The Belated Return of the Hawkwoods to England
During the night of 16-17 March 1394, the notorious English condottiere John Hawkwood died of a stroke in Florence. Born the son of a tanner in Sible Hedingham in Essex, Hawkwood had served under Edward III during the early stages of the Hundred Years War. Following the disbandment of the troops after the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360, he had joined several mercenary companies and engaged in devastating towns and countryside in France and Italy. Knighted and having taken over command of the White Company, Hawkwood had earned his spurs as one of the most gifted military captains of his day, courted by the numerous Italian city-states who did not have a standing army of their own. Between 1368 and 1372, his services had been contracted to Bernabò Visconti, duke of Milan, after which he had tried to restore Pope Gregory XI’s hegemony over the peninsula until 1377. Having been appointed ambassador to the Roman court by the English king Richard II in 1381, Hawkwood had amassed wealth during the last years of his life as a commander-in-chief of the Florentine army.
Already for some time before his death, the celebrated condottiere had contemplated a return to his ancestral lands. In a deed recording the sale of part of his Italian possessions to the Republic of Florence, the scribe had motivated the transaction by the seller’s desire “to leave us, and with his family to go to England whence he had his origin”. Early in 1393, Hawkwood, “weary because of his great age” and “weighed down by infirmity”, had sent his squire John Sampson to Essex to make his intentions clear to the feoffees of his considerable landed estates and to arrange safe conducts for a return via Calais. In the summer of the same year, he had liquidated all of his properties in Florence.
Having told Sampson what should happen in case he “deye before coming hom”, the execution of his plans fell upon his widow Donnina, the illegitimate daughter of his former Visconti employer, after March 1394. Determined to show their gratitude for the work of her late husband and having accepted her decision “as soon as the age of her children will allow it, to transfer herself with them to England”, the Florentine Signoria recommended her to King Richard II. Part of a bigger programme to bring back the bodies of prominent allies who had died abroad, the monarch petitioned for Hawkwood’s corpse to be sent back to his native country.
Even though the authorities in Florence agreed to Richard’s request, neither Hawkwood’s remains nor his family would come home anytime soon. Since the mercenary leader had failed to leave a written will, the agreement with John Sampson was disputed by his feoffees. Only eight years later, in 1403, was a consensus reached. Donnina Visconti was to return to Milan, her city of birth. Having married off his daughters to fellow soldiers, all Hawkwood’s land in Essex and Buckinghamshire went to his only legitimate son and namesake. “A most beautiful male child” according to his mother, John Hawkwood junior had been born in Florence in February 1385. At the age of nine, he had been invested with the honorary command of a lancia or a cavalry unit and the corresponding stipend by the Republic of Florence. Having attained the age of majority in 1406, he travelled to England to take possession of the family legacy.
A native of Italy enjoying Florentine citizenship in recognition of his father’s services, the young Hawkwood was granted letters of denization by King Henry IV. Issued on 3 November 1406, they entitled him, as any royal liege, to have legal action in English courts and to acquire, alienate and inherit lands and tenements in the realm. They thus enabled him to get hold of the Hawkwood patrimony, which was restored in 1409 and 1410, on the condition he would marry within five years. The new denizen probably never did so, as his inheritance returned to a committee of executors in 1420. With no certainty whether it actually contains his father’s body, the memorial to the condottiere at St Peter’s Church in Sible Hedingham remained the only tangible remnant of Hawkwood presence in England.
Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1405-1408
Rymer, Thomas, Foedera, conventiones, literae et cujuscunque generis acta publica (3 vols., London, 1816-1830)
Caffero, William, John Hawkwood. An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy (Baltimore, 2006)
Fowler, Kenneth, ‘Hawkwood, Sir John (d. 1394)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)
Saunders, Frances Stonor, Hawkwood. Diabolical Englishman (London, 2004)