White Company

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Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood , fresco on canvas by Paolo Uccello (1436). Paolo Uccello 044.jpg
Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood , fresco on canvas by Paolo Uccello (1436).

The White Company (Italian : Compagnia Bianca del Falco) was a 14th-century English mercenary Company of Adventure (Italian : Compagnia di ventura), led from its arrival in Italy in 1361 to 1363 by the German Albert Sterz and later by the Englishman John Hawkwood. Although the White Company is the name by which it is popularly known, it was initially called the Great Company of English and Germans [1] and would later often be referred to as the English Company (It: Compagnia degli Inglesi, L: Societas Angliciis).

Italian language Romance language

Italian is a Romance language of the Indo-European language family. Italian, together with Sardinian, is by most measures the closest language to Vulgar Latin of the Romance languages. Italian is an official language in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino and Vatican City. It has an official minority status in western Istria. It formerly had official status in Albania, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro (Kotor) and Greece, and is generally understood in Corsica and Savoie. It also used to be an official language in the former Italian East Africa and Italian North Africa, where it plays a significant role in various sectors. Italian is also spoken by large expatriate communities in the Americas and Australia. In spite of not existing any Italian community in their respective national territories and of not being spoken at any level, Italian is included de jure, but not de facto, between the recognized minority languages of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania. Many speakers of Italian are native bilinguals of both standardized Italian and other regional languages.

Mercenary soldier who fights for hire

A mercenary, sometimes known as a soldier of fortune, is an individual who takes part in military conflict for personal profit, is otherwise an outsider to the conflict, and is not a member of any other official military. Mercenaries fight for money or other forms of payment rather than for political interests. In the last century, mercenaries have increasingly come to be seen as less entitled to protections by rules of war than non-mercenaries. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions declare that mercenaries are not recognized as legitimate combatants and do not have to be granted the same legal protections as captured soldiers of a regular army. In practice, whether or not a person is a mercenary may be a matter of degree, as financial and political interests may overlap, as was often the case among Italian condottieri.

Free company late medieval army of mercenaries acting independently of any government

A free company was an army of mercenaries between the 12th and 14th centuries recruited by private employers during wars. They acted independently of any government, and were thus "free". They regularly made a living by plunder when they were not employed; in France they were the routiers and écorcheurs who operated outside the highly structured law of arms. The term "free company" is most applied to those companies of soldiers which formed after the Peace of Brétigny during the Hundred Years' War and were active mainly in France, but it has been applied to other companies, such as the Catalan Company and companies that operated elsewhere, such as in Italy and the Holy Roman Empire.


Origins of the name

No medieval source explains the company's name. [2] The traditional view is that it is a reference to the brightly polished armour of the men-at-arms. [3] However, William Caferro has suggested that it was because the Company originally wore white surcoats. [4] This view might be supported by the fact that mercenaries led by Arnaud de Cervole in France at this time were known as bandes blanches. [5]

Surcoat overgarment of the Middle Ages

A surcoat or surcote initially was an outer garment commonly worn in the Middle Ages by both men and women in Western Europe. It can either refer to a coat worn over other clothes or the outermost garment itself. The name derives from French meaning "over the coat", a long, loose, often sleeveless coat reaching down to the feet.

Arnaud de Cervole, also de Cervolles, de Cervolle, Arnaut de Cervole or Arnold of Cervoles, known as l'Archiprêtre, was a French mercenary soldier and Brigand of the Hundred Years War in the 14th century.

Makeup of the company

Despite it being commonly referred to as the English Company, personnel were drawn from a wide range of nationalities, reflecting the international nature of Italian mercenary warfare in the 14th century, including at various times Germans, Italians and Hungarians. [6] The numbers of men in the Company varied over the years. In 1361, it is recorded as having 3,500 cavalry and 2,000 infantry. At its lowest ebb in 1388, it had a mere 250 men. [7] The company was organised in lances of three men; a man-at-arms, a squire and a page. Of these, only the man-at-arms and squire were armed. [8] These lances were organised into contingents, each under a corporal, who was often an independent sub-contractor. [6] This structure gave the Company a certain democratic element and it is thought that John Hawkwood first gained command of the Company in 1365 by election. [9] The company contained numbers of infantry, particularly English longbowmen. [10] These could be mounted on horses as were the 600 involved in the Battle of Castagnaro in 1387. In addition to its military structure, the Company had an administrative staff, usually Italian, of chancellors and notaries who managed the legal and contractual aspects of the Company's relationship with its employers, and a treasurer to handle its financial affairs. The White Company's treasurer was an Englishman, William Thornton. [11]

Man-at-arms Armoured medieval soldier

A man-at-arms was a soldier of the High Medieval to Renaissance periods who was typically well-versed in the use of arms and served as a fully armoured heavy cavalryman. A man-at-arms could be a knight or nobleman, a member of a knight or nobleman's retinue or a mercenary in a company under a mercenary captain. Such men could serve for pay or through a feudal obligation. The terms knight and man-at-arms are often used interchangeably, but while all knights equipped for war certainly were men-at-arms, not all men-at-arms were knights.

