of the Duomo of Florence is Paolo Uccello's fresco portrait of John Hawkwood.
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UK ed.: Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman
US ed.: The Devil's Broker
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 057121908X, Hardcover)

The second son of a minor Essex landowner, John Hawkwood chose to head south in 1360 after serving as a captain in the Black Prince's wars against France. He and other freebooters besieged the Pope at Avignon, and when they were paid to go to Italy, discovered that the threat of force could be very profitable indeed. Hawkwood became the most successful mercenary leader of the time - immortalised after death by Paolo Uccello's fresco in the Duomo. This is the story of an age when everything came to have a price. But above all, Hawkwood is a brilliant illumination of one of the outstanding figures of English and European history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:08 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"John Hawkwood was an Essex man who became the greatest mercenary in an age when soldiers of fortune flourished - an age that also witnessed the first stirrings of the Renaissance. This is the first book about him for more than a century. It seizes hold of the reader from the first page and brings a glittering chapter of history to vigorous life. It is full of the sensual, earthy pleasures and horrors of late medieval life - banqueting and starvation, sex and its violent renunciation, self-confidence and terrible fear." "When England made a peace treaty with the French in 1360, during a pause in the Hundred Years War, John Hawkwood, instead of going home, travelled south to Avignon, where the papacy was based during its exile from Rome. He and his fellow mercenaries held the pope to ransom and were paid off. Hawkwood then crossed the Alps into Italy and found himself in a promised land." "He made and lost fortunes extorting money from city states like Florence, Siena, and Milan, who were fighting vicious wars between themselves and against the popes. And yet he was given a state funeral by Florence, and is commemorated in a famous painting by Uccello that still hangs in the Florentine Duomo. This man of war husbanded his use of violence, but for all his caution he committed one of the most notorious massacres of his time in the pay of a merciless pope, an atrocity that still clouds his name."--BOOK JACKET."The Devil's Broker is more than a riveting account of fortunes gained and lost by treachery and the sword: it is a lavish portrait of the fourteenth century, which Barbara Tuchman called "calamitous"; the Black Plague that struck down the mighty and the abject with equal ferocity; the violent schism in the Catholic Church that sent the Pope scurrying to Avignon for safety; the religious mania offset by a gargantuan appetite for spectacle, luxury, and self-indulgence. Among the other titans moving through Frances Slonor Saunders's magnificent narrative are the anorexic and power hungry St. Catherine of Siena, an ill-tempered and comfort-loving Petrarch, and a curious and amused diplomat-spy named Geoffrey Chaucer, who would draw on Hawkwood's career for his own "Knight's Tale."" "The meticulous archiving and record-keeping of medieval Italian notaries means that this history has come to us in the intimate words of its most vital actors; Frances Stonor Saunders has combed tirelessly through original documents to produce a history seemingly as immediate and relevant as events of yesterday."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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