Bohemia at War, Compromise and Betrayal

As he was dying, Ziska had named Procopius to be his successor. Though he is not as well known, Procopius was to prove himself an even greater leader than Ziska had been. The son of a nobleman, Procopius had an excellent education and was broadly traveled. Though his spirit was less fiery than that of Ziska, it was not due to a lack of devotion to the Hussite cause, but rather because it was better regulated. Ziska was a soldier and general; but in addition to these qualities, Procopius was a statesman as well.

The enemies of the Hussites, knowing that Ziska, their famous leader, was removed by death, deemed the moment opportune to strike another blow. They confidently expected an easy victory, failing to reflect that the blood of Huss and Jerome was weighing against them. They did not realize that it was not a blind warrior who had defeated them, but that he was merely the instrument of a righteous Power that they would encounter wherever they might raise the sword on Bohemian soil.

A new summons to arms was made. The emperor, having already suffered much for the cause and having no real delight in bitter defeat, was in no great hurry to take up the standard in another campaign. To encourage him, the pope wrote to the princes of Germany, exhorting them to unite in dealing a death blow to the Hussite cause and assuring them that the Hussite heretics were worse than the Turk himself and likewise, a greater threat to Christianity. The letter was soon followed by a bull ordaining a new crusade against the Hussites.

When the first mutterings of the distant storm reached Bohemia, it found the Hussites unhappily divided. There were the Taborites, who acknowledged Procopius as leader; and there were the Calixtines, commanded by Coribut, a candidate for the Bohemian crown. The sudden threat so rapidly approaching, however, had the effect of drawing them together for the common good. Forgetting their differences in the presence of the great danger that faced them, they stood side by side to meet the advancing foe.

The pontiff’s summons had been generally responded to, and the advancing army numbered not less than seventy thousand picked men, though some historians place the number as high as one hundred thousand. Entering Bohemia in three columns, they advanced toward the Hussite camp. Procopius sent a proposal to the invaders that quarter should be given by both sides. The Germans, not anticipating that they would need to avail themselves of this provision, refused to promise it, saying to the Hussites that they were under the curse of the pope and that to spare them would be to violate their duty to the church. “Let it be so, then,” Procopius replied, “and let no quarter be given on either side.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 193.

The Bohemians awaited the early morning attack; entrenched behind five hundred wagons fastened to one another by chains, which formed a somewhat formidable fortification. As the Germans stormed their first line of defense, hacking to pieces the wagons, the Bohemians were resting on their arms, discharging an occasional shot on the foe as they struggled to break through. Having once broken through the first line of defense, the Germans were faced with a weaker line of wooden shields stuck into the ground. They arrived within the second line of defense greatly wearied by the labor that their advance had cost them.

Now that they were face to face with the enemy, the Bohemians raised their war cry and, swinging their terrible flails, exacted a terrible price from their attackers. Rank after rank of the invaders pressed forward only to be felled in the terrible carnage. The battle raged till late in the afternoon. Though they fought with valor, the German knights’ labor was in vain. While the Germans were every moment falling before the rain of arrows that fell upon them and suffering greatly from the buffeting of the iron flails, the Bohemian ranks remained almost untouched. As the day wore to a close, the invaders fled the field in confusion, seeking refuge in the mountains and surrounding woods.

“The fugitives when overtaken implored quarter, but themselves had settled it, before going into battle, and accordingly, now quarter was given. Twenty-four counts and barons stuck their swords in the ground, and knelt before their captors, praying that their lives might be spared. But in vain. In one place three hundred slain knights are said to have been found laying together in a single heap.” Ibid. Of the Hussites, there fell only thirty men, while the loss to the invaders is estimated to have been as high as fifty thousand. The German nobility suffered greatly, nearly all of their leaders being left on the field.

The Bohemians, on the other hand, were greatly enriched by the booty that fell into their hands. This advantage was not, however, as important as the prestige that it gave them. From this day forward, the Hussite arms were looked upon as invincible.

The pope, undaunted, organized an even greater crusade the following year. Realizing that it would be in vain to look for a German prince to agree to such an undertaking, he sought the English for help. To his dismay, he found that the English held little enthusiasm for such an endeavor which, while it was no doubt holy, was also beyond doubt going to be very bloody. It was in Belgium that better fortune awaited him; and from all Western Europe, there was such a response, as Europe had not seen since the early crusades. Contemporary writers give the size of the newly formed army at ninety thousand, with an equal number of cavalry. Though this is but a guess at best, there is no doubt that there was a much larger response to this call to arms than for any crusade against the Hussites to that point.

Led by three electors of the empire, by many princes and counts, and headed by the legate-a-latere of the pope, the mighty host moved toward Bohemia and, as it was believed, toward a victory that would strike such a blow as would redeem all past defeats. Until this time, many of the Bohemian Catholics had opposed their Protestant countrymen; but faced with a common peril, they united forces and marched to meet the invaders. They drew within sight of each other with only a river between them. The crusaders, though in greatly superior numbers, instead of dashing across the stream to meet their foe, stood gazing in silence at them. In the face of the Hussites, whose features were hardened by constant exposure, they seemed to realize all of the terror that had been reported to them and suddenly, panic hit them. In utmost confusion they turned and fled. The legate, seeing his hopes and the result of his labors disappearing before his eyes, sought in vain to stop the human tide that was sweeping past him. The Hussites plunged into the river and were soon falling upon the fleeing enemy. The carnage was increased by the fury of the peasantry, who, having suffered the ravages of the advancing papal army, sought their revenge on the vanquished foe.

Still desiring the Bohemian crown but in utter despair of gaining it by force of arms, Emperor Sigismund resorted to diplomacy. Most of the Bohemians, feeling strongly the gulf which had been created by the violation of Huss’s safe conduct and greatly broadened by the bloodshed since, were adamantly opposed to any discussion of the matter; but Procopius was unwilling to forego the hope of peace if there was a possibility of bringing an end to the bloodshed. Though he was willing to die for liberty, he longed for anything resembling an honorable peace, if it could be obtained. In this hope, he assembled the Bohemian Diet at Prague in 1429, at which he obtained its consent to lay the terms of the Bohemian people before the emperor in person.

The terms of the Bohemian people were essentially the four points which they had held to when the war began—the free preaching of the gospel, Communion that included both the bread and wine, the ineligibility of the clergy to hold secular office and rule, and the execution of the laws in the case of crimes, without respect to persons.

Sigismund refused to listen to the proposal; and Procopius returned to Prague at peace in his mind in the knowledge that he had held out the olive branch, and that if blood must again flow, the responsibility would lie at the door of those who had spurned the overtures of a just and reasonable peace.

The Hussites now assumed the offensive; and those nations which had been so eager to carry war to Bohemia, experienced its miseries on their own soil. Procopius entered Germany in 1429; and during that summer and the summers that followed, the whole of Western Germany felt the weight of his sword. He converted some hundred towns and castles to ruins; and from the wealthy cities he spared; he exacted a heavy ransom as the price for their escape from captivity or death.

There was trembling throughout not only Germany but even Rome. The Hussite arms were the terror of all Europe. With the passing of Martin V in February of 1431, Eugenius IV ascended the papal throne. He proclaimed a fifth crusade against the Hussites. Confessors were appointed to give absolution of even the most heinous crimes, even to the burning of churches and murdering of priests, that the crusader might go into battle with a clear conscience. If he was to fall in battle, he was given the assurance of going immediately to Paradise; but should he survive, there awaited a paradise on earth in the booty that he was assured of gaining.

At last, on August 1, 1431, an army of 130,000 footmen assembled on the Bohemian frontier. The Hussites, day by day receiving news of the approaching horde, lifted their eyes to heaven and calmly awaited the approaching foe. Clouds of foreboding had before darkened their skies, only to be scattered by an omnipotent Hand. The advancing host came on, chanting triumph as they approached. Forming into three columns, the invaders moved forward. Procopius fell back before them, sowing reports as he retreated that the Bohemians had quarreled among themselves and were fleeing. His design was to lure the enemy further into the country and then fall upon them from all sides. On the morning of August 14, the Bohemians marched to meet the foe, who now suddenly became aware of the strategy that had been practiced against them. The terrible Hussite soldiers, once believed to be in flight, were not advancing to offer battle.

Before the Hussites broke into view, the rumble of their wagons and their war hymn, chanted by the whole army as it advanced, could be clearly heard. Suddenly, among the invading force there was a strange movement. As if smitten by some invisible power, it appeared all at once to break up and scatter. The proud army was suddenly only a rabble-rout, fleeing when no man pursued. So great was the supernatural terror with which the crusaders were smitten that many of them, instead of continuing their flight into their own country, wandered back into Bohemia. Others, meanwhile, reaching their own hometowns, did not recognize their native city; and when they entered it, began to beg for lodging as if they were strangers.

Having failed with the force of arms, Rome now resorted to wiles. The victorious Hussites were carrying the war to the enemy’s country. They had driven the Austrian soldiers out of Moravia and had invaded Hungary and other provinces, burning towns and carrying off booty. All of this had effectively opened the eyes of the pope and the emperor to the virtue of conciliation, which until this time they had flatly rejected.

A general council of the Church was called at Basel. Letters from the emperor and legate Julian invited the Bohemians to come and confer on their points of difference. Before leaving Prague, the deputies received instructions that they were to insist on the four points which they had previously submitted to Sigismund. Accordingly, when they appeared before the Council, they made it clear that their deliberations must be confined to these points and that the nation had not empowered them to entertain the question of the renunciation of their faith.

The Council sought to draw the Bohemian deputies into a broader discussion, believing that they could more easily be overcome. The Bohemian delegates, however, proving themselves able to defend themselves on both the broader ground and the four points, showed no inclination to yield. They managed to maintain their ground and proved themselves as worthy antagonists in the Council as well as on the field of battle. After three months of fruitless debates, the Bohemian delegates left Basel and returned home. The Council would admit to no terms other than that the Bohemians agree to surrender their faith and submit fully to Rome. The Council failed to remember that it was the Bohemians who were victorious and that it was they who were suing for peace.

A proposal was made to renew negotiations at Prague. The Hussites, reluctant to again engage in armed conflict, agreed. Many an armed embassy had sought to approach Prague, only to be turned back by the valor of her sons. Under a guise of friendship, the papal messengers were able to bring about that which her armies had been unable to accomplish.

The Bohemians sought to display great courtesy and respect on the occasion, and every expression of public welcome greeted the arriving delegates.

The Diet of Bohemia, convoked in 1434, met with much better success than that which had earlier met in Basel. Though the basis of the treaty, which was eventually signed, had the original four points, which Rome professed to accept, the Church reserved for herself the right to determine their true sense. The agreement, known as the Compactata, while ostensibly preserving the faith and liberties of the Bohemians, was, in fact, a surrender of both. It should have been foreseen that from this point onward, it would be the interpretation, rather than the Articles, that would be the rule.

Many of the Bohemians, and most notably the Calixtines, now returned to their obedience to the Roman See; and Sigismund was not acknowledged as the legitimate sovereign of Bohemia.

Divisions that had existed among the Bohemians from the beginning now widened in proportion as the great struggle relaxed. The party that most closely held to the teachings of John Huss was the Taborites. With them, the defense of their religion was the primary concern, with the defense of their civil rights and privileges taking second place. The Calixtines, on the other hand, had become lukewarm and believed that the rift between their country and Rome was unnecessarily wide. The majority of the city leaders and materially advantaged belonged to this party, helping to carry support for the Compactata with public opinion, in spite of the opposition of the Taborites.

