By Erin Naillon
When Jan Hus was burned at the stake in 1415, his many followers promptly took up his cause. The Hussites, as they called themselves, fought a series of wars through the rest of the 15th century and into the 16th.
When news came to Bohemia that Hus – who had been guaranteed safe passage by Emperor Sigismund, brother of the King of Bohemia – the nobles who supported him sent a letter of protest to the Council of Constance. Sigismund responded with threats, claiming that he would “drown” all followers of Hus and his English influence, John Wycliffe. Bohemia promptly exploded in violence; Catholic priests were forced out of their parishes in many areas.
The King Interferes
King Wenceslas IV, prompted by Sigismund, made an attempt to quell the popular movement, to no avail. Meetings were held throughout the country; the people readied for war. On July 30, 1419, a little more than four years after Jan’s execution, a Hussite march took place in Prague. Priest Jan Želivský led the group, ending the march at the New Town Hall, where rocks where thrown at the marchers from the windows.
The First Defenestration of Prague
Jan Žižka, hero of the Hussite Wars, stormed the building with several supporters and threw the burgomaster and many of the town councilors from the windows. They landed on spears held aloft by the marchers; this event would later be known as the First Defenestration of Prague. Legend has it that King Wenceslas died of shock after hearing the news. Given the fact that his death occurred a few weeks after the defenestration (August 16, 1419), it’s very possible that he died of a different cause. Nonetheless, the Emperor’s brother was no longer in charge.
The Violence Spreads
Now, fighting broke out everywhere. Many Catholics were forced out of the country. The Queen, now heading the country after the death of Wenceslas, hurriedly created her own fighting forces. In November of 1419, the Hussites clashed with the makeshift army, created massive destruction in Prague. On November 13, a truce was agreed. The Hussites held the castle of Vyšehrad, which they agreed to hand over in exchange for the nobility’s promise to mediate between them and Emperor Sigismund.
Žižka promptly left Prague and traveled to Pilsen, then to Southern Bohemia, where he fought Catholic forces at the Battle of Sudoměř on March 25, 1420. He then founded the fortified town of Tábor, where he soon collected a large group of followers.
Battle for the Throne
Wenceslas IV had no children, which left the future of the Bohemian crown in question. Sigismund, as brother of Wenceslas and son of the late Charles IV, had a claim to the throne. He received assistance from Pope Martin V, who issued a bull on March 17, 1420, approving a crusade to destroy Wycliffites, Hussites, and other heretics.
Sigismund’s crusade attracted mercenaries from all corners of Europe, many of whom simply wanted to loot the city of Prague. Vyšehrad and Prague Castle were taken by his forces. The Hussites presented their demands, known as the Four Articles of Prague. These articles, in essence, demanded that all church officials be held accountable for any abuses of the church, and that Christianity be practiced according to the teachings of Christ. Sigismund rejected these demands immediately.
Most of the city was now no longer under the dominion of Sigismund’s army; the Hussites retook Vyšehrad and Prague Castle.
The Second Crusade
In 1421, a Germany army besieged the town of Žatec, only to retreat hastily when rumor spread that the Hussites were approaching. Sigismund captured the silver-mining town of Kutná Hora in 1421, but was defeated by Žižka at the Battle of Německý Brod on January 6 of 1422.
The Hussites were far from being a unified group. They were divided, at first, into two factions, then split again. Žižka was often troubled by power struggles at Tábor, and Jan Želivský, who was so influential in the First Defenestration, was executed by decapitation by the Prague town council in 1422. Now, rather than fighting the Catholics, the Hussites were fighting each other. The Utraquists and the Taborites fought the Battle of Hořice on April 27, 1423. The Taborites were the victors, under the leadership of Žižka.
The Third Crusade
The Pope decreed a third crusade that was a miserable failure. Quite simply, it was a war to which nobody came. The Hussites were free to attack each other again. In 1424, Žižka died; in 1426 and 1427, the Hussites succeeded in routing German forces at Ústí nad Labem and Tachov, respectively. Hussite forces now went on “beautiful rides” (spanilé jízdy) throughout Europe, attacking countries that had provided troops for the Germany army. Prokop the Great, who took over the Taborites after the death of Žižka, led these foreign excursions. The rides, however, did not stop the invaded countries from supplying soldiers for more crusades.
The Hussites were nearly unstoppable by now, marching as far as the Baltic Sea. However, many of them, especially the Utraquists, favored peace over war. Feelers were extended towards the Church to negotiate a peace treaty, but the Church decided first to launch yet another crusade against the Hussites. On August 1, 1431, troops entered Bohemia once more. One week later, at the town of Domažlice, a large Hussite army met the Church forces and drove them from the country. It is said that the Pope’s army made a run for it upon sighting the Hussite forces.
Finally on July 5, 1436, almost exactly twenty-one years after the death of Jan Hus, a peace treaty was signed. Hussite representatives, papal representatives, and Sigismund all signed it. The Hussites finally gained acceptance of their demands (somewhat moderated from the Four Articles of Prague).
The Hussite Church
The Utraquist faction of the Hussites became the dominant religion in Bohemia until the famous Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. When non-Catholic services were outlawed following the battle, adherents had a choice: Practice in secret, or leave the country. The Unity of the Brethren, a Hussite group, went underground, only surfacing in Bohemia in 1918. It then merged with the Calvinists and became the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren.