Sigismund, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, was born in 1368. Through marriage to Mary, Queen of Hungary, in 1387, he became king of Hungary two years later. In 1396 he led an army of Crusaders against the Turks and received a crushing defeat at what is now Nikopol, Bulgaria. Upon the death of Holy Roman Emperor Rupert in 1410, Sigismund was elected to succeed him. Wherever he looked, the situation in Europe was most distressing. There were three popes, each of whose personal profligacy’s and official crimes were the scandal of Christianity, who yet claimed to be the supreme pastor and chief teacher of the Church. The most sacred things were bought and sold. Everywhere was strife and bloodshed as nation contended with nation. Many of the major nations of Europe were convulsed with internal problems; and to complete the confusion, the Moslem hordes, encouraged by these dissensions, were threatening to break through and subject all Christianity to Mohammed.
The spectacle of Christianity, disgraced and fractured by three popes while the Church was being corrupted by heretics, greatly concerned Sigismund. In considering how to deal with the situation, he hit upon the expedient of calling a General Council. He determined to assemble the whole Church, with all its patriarchs, cardinals, bishops, and princes, and to summon before this august body the three rival popes. He believed that a council of this nature would have sufficient authority, especially when supported by the imperial power, to force the rival popes to adjust their claims and at the same time silence heretics.
In 1414, Sigismund sought to persuade Pope John XXIII to convoke a council. Such a proposition was alarming beyond measure to him. Nor can we wonder at this if he were guilty of half the crimes which have been attributed to him by church historians. John was accused of having cleared his way to the papal chair by the murder of his predecessor, Alexander V; and he lived in continual fear of himself being removed by the same dreadful means by which he had ascended it. He was in the position, however, of having but little choice. He was at war with Ladislaus, against whose armies he had not fared well and from whom he had been forced to flee to Bologna. Rather than offend the emperor, whose assistance he desperately needed, he determined to face the council. A General Council was finally agreed upon, to be convoked at Constance, November 1, 1414.
Amid all of the many dignitaries to attend the Council were three who took precedence of all others: Sigismund, Pope John XXIII, and John Huss. The two anti-popes had been summoned to the Council, but they chose to appear by representation, rather than in person.
Sigismund appeared, professing John XXIII to be the only valid contender to the tiara. Nevertheless, it was his secret purpose to force John to renounce his claim. John, on the other hand, pretended to be quite cordial in calling the Council, while secretly he was determined to dissolve it as quickly as possible should he find it unfriendly to himself. He left Bologna with a substantial store of jewels and money, hoping to be able to use them to corrupt those he could not dazzle with their splendor. All along the way he took care to make arrangements to leave the way clear should he have to leave Constance in haste. As he passed through Tyrol, he made a secret treaty with Frederick, Duke of Austria, to the effect that one of his strong castles would be at his disposal should it become necessary. When he arrived with the league of Constance, he sought to bind the Abbot of St. Ulric to himself by bestowing on him the miter.
“Meanwhile, another traveler was approaching Constance. Huss was conscious of the dangers which threatened him. He parted from his friends as if he were never to meet them again, and went on his journey feeling that it was leading him to the stake. Notwithstanding he had obtained a safe-conduct from the king of Bohemia and received one also from the emperor Sigismund while on his journey, he made all his arrangements in view of the probability of his death.” The Great Controversy, 104, 105. Though he expected to find more enemies in Constance than Christ had at Jerusalem, he was determined not to betray the gospel by cowardice.
Through every town and village on his route, there were indications of the spread of his doctrines and the favor with which they were held. The inhabitants turned out to welcome him in large numbers. At Nuremberg, as well as at other town through which he passed, the magistrates formed a guard of honor and escorted him through the streets that were thronged with spectators, eager for a glimpse of the man who was changing the face of Christianity. Thus, his journey was, of a sort, a triumphal procession.
Soon after his arrival, Huss met with John XXIII, who added his safe conduct to that of the emperor. A short time later, in violation of these solemn promises, Huss was arrested on orders of the pope and cardinals and thrust into a loathsome dungeon.
The imprisonment of Huss excited great indignation in Bohemia. A number of the barons united in remonstrating with the emperor, reminding him of his safe conduct. Sigismund’s first impulse was to set the Reformer free, but Huss’ enemies were determined and malignant in their designs against him. Playing upon the emperor’s zeal for the Church, they brought forward arguments that sought to convince him that he had had no right to issue such a safe conduct in the circumstances without the consent of the counsel and that the greater good of the Church must overrule his promise. In the voice of the assembled Church, Sigismund believed that he heard the voice of God and allowed the enemies of Huss to have their will with him.
Emperor Sigismund was 47 years of age at the time of the Council. Noble in bearing and tall in stature, he was graceful in manners. His understanding had been improved by study, and he spoke with ability several languages. Had it not been for one grave error, the name that has come down to posterity with an eternal blot upon it might have been fair, if not illustrious. Sigismund committed the grave error common to almost all the princes of his age in believing that in order to reign, it was necessary to dissemble and that craft was an indispensable part of policy.
One of the first matters to be taken up by the Council was that of the trial of John XXIII. John, faced with the charges that were drawn up against him, promised to abdicate; but recovering, he was more determined than ever to maintain his cause and, in stealth, fled the city.
In contrast with the pomp with which he arrived in Constance, John left in the disguise of a peasant. His departure had been arranged beforehand with the Duke of Austria, a friend and staunch protector. The duke, on a given day, was to give a tournament. The spectacle was to take place late in the afternoon; and while the whole city was engrossed in the proceedings, oblivious to all else, the pope would make good his escape.
When the pope’s flight became known, the city was thrown into confusion. Everyone thought that the Council was at an end and the merchants shut their shops and packed up their wares, fearful of pillage from the lawless mob into whose hands they feared the city had been thrown. As soon as the initial excitement had somewhat abated, the emperor rode around the city, openly declaring that he would protect the Council and maintain order.
Sigismund hastily assembled the princes and deputies and indignantly declared that it was his purpose to bring the pope back, and if necessary, reduce the duke of Austria by force of arms in the process. When the pope leaned that a storm was gathering that threatened to follow him, he wrote in conciliatory terms to the emperor, excusing his hasty departure by saying that “he had gone to Schaffhausen to enjoy its sweeter air, that of Constance not agreeing with him; moreover, in this quiet retreat, and at liberty, he would be able to show the world how freely he acted in fulfilling his promise of renouncing the Pontificate.” Wiley, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 152.
John, however, appeared to be in no haste to lay aside the tiara, and every few days he moved farther and farther away in his quest for still sweeter air. He had believed that his flight would be the signal for the Council to break up, and in this he hoped to block Sigismund’s plans and avoid the humiliation of deposition.
The emperor was determined not to be put off in his plans, and the Council proceeded. The charges against John were sustained and he was stripped of the pontificate. When the news arrived, John was as abject as he had before been arrogant. He acknowledged the justice of the sentence and asked only that his life might be spared—which no one at that time had thought to deprive him of.
The cases of the other two popes were more easily dispensed with; and by election of the cardinals, Otta de Colonna was unanimously elected to rule the church as Martin V.
Having condemned John for crimes far more grievous than the charges Huss had made and for which he was called to trial, the Council turned its attention to the Reformer.
Called before the Council, Huss naturally wished to reply to the charges, pointing out those which were false. He had uttered but a few words when there arose such a clamor as to completely drown out his voice. Huss stood motionless, viewing the excited assembly with pity rather than visible anger. As the tumult subsided, he again attempted to proceed with his defense. He had gone but a little ways when he had cause to appeal to the Scriptures, and immediately the storm was renewed with even greater violence.
Some Bohemian noblemen who had witnessed the scene informed Sigismund of what had transpired, urging him to be present at the next hearing.
At the next meeting Sigismund and Huss were brought face to face. The chains that bound Huss were a silent but eloquent commentary on the imperial safe conduct. The emperor, however, consoled himself with the thought that while he had been willing to deprive the Reformer of his freedom, he would at the last extremity save his life. There were two things, however, that Sigismund had failed to take into consideration. The first was the firm and unyielding resolve of the Reformer; the other was the awe in which he, himself, held the Council. Too late, he found, as did Pilate, that having once compromised his conscience, there was no room to change. “And so, despite his better intentions, he suffered himself to be dragged along on the road of perfidy and dishonour, which he had meanly entered, till he came to its tragic end, and the imperial safe conduct and the martyr’s stake had taken their place, side by side, ineffaceable, on history’s eternal pages.” Ibid., 158.
