I'm delighted to welcome back Evan Ostryzniuk, whose second novel in the English Free Company series set in the medieval ages, OF FATHER AND SONS: Geoffrey Hotspur and the Este Inheritance, is published this month. In this latest installment, Geoffrey and his companions travel to Italy and the land of the d'Este family, where the death of the marquis of Ferrara has left his eleven-year-old son as sole direct heir. Led by the skilled but reckless Geoffrey Hotspur, an orphan-squire and ward of the mighty Duke of Lancaster, the Company finds itself mired in the dangerous struggle between the Este heir and his rivals, confronting Geoffrey and Niccolo with the same question of, when does the boy become the man?
Please join me in welcoming Evan Ostryzniuk!
The Este Inheritance and the War for Ferrara
The conflict that lies at the heart of my novel Of Fathers and Sons: Geoffrey Hotspur and the Este Inheritance was the civil war in the Marquisate of Ferrara fought during 1394-95 between two branches of the Este family. Internecine wars were common in the Middle Ages, but the struggle for the small but strategic territory in northeastern Italy was especially important for reasons ranging from the geopolitical to the cultural.
By 1394, a very fragile balance of power was keeping the peace in northern Italy, but tensions among the great and lesser city-states were running high. The absence of central authority combined with rapidly growing wealth and a sophisticated military culture had resulted in regular conflict between city-states. Meanwhile, the smaller city-state played the alliance game in order to survive, and few were more adept at this than the Este clan of Ferrara. The Este lords of Ferrara had been clever enough to remain friendly with its neighbors and the great powers for most of the 14th century, but this success also relied on an unbroken line of experienced marquises and stability within the clan. Twice the condominium amongst the branches of the family broke down during the century, which nearly cost the entire family its inheritance! However, as clever as the Este were, they did not always learn the lessons of their own history.
When the Marquis of Ferrara and head of the Este clan Alberto died in 1393, he left as his sole heir his son Niccolo, who was not only just ten-years-old, but also of illegitimate birth. Sure, the Roman pope okayed the whole deal in exchange for a few florins, but it was still a chink in the armor of the senior Este clan. However, knowing that the great powers might exploit the power vacuum in Ferrara and plunge the region into war, Niccolo’s regency council arranged for Florence, Venice, Padua, and Bologna to guarantee the right of Niccolo to rule.
However, while the regency council was taking care of external threats, they ignored internal ones. Some of the strengths of the late Alberto were his ability to centralize power, gather intelligence, exploit economic opportunities, and create an effective clientele, but this constantly shifting dynamic produced winners and losers. The losers included the city of Modena, which had been recently taken over by the Este, and several old and powerful vassal families in Ferrara, who resented the nouveau riche type that had grown rich under Alberto.
The straw that broke the camel’s back in fuming Ferrara was one of the aspects of the senior Este rule that made it unique. For several years the Este had been experimenting with feudal client relations, meaning that they wanted to get the most out of their vassals. Traditionally, vassalage, or the feudal system, was an exchange of obligations – a vassal pledged to serve the lord loyally in exchange for land. The ritual by which this was done was called ‘investiture’, whereby the vassal would kneel before the lord and vow to serve him faithfully. The catch for the lord was that he had to give away some of his wealth. During the course of their long rule the Este had created many categories of vassals, from city shop-keepers to wealthy barons. By the time of Alberto’s death, the senior Este branch had to manage over 700 of them! So, in order to accelerate the consolidation of power with Niccolo, the regency council, as instructed by Alberto in his will, decided that all Este vassals must undergo investiture at once. Usually, investiture was reserved for new vassals, heirs who had come of age, and rebels who wanted to return to the fold. For long-standing loyal vassals to be essentially stripped of their feudal contract and be obliged to kneel before a mere boy was considered to be an outrageous innovation.
The young Niccolo’s challenger for the Este Inheritance was his uncle Azzo, an old condottiere. His decision to seize the marquisate was not born out of simple greed. As played out in my novel, Azzo had a myriad of issues to contend with, ranging from the political to the personal. In addition, he had to create and effective fighting force out of the disparate elements of disgruntled vassals, small-time opportunists, and the hired companies that formed the core of any late medieval Italian army.
Niccolo’s situation was no less complex. As titular ruler, he should stand at the head of his army and defend his right to rule. As a minor, he was not prepared to take on this role and so was dependent on a regency council that may or may not have his interests at heart. He needed to defeat his uncle, yet preserve family unity. He needed to show that he was not a puppet in the hands of a deceitful cabal, but someone capable of ensuring the fidelity of his subjects. In short, he needed to demonstrate his prowess as the legitimate, strong and determined ruler, despite his age and lack of experience. How the boy went about achieving this lies at the heart of my novel.
Thank you, Evan. Best of success with the new book! To learn more about Evan Ostryzniuk and his work, please visit his website.