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Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders

The gentle knight and his bloody deeds

John Hawkwood reached his 40th birthday with nothing to show for his life except two children (one illegitimate) and a criminal record, for assault and stealing a plough, in his native Essex. In a century when war, plague and famine were commonplace, to reach middle age showed a talent for survival. Before he was 60, however, he held the balance of power in the Italian peninsula and was courted by kings, popes and even saints.

He was one of the hundreds of English and German mercenaries who flooded into Tuscany in the 14th century, during a lull in the Hundred Years War, to practice their craft in the interminable wars of the Italian city states and to loot and plunder on their own account. While his contemporaries fell in battle, faded away in dungeons or were executed as criminals, he held his position until felled by a stroke aged 72, when he was celebrated with a state funeral in Florence.

The nature of his bloody deeds has become blurred over the centuries. He may well be the model for Chaucer's "parfit gentil knyght"; Chaucer met Hawkwood on several occasions. He is also the model for the hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's White Company romances. Yet few readers will be surprised that Hawkwood's long career of violence and treacherous self-interest does not live up to either Victorian or even medieval ideals of knight errantry. The contradictions within chivalry is a well-trodden theme which stretches from Don Quixote to Clint Eastwood. Saunders is shying at a different coconut altogether: the still potent myth, carefully crafted a century and a half after Hawkwood by Machiavelli, of the independent city state as the crucible of liberty, prosperity and progress, three virtues mutually dependent and inseparable from each other. The myth for which we make war today.

Saunders shows that commerce and the arts prefered the stability offered by a tyranny like Milan rather than the perpetual chaos and arbitrary government of the republics. The lightly armed English easily overwhelmed the heavily armoured Italian patricians, just as they had cut down the French nobility at Crécy. But their success in Tuscany was economic rather than military. The appearance of mercenaries on the horizon was by no means an unmitigated curse. Peasants, unprotected by city walls, took the brunt of the assault, but they also benefited as they sold grain and livestock to the city free of the usual taxes. City governments welcomed the opportunity to levy unlimited taxes from their citizens, to bribe the mercenaries to attack a rival city (as often as not the city which currently employed them). The vast mercenary companies required blacksmiths, accountants, lawyers (they were bound together by complex contracts) and women of a companionable disposition, all of whom were recruited locally. Individual mercenaries were big spenders and heavy borrowers when work was scarce. There were plenty of opportunites for people with sticky fingers. The mercenaries became part of the landscape even as they were setting fire to it.

Once established, they worked for foreign interests too, notably the Papacy (then exiled in Avignon). Foreign interference goaded the city states to combine and hire mercenaries to avenge the atrocities they had been responsible for in the first place.

Saunders turns this highly complex series of events into a narrative driven with robust gusto, splendid writing and an eye for the grotesque. It is no surprise that Terry Jones, Python and historian, has praised this book. Regrettably, its central figure never really emerges from the tapestry of colourful detail.

Most 14th-century lives have left little biographical material, and Saunders does not venture much imaginative reconstruction. Quite enough has gone before and bare facts speak loudly enough; we can imagine for ourselves the character of a man still able to live off field rations aged 70. When pushed for an adjective, Saunders opts for inscrutable.

Yet Chaucer's knight had a manner "meke as is a mayde" and St Catherine of Siena addressed Hawkwood in a letter as "dear gentle loving brother". To the modern reader there appears nothing in Hawkwood's career to justify the epithets meek and gentle. Saunders tries to elucidate how such contradictions were reconciled in the 14th-century mind. Her main purpose is to "re-examine the true origins of the Renaissance and the value systems on which it was based. It is a story which brings us uncomfortably close to a world without moral endings."

And not a world as remote from our own as we might think. This summer the flag of St George was fluttering everywhere, and far away English soldiers were in pursuit of the City on a Hill along the hot and dusty crusader path which leads nowhere except to Abu Ghraib.

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