Battle of Castagnaro: Paduan Army Under John Hawkwood Defeats Veronese Force

« Previous story
Next story »
Battle of Castagnaro: Paduan Army Under John Hawkwood Defeats Veronese Force

"[Aerial] view of the battle of Castagnaro showing the Paduan army, commanded by Sir John Hawkwood, outflanking and defeating the Veronese" by Graham Turner
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: March 11, 1387

Our showcase battle for this week comes from the late fourteenth century, during one of the many small wars between the major Italian city-states of the time. Many of these city-states, unable to raise large numbers of native soldiers, hired mercenaries to fill out their ranks. This time period was the last years of the condottiere, the contracted soldier – or sell-sword.


The condottieri traced their lineage back to foreign soldiers brought to Italy in the late thirteenth century for a conflict known as the War of the Sicilian Vespers. These men were mainly Germans and Spaniards (Aragonese to be precise). After the war ended, many of these hardy soldiers decided, rather than returning to their homelands, to stay in the divided states of Italy and hire themselves out to the highest bidder. [Most of these men knew only one line of work – soldiering. Therefore, they banded together under a recognized leader and continued their jobs, just for another employer.]

A group of soldiers would sign a condotta (a contract), stipulating terms of service, pay, and other niceties of their employment. The person making the contract – usually the commanding officer – was known as the condottiere, the contracted soldier. There were also other clauses in the contract, such as stipulations against hiring on with a rival power after a certain period of time. There were even clauses relating to giving grace periods to a condottiere once his term of service expired, allowing his former employer time to decide whether to rehire the sell-swords.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were probably the greatest period for the condottieri in Italy. The Hundred Years' War between England and France had several periods of peace – truces – that left thousands of soldiers without work. Many formed bands that turned brigand, but some sought employment where the fighting was. For our purposes, one of those primary places was Italy. Many of these groups were known as "free companies." Hirelings and mercenaries are probably better terms.

Many Italian city-states were engaged in extensive trade with the nations of the eastern Mediterranean. Their navies were generally large and strong, but their land forces were neglected, usually rather small and not so well trained. The advent of free companies allowed these cities to augment their forces and fight land-based wars. Even the Popes made use of mercenary units in his conflicts with other Italian rulers, many intent on reducing the size of the Papal States in central Italy.

Finally, this period saw a continuing rivalry between the Popes and the Holy Roman Emperor, who claimed power over many of the territories of northern Italy. Supporters of the Pope were the Guelphs, while adherents of the Imperial party were the Ghibellines. These parties found it convenient to hire warlords and their followers to support their political policies.

Paduan Army

Early in the year 1387, a force of Paduan soldiers augmented by sell-swords of the mainly English White Company were besieging the city of Verona. This army was under the command of noted English war-lord Sir John Hawkwood (called Giovannia Acuto by the Italians).The Paduan force numbered some 7000 men-at arms (mounted and heavily armed and armored cavalrymen), about 1000 footmen (pikemen/spearmen and crossbowmen) and about 500-600 English bowmen outfitted as mounted archers. There were also several (exact number unknown) artillery pieces in the Paduan arsenal, probably of insufficient number or size to truly threaten Verona.

"Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood"; Fresco by Paolo Uccello (dedicated in 1436); On display in Florence Cathedral, Florence Italy
"Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood"
Fresco by Paolo Uccello (dedicated in 1436)
On display in Florence Cathedral, Florence Italy

However, Hawkwood's army was not adequte to take the city, and its lines of communication and supply were constantly endangered. Further, after ordering his cavalry to make widespread raids of local farms and other targets, Hawkwood received scouting reports of large numbers of relieving Veronese forces intent on wiping out his command. Early in March, Hawkwood ordered his force to raise the siege, and fell back about 30 miles toward his supply base in the town of Castelbaldo on the east bank of the Adige River.

Veronese Army

Opposing the Paduan formations was an army of between 11,000 and 16,000 men. The vast majority of these soldiers were mounted men at arms, with a contingent of Veronese militia and recently-recruited levies of pikemen or spearmen. They were under the overall command of war-lord Giovanni Ordelaffi of Forli, with Ostasio da Polenta as his second in command. Both men were noted military leaders with good reputations. After Hawkwood's Paduan army began the siege of Verona, the city fathers of Verona began raising reinforcements and hiring condottieri bands to help their city. These actions accelerated after Paduan raiders attacked outlying farmland and other important targets outside the city walls. When the Paduan army raised the siege and began a deliberate retreat southwards, the Veronese followed, hoping for a "washing of the spears."

