There were many kinds of knights in medieval Europe. Perhaps some of the most interesting were the condottieri, or mercenary knights. During approximately 1268 to 1513, political divisions caused by the “struggle between popes and emperors had promoted the growth of independent communes or city-states, particularly in northern Italy” (“Despots and Condottieri”). These factions struggled against each other, and often the cities hired condottieri “under contract to fight their wars” (“Despots and Condottieri”). The condottieri are controversial figures because of their pecuniary interest in armed conflict. It is important however, as a modern reader, to remember that “the lure of instant knighthood (the case of John Hawkwood) and wealth through pillaging attracted many to the recruiting campaigns, but no military man ventured to war in the fourteenth century without being paid wages” (Pratt 20).One of the most famous of these mercenary knights was John Hawkwood.
John Hawkwood was born in England, but made a name for himself during his campaigns in Italy. He was a “soldier of immense ability….[a] tactician, strategist and inspiring leader” and additionally had “the diplomatic skill to succeed in the complex world of Italian city rivalries” (Prestwich 11). His value as a soldier is emphasized by his employment record. Hawkwood worked for “Pisa, Milan, Padua, the Papacy, and above all Florence” (Prestwich 11). He was so successful in the Florentine campaigns that the city created a fresco in his honor (see Figure 1).
As a mercenary knight, Hawkwood’s character is surrounded by a great deal of propaganda. The fresco created in Hawkwood’s honor is clearly congratulatory. The horse has one foot raised in motion and is erect and dignified. Hawkwood also sits erect and is dressed in an Italian style hat that evokes a sense of loyalty to the Italian people. The inscription on the monument further honors Hawkwood. It reads, “‘Ioannes Actus eques brittanicus dux aetatis suae cautissimus et rei militaris pertissimus habitus est’ (John Hawkwood, British knight, most prudent leader of his age and most expert in the art of war)” (Wikipedia Contributors). All of this seems to indicate that Hawkwood was a beloved leader. It is important to note, however, that “the fresco was initially commissioned, decades after Hawkwood’s death, in 1433 by the Albizzi government, just months before the regime’s collapse” (Wikipedia contributors). These factors certainly influence the sentimental Hawkwood depicted in the piece. Though Hawkwood does seem to have been a very skilled man-at-arms, he also plundered (Prestwich 101) and appears not to have been entirely loyal to Italy as he intended to return to England at the end of his life (Wikipedia Contributors).
“Despots and Condottieri in Italy, 1268-1513: the Rise of the Nation.” Bigsiteofhistory.com. Big Site of History. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
Pratt, John H. “Was Chaucer’s Knight Really a Mercenary?” The Chaucer Review 22.1 (1987): 8-27. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
Prestwich, Michael. Knight: The Medieval Warrior’s Unofficial Manual. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2010. Print.
Wikipedia contributors. “Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Apr. 2012. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.