The Hussite Wars - Part Three

At the first evidence of the approaching storm, the Hussites drew together. The army now advancing against them numbered not less than 70,000 men, though some historians place the figure closer to 100,000. On Saturday, June 15, 1426, they entered Bohemia in three columns. As they approached the Hussite camp the following morning, the Hussites proposed to the invaders that quarter be given by both sides. The Germans who had no expectations of needing the favor of such an arrangement, refused, replying that as the Hussites were under the curse of the pope, to spare them would violate their duty to the church. “Let it be so then,” Procopius replied, “and let no quarter be given on either side.”

Hussite Battle Formation

The afternoon of June 16, the battle began. The Bohemians were entrenched behind 500 wagons. Fastened together with chains, they presented a formidable barrier. Attacking with great vigor, the Germans were able to breach the outer perimeter of defense. The second, less formidable one, comprised of the wooden shields, they also broke through, though at the cost of a tremendous expenditure of energy. The Bohemians, in the meantime, were resting, only occasionally discharging a shot from their swivel guns at the struggling enemy. Now that they were face to face with the enemy, they raised their war cry. Swinging their flails and putting their hooks to good use in pulling the Germans from their horses, they inflicted a fearful slaughter on the invaders. The battle continued until late into the afternoon; and though the German knights fought with valor, their bravery was in vain. The Bohemian ranks were almost untouched, while the Germans lay in heaps around them. The battle ended with a total rout of the invaders.

In the confusion, many of the invaders fled to the woods and mountains for refuge, only to be overtaken by the pursuing Hussites. When overtaken, the fugitives begged quarter, but as they themselves had decided the issue beforehand, none was given. Of the Hussites, only thirty men had fallen.

Scarcely had this danger passed when another, even more terrible storm was seen approaching. Though the German princes might lack enthusiasm for such an expedition, the English were making a good showing for themselves in France; and it occurred to Pope Martin that perhaps they might be willing to add to their fame while rendering a service to the Church.

The call to arms met with very limited success among the British; for while the cause might be a worthy one, none doubted that it would also be a bloody one. In Belgium, however, the summons met with a more favorable reception. Contemporary writers place the number that assembled in response to the call at 90,000. Though the number may not be accurate, there is little doubt that the army that composed this fourth crusade far outnumbered any before it.

Led by three electors of the Empire and headed by the legate-a-latre of the pope, the mighty army swept toward Bohemia, little doubting that they would soon avenge earlier defeats. Meanwhile, inside Bohemia, many Roman Catholics who had until this time opposed their fellow countrymen in the war effort now joined the standard of Procopius.

The invaders stopped before the town of Meiss, which they intended to besiege. The advancing Bohemians were now within sight of them, the two armies separated only by a river. Though they were greatly superior in numbers, the invaders did not immediately advance to meet the Bohemians but silently gazed at them in silence. It was only for a few moments, however, that the invaders contemplated the Hussite ranks. Suddenly, a panic fell upon them and they turned, fleeing in utmost confusion.

Plunging into the river, the Hussites hung upon the rear of the fleeing fugitives, inflicting a terrible price. The slaughter was only increased by the peasantry who arose to avenge themselves of the ravages committed by the invaders as they had advanced. The booty that was taken was so great that it enriched nearly every individual in Bohemia.

Though their doctrines might be false, there was certainly nothing wrong with the Hussite’s swords; and look where he might, the pope could now find none who relished a confrontation with the Hussites. Sigismund was not, however, ready to concede the Bohemian crown, though he despaired of gaining it by force of arms. He now resolved to try with diplomacy what he could not achieve on the field of battle. Though the majority of the Bohemians were against any diplomatic overtures, Procopius was unwilling to forego the hopes of peace if, in fact, an honorable peace could be obtained. With this thought in mind, he called an assembly of the Bohemian Diet at Prague in 1429 and obtained their permission to present the terms of the Bohemian people before the emperor in person.

The terms, which the Bohemian people presented before the emperor, were four articles which they had agreed among themselves were to be the basis of any future negotiation. They demanded the right to have the gospel freely preached, communion in both kinds (the bread and the wine), a satisfactory arrangement of the ecclesiastical property, and the execution of laws against all crimes, regardless who they were committed by. Though there was little likelihood that the bigoted Sigismund would accept such prerequisites to further discussion, Procopius was unwilling that any stone should remain unturned in the pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the war that tore his nation.

The outcome was as might be expected. Procopius returned to Prague without a favorable outcome but with the satisfaction of knowing that he had held out the olive branch. He could now rest in the knowledge that if they must resort to the sword, the responsibility for the blood that would flow lay at the door of those who had spurned the overtures of a just and reasonable peace.

The Hussites now assumed the offensive as being the wisest alternative left to them. Their overtures of peace having been rejected, they were left with the choice of defending themselves in their homeland, or carrying the offensive to the home of their enemies, allowing them, on their own soil, to experience the miseries they had so freely subjected the Bohemians to. Without either commending or condemning them, we must recognize that the Bohemians had not chosen war. Recognizing, however, that their faith made them the objects of the continual schemes of their enemies who surrounded them, they believed that they had but two choices. They might continue to suffer and endure the ravages of war, or inflict them upon those who were plotting their destruction.

In 1429, Procopius entered Germany at the head of an army of 80,000 warriors. During that summer, and the following year, he marched across western Germany converting more than a hundred towns and castles to ashes. From those he spared he exacted an exorbitant ransom. On the homeward trip, 300 wagons groaned under the weight of the immense booty that he had extracted.

The result of the campaign was a cause for trembling throughout all of Europe as the Hussites made their arms the terror of all Europe. Together, the pope and the emperor convened a diet at Nuremberg, at which they might determine how to close the door, which they themselves had opened, to the evil which now threatened to devastate Christendom.

A fifth crusade was decided upon. Most extraordinary rewards were offered to all who would participate. Confessors were appointed to give absolution for such heinous crimes as the burning of churches and the murdering of priests to those who would participate in the punishment of the Hussites. Regardless of the outcome, the crusader had little to worry about. If he fell on the field of battle, he was assured immediate entrance to Paradise; if he survived, there awaited him paradise on earth in the booty he would most certainly reap. Nor was other motivation lacking. Not only had German valor been badly tarnished by the recent depredations of the Hussite armies, but also the scars of their recent invasion were still everywhere evident. Eventually, an army of 130,000 was gathered at Nuremberg; and on August 1, 1431, they crossed the Bohemian frontier.

It takes little imagination to contemplate what thoughts must have filled the minds of the Bohemians as they watched the advancing foe, realizing that the army which they might field against such a formidable host would amount to less than half the number of the approaching enemy. In considering the matter, however, they had but to reflect that victory did not always declare on the side of the largest numbers. Lifting their eye heavenward, they awaited their approach.

As they advanced, the invading army formed into three columns. In the face of their advance, Procopius fell back, sowing reports as he went that the Bohemians had quarreled among themselves and were fleeing. Further and further he lured the enemy into the country. Finally, on the morning of August 14, the Bohemians began to advance.

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