This “biography” of John Hawkwood by Frances Stonor Saunders is a great read. Released by Faber & Faber in 2005, the book presents itself as the story of an English mercenary who made his name fighting first in the Hundred Years War, and then in medieval Italy. Actual biographical details of the famous mercenary may be short on the ground but it turns out these aren’t really necessary, Saunders gives a wonderful description of the mercenary life among the warring states of Fourteenth Century Italy.
Seemingly the lack of biographical information may not be quite as drastic as it appears in this book, with historian William Caferro more recently coming out with a new biography of Hawkwood based on archive material from England and Italy.* So on those grounds the book is perhaps a slight failure, but that would be a very harsh judgement on what is a vibrant and colorful depiction of medieval life. The book never seems to set out to focus on Hawkwood, he is simply a means to an end – the MacGuffin that allows the author to wander around the world exploring different aspects. I don’t think it works as a biography, but I don’t think it’s intended to.
The narrative starts with the Free Companies in France. These were groups of soldiers left somewhat unemployed after a truce in the Hundred Years (the Peace of Brétigny in 1360) who banded together to seek paid work with whoever would have them. Many of these, including Hawkwood himself, would have been veterans of the war including possibly the famous battle of Crécy and Poitiers. After taking part in various small campaigns around France, Hawkwood rose to the command of one of these Companies and went to seek employment in Italy. Of course, at the time Italy was composed of a number of city states and factions who were continually taking part in wars and disputes including Florence, Pisa, Perugia and even the Pope. Such an environment was obviously ideal for an up and coming mercenary like Hawkwood.
This political situation and the resulting military campaign are expertly described by Saunders, and are in fact the main focus of the book. But there was more to Italy and to knights like Hawkwood than this – and Saunders covers the typical domestic life for such an English soldier serving abroad as well as the fascinating cultural state of Italy in this period. For me, Catherine of Siena really stands out in the book as someone of huge significance with her slightly insane mysticism interlinking with the political campaigns of the time – and luckily she does feature in a significantly large portion of the book. The link with England is also considered – Hawkwood did not forget his birthplace and it did not forget him, he acted as an ambassador for Richard II and late in life planned to return to England for his retirement (he didn’t, but his body was returned there for burial). These biographical sections on domestic life or retirement are slim though and the book generally sticks to generalities as far as personalities are concerned – with a few exceptions like the aforementioned St Catherine, who are a little better documented.
All in all it’s a fascinating and well written book – ideal for anyone who has read any of Bernard Cornwell’s series featuring medieval archers (there must be two or three of these by now) and wanted to know what could happen next for some of the characters. Just don’t expect a detailed biography.
* I haven’t read this yet, but from reviews elsewhere it seems to be more focused on the man himself.