The Hussite Wars - Part One

The martyrdom of John Huss sent a thrill of indignation through Bohemia. His death moved the hearts of his countrymen more powerfully than his living words had ever been able to do. In the hearts and minds of the nation, Huss had stood against tyranny and corruption and in short, had become the representative man from Bohemia. His humility and insult of his cruel and treacherous death was viewed as having been committed against the nation. All ranks of society, from the highest to the lowest, were moved by what had been done to him.

The barons of Bohemia united in sending a formal protest to Constance against the crime that had been perpetrated there. A deeper feeling than anger, however, moved the Bohemian people as a whole. They compared the faith and character of the man whom Rome had so recently burned, with that of those who had sat in judgment on him, and the contrast in no wise favored the latter. The doctrines and writings of Huss which had escaped the flames were now read and compared to such portions of the Scripture as were available to the people. As a result, there was a general acceptance of the evangelical doctrines.

At this time, Wenceslaus sat on the throne of Bohemia. Wenceslaus was a tyrant and sensual in nature. He had already been dethroned once by his nobles and again by his brother, Sigismund, King of Hungary. Now, though he was somewhat broken in spirit and his deportment modified, his character remained unchanged. His violence having been curbed, he had closed himself within his palace, giving himself over to sensual indulgence. The faith of his subjects was, to him, a matter of supreme indifference about which he gave but little consideration, though his dislike of the priests led him to secretly rejoice at the spread of Hussism.

Within four years, the majority of the nation had accepted the faith for which Huss had died. Not a few of the followers of the new faith were to be found among the wealthy and higher class, who were joined by a great majority of the peasantry and lower class. The Church of Rome had signalized the subjugation of the Bohemian church by forbidding the cup and permitting prayers only in Latin. Now, the Bohemian church threw off these marks of Roman vassalage by practicing both kinds of Communion and the celebration of worship in their national language. Hussite Shield

Soon a slight divergence of sentiment became apparent in the Hussite worship. One party entirely rejected the authority of the Church of Rome, making the Scripture their only standard of faith. These took on the name of Taborites. The other party, though they had in heart abandoned the Church of Rome, remained nominally in its communion. This latter group held to the use of the cup, or chalice in Communion, thereby taking the name Calixtines. The cup became the national Protestant symbol and was later emblazoned on their standards. Though the division between the two groups of Hussites continued to increase, for four years they remained joined in their prayers and arms, presenting a united front against their enemies.

While the citizens of Bohemia were thoroughly aroused, they were without a leader. It was during this crisis that a remarkable man arose to organize and lead their armies. John Trocznowski, better known as Ziska, had distinguished himself in the wars of Poland and returning to his native country, had become chief chamberlain to King Wenceslaus. The shock of the martyrdom of Huss had the effect on him of changing him from a gay courtier to a thoughtful man. One day, the monarch surprised him in a thoughtful mood. “ ‘What is this?’ said Wenceslaus, somewhat astonished to see one with a sad countenance in his palace. ‘I cannot brook the insult offered to Bohemia at Constance by the murder of John Huss,’ replied the chamberlain. ‘What is the use,’ said the king, ‘of vexing one’s self about it. Neither you nor I have the means of avenging it. ‘But,’ continued the king, thinking doubtless that Ziska’s fit would soon pass off, ‘if you are able to call the emperor and Council to account, you have my permission.’ ‘Very good, my gracious master,’ rejoined Ziska, ‘will you be pleased to give me your permission in writing?’ Wenceslaus, who liked a joke, and deeming that such a document would be perfectly harmless in the hands of one who had neither friends, nor money, nor soldiers, gave Ziska what he asked under the royal seal.’ ” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 3, chapter 13

Ziska who had no thought of jest in requesting the authorization, watched for his opportunity and it soon came. The pope fulminated his bull of a crusade against the Hussites, creating great excitement in Bohemia, and especially in Prague. The burghers assembled to consider measures to be adopted for avenging the nation’s insulted honor, and defending its threatened independence. As they met, Ziska, armed with the royal authorization, suddenly appeared in their midst. The citizens, emboldened by one who stood so highly with the king, placing his life on the line, incorrectly assumed that they had the support of their monarch, little realizing that the liberty they were being accorded was merely the result of his cowardice. The factions became more embittered every day and in the tumult that broke out, a massacre followed that led to several of the senators being killed by the insurgents. The king, upon hearing the news, whether from fear or outrage was never determined, had a fit of apoplexy and died a few days later.

With Wenceslaus dead, the queen actively sided with the Catholics and strife broke out on all sides. For a whole week the fighting continued, resulting in considerable bloodshed and the pillaging of the convents The Emperor Sigismund, brother of the deceased Wenceslaus, began a march toward Prague with the determined purpose of quelling the insurrection and claiming the crown. The Bohemians, however, united in their resolve that the crown would perish, rather than be placed on the head of the man who had incurred the eternal disgrace of burning Huss, to whom he had given his word in a solemn pledge of safety. The party to strike the first blow was Sigismund. In so doing, he began a campaign which was to last for eighteen years.

Celebrating the Eucharist

The Hussites had agreed to meet on Michaelmas Day, 1419, on a plain not far from Prague to celebrate the Eucharist. On the day appointed, 40,000 from all the surrounding towns and villages assembled and partook of the Communion. It was a very simple affair; and when it was concluded, they took up a collection to give to the man on whose ground they had met. Before parting, they agreed to a second meeting to take place before Martinmas.

The matter became known, and it was determined that the second meeting would not be allowed to pass so quietly. A body of the emperor’s troops were sent to lie in ambush. The knowledge of this was given to the approaching Hussites. Being armed only with walking staves, they sent messengers to the towns behind them, begging assistance. A small body of soldiers was dispatched to their aid; and in the conflict which followed, the imperial cavalry, though a superior force, was put to flight.

The die had been cast; and the Bohemians were involved in a conflict, the scope of which they but little dreamed. The Turks, with no thought of intentionally aiding them, struck the empire from the opposite side, thus dividing the emperor’s forces. Ziska, recognizing this Providential occurrence, hurriedly rallied the whole of Bohemia before the emperor could ease the situation with the Moslems and before the bands of Germany, summoned by the pope, should arrive. He at once issued a manifesto in which he invoked both the religion and the patriotism of his country men. In it he said, “Remember your first encounter, when you were few against many, unarmed against well-armed men. The hand of God has not been shortened. Have courage, and be ready. May God strengthen you!” Ibid., chapter 14. The appeal put forth by Ziska was responded to with a burst of enthusiasm. From all parts of the country, the people rallied to the standard. Unfortunately, these hastily assembled masses were but poorly disciplined, and still more poorly armed. This shortage was, however, supplied in a way that they but little dreamed of.

Outrage at Prague

They had but scarcely begun their march toward the capital when they encountered a body of imperial cavalry. They quickly routed, captured, and disarmed them, thus gaining the weapons they so desperately needed. The now armed host, flushed with victory and with Ziska at their head, entered Prague in high spirits. Now, the glory and success that had so far attended their cause was marred. The monks had made themselves especially obnoxious in their opposition to Huss; and in the violence that followed, many Roman Catholics lost their lives. In a brief time, more than 500 churches and monasteries had been sacked; and their treasure, which was immense, consisting of gold, silver, and precious stones, was in the hands of the Bohemians. These treasures were to go a long way in financing the expense of the war that was now underway.




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