Sir John Hawkwood, the "White Company" and the Battle of Castagnaro

11 March 1387, a Paduan army with the famous “White Company” under the condottiero Sir John Hawkwood at its core defeated a Veronese host at least twice its size at the Battle of Castagnaro, half way between Venice and Verona.

“What of the bow?
The bow was made in England:
Of true wood, of yew wood,
The wood of English bows
So men who are free
Love the old yew tree
And the land where the yew tree grows.

What of the cord?
The cord was made in England:
A rough cord, a tough cord,
A cord that bowmen love;
So we'll drain our jacks
To the English flax
And the land where the hemp was wove.

What of the shaft?
The shaft was cut in England:
A long shaft, a strong shaft,
Barbed and trim and true;
So we'll drink all together
To the gray goose feather
And the land where the gray goose flew.

What of the men?
The men were bred in England:
The bowman—the yeoman—
The lads of dale and fell
Here's to you—and to you;
To the hearts that are true
And the land where the true hearts dwell.

"Well sung, by my hilt!" shouted the archer in high delight. "Many a night have I heard that song, both in the old war-time and after in the days of the White Company, when Black Simon of Norwich would lead the stave, and four hundred of the best bowmen that ever drew string would come roaring in upon the chorus. I have seen old John Hawkwood, the same who has led half the Company into Italy, stand laughing in his beard as he heard it, until his plates rattled again. But to get the full smack of it ye must yourselves be English bowmen, and be far off upon an outland soil." (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “The White Company”)

Uccello’s famous Fresco of Sir John Hawkwood*

The situation in France after the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 was, by and large, a mess. King John II, called “the Good” for inexplicable reasons, was in English captivity and Edward the Black Prince’s very, very unchivalrous chevauchées, raids into enemy territory and sacks of whole cities, had literally bled the country dry after the first 25 years of the Hundred Years’ War. With no plunder left to speak of, the thousands of battle-hardened mercenaries employed by all sides looked for employment elsewhere – and found that northern Italy with it’s city states engaged in continuous warfare with each other were just the place to be. Soon the soldiery, the free-lances, formed into companies and trekked to Italy where there was no shortage for their services, with good pay, plunder enough, the weather a far cry from the rain sodden green fields of France and warfare usually not quite as brutal. And soon, the formerly mostly German “White Company” became known as Compagnia degli Inglese, the English Company, led by l’Acuto, Sir John Hawkwood, a common soldier knighted on the battlefield by King Edward III himself, who introduced a few innovations to the way the city states fought, learned from the wars in France, like knights fighting dismounted among the commoners and the deadly English longbows and greed that was novel even in war-ridden Tuscany.

"The White Company" as imagined by N.C. Wyeth (1882 - 1945) as illustration for Doyle's eponymous novel

Compagnia degli Inglese had fought in Italy for 15 years and was, by then, made up from all kinds of national backgrounds, only most of the longbowmen were usually English or Welsh. Few others had the rigorous training necessary to draw the at least 6’ tall yew bows and shoot up to 10 deadly arrows per minute at their enemies. With 500 of them along with 600 mounted men-at-arms equipped with the best of what the famous Milanese armouries could provide, the White Company provided the backbone of Padua’s army of maybe 7,000 men. Their enemy lay well positioned on a hill in swampy ground southeast of Verona, numbering up to 30,000, all in all. Hawkwood, on this day factual commander of Padua’s army, however, tricked them to charge into a feigned retreat, their vanguard, all of a sudden, shot to pieces by longbows and Italian crossbows and their main battle rolled up in an old-fashioned cavalry charge by Hawkwood’s heavies. Veronese losses were comparatively light, at least in comparison to a full-scale battle in France, with 800 dead and 700 wounded. However, the Army of Padua took 4,000 prisoners to be ransomed for a lot of money, and that was what really counted for Giovanni Acuto and the Compagnia degli Inglese, even though battlefield glories did raise initial wages paid immensely.

"... an old-fashioned cavalry charge by Hawkwood’s heavies" - Heavily armoured 15th century cavalry, as imagined by Paolo Uccello (1397 - 1475)

years later, Hawkwood and Company entered into the service of Florence. He became their commander-in-chief against the Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the “Viper of Milan”, ironically enough the nephew of Duke Bernabò Visconti, the natural father of Hawkwood’s wife. Maybe going to war against one’s in-laws was an additionally motivation, however, Acuto turned the tides of war in Florence’s favour until his death at the ripe old age of about 70 and earned the city’s eternal gratitude for saving them from the Visconti’s dream of re-establishing the old Lombard kingdom if not the Roman Empire itself. With the city already under the sway of Cosimo de Medici, the early Renaissance master Paolo Uccello was finally charged in 1436 with creating a grand funerary monument for Hawkwood, a fresco measuring 732 x 404 cm that can be admired in the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore to this day. If Hawkwood rests there is a different matter, though. King Richard II of England asked for the return of his body in 1395 for a burial of the famous English condottiero at his native village in Essex. It seems that Florence had at least agreed to Richard II’s request, if the body natural was actually ever reburied in England has never been cleared, though.

* More about the fresco depicted above in a detailed article on:

and about John Hawkwood himself on: