The Enemy Put To Flight

Aside from biblical history, when Israel was a theocracy and its armies went forth at the direction of their Great Leader, scarcely has the hand of Providence been more markedly demonstrated, as intervening in the affairs of history, than during the Hussite wars of the early fifteenth century.

Soon his ascension to the papal throne in 1417, Martin V issued a bull which demanded the unconditional surrender of Hussitism and warned that in the event of resistance, he would respond by organizing a crusade.

The crusades that followed proved to be disastrous to the papal cause. Battle after battle, the Hussite armies were overall victorious, eventually resulting in their invasion of the European countries that sought their destruction.

crusaders in full battle

By 1431, the Bohemian armies were the terror of all Europe. At this time, Eugenius IV had succeeded Martin V and in February of that year, through Cardinal Julian Cesarini, he declared a fifth crusade. Enticements to join and support the great cause were not lacking. Confessors were appointed to give absolution for even the most heinous of crimes that the crusaders might go into battle with a clear conscience. If they perished in the fight, they were promised an immediate entry into Paradise and if they survived, there was the assurance they would reap a rich reward in the plundered goods of the enemy.

In addition to the spiritual benefits of joining the crusade, and the promise of wealth to the victorious, there was the feeling of exasperation and burning humiliation that still smoldered in the breast of the Germans by the many evidences of the recent Hussite invasion that had ravaged fields and ruined cities. German valor had been severely damaged by defeat abroad and disaster at home. It is not surprising that many seized this opportunity to erase these stains of national disgrace. Soon there was an army of 130,000 men gathered at Nuremberg.

On August 1, 1431, the crusaders crossed the Bohemian border and began their advance through the great forests which covered the land on the Bavarian side. At the head of this vast army were a host of princes, both spiritual and temporal.

It is easy to imagine the thoughts that must have gone through the minds of the Hussites as day by day they received tidings regarding the size of the advancing host. This was not, however, the first time they had been faced with seemingly overwhelming odds, but they had seen an omnipotent Hand intervene in the past to scatter storm clouds such as now threatened them. And, as in the past, they were now prepared to stand united in the defense of their country and their faith, though they realized that any army they might hope to bring to the field would not amount to half the number of the one which was now was approaching. They could not but reflect, however, that victory did not always declare on the side of the greatest numbers, and lifting their prayers to heaven, they calmly awaited the approaching enemy.

Forming themselves into three columns, the invaders advanced towards the waiting Hussites. As they advanced, the Hussites under their leader Procopius, fell back, sowing reports as they retreated, that the Bohemians had quarreled among themselves and were fleeing. His design was to lure the enemy further into the country and then attack them from all sides.

On the morning of August 14, the retreating Bohemians suddenly reversed themselves and marched to meet the advancing papal army. Only then did the invading army become fully aware of the strategy which had been practiced upon them. The dreaded Hussite soldiers who were believed to be fleeing from them were in fact, advancing to offer battle.

Even before the Hussites came into view, the sounds of their approach could be heard. The rumble of their wagons and sound of their chanted war-hymn, chanted by the whole army as they bravely advanced to battle, could be distinctly heard.

Cardinal Cesarini, along with a companion, mounted a small hill from which they could have an unobstructed view of the coming battle. Below them was spread a vast army which they expected they would soon see engaged in a victorious fight. The many nationalities, each represented by their waving banners, along with the mail-clad knights, was indeed an imposing spectacle. 

The cardinal and his friend, however, had gazed only a few minutes when they were startled by a strange and sudden movement within the troops below them. As if struck by some invisible power, the apparently invincible force suddenly broke and began to scatter. The soldiers threw away their armor and fled in every direction. The wagoners, emptying their wagons, set off across the plain at full gallop.

Struck with dismay and astonishment, the cardinal rushed to the field, and soon learned the cause of the disaster unfolding before his eyes. The army had been seized with a mysterious and inexplicable panic that extended to the officers equally with the soldiers. In fact, the Duke of Bavaria was one of the first to flee, leaving behind him his carriage, in the hope that its spoil might tempt the enemy, delaying their pursuit. Close behind him was the Elector of Brandenburg, followed closely by others of somewhat less note, driven from the field by an unseen terror they could not understand. The army which had so recently been a marshaled and bannered host was now a fleeing rabble in complete route when no man pursued.

To be completely fair to him, the only man who retained his composure was the papal legate Cesarini. Amazed and mortified, yet indignant, he sought valiantly to stem the human tide that swept past. Placing himself in the path of the fleeing fugitives, he addressed them in the spirit of a soldier urging them to show courage in fighting for Christ and the salvation of their souls. Soon, realizing the ineffectiveness of this approach, he pointed out that as a matter of prudence and as a practical consideration, they had a better chance of saving their lives by standing and fighting than in running away, as they were almost certain to be overtaken by the Bohemian cavalry. Moreover, they would most certainly have to face the peasantry, whose anger they had incurred by the pillage and slaughter they wrecked upon them during their advance.

These words were successful in rallying some of the fleeing fugitives, but only briefly. They stood their ground only until the Bohemians were within a short distance and then that same nameless terror again gripped them and the stampede continued, eventually bearing away the cardinal with them.

The spoils which fell to the Bohemians were immense. Not only were there wagon loads of coin, intended for the payment of the troops, but there were large quantities of military hardware as well.

This was the second time that the same strange phenomenon of panic had gripped the Hussite’s enemies in the course of this war. The Germans, naturally brave, had proven their valor on a hundred fields. As they advanced on the small Hussite defenders, they were far superior in numbers. If panic was to be had, we should rather have looked to find it taking place among the little Hussite army, so vastly outnumbered, when they saw the horizon filled with the advancing enemy. But that the German should flee is inexplicable outside of the context of a Divine intervention.

Nor was the initial panic among the fleeing host all that befell them. There was among them the infusion of a preternatural terror, and so great was the disorientation with which the invaders were smitten that many of them, instead of continuing their flight to their own country, wandered back into Bohemia; while others of them, upon reaching their homes in Nuremberg, were unable to recognize their native city and began to beg for lodging as if they were among strangers.

“In the annals of human history the growth of nations, the rise and fall of empires, appear as dependent on the will and prowess of man. The shaping of events seems, to a great degree, to be determined by his power, ambition, or caprice. But in the word of God the curtain is drawn aside, and we behold, behind, above, and through all the play and counterplay of human interests and power and passions, the agencies of the all-merciful One, silently, patiently working out the counsels of His own will.” Education, 173

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