In accepting the agreement, the Bohemians stepped down from a position of unparalleled grandeur. Their campaigns had been among the most heroic and brilliant in the annals of war. A little country, with but a small army, she had managed not only to withstand but to triumph over the armies of Rome with their almost unlimited resources that the Church then had at her command. As long as they remained united in purpose, there was no army in Europe that dared to attack them. From the day that the Compactata was accepted, the tide of national prosperity and prestige began to wane.

The Calixtines accepted and the Taborites rejected the proposed arrangement. The Calixtines were much the larger party, as it included not only the majority of those who had been dissenters from Rome but also the Roman Catholics. The Taborites, under the command of Procopius, though loath to take up arms, were unwilling to accept a peace that was fatal to the nation’s peace and liberty. Rather than witness this humiliation, Procopius again took to the field at the head of the Taborites.

After a series of bloody skirmishes, the two armies met on the plain of Lipan on May 29, 1434. In the battle that ensued, Procopius lost his life. With his passing, the Hussite wars came to an end. It was no longer possible for the Taborites to make an effectual stand.

Sigismund was permitted to ascend the throne of Bohemia but only after having sworn to enforce the Compactata. As could be expected from one who had broken his pledge to John Huss, as soon as he was securely seated upon the throne, he immediately set out to restore the dominance of the Church of Rome. This open treachery provoked a storm of indignation; and the country was on the brink of war when the emperor died in 1437, within a year after having been acknowledged as king by the Bohemians.

The years that made up the remainder of the century were checkered. There were wars with periods of relative peace but never again the unity and strength that the country had when it was united in its opposition to the tyranny of Rome.

Wherever the Taborites looked, there was only error. Resolving to separate themselves from the evils that everywhere prevailed, about the year 1455, they formed themselves into a distinct church under the name of the United Brethren. This step exposed them to the bitter enmity of both Calixtines and Roman Catholics. In the persecutions that followed, they were scattered into the woods and mountains where they met secretly in caves.

Wondering if they were along in keeping the true faith, they sent messengers into various countries of Christendom. These messengers returned to say that though darkness covered the face of the whole earth and prevailed everywhere, they had found isolated confessors of the truth. Most notably, they found in the Alps an ancient church that rested on the foundation of the Scriptures. This news greatly cheered and encouraged them.

Separated from the Church of Rome, the question of ordination caused them considerable perplexity. They had left the Church and had no bishop in their ranks. How were they to perpetuate that succession of pastors which Christ had appointed in His church? After much deliberation, seventy of their chief men met and, after humbling themselves with tears and prayer before God, chose nine of their number. From along these nine members, it was decided that three would be ordained. They then placed twelve pieces of paper in the hands of a boy who had no knowledge of what was taking place. Nine of the twelve pieces of paper were blank; the other three had the word Est—i.e., “It is the will of God,” written on them. He distributed the papers; and it was found that the three bearing the word Est had been given to Matthew Kunwaldius, Thomas Prezelaucius, and Elias Krezenovius. These three then received ordination at the hands of a group of Waldensian pastors.

The accession of Valdislav to the Bohemian throne in 1471 brought an end to persecution. The quiet that the Brethren now enjoyed was followed by an increase in their membership. “Their lot was cast in evil days, but they knew that the appointed years of darkness must be fulfilled. They remembered the words first uttered by Huss, and later repeated by Jerome, that a century must revolve before the day should break. These were to the Taborites what the words of Joseph were to the tribes in the House of Bondage: ‘I die, and God will surely visit you, and bring you out.’ The prediction kept alive their hopes in the night of their persecutions and in the darkest hour their eyes were still turned to the horizon like men who watch for the morning.” Ibid., 213.

The end of the century found two hundred churches of the United Brethren in Bohemia and Moravia. Such was the goodly remnant which, escaping persecution, was permitted to see the day foretold by Huss.