John Huss - Part Two

Sigismund

Sigismund, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, was born in 1368. Through marriage to Mary, Queen of Hungary, in 1387, he became king of Hungary two years later. In 1396 he led an army of Crusaders against the Turks and received a crushing defeat. Upon the death of Holy Roman Emperor Rupert in 1410, Sigismund was elected to succeed him. Wherever he looked, the situation in Europe was most distressing. There were three popes, each of whose personal life was the scandal of Christianity, who yet claimed to be the supreme pastor and chief teacher of the Church. The most sacred things were bought and sold. Everywhere was strife. Many of the major nations of Europe were convulsed with internal problems; and to complete the confusion, the Moslem hordes, encouraged by these dissensions, were threatening to break through and subject all Christianity to Mohammed.

The spectacle of Christianity, disgraced and fractured by three popes while the Church was being corrupted by heretics, greatly concerned Sigismund. In considering how to deal with the situation, he hit upon the expedient of calling a General Council. He determined to assemble the whole Church, with all its patriarchs, cardinals, bishops, and princes, and to summon before this august body the three rival popes. He believed that a council of this nature would have sufficient authority, especially when supported by the imperial power, to force the rival popes to adjust their claims and at the same time silence heretics.

In 1414, Sigismund sought to persuade Pope John XXIII to convoke a council. Such a proposition was alarming beyond measure to him. Among his other crimes, John was accused of having cleared his way to the papal chair by the murder of his predecessor, Alexander V. He was in the position, however, of having but little choice. He was at war with Ladislaus, against whose armies he had not fared well and from whom he had been forced to flee to Bologna. Rather than offend the emperor, whose assistance he desperately needed, he determined to face the council. A General Council was finally agreed upon, to be convoked at Constance, November 1, 1414.

Pope John Entering Constance

Amid all of the many dignitaries to attend the Council were three who took precedence of all others: Sigismund, Pope John XXIII, and John Huss. The two anti-popes had been summoned to the Council, but they wisely chose to appear by representation, rather than in person.

Sigismund appeared, professing to support the claims of John XXIII, while secretly proposing to force him to renounce his claim. John, on the other hand, while pretending to be quite cordial in calling the Council, was secretly determined to dissolve it as quickly as possible should he find it unfriendly to himself. He left Bologna with a substantial store of jewels and money, hoping to be able to use them to corrupt those he could not dazzle with their splendor. All along the way he took care to make arrangements to leave the way clear should he have to leave Constance in haste.

Soon after his arrival, Huss met with John XXIII, who added his safe conduct to that of the emperor. However, a short time later, in violation of these solemn promises, Huss was arrested on orders of the pope and cardinals and thrust into a loathsome dungeon.

The imprisonment of Huss excited great indignation in Bohemia. A number of the barons united in remonstrating with the emperor, reminding him of his safe conduct. Sigismund’s first impulse was to set the Reformer free, but Huss’ enemies were determined and malignant in their designs against him. Playing upon the emperor’s zeal for the Church, they brought forward arguments that sought to convince him that he had had no right to issue such a safe conduct in the circumstances without the consent of the counsel and that the greater good of the Church must overrule his promise. In the voice of the assembled Church, Sigismund believed that he heard the voice of God and allowed the enemies of Huss to have their will with him.

One of the first matters to be taken up by the Council was that of the trial of John XXIII. John, faced with the charges that were drawn up against him, promised to abdicate; but recovering, he was more determined than ever to maintain his cause and, in stealth, fled the city.

In contrast with the pomp with which he arrived in Constance, John left in the disguise of a peasant. His departure had been arranged beforehand with the Duke of Austria, a friend and staunch protector. The duke, on a given day, was to give a tournament. The spectacle was to take place late in the afternoon; and while the whole city was engrossed in the proceedings, oblivious to all else, the pope would make good his escape.

When the pope’s flight became known, the city was thrown into confusion. Everyone thought that the Council was at an end and the merchants shut their shops and packed up their wares, fearful of pillage from the lawless mob into whose hands they feared the city had been thrown. As soon as the initial excitement had somewhat abated, the emperor rode around the city, openly declaring that he would protect the Council and maintain order.

Sigismund hastily assembled the princes and deputies and indignantly declared that it was his purpose to bring the pope back, and if necessary, reduce the duke of Austria by force of arms in the process. When the pope leaned that a storm was gathering that threatened to follow him, he wrote in conciliatory terms to the emperor, excusing his hasty departure by saying that “he had gone to Schaffhausen to enjoy its sweeter air, that of Constance not agreeing with him; moreover, in this quiet retreat, and at liberty, he would be able to show the world how freely he acted in fulfilling his promise of renouncing the Pontificate.” Wiley, History of Protestantism, book 3, chapter 4

John, however, appeared to be in no haste to lay aside the tiara, and every few days he moved farther and farther away in his quest for still sweeter air. He had believed that his flight would be the signal for the Council to break up, and in this he hoped to block Sigismund’s plans and avoid the humiliation of deposition.

The emperor was determined not to be put off in his plans, and the Council proceeded. The charges against John were sustained and he was stripped of the pontificate. When the news arrived, John was as abject as he had before been arrogant. He acknowledged the justice of the sentence and asked only that his life might be spared—which no one at that time had thought to deprive him of.

The cases of the other two popes were more easily dispensed with; and by election of the cardinals, Otta de Colonna was unanimously elected to rule the church as Martin V.

Having condemned John for crimes far more grievous than the charges Huss had made and for which he was called to trial, the Council turned its attention to the Reformer.

Called before the Council, Huss naturally wished to reply to the charges, pointing out those which were false. He had uttered but a few words when there arose such a clamor as to completely drown out his voice. Huss stood motionless, viewing the excited assembly with pity rather than visible anger. As the tumult subsided, he again attempted to proceed with his defense. He had gone but a little ways when he had cause to appeal to the Scriptures, and immediately the storm was renewed with even greater violence.

Some Bohemian noblemen who had witnessed the scene informed Sigismund of what had transpired, urging him to be present at the next hearing.

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