The astonishing fact about the British love affair with Italy is that it is reciprocated. We were always going to admire their climate, food, art, charm and tolerance, but why should the Italians still like us, considering what we have unleashed on them over the centuries? Perhaps our most noxious export was Sir John Hawkwood, the "diabolical Englishman" of Frances Stonor Saunders's subtitle. A superb military commander who looked after his men and was loyal to the English Crown - that is about all that can be said in favour of perhaps the most notorious mercenary leader in history. Otherwise, he was the scourge of the Italian peninsula for three decades; the major towns that he besieged, attacked or in some way ravaged include Florence, Montecchio, Pisa, Livorno, Bologna, Verona, Naples and Siena, not counting scores of minor towns and villages.
Cesena deserves special mention for the massacre he perpetrated there over three days and nights in February 1377, during which his White Company killed roughly 6,000 innocent men, women and children. Rape, torture, arson, plunder, slaughter: this well-researched and beautifully written book uncovers the obscene underside of the late-medieval chivalric myth. Geoffrey Chaucer, who met Hawkwood twice, was either being heavily satirical or thinking of someone very different when, in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, he wrote of "a verray, parfit gentil knyght" who "loved chivalrie, trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie".
What Hawkwood loved was holding pontiffs, potentates and powers to ransom - whether it be Pope Innocent VI at Avignon, the Visconti family of Milan, or the last person he blackmailed: the Signoria of Florence. The amounts paid for his service were vast, but he always delivered added value, especially for Florence, for which he fought from 1375 until his death in March 1394. Although he had once burned the outskirts of the city in fighting for a previous employer, Florence honoured Hawkwood with a state funeral of unprecedented lavishness. A huge equestrian fresco portrait of him by Uccello today graces the third bay of the north aisle in Brunelleschi's Duomo.
Hawkwood thought big; why sack mere cities when you can hold entire city states to ransom? His devoted cohort numbered no more than about 300 soldiers - or "lances", as they were called after their favoured weapon of choice - yet their pitiless method of campaigning made prosperous Italy tremble for more than 30 years. With each regional power hating and fearing the others, yet never quite strong enough to impose hegemony on its neighbours for long, all had an interest in hiring the White Company, which was a rather different body from that depicted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The moment that Hawkwood saw one power getting too strong, he simply switched sides overnight, for ever-greater transfer fees. It is estimated that in the 14th century, the Holy See spent no less than 60 per cent of its income on mercenaries.
Hawkwood was an exemplar of the truth of Kipling's warning about the dangers of paying Danegeld. No one could get rid of the man who slipped through trap after trap, and who came back for more money time and again. Because he paid his men well, he did not leave a vast fortune, and he died strangely intestate, obliging his widow to sue for years - at one stage via Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London - to receive anything at all. It makes the horrors inflicted on the Italians somehow all the more tragic that, in the end, there was nothing to show for all the suffering, besides one picture by Uccello.
Stonor Saunders, a former arts editor of this magazine, previously wrote a cultural study of the cold war and the CIA's heroic role in it (heroic in the opinion of this Yankophile reviewer, at least). That book, called Who Paid the Piper?, was rightly acclaimed for its meticulous scholarship, and so this one deserves to be also, given that she has written so very much more than a biography of a well-recompensed serial killer. Every page bears a fact about Italy - admittedly sometimes pretty tangential to Hawkwood's life - which raises the eyebrows. Did you know, for example, that public officials in 13th-century Florence were paid in saffron, or that masturbation with the aid of a perforated piece of wood in the 14th century could incur 20 days in prison on bread and water?
Saunders wears her knowledge lightly, sharing it with an attractively ironic and worldly touch, as in the following: "As good an indication as any of the economic health of a city is the number of prostitutes operating there," which precedes a learned discussion about medieval harlotry. Although the book is populated by such figures as Boccaccio, Petrarch, the della Scala of Verona, the d'Estes of Ferrara and Gonzaga of Mantua, Richard II of England (who nearly became Hawkwood's brother-in-law), Chaucer, the Black Prince and the splendid-sounding "Marquis of Monferrato, Imperial Vicar of Piedmont and Lord of Turin", it is the brooding, murderous figure of Sir John who inevitably presides. Hawkwood's gallows humour is well illustrated by his answer to a well-meaning monk who once said to him: "God give you peace." "Peace would undo me," he replied. Like so many monsters before him and afterwards, Hawkwood died in bed.
For all the sides that he joined and betrayed, the towns that he sacked and massacres that he ordered, there was no presiding theme to Hawkwood's life beyond the amassing of wealth, and in the end there was not even enough of that. No religious, strategic, ideological, dynastic or patriotic motives moved him, just the business of finding the richest and most gullible paymaster each time. Even excommunication failed to affect this man of nil convictions. Yet that does not detract from this fascinating book, because, for all the moral nullity of its chief protagonist, the author's enthusiasm for the period and interest in its related issues shine through.
What Might Have Been, edited by Andrew Roberts, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson