Hussite Wars: Part Two

In the first part (published at www.prague.tips on January 06, 2015), we have left the Hussites in year 1420 when they have survived and then broken the first crusade against them.

Jan Žižka

Statue of Jan Žižka in Tábor, photo: archive of prague.tips

Statue of Jan Žižka in Tábor, photo: bkm / prague.tips

During 1419 and 1420, the military genius of Jan Žižka came into the spotlight. It was him who led several dozens of defenders of a small fort on Vítkov hill against hundreds of crusaders. Jan Žižka, military leader of the Tábor Hussites, perfected existing use of wagons as a means of transport as well as defence and made them tanks of 15th century. His army was characterised by good mobility and use of gunpowder-based weapons in great numbers. Žižka is one of the few military leaders who never lost a single battle. As the differences between the various Hussite groups grew, Žižka fought not only against the Catholics, but also against other Hussites.

Second crusade

While still united, the Hussites went on to occupy towns and estates in Bohemia (the wars took place mainly in Bohemia and reached to Moravia only occasionally). They destroyed all monasteries that fell to their hands – with only one exception, the Emmaus Monastery in Prague.

Another crusade was organised in 1421.  It went well for a while but by early 1422 it came to a defeat again. Shortly thereafter, fighting broke out between Prague and Žižka who had left Tábor for another Hussite group called orebiti (based in Eastern Bohemia). Thus, there was an inter-Hussite civil war within a greater civil war between the Hussites and the Catholics. Matters in the Hussite camp were really complicated – in 1421, Žižka (then still at Tábor) had to eliminate one radical sect which awaited the Apocalypse and its ideology as well as actions were extremist even to Tábor standards. Žižka treated the radicals with utter ruthlessness.

Death of Jan Žižka

In 1424, Prague and Žižka settled their disputes for a while and joined forces to launch a campaign heading to Moravia. However, Žižka died en route – at Přibyslav in October 1424. His followers called themselves “orphans” /sirotci/ afterwards.

Battle at Ústí and two more crusades

Shelter symbolizing the hat of Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini. He losted it during battle of Domažlice, photo: Karel Vovsík, CC BY 3.0

Shelter symbolizing the hat of Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini. He losted it during battle of Domažlice, photo: Karel Vovsík, CC BY 3.0

In 1426, Hussites had to fight united against a Catholic invasion led from Germany. At Ústí nad Labem, a large battle was fought and the Hussites were victorious again. The Catholic world organised third crusade in 1427 but it became an epic failure. When the main body of Hussite forces came near the crusaders at Tachov, the Catholics fled.

There was one more crusade against the Hussites – in 1431 and it only repeated the tale of the third one. The crusaders fled when the Hussites came within sight at Domažlice – allegedly, the Hussites had only to sing their song Ktož sú Boží bojovníci (“Who Are the God’s Fighters”) to rout their enemies.

In the years between, the Hussites from Tábor and the “orphans” undertook several raids into neighbouring countries to gain resources and spoils.

Negotiations with Sigismund

However, the Czech Catholics and moderate Hussites had enough of fighting and wanted to consolidate their gains from the previous years. Yes, even the Catholics had gains – many nobles of the Catholic side seized the opportunity and took church property. They started negotiations with Sigismund in Basel.

The negotiations led to several conclusions. The Emperor eventually agreed to tolerate the Hussites. That meant that Catholic Church lost its monopoly. On the other hand, the Czechs finally accepted Sigismund as their king.

Battle at Lipany

Battle of Lipany memorial, photo: Miaow Miaow, CC-PD

Battle of Lipany memorial in Lipany near Český Brod, photo: Miaow Miaow, CC-PD

There was one large obstacle, however. Joint army of the “orphans” and Tábor Hussites. The Catholics and moderate Hussites created a coalition army – which was using the same tactics as their opponents and it was likely that the campaign would be a long one. However, at Lipany village, in May 1434, the coalition successfully used a feint and lured the radical Hussites out of the protection of their wagons allowing a successful attack. The battle resulted in slaughter and destroyed the leadership and main force of the radical groups.

Aftermath

On one hand, Hussite Wars led to destruction of many pieces of art and severe loses of life. On the other hand, it enabled some modernisation processes. Innovations in warfare were evident. Moreover, the nobility and cities gained self-confidence and also responsibility as they had to rely on themselves in the absence of a king (between 1419 and 1458, there might have been 5 years when a king really ruled). In a critical moment, they were even able to elect one of them as the new king (JIří of Poděbrady in 1458).

Tolerance of Hussite faith was also a novelty – and preceded the European Reformation movement by one century.

Later reflection

Tábor, photo: archive of prague.tips

Žižka’s square in Tábor, photo: bkm / prague.tips

Quite often, the Hussite period has been interpreted as the greatest in the Czech history. Of course, it was the time when Czech warriors were feared throughout the Europe and were deemed almost invincible. Especially if you consider that those warriors were mostly peasants and they were repeatedly victorious over the knight which was almost unheard of during the whole Middle Ages – and also a serious breach of the order of things. In 19th and 20th century, when the relations between the Czechs and the Germans were strained at the very least, the anti-German aspect of the Hussite movement had also a strong appeal.

Names like Tábor or Jan Hus, Jan Žižka and other Hussite leaders became symbols. They were repeatedly used to name streets, squares or also for military units (for example, the Czechoslovak legionnaires named some of their regiments after Hussite leaders in World War I, in World War II a partisan brigade operating on the Moravian-Slovak border was named after Jan Žižka etc.).

Interestingly, the Czech national movement often identified itself with the radical groups of the Hussites – and saw the Lipany battle as a national disaster ignoring the fact that it was the last major battle of a civil war waged in the sake of ending it and restoring some order in a country exhausted by 15 years of never ending campaigns.

Nowadays, the Czech historian usually come with more sober interpretations. The main question is yet unanswered entirely – why did it happen? We still know little about the atmosphere by late 14th century when probably the conditions for such rapid spread of new ideas in the Czech Kingdom had their roots.

Author: Pavel Janecek

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