The Hussite Wars - Part 2

That the emperor, with the whole force of the empire and the Church behind him might be worsted had not yet entered into anyone’s mind. It was rapidly becoming apparent, however, that the Hussites were not the contemptible opponents Sigismund had taken them to be. He, therefore, deemed it prudent to come to terms with the Turks so that he could devote his full attention to the problems within the empire, allowing him the liberty to deal with Ziska.

Assembling an army of 100,000 men, the emperor laid siege to Prague. His command included five electors, two dukes, two landgraves, and more than fifty German princes. Undaunted, the men of Prague, under Ziska, attacked and drove them from before their walls. The imperialists avenged themselves by the atrocities they committed in their retreat.

The emperor made a second attempt that same year, only to have it end in the same humiliating disgrace. Again, outrages marked the steps of the retreating invaders. These repeated successes not only elevated Ziska, but also had the effect of raising the expectations and courage of his followers.

It was at this point that the armies of Ziska were increased from another source. A report began to spread throughout Bohemia that a great earthquake was imminent and that all but five Bohemian towns were to be swallowed up. As the story gained credence, many of the people began to desert the towns and villages. Deeming the opportunity of victory under such a leader as Ziska better than an obscure and inglorious entombment, they crowded into the camp.

Sigismund now attempted to negotiate a peace, promising to recognize the liberties of the Bohemian people and redress all their just wrongs, provided they would accept him as their king, and threatening them with war if they refused. The emperor’s promises and threats alike were met with contempt. They replied by reminding Sigismund that he had broken his word in the matter of the safe-conduct; that he was chargeable in the death Huss; and that in bringing in mercenaries, he had assumed the attitude of an enemy of Bohemia.

The war now resumed its course. In the conflict that followed, a little nation was seen contending single handed against the armies of Europe and the empire. Such a conflict the Bohemian people could never have sustained but for their faith in God, Whose aid they believed would support their righteous cause. As one surveys the history of the conflict, it cannot be doubted that this help was indeed conferred upon them. Every day brought Ziska new victories as he outmaneuvered the armies of the emperor, overwhelming them with surprises and baffling them by new and masterly tactics.

The cause for which they fought had its affect on the camp of the Hussites. Often in their marches they were preceded by their pastors, reminiscent of the march of Jehoshaphat against the combined forces of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir when the priests led the army with singing. Before joining battle, the Sacrament was administered to the soldiers; and having partaken, they went into battle singing hymns. In the rear of the army, the women followed, tending the sick and wounded, and in cases of necessity, worked on the ramparts.

The Hussites present the first instance in history of a people voluntarily associating in a holy bond to maintain the right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. “Having reluctantly unsheathed the sword, the Hussites used it to such good purpose that their enemies long remembered the lesson that had been taught them. Their struggle paved the way for the quiet entrance of the Reformation on the stage of the sixteenth century. Had not the Hussites fought and bled, the men of that era would have had a harder struggle before they could have launched their great movement. Charles V long stood with his hand upon his sword before he found courage to draw it, remembering the terrible recoil of the Hussite war on those who had commenced it.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 3, chapter 14

Ziska, the greatest general that ever lived, had been deprived of the sight in one of his eyes by an accident in boyhood. During the course of the war, at the siege of Raby, he lost the other and was now entirely blind. In spite of this apparent setback, he demonstrated a marvelous genius for arranging an army and directing its movements. When an action was about to take place, he would call a few officers around him and have them describe the nature of the ground and the position of the enemy. His arrangement was instantly made as, if by intuition, he saw the course the battle must run and the successive maneuvers by which victory was to be gained. His inner eye surveyed the whole field and watched every movement.

Hussite Wagons

One contributing factor to his brilliant successes was his manner of arranging his defense. The wooden wagons were linked to one another by strong iron chains, and, ranged in line, were placed in front of the army. This fortification, ranged in the form of a circle, at times enclosed the whole army. Behind this first rampart rose a second wall formed by the long wooden shields of the soldiers, stuck in the ground. The movable walls were formidable obstructions to the German cavalry. Mounted on heavy horses and armed with pikes and battle-axes, they had to force their way through this double fortification before they could close with the Bohemians. All the while they were hewing their way through the wagons, the Bohemian archers were plying them with their arrows. The shooters aimed first of all at the horses depriving the cavalry of its main advantage.  When the enemy was a thinned and exhausted force, the Bohemians rushed from behind the wagons battling fiercely. As the enemy began his retreat, the knights in their heavy armor, deprived of their horses, were unable to move and were left behind. This in part accounts for the heavy loss among the knights.

German Knight

Even when engaged in battle, they found themselves at a disadvantage. The Bohemians were armed with long iron flails which they swung with great force and accuracy, allowing them to crash through the brazen helmet of their opponents. Moreover, they carried long spears which had hooks attached with which they speedily brought the German horsemen to the ground and dispatched them. In addition to numerous skirmishes and many sieges, Ziska fought sixteen pitched battles, all from which he returned a conqueror.

It was not on the field of battle that Ziska was to fall, but by the plague. While occupied in the siege of Prysbislav, he was suddenly attacked by the plague; and on October 11, 1424, he breathed his last. The grief of his soldiers was great, and for the moment they despaired of their cause. No king was ever more lamented by his subjects. Ziska had contended for the faith which was now held by the majority of his countrymen; and by his hand, God had used the little nation of Bohemia to humble the haughtiness of the power that sought to trample their convictions and consciences into the dust.

As he was dying, Ziska named Procopius as his successor. The result of his choice confirms the fact that his knowledge of men was not in any way inferior to his skill on the field if battle. Though less famous than his predecessor, Procopius was in many ways greater.

Procopius was the son of a nobleman. In addition to a good education, he had widely traveled in many foreign countries. Though his spirit was somewhat less fiery than that of Ziska, his devotion was no less. In addition to being a soldier and general, Procopius had that which Ziska did not; he was also a statesman.

The enemies of Ziska, knowing he was dead, failed to appreciate that his place had been filled by one who was even greater. Failing to reflect that their cause was still burdened with the blood of Huss and Jerome, they confidently made plans to resume the war. “The terrible blind warrior, before whom they had so often fled, they would never again encounter in battle; but that righteous Power that had made Ziska its instrument in chastising the treachery which had torn in pieces the safe-conduct of Huss, and then burned his body at the stake, they should assuredly meet on every battlefield on Bohemian soil on which they should draw sword.” Ibid., chapter 16. Of this, however, they were as yet unaware.

The emperor, who was growing weary of continual defeat, was in no great hurry to resume the campaign, so the next summons came from Rome. The pope wrote to the princes of Germany, as well as the King of Poland, exhorting them to unite their forces with Sigismund and deal the deathblow to the Bohemian heretics, who it was declared were more of a threat to Christendom than the Turk himself.

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