This man, painted on the wall of an Italian cathedral way back in 1436, is an Englishman.
The great fresco painting of Giovanni Acuto by Paolo Uccello (1436) (publlic domain photo)
What were the Italians doing painting an Englishman in 1436?
They adored him—they loved him though, or rather because, he was so cheeky. He was a soldier of fortune, highwayman, thief and extortioner, the big dickens. Sir John Hawkwood by name. He arrived in Italy around 1400 with a band of soldiers and started leasing himself and his army to princes at war. There were many city-states and as they were often at war with each other they needed soldiers. Hawkwood offered quality service at high prices. And when times were depressed and there were no wars Hawkwood and his men would gallop into a city-state, devastate a few farms, then graciously offer to retire for a fee. Never at a loss.
Sir John Hawkwood (public domain photo)
Having cut out a nice niche for himself, he stayed on in Florence and lived to a ripe old age. When he died on March 17, 1394, the broken-hearted Florentines couldn’t help but go all out for him. They put on a big state funeral and buried him in their cathedral. And they commissioned the above painting from Uccello, the great Renaissance artist, for the left wall.
They called Sir John “Giovanni Acuto”—transforming his hard-to-say English name into the Italian word for “clever”. The epitaph on the painting calls him an” extremely valient commander, supremely skillful in warfare (rei militaris)”. No doubt.
King Richard the Second, in 1395, asked the Florentines to send Hawkwood’s body back to England, where a tomb was made ready for him at St. Peter’s in Sible Hedingham. But no one knows whether they actually shipped him home.
This is the pretty church in Essex where perhaps he lies.
St. Peter’s church, Sible Hedingham, Essex (Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0 photo by Robert Edwards)
Read more about his life and legends here.