Squire historical profession

Starting in the Middle Ages, a squire was the shield- or armour-bearer of a knight. At times, a squire acted as a knight's errand runner.

Battle of Castagnaro middle ages battle

The Battle of Castagnaro was fought on 11 March 1387 at Castagnaro between Verona and Padua. It is one of the most famous battles of the Italian condottieri age.


The White Company is credited with introducing to Italy the practice of dismounting men-at-arms in battle, [12] a practice already commonplace in the battles of the Hundred Years' War in France. Contemporary witnesses record that the Company fought dismounted and in close order, advancing with two men-at-arms holding the same lance at a slow pace while shouting loud battle cries. The longbowmen apparently drew up behind. [13] [14] This is not to suggest that they abandoned mounted combat altogether. The Battle of Castagnaro was won by a cavalry charge. [15]

Hundred Years War Series of conflicts and wars between England and France during the 14th and 15th-century

The Hundred Years' War was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the French House of Valois, over the right to rule the Kingdom of France. Each side drew many allies into the war. It was one of the most notable conflicts of the Middle Ages, in which five generations of kings from two rival dynasties fought for the throne of the largest kingdom in Western Europe. The war marked both the height of chivalry and its subsequent decline, and the development of strong national identities in both countries.


The White Company was involved in the following battles [16]

The Battle of Canturino was a clash of two condottiere companies, the long-established Great Company under Konrad von Landau and the newer White Company under Albert Sterz and John Hawkwood near Novara, north-west of Milan.

Battle of Cascina battle between Pisa and Florence

The Battle of Cascina was an engagement between Pisan and Florentine troops on 28 July 1364 near Cascina, Italy. Florence's victory followed a recent defeat to Pisan forces that had enabled mercenary John Hawkwood, who was in command of the Pisan army, to occupy the Valdinievole, Prato en route to Florence. Hawkwood and his army looted the lucrative Mugello region and Pistoia before proceeding towards Florence. Hawkwood fought alongside Hanneken von Baumgarten and had 3000 men-at-arms at his disposal.

Cascina Comune in Tuscany, Italy

Cascina is a comune (municipality) in the Province of Pisa in the Italian region Tuscany, located about 60 kilometres (37 mi) west of Florence and about 13 kilometres (8 mi) southeast of Pisa.

The Company was also involved in a large number of skirmishes, sieges and attacks on towns. Less honourable was their participation in the Massacre at Cesena in 1377, when several thousand civilians were killed. [17]

The White Company is the title of a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is very loosely based on the historical company. Unlike the historical company, the main focus of the action is in Spain and the White Company led by Bertrand de Guesclin to Spain in 1366 was also an inspiration. [18] The book was popular as an adventure novel, its well-chosen title raising the profile of the historical company among a lay readership. [19]

See also

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  1. Caferro, William. John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-century Italy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. ISBN   978-0-8018-8323-1 p.46
  2. Caferro (2006), p.47
  3. Mallet, Michael: Mercenaries and their Masters, Bodley Head, London, 1974 ISBN   0-370-10502-8 p. 37
  4. Caferro (2006) p.47
  5. Cooper, Stephen. Sir John Hawkwood: Chivalry and the Art of War. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2008. ISBN   978-1-84415-752-5 p.79
  6. 1 2 Caferro (2006), p.66
  7. Cooper (2008), pp.76-7
  8. Caferro (2006), p.88
  9. Mallett (1974), p.39
  10. Caferro (2006) p.75
  11. Caferro (2006) p.67
  12. Mallett (1974), p.37
  13. Caferro (2006), pp48-9
  14. Cooper (2008), pp.76-7
  15. Cooper (2008), pp.137-140
  16. Cooper (2008)
  17. Caferro (2006), pp188-190
  18. Urban, William Medieval Mercenaries, Greenhill Books, 2006, ISBN   978-1-85367-697-0 pp141-3
  19. Urban (2006), pp.138 - 142