Some people join wars for great causes: to defend their nation, to avenge their fallen loved ones, while some were drafted and did not have much choice. Then there were the soldiers who were merchants of conflict like those trading in spices and silk— War was their business. You know what they say, if you’re good at something, never do it for free, and White Company of 14th century Italy, were good at warfare, so they got paid for it.
Hundred Years’ War
Before talking about The White Company, first, it is important to know about the Hundred Years’ War. It was during that time that they emerged. In fact, they had served in the army of the English king for a period of time until a short truce in 1360.
During the late middle ages, the series of conflicts between the kingdoms of England and France was referred to as the Hundred Years’ War. It began with a dispute on who should rule the Kingdom of France between the royal houses of Plantagenet and the French Royal House called House of Valois until it grew into a power struggle that involved Western Europe factions. Interrupted only by short periods of ceasefires, the war lasted 116 years, involving five generations of kings from 1337 to 1453. In that time powerful families ruled countries and fought each other for power and control.
Sir John Hawkwood and The White Company
Hawkwood was an English soldier whose career began in the Hundred Years’ War in France. He served as a longbowman under King Edward III and also participated in the Battle of Crécy in the year 1346 and the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. It was because of him that the White Company rose to prominence above other mercenary companies of Italy, working by auctioning its services off to the highest bidder, regardless of which team it was.
According to Weapons and Warfare, they were called such because “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.” The band was made up of knights of different nationalities: Germans, Italians, and Hungarians but mostly English and French veterans, collectively called the “lance.” Before Hawkwood, a German knight named Albert Sterz was their leader, and he was able to get the group’s first commission. He was replaced when Hawkwood joined in 1362 and was voted as the new commander by its employee/soldiers.
The White Company would usually fight on foot as Pikemen forming a wall of pikes that no charging cavalry could survive. They would only use their horses to chase down their enemies or as an escape if things went badly for them. Over the years, the number of their members varied from as little as 250 to as much as 3,500.
Life In Italy
When the mercenary band entered Italy in 1361, the city of Milan bribed them to behave and not try to take the city. They accepted the bribe and pretended to agree, only to pillage in the countryside during New Year’s Eve celebrations. They grabbed loot and kidnapped 600 nobles, holding them for ransom. That night, they made 100,000 gold florins, equivalent to 300,000 shillings. Not bad for one night’s work.
In February 1364, they were contracted by Pisa to attack Florence. They were blocked about 12 miles away from the city, and they had to find another route and had to take the rough terrain to secure the town of Fiesole, where they could overlook Florence. They were unsuccessful in penetrating the city’s walls but gathered enough loot and occupied the suburbs of Florence so their employer would still be satisfied that they were doing their job. When they finally attacked Florence, the Florentines tried to bribe them in reverse, and they were able to convince a portion of the White Company to engage in a five-month truce. They offered another bigger bribe for the White Company to take their side instead and abandon the Pisans, but Hawkwood refused this time. A number of his men thought it was an offer too good to pass up, so they ditched the group, Sterz included, and left Hawkwood with 800 men. That ended their Florence siege.
Some of those who left were gathered by Sterz, and they formed another group called Company of the Star.
As for the White Company, they would later serve Florence anyway. In fact, the longest that they would, and faithfully so, until Hawkwood’s death in 1394.