By the Late Middle Ages, the increased trade with the Near East and Levant during and after the Crusades brought great riches to the small Italian city states. This patchwork of small ultra-rich petty kingdoms and merchant republics formed intense but ever changing rivalries with each other, whose political and military needs far exceeded what the mostly feudal societies could traditionally provide for, especially against the large armies of their neighbors. To fill their ranks, the ruling Italian families turned to contracts or “condotto” with professional mercenaries, or “condottieri”, literally contractors.
In 1360, the first phase of the Hundred Years War ended with the Treaty of Bretigny. Thousands of semiprofessional knights and their retinues were out of work. They had lived on the “chevauchée”, the looting and pillaging raids through the French countryside that forced the great feudal armies of France to attack the smaller but more professional English armies of knights and longbowmen to disastrous consequences. The less disciplined became brigands *spit*, but the more organized formed mercenary companies. Seeking richer lands, many made their way (while continuing to pillage across France) south to Spain to fight the Moors, or to Italy to seek employment as condottieri. One such company was the White Company, led by Sir John Hawkwood.
Sir John Hawkwood was the third son of a tanner and former English longbowman. He participated in all of the campaigns and battles of the first phase of the Hundred Years War including those at Crecy and Portiers. Sometime during that time he was knighted, and came to lead the White Company. In 1361, he made his way to Italy and for the next twenty years rose to be known as the greatest condottiero (mercenary warlord) through employment with the Papacy, Florence, Milan, and a host of others on a peninsula wracked by wars ostensibly caused by the Western Schism of the Papacy.
In 1387, Hawkwood was employed by the small city state of Padua which found itself invaded by the much more powerful Verona. The Veronese army was over 20,000 and included rival condottieri, the Veronese nobility, and thousands of peasants. The Paduan army stayed to prepare the city for defense, but sent Hawkwood with 8000 condottieri to slow the Veronese. True to form, Hawkwood launched his own chevauchée into the Veronese countryside, and forced his adversaries to chase him down. This allowed him to turn and face them at a place of his choosing. He chose to defend along the small canal at Castagnaro and anchored his right in a small wooded patch along the river.
On 11 March 1387, Hawkwood drew up his 6000 dismounted condottieri and archers along the canal and stuck his standard in the center of his line. The Veronese approached and filled the canal with fascines (bundles of branches), and charged across the canal directly at the White Company’s banner. With the death or capture of their war lord, the Veronese were sure the Paduan condottieri would stop fighting, as they wouldn’t get paid. The outnumbered Paduan army began to give way, and the banner was overrun. But Hawkwood could not be found, and the Paduans unexpectedly continued to resist.
Once the bulk of the Veronese were committed, Hawkwood’s second launched a flaming arrow above the woods. Hawkwood then sprung the trap.
2000 knights and mounted sergeants emerged from the woods with the 64 year old condottiero in the van with the real White Company banner fluttering triumphantly in the breeze. Screaming their war cry “Carne!” (or “The Flesh!”, a play on the ruling Paduan family’s motto “Carte!” or “The Cart”) Hawkwood and his heavily armored knights crashed into the flank of the Veronese line, and scattered the peasants and much of the lesser infantry. When the charging mass approached the much better armed Florentine and Veronese knights and nobility, they began to falter (mercenaries don’t get paid if they’re dead). However, Hawkwood threw his commander’s baton into the Veronese ranks and offered triple pay to any man who retrieved it. The charge for the baton broke the remainder of the Veronese army.
The Battle of Castagnaro was Sir John Hawkwood’s greatest victory, one of the greatest battles of the Golden Age of the Condottieri, and Padua was saved… at least for a few years.