Among the many groups of condottieri, the mercenary troops of Italy in the 1300s through the 1500s, one of the best known was the White Company. Its leader, John Hawkwood, was probably the best known of the captains-general of the era. The White Company got its name from the fact that the soldiers serving in it went to great lengths to make sure their armor was highly polished (often using goat bone marrow), so the Italians gave it the name Compagnia Bianca.
Hawkwood and most of the White Company were from the British Isles. They had served in the army of the English king during the Hundred Years War and found themselves unemployed when the Treaty of Bretigny brought the fighting, at least temporarily, to an end in 1360. Many of the knights had served both English and French monarchs in that conflict, but had no domains of their own to which they could return. Therefore, they banded together to continue their previous practice of living off the land. This naturally aroused the anger of the French king, who appealed to English King Edward III to rid his country of these “free companies.” Edward had mixed success in complying with this request, but the free companies found that work could be had in the employ of Italian city-states. Most of Hawkwood’s compatriots left France for Italy in 1361, but Hawkwood stayed behind for a few months.
The White Company first organized itself under the leadership of a German knight, Albert Stertz, who spoke Italian and had served in Italy before. He got the group its first commission and led the members in their first combat as the White Company, but when Hawkwood joined the Company in 1362, the men voted him their new commander. Stertz became second-in-command and proved invaluable in negotiations in the early days before Hawkwood became fluent in Italian. The White Company was made up predominantly of knights who, together with their squires and pages, formed the basic unit, called the “lance.” In combat, however, these knights tended to fight on foot. While in the service of King Edward III, Hawkwood had learned firsthand the massive destruction that could be dealt by bowmen to heavily armored knights on horseback. Thus, in combat Hawkwood’s men used their lances like pikes: Encountering this defense in a square, no charging cavalry could survive the pikes, while on offense the massive hedgehog formation recalled the Greek phalanx. This strategy was at variance with the normal condottieri units that relied on heavy cavalry. In Hawkwood’s Company, horses were used for pursuit once the enemy had broken (the page would come running with the knight’s mount) or for retreat if the battle went badly. As auxiliaries, Hawkwood commanded a force of English archers. Their longbows had proven the key ingredient in English victories at Agincourt and Cre’cy, and their quickly shot arrows could penetrate armor. The Company also had slingers as well as men carrying flint, steel, and tinder for setting afire defensive positions and dwellings. Burning houses aided in the spread of panic among defenders.
The White Company’s first action took place shortly after their entrance into Italy in 1361. As they marched out of the Piedmont area into Lombardy, the city of Milan sought to bribe them to keep peaceful. Stertz pretended to accept the offer to negotiate, then attacked the countryside around the city during New Year’s Eve celebrations. His men grabbed all the loot they could and 600 nobles. As was customary at the time, the nobles were not harmed but held for ransom. The White Company made 100,000 gold florins for their night’s work. Indeed, it was the ability to march and fight at night that distinguished not just the White Company but all English troops. Used to harsher weather conditions at home, the Italian nights bothered them little.
For all its fame, the life of the White Company was short. The word of the English escapade at Milan had reached Pisa, and Hawkwood’s men were contracted to that city-state in its conflict with Florence when they went into action in February 1364. The campaign did not start well, as Florentine forces (mostly German mercenaries) bested Hawkwood’s unit in a few skirmishes. In April, reinforced, Hawkwood led his Company and the remainder of forces under Pisan hire in an attack on Florence. They were blocked 12 miles from the city at the town of Prato. Hawkwood drew back and tried another route, negotiating rough terrain to secure the town of Fiesole, from whose heights he could look down on Florence. Hawkwood and his advisors decided the best time to attack would be May 1, hoping to take advantage of the city’s May Day revelry as they had on New Year’s Eve. The Pisan force successfully occupied the suburbs of Florence, but could make no headway against the city walls. Still, there was sufficient loot to justify their attack as well as enough destruction to please their employers. After a night of their own revelry back in Fiesole, they proceeded to harass and pillage the countryside, attacking Florence just often enough to keep the defenders from sallying out.
Unable to defeat Hawkwood’s command by force, the Florentines tried bribery. It was successful. They convinced a portion of the attacking army to change sides, and the White Company took money to declare a five-month truce. When offered another large sum to abandon the Pisans for Florentine employment, Hawkwood refused. He stood by his bargain with Pisa, but a number of his men found the idea a good one. Many left the White Company, including Stertz, and Hawkwood was left with only 800 men. This effectively ended the attack on Florence.
Stertz re-formed some of those who had changed sides into a new unit, the Company of the Star, which soon was in the employ of Siena. Hawkwood later fought for Milan and was for a while employed by the Catholic Church. His final and longest-lasting employer was Florence, which he served faithfully until his death in 1394. He was given a public funeral and treated as a hero. Hawkwood had not only fought well for his employers, but he profited well, as did the men under his command. From his time in service with Pisa, Hawkwood had acquired the nickname Giovanni Acuto (John the Sharp), partly because of the difficulty in transcribing “Hawkwood” phonetically into Italian (which lacks the “h” and “w” sounds), but mainly because of his ability to drive a hard bargain. Hawkwood’s service and reputation for loyalty, in a time and place in which fidelity was rare, made his reputation grander than any of the White Company with whom he had originally served.
References: Deiss, Joseph Jay, Captains of Fortune (New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1967); Trease, Geoffrey, The Condottieri (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).