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Frances Stonor Saunders, Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman (London: Faber, 2005, £8.99, 366 pages, ISBN 0-571-21909-8)—Nicholas Deakin, London School of Economics



Julian Barnes, the English novelist—reputed to be the only Leicester City supporter who is also a chevalier des arts et lettres—recently published a novel, Arthur and George, about the exploits of Arthur Conan Doyle as a real-life detective. Much of the force of that well-received book stemmed from the instant recognition factor—Sherlock Holmes remains still the best-known fictional detective and his creator automatically credited with forensic expertise.


But there was a time when Doyle had another reputation, almost equally significant, as a historical novelist. His  accounts of the exploits of the fourteenth-century free companies—rather unkindly dismissed by Ms. Saunders (on the authority of Anthony Burgess, a fading reputation if ever there was one) as “prep school books”—formed for two English generations the image of those enterprises and the exploits of their leaders.


The reality, as embodied in the personality and career of Sir John Hawkwood, the focus of Ms. Saunders’s excellent new study, was of course far removed from the late Victorian image of a parfit gentil knight projected by Doyle in Sir Nigel and The White Company. Hawkwood was in many of his dealings a brutal and unscrupulous thug, at various times a looter, thief and a confidence trickster and at least once probably a mass murderer. But he was also much more than that—a complex product of complicated times. Although Doyle did not shrink from portraying some of the cruelty endemic to the times, the worlds that Hawkwood inhabited also had a multitude of different dimensions absent from Doyle’s tuppence-coloured descriptions.


The full complexity of those worlds, on which Hawkwood and his comperes and rivals briefly made such a brutal mark, is best captured in Barbara Tuchman’s classic A Distant Mirror—rightly praised by Saunders as indispensable. In the foreground, the long struggle between England and France for supremacy (the Hundred Years War) strained the resources of both countries to the limit. Constantly present was the plague, the Black Death which swept through Europe in the fourteenth century and made repeated return visits. But there was also dramatic growth in economic activity, fuelled by the enterprise of Italian and Flemish entrepreneurs. Over the European scene brooded the Papacy, for most of the century resident not in Rome but Avignon—at once a secular and spiritual power, struggling to assert its control in both domains.


The irruption of the free companies into this scene was initially a by-product of the course of the Hundred Years War. A pause in that struggle liberated some of the more ambitious—and unscrupulous—soldiers to pursue their own interest and the advances in military technology and the “disciplines of the wars” (as Shakespeare’s Captain MacMorris would put it) gave them the tools to do so, effectively on a freelance basis. And the power vacuum which opened up in the second half of the fourteenth century in Italy provided them with their opportunity and the wealth of the city states there offered rich potential for plunder, of which they were able to take full advantage. It was hardly surprising that their ravages were compared, both at the time and subsequently, to those wrought by the plague.


The twentieth-century image of bands of mercenary soldiers as “dogs of war” is misleading in its suggestion of anarchic self-interest. The free companies were highly organised enterprises operating on well-understood rules and dealing in their contracting with potential employers on well-established commercial lines. Hawkwood, his name successively mangled into different forms by his long sequence of different employers, stood out not so much for his military talents as for his skill in diplomacy and negotiation (specifically, the gentle art of knowing when best to change sides) and his capacity for holding together the heterogeneous groupings of combatants who came together under the flags of convenience that the free companies provided.


Fighting in itself was in some respects less important that the threat presented by the presence of a large body of heavily armed men with a well-deserved reputation for looting, rape and lying waste. Fat fees might equally well be levied for abstaining from those activities, rather than for combat with the clients’ enemies, whoever these might for the moment happen to be.


It was Pope Urban V’s attempt to escape from the “Babylonish captivity” of Avignon and re-establish himself in Rome that was the trigger for the entry of the companies into Italy and the complex four-sided struggle that followed provided ample opportunities within which the companies could manoeuvre. The ambitions of Milan, the strongest of the Italian city states, strategically located in a position across main lines of communication, were at odds with those of Florence (now becoming the richest) and the continued aspirations of smaller cities to retain and consolidate their independence. All were potential clients for the mercenary companies. Meanwhile, there was the constant pressure of the French and their ambitions in Italy and the declared mission of successive Popes to recover and retain control, symbolic and practical, over the papal domains.


The bulk of Saunders’s book is devoted to charting the ebb and flow of the struggle between these contending groups and the role played by Hawkwood and his company and their rivals in this process. The inexpert reader might be forgiven for feeling terminally confused, as one renversement des alliances follows another and mortal enemies break off their conflicts to join in apparent amity to do down their former friends. However, Ms. Saunders’s crisp narrative line succeeds in keeping the reader’s interest as the complications multiply.


The companies played a crucial role in all these elaborately choreographed developments; but it would be a mistake to see them (as was sometimes the case at the time) as militarily invincible—an irresistible determining factor in settling events. One of the more surprising features of Hawkwood’s career as Ms. Saunders describes it is that his record as a military commander was decidedly mixed. His campaigns frequently started with a fine martial flourish but petered away into some form of accommodation and disease as desertion thinned the ranks and the hopes of plunder diminished.



Nevertheless, by the later decades of the century Sir John Hawkwood was an established figure, respectably married to a natural daughter of the Viscontis in Milan. When the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, no less, came to Milan to help with negotiations about a possible marriage compact between the English crown and the Viscontis, Hawkwood was recognisably a prominent figure at court and recognised by the English authorities as such. Later he performed other diplomatic services for the English monarchy. By now, he had also acquired by a variety of means a series of properties scattered through central Italy. And eventually, in 1392, after years of on and off relationships, he became firmly established as Florence’s captain-general, on the municipal payroll and with generous financial recognition given to his needs and those of his family.


It was in this capacity that Hawkwood’s immortality was assured in his famous depiction by Paolo Uccello, in an equestrian fresco, as “Giovanni Acuto, British knight,” which can still be seen in the Duomo in Florence. In a subtle piece of analysis Ms. Saunders shows how this portrayal is hedged with qualifications: the tactics that Hawkwood adopted in the field are reinterpreted as Fabian, in the literal sense, favouring caution over rashness; and the shadow of death, the pale rider, lurks behind the face of the great soldier, as Uccello presented it.


Yet the story has a final twist. What Hawkwood won by fair means and foul was dissipated: he died deep in debt, seeking to re-establish himself back in England as a country gentleman but dying before he could do so. His widow fought tenaciously for her rights and those of her children; but of Hawkwood’s magnificence little remained. His son did return to England but lived out an unremarkable life there.


Hawkwood’s story may have a moral for our age but Saunders, perhaps wisely, doesn’t attempt to draw one—she leaves that to be implied in her witty choice of chapter epigraphs. A study that is notably well presented, stylishly written and presented in easily assimilated bite-size chunks (thirty chapters) and with well-chosen maps and illustrations nevertheless has a vacuum at the centre. This is not Ms. Saunders’s fault: the absence of any authentic personal testimony from Hawkwood himself means that judgments about his character are largely speculation and based on the evidence provided by his contemporaries. Whether he was indeed a calculating and subtle figure—a diabolo incarnato, as Italianised Englishmen were then often held to be—or more straightforward in his character and ambitions therefore has to remain unresolved. The author keeps her distance, allowing the reader to form their own judgment—the occasional spurt of indignation, as at the insufferable behaviour of the Papacy’s secret weapon, St Catherine of Siena, betrays her bias but in general she keeps a cool head and allows her fascinating story to unfold without excess commentary. I suspect that Arthur Conan Doyle would have thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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