Hussite Wars: Part One

Today, I will tell you a little about one of the defining moments of the Czech history which we have already touched in some of the previous articles. Hussite Wars. The series of conflicts lasted 15 years – which was not too long by medieval standards if you remember that at the same time, the Hundred Years’ War was in progress in France. After those 15 years, the Czech society was never the same as before.

The causes of Hussite Wars

Burning of Jan Hus, photo: Public domain

Preparing the execution of Jan Hus, photo: PD

Deeper causes lay in the ideas reasoning in the Czech society by late 14th and early 15th century. Everything seemed uncertain then. It was the time of plague as well as severe setbacks of the Christian Europe in the face of the invading Ottoman Empire (Bulgaria and Serbia were conquered, Constantinople on the verge of fall). People were very sensitive to the issues of salvation. However, the Catholic Church which should have guided them was far from the ideal. With two or even three popes at once and many obviously corrupt dignitaries, it is no wonder that there was a strong movement to reform the church. In Prague, this movement was very strong.

Jan Hus

In 1415, a council was called to Constanza to solve the major issues. It was also to deal with a leading Prague reformist Jan Hus whose teachings were deemed heretic.[1] Hus, expecting a debate in which he wanted to defend his opinions was faced with a difficult options instead – either abandon his truth or die at the stake as a heretic. Huss stuck to his opinions and was burned in July 1415.

Huss’ horrible death (and death of his colleague Jerome of Prague /Jeroným Pražský/ in 1416) outraged the Czech elites who were at the time heavily influenced by teachings of the movement which soon adopted name of its first martyr – Hussite movement (or Hussites). Atmosphere in Bohemia and Moravia tensed with religious disputes which had also other dimensions – most importantly a national one: Czechs (mainly pro-Hussite) against Germans (who backed the Catholic cause).

The spark

Memorial plaque of Jan Želivský in Old Town Square, photo: bkm / prague.tips

Memorial plaque of Jan Želivský in Old Town Square, photo: bkm / prague.tips

King Wenceslas IV’s decisions did not help to ease the tension. On the contrary he only enraged both sides. The immediate cause was a conflict at the New Town of Prague, when the city council (newly appointed by the King) started to persecute the Hussites. In July 1419, a crowd gathered and led by eloquent and fiery preacher Jan Želivský threw the councilmen of the windows of the New Town City Hall and beat them to death.[2]

Months of chaos

The events of the following months were rather chaotic. King’s death made things only worse. Wenceslas IV died without a son. The heir to the throne was Wenceslas’ brother Sigismund, King of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor. Sigismund, however, was hated by the Hussites and they would not accept him as a king. Nobody knew who was who – is my neighbour a friend or foe? must have been common thought then.

After some time, the groups crystallised: the Catholics who wanted Sigismund to be crowned king. It was the clergy, of course, some of the nobility and several major towns and cities – especially those with German majority (such as Kutná Hora, with its silver mines the most economically important town). The Hussites who used a chalice as their symbol had the majority of lower nobility (but also some aristocrats as well) and Czech towns including Prague. However, despite common goals in the religious sphere the Hussites were not homogenous group. The dividing lines were quite often unclear and it was not unusual for some to change sides (between various Hussite groups or even across the Catholic-Hussite line). The most radical Hussites moved south and established their new centre – Tábor. They expected the second coming of Christ and the Apocalypse in a short time.

The first crusade

Vítkov Hill today with statue of Jan Žižka, photo: archive of prague.tips

Vítkov Hill today with statue of Jan Žižka, photo: bkm / prague.tips

Of course, some clashes did occur in that time, but it was more muscles flexing than serious campaigns since no group was ready for sustained fighting on a large scale then. However, the year 1420 changed this. Emperor Sigismund organised a crusade against the Hussites. The various Hussite groups (chiefly Prague and Tábor ones) forgot for a while their differences and went on to defend Prague. After breaking the crusaders’ assault at Vítkov Hill, the Hussites launched successful offensives against the Catholics.

To be continued…

 

[1] For John Huss, see The Life and Death of Jan Hus 

[2] For more, see The First Defenestration in Prague

Author: Pavel Janecek

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