Sir John Hawkwood was an Englishman, born a commoner but later knighted, who participated in The Hundred Years’ War with the Black Prince and Edward III before moving to Italy to work as a mercenary.
He began his Italian adventures first as an officer of a military company and then rose to become a leader. Unlike England or France, 14th century Italy lacked a cohesive monarchy and was divided into numerous warring city-states (such as Pisa and Florence) which were also divided according to Guelf and Ghibelline (pro-Pope and pro-Holy Roman Emperor, respectively) tendencies. The Italians were fantastic merchants, very wealthy but lacked standing armies, making the prosperous but war-torn country mercenary heaven.
Hawkwood fought for numerous differing employers over a long career, fighting numerous battles (which he usually won), getting captured once (for a brief time) and participating in the occasional massacre. His military talents were universally respected, though there was and is discord regarding his moral standing.
Mr. Cooper has split the book into a chronological account of Hawkwood’s life, with the latter half of the book concerned with a general discussion of his character and a closer look at certain events (battles, and a contentious slaughter). The book is replete with Italian terminology, and (as someone pretty much ignorant of the era) I welcomed the small glossary at the start and the explanations within the text.
I think some of the second half of the book (such as the battles) would have fitted in better with the general account of Hawkwood’s life. It was slightly odd to read a concise summary of a battle only to have it explained in detail later in the book.
There are one or two maps, but I think a few more (and larger) ones would have been useful. The author describes well the Apennines (like the Pennines do England, they run down the spine of Italy but are significantly higher) and other important features, but maps are quite helpful.
As is common with this sort of book there are a decent number of black and white photographs (and some illustrations) in the middle, including some excellent examples of architecture (notably the Chamber of Notaries at Avignon and the Hawkwood Tower).
One of the things that irritates me is when people try and crowbar modern morality into history. Mr. Cooper’s discussion of this topic was enlightening, as it describes both Hawkwood’s actions and what the normal behaviour for the age was. He also considers what the facts of the matter may be, and the reception Hawkwood has received from contemporaries and historians.
The events of the book take place around a century before Machiavelli’s The Prince was written, and it’s interesting to see that the political and military situation was actually quite similar back in the 14th century.
Overall, I quite liked the book but I think a few technical changes could have made it better. The political situation in Italy (vital to understanding the bulk of the book) is well-described and Hawkwood undoubtedly led an interesting and successful life.