John Hawkwood

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Engraving representing John Hawkwood.

Sir John Hawkwood (c. 1320 – 1394) was an English mercenary or condottiere who was active in 14th-century Italy. The French chronicler Jean Froissart knew him as Jean Haccoude and the Italian statesman, Niccolò Machiavelli, as Giovanni Aucut or Giovanni Acuto.[1] Hawkwood served first the Pope and then various factions in Italy for over 30 years, amassing a fortune in land and gold.

Early life[edit]

Hawkwood's youth is shrouded in tales and legends and it is not exactly clear how he became a soldier. According to the most accepted tales, he was a second son of a tanner in Sible Hedingham in Essex and was apprenticed in London. Other tales claim that he was a tailor before he became a soldier.


Hawkwood served in the English army in France in the first stages of the Hundred Years' War under Edward III. According to different traditions, Hawkwood fought in the battles of Crécy and/or Poitiers (1356), but there is no direct evidence of either. It is also maintained that the King or Edward, the Black Prince knighted him, although other sources speculate that he assumed the title with the support of his soldiers. His service ended after the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360.

Mercenary in France[edit]

Hawkwood moved to Burgundy and joined the small mercenary companies, also known as Free Companies, that fought for money in France. Later he was part of the self-named Great Company that fought against Papal troops near Avignon.

In the beginning of the 1360s Hawkwood had risen to be commander of the White Company. In 1362 Hawkwood's men were part of the companies that the marquis of Montferrat hired and led over the Alps to fight first against the Green Count at Lanzo Torinese and then against Milan in the areas of Alessandria, Tortona and Novara. Forced to leave Piedmont by the Visconti’s condottiere Luchino dal Verme, Hawkwood and his troops nevertheless remained in Italy.[2]

Serving Italian factions[edit]

In the following years, the White Company fought under many banners and switched sides many times. In 1364, it fought for Pisa against Florence. In 1369, Hawkwood fought for Perugia against the Papal forces. In 1370, he joined Bernabò Visconti in his war against an alliance of cities including Pisa and Florence. In 1372, he fought for Visconti against his former master, the Marquis of Monferrato. After that, he resigned his command and the White Company moved to the service of the Pope for a time.

Under Hawkwood's command, the company gained a good reputation and he became a popular mercenary commander. His success was varied but he exploited the shifting allegiances and power politics of Italian factions for his own benefit.

Italian cities concentrated on trade and hired mercenaries instead of forming standing armies. Hawkwood often played his employers and their enemies against each other. He might get a contract to fight on one side and then demand a payment from the other for not attacking. He could also just change sides, keeping his original payment. Sometimes one party hired him so that he would not work for their enemies.

If not paid, mercenaries like Hawkwood could threaten their employers with desertion or pillage and part of the White Company's reputation was built on the fact that Sir John's men were far less likely to desert in dangerous situations than other mercenaries; Hawkwood soon grew much richer than many other condottieri. He bought estates in the Romagna and in Tuscany, and a castle at Montecchio Vesponi. Despite all this, it is claimed that he was illiterate. His education was rudimentary at best; contemporaries specifically remarked on his lack of oratorical skills and much of his business and correspondence was done by proxy and later by his wife.[3]

In 1375, when Hawkwood's company was fighting for the Pope against Florence in the War of the Eight Saints, Florence made an agreement with him and paid him not to attack for three months.

In 1377, Hawkwood led the destruction of Cesena by mercenary armies, acting in the name of Pope Gregory XI. One tale claims that he had promised the people they would be spared, but Cardinal Robert of Geneva ordered them all killed. Shortly after, he switched allegiance to the anti-papal league and married Donnina Visconti, the illegitimate daughter of Bernabò Visconti, the Duke of Milan. A quarrel with Bernardo soon ended the alliance and Hawkwood instead signed an agreement with Florence. In 1381, Richard II of England appointed him as ambassador to the Roman Court and in 1387, Hawkwood, fighting for Padua, fought Giovanni Ordelaffi from Forlì, fighting for Verona in the Battle of Castagnaro and won.

Last years with Florence[edit]

In the 1390s Hawkwood became a commander-in-chief of the army of Florence, in the war against the expansion of Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan. Hawkwood's army invaded Lombardy and was within 10 miles (16 km) of Milan, before he had to retreat over Adige river. Later in the year, forces under his command defended Florence and later defeated the Milanese force of Jacopo dal Verme. Eventually Visconti sued for peace. Contemporary opinion in Florence regards Hawkwood as a saviour of Florence's independence against Milanese expansion. At that stage Florence had given him citizenship and a pension. He spent his latter years in a villa in the vicinity of Florence.

Personal life[edit]

In 1368, he attended the wedding of Lionel of Antwerp, younger son of King Edward III of England to Violante, daughter of Galeazzo II Visconti, in Milan. Also in attendance were the literary stars of the era Chaucer, Jean Froissart and Petrarch.

John and Donnina had a son and three daughters, and he had two sons and at least one daughter (Antiocha, married to Sir William Coggeshall) by a previous marriage.


John Hawkwood died in Florence on 16–17 March 1394. He was buried with state honours in the Duomo. Shortly afterwards, Richard II is said to have asked for his body to be returned to his native England. Hawkwood's son also moved to Essex, England. The English traveller Sir John Reresby, was impressed by his grave in Florence on a visit in the mid-17th century, remarking that he had been "one of the Florentine generals, at the taking of Pisa, where he behaved himself so well, that dying, he was interred here, and had a tomb erected to his memory at the public charge; his name was Johannes Acutus."[4]

Memory and monuments[edit]

In 1436 the Florentines commissioned of Paolo Uccello a funerary monument, a fresco transferred on canvas, which still stands in the Duomo. Originally, the Florentines intended to erect a bronze statue, but the costs proved too high. Finally they settled for a monochrome fresco in terra verde, a colour closest to the patina of bronze.

Posthumously Hawkwood gained a reputation of both brutality and chivalry. In Sible Hedingham there is a Hawkwood memorial chapel and a Hawkwood Road. In Romagna there is a Strada Aguta.

He is one of the Nine Worthies of London mentioned by Richard Johnson in his book of 1592.

Notes and references[edit]


Other sources[edit]


  • Sir Arthur Conan DoyleThe White Company (originally published in serial form in 1891) is loosely based on John Hawkwood and his exploits.
  • Marion Polk Angellotti wrote a novel, Sir John Hawkwood: A Tale of the White Company in Italy in 1911, which was followed by eight short stories about Hawkwood which appeared in Adventure magazine between 1911 and 1915. The novel and all eight short stories have recently been collected for the first time in The Black Death: The Saga of Sir John Hawkwood and the Adventures of the White Company (2010) ISBN 978-1-928619-89-5 by Black Dog Books.
  • Hubert Cole wrote a series of three novels featuring the adventures of John Hawkwood: Hawkwood (1967), Hawkwood In Paris (1969) and Hawkwood And The Towers Of Pisa (1973)
  • Gordon Dickson wrote a series of several novels called the Childe Cycle making reference to and featuring John Hawkwood as a character. The novels of the main Childe Cycle making reference to Hawkwood include:
  • The Final Encyclopedia (1984)
  • The Chantry Guild (1988)
  • Aidan Harte – The Wave Trilogy, has a John Acuto leading the Hawks Company and is largely based upon John Hawkwood and the White Company
  • Sir John Hawkwood features in the novel The Red Velvet Turnshoe by Cassandra Clark, published by John Murray in 2009 – part of her 'Abbess of Meaux' series.
  • Jack Ludlow (pen name of David Donachie) wrote Hawkwood published in 2016 byAllison & Busby which, while fictional, covers the known facts of his life very well.


  • The fictional 1985 Paul Verhoeven film Flesh & Blood features an English mercenary captain called 'Hawkwood' (Jack Thompson), but is set in 1501, more than a century after the real John Hawkwood's death.

Documentary film[edit]


  1. ^ N. Machiavelli, Il principe, Cap. 12
  2. ^ Gabriella (2013).
  3. ^ Caferro (2006), p. 11.
  4. ^ Albert Ivatt, M. A., ed: The Memoir and Travels of Sir John Reresby, Bart. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1904), p. 73.

External links[edit]