Prelude to the Battle

The nucleus of Hawkwood's Paduan force was about 8000 native Paduan soldiers, consisting of about 6000 footmen and about 1600 horsemen. The Englishman's personal sell-sword force known as the White Company supplemented the native Paduans, giving the army a number of men who were experienced warriors. Hawkwood had complete confidence in their battlefield prowess. [Explanations for the name include: a) the knights and men-at-arms in the force wore highly polished, undecorated plate armor, sometimes called "white armor," or b) the company wore white surcoats as an identifying mark of their military brotherhood.] As Hawkwood approached his base at Castelbaldo, he sent a message to his quartermaster there to place needed supplies on wagons and cross the Adipe River and rendezvous with the Paduan force at the town of Castagnaro. He also sent scouting parties out to find a worthy spot for his force to offer battle to the pursuing Veronese.

Hawkwood's scouts found an almost-perfect spot for his army. [One of military science's primary maxims is to fight a battle on ground of your own choosing.] The town of Castagnaro was located on the west bank of the Adipe River. To the north of the town was a large irrigation ditch (still in existence today) that offered an excellent defensive position. To the west was a large area of marshy ground that offered protection to his left flank. On his right was the Adipe River, as well as the Alveo Canal running southward. Finally, the area was honeycombed with dykes to guard the local towns and farmland from flooding.

The English war-lord ordered the majority of his knights and men-at-arms to dismount to fight with the Paduan footmen, then organized them into two lines of infantry with right and left flanks, and the center placed astride the road from Castagnaro which ran northwestward and crossed the irrigation ditch. [A in map below] They lined a substantial dyke which paralleled the south side of the ditch. Hawkwood placed his cannon and a force of 600 crossbowmen to guard his right flank [B].

Just behind his second line of men, he placed his personal bodyguard of 500-600 knights [C] and his unit of 500-600 mounted English archers [D]. Just behind him, Hawkwood placed the Paduan caroccio [E]. This war-cart was the pride of most medieval Italian city-states' armies. It was a large platform with portable altar, where the city's priests sang and prayed for the success of their military. It also had a number of trumpeters to give signals during the battle, and usually carried the city's flag. If this war-cart fell into enemy hands, it was considered a severe check to the city's honor. It was usually guarded by the army's best troops. [In this case, the Paduan war-cart was ostensively guarded by Hawkwood's trusted Englishmen.]

In a bit of subterfuge, Hawkwood had a copy of the White Company's banner made, and it was displayed prominently with the caroccio. He moved his English mounted units fairly close to the back of his army's second line, allowing his mounted units to be screened. [One account of this battle states there was a small patch of woods near the junction of the irrigation ditch and the Alveo Canal; supposedly Hawkwood hid his two mounted English units in these woods. I have chosen not to follow that account.]

Battle of Castagnaro, opening dispositions of Paduan and Veronese forces [Map is author's work, adapted from Italian Medieval Armies 1300-1500 by Osprey Publishing]
Battle of Castagnaro, opening dispositions of Paduan and Veronese forces
[Map is author's work, adapted from Italian Medieval Armies 1300-1500 by Osprey Publishing]

The pursuing Veronese were brought up short in their pursuit when they saw the Paduan force lined up for battle on the morning of March 11, 1387, causing a great deal of confusion and consternation. It took nearly the entire morning for army commander Ordelaffi to arrange his battle line to his satisfaction. Ordelaffi arranged his footmen into two lines, not with as much care as was taken in the similar arrangments by Hawkwood and the Paduans. The first line seems to have been one long division, without right, left, or center divisions. The second line was only slightly more organized, but were arrayed in several small units of infantrymen, mostly armed with pikes or spears [F]. In the rear of the main Veronese battle line were two mounted units – probably knights or mounted men-at-arms from Ordelaffi's own condottieri band [G] – along with a large contingents of newly-recruited Veronese militiamen [H] guarding the Veronese war-cart [I].

Battle of Castagnaro, first phase [Map is author's work, adapted from Italian Medieval Armies 1300-1500 by Osprey Publishing]
Battle of Castagnaro, first phase
[Map is author's work, adapted from Italian Medieval Armies 1300-1500 by Osprey Publishing]

Finally, about noontime, the first line of the Veronese army moved forward to the attack. Probably brave enough and trained, the Veronese footmen had to first cross the irrigation ditch and then struggle up a steep dyke to attack the enemy. To make matters worse, recent heavy rainfall had left the ground very soft and made footing very treacherous [1]. There was a single ford across the ditch, where the road from the town of Castagnaro ran north-to-south. It was, however, held quite securely by Paduan infantry, with a leavening of condottieri dismounted men-at-arms. In addition, attacks on the Paduan right flank were the targets of crossbow and artillery fire.

As the afternoon advanced, the Veronese attacks were supplemented with an infusion of reinforcements from the second line [2]. However, these reinforcements were thrown into the fight in a piecemeal manner, which did not add much to the Veronese offensive punch. While these attacks were taking place, Veronese commander Ordelaffi ordered his men to throw fascines – which are bundles of brushwood or other materials – to allow his soldiers a surer footing to cross the irrigation ditch. [3]

Battle of Castagnaro, second phase [Map is author's work, adapted from Italian Medieval Armies 1300-1500 by Osprey Publishing]
Battle of Castagnaro, second phase
[Map is author's work, adapted from Italian Medieval Armies 1300-1500 by Osprey Publishing]

In the late afternoon, the Veronese soldiers completed their work depositing hundreds of fascines in the irrigation ditch, providing somewhat better footing for a frontal assault on the Paduan defenders [4]. When told of the Veronese activity, John Hawkwood decided the time for action had come. He ordered his English knights and bowmen to mount and they began a wide swing around the rear and right flank of his forces, masked by the rest of the Paduan army. Crossing the canal and irrigation ditch, the English flanking force temporarily hid behind one of the dykes along the western bank of the Adipe River [5]. At about the same time that the English sell-swords were in position, the Veronese launched their main attack, aimed at the center of the Paduan army [6]. Waiting until the Veronese were fully involved in the attack, Hawkwood made his move.

Final Stages

Battle of Castagnaro, final phase [Map is author's work, adapted from Italian Medieval Armies 1300-1500 by Osprey Publishing]
Battle of Castagnaro, final phase
[Map is author's work, adapted from Italian Medieval Armies 1300-1500 by Osprey Publishing]

At a signal (said by one historian to be a flaming arrow), the false White Company banner on the Paduan caroccio was dropped, and Hawkwood ordered the real one with his forces raised.
[7] He gave the order to charge, and 1100 mounted Englishmen charged in the left flank and rear of the Veronese army, striking like a lightning bolt out of clear sky. [The Paduan army usually used the battlecry of "Carre!" meaning cart, a stylized version of which was on the coat-of-arms of the leading family of Padua. John Hawkwood told his men to use a variant of that, "Carne!" (Flesh!)]

Seeing the attack of their allies, the Paduan right flank charged their enemy, followed shortly after by a general advance of the rest of the army [8]. Within minutes, the left side of the Veronese force had disintegrated. When word of the spectacular destruction of its left side reached the remainder of the force, nearly the entire Veronese army lost its nerve, broke and ran in a terrifying rout [9]. Many of the Veronese who weren't killed or badly wounded surrerndered in droves (more on that below).

Then, showing the discipline for which they were renowned, Hawkwood and his White Company reformed and attacked the Veronese cavalry reserve, the greater part consisted of rival condottieri. After a short and brutal melee, the Paduan horsemen followed their comrades, retreated in great haste back to their home territory [10]. The English horsemen set their sights on the only remaining unit of the Veronese army still standing: a unit of militiamen and new recruits. Surprisingly, these men acquited themselves fairly well, stopping the White Company in its tracks [11]. However, the greater experience and heavier armor and weapons of the sell-swords began to tell, and eventually the Veronese militiamen followed their comrades. By sundown, the battle of Castagnaro was finished…


The Veronese sustained between 4000 and 7000 casualties: at least 800 killed, 700 wounded, and an estimated 4000 taken prisoner. Among the prisoners were war-lord Giovanni Ordelaffi of Forli, and his second-in-command Ostasio da Polenta.  Paduan casualties were almost certainly in the "light" category. This battle is recognized by many medieval historians as John Hawkwood's greatest victory.

Footnote #1: One chronicle of the battle stated that, when the English made their fateful charge into the Veronese rear, John Hawkwood threw his command baton into the ranks of the enemy force, telling his men to fetch it for him.

Footnote #2: Hawkwood often played his employers and their enemies against each other. He might get a contract to fight on one side and then demand a payment from the other in order not to attack them. He also could just change sides, keeping his original payment. Sometimes one party hired him so that he would not work for their enemies.

Footnote #3: If not paid, mercenaries like Hawkwood could threaten their employers with desertion or pillage, and part of the White Company's reputation was built upon the fact that Sir John's men were far less likely to desert in dangerous situations than other mercenaries; Hawkwood soon grew much richer than many other condottieri.

Footnote #4: Sir John Hawkwood died in 1394 in Florence. His funeral was a huge state affair, with his final resting place in the Duomo, the Catherdral of Saint Mary of the Flower. Other worthies who share their burial place with the English sell-sword include two Popes and Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi – who designed and built the dome of the Cathedral.

Posted in top stories | 1 comment
« Previous story
Next story »


* To comment without a Facebook account, please scroll to the bottom.


Brilliant article, I've been reading about Hawkwood on Wikipedia but their article on this battle is very poor. The map illustrations provide clarity. One thing, at point 10 in the battle, should it not saytthat it was the Veronese cavalry that retreated?

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Have a tip for us? A link that should appear here? Contact us.
News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.