While Huss differed from the Church of Rome, it was not so much on dogmas as on great points of jurisdiction and policy. While these differences directly attacked certain of the principles of the papacy, they tended indirectly to the subversion of the whole system. This was perhaps a far greater revolution than Huss perceived, or perhaps intended; for until the last, he did not abandon the communion of the Roman Church. He admitted to the Divine institution and office of the pope, though he made the effacy of their official acts dependent on their spiritual character. “He held that the supreme rule of faith and practice was the Holy Scriptures; that Christ was the Rock on which our Lord said He would build His church; that ‘the assembly of the Predestinate is the Holy Church, which has neither spot nor wrinkle, but is holy and undefiled; that which Jesus Christ calleth His own;’ that the Church need no one visible head on earth, that it had none such in the days of the apostles; that nevertheless it was then well governed, and might be so still although it should lose its earthly head; and that the Church was not confined to the clergy, but included all the faithful.” Ibid., 158, 159.
Already enfeebled by illness and by his long confinement, he was exhausted and worn out by the length of the appearance and the attention demanded to rebut the attacks and reasonings of his attackers. At length, the Council rose, and Huss was led back to prison.
During the interval between Huss’ second and third appearance, the emperor tried ineffectually to induce the Reformer to retract. Not only was he motivated by a genuine desire to save Huss’ life, but doubtless also out of a regard for his honor which was deeply at stake in the issue. The Reformer, while most willing to abjure those things of which he was falsely accused, refused to be moved regarding those truths he had taught. “‘He would rather,’ he said, ‘be cast into the sea with a millstone about his neck, than offend those little ones to whom he had preached the Gospel, by abjuring it.’” Ibid., 160.
At last the matter was brought to the point of whether or not he would submit implicitly to the Council. “‘If the Council should even tell you,’ said a doctor, whose name has not been preserved, ‘that you have but one eye, you would be obliged to agree with the Council.’ ‘But,’ said Huss, ‘as long as God keeps me in my senses, I would not say such a thing, even though the whole world should require it, because I could not say it without wounding my conscience.’ What an obstinate self-opinionated, arrogant man! Said the Fathers.” Ibid. Even the emperor became irritated at what he regarded as obstinacy.
This was the great crisis in the Reformer ‘s life. It was as if the Council had laid aside all charges of heresy and asked only that he give assent to its divine authority as an infallible council. From that moment, Huss had greater peace of mind than at any time since his ordeal had begun, and he calmly began to prepare for his death.
During his imprisonment before his third and final hearing, Huss was cheered by a prophetic glimpse of the dawn of the better days that awaited the church of God.
While awaiting his final hearing and sentencing, Huss’ thoughts often turned to the chapel of Bethlehem in which he had proclaimed the gospel. One night he “saw in imagination, from the depths of his dungeon, the pictures of Christ that he had painted on the walls of his oratory, effaced by the pope and his bishops. This vision distressed him: but on the next day he saw many painters occupied in restoring these figures in greater number and in brighter colours. As soon as their task was ended, the painters, who were surrounded by an immense crowd, exclaimed: “Now let the popes and bishops come! They shall never efface them more!” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, Book 1, chapter 6, 30.
As the Reformer related his dream to his faithful friend, John de Chlum, he was advised to occupy his thoughts with his defense, rather than with visions. “’I am no dreamer,’ replied Huss, ‘but I maintain this for certain, that the image of Christ will never be effaced. They have wished to destroy it, but it shall be painted afresh in all hearts by much better preachers than myself.’” Ibid.
Thirty days elapsed and the Council again called for Huss. The charges against him were again read, following which Huss refused to abjure. This he accompanied with a brief recapitulation of the events that had led up to that moment. He ended by saying that he had come to this Council of his own free will, “‘confiding in the safe conduct of the emperor here present.’ As he uttered these last words, he looked full at Sigismund, on whose brow the crimson of a deep blush was seen by the whole assembly, whose gaze was at the instant turned towards his majesty.’” Wiley, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 161.
Sentence of condemnation was now passed upon Huss. There then followed the ceremony of degradation. One after another of the garments of a priest were brought forward and placed upon him. They next placed in his hand the chalice, as if he were about to celebrate mass. He was then asked if he were willing to adjure. “‘With what face, then,’ he replied, ‘should I behold the heavens? How should I look on those multitudes of men to whom I have preached the pure Gospel? No; I esteem their salvation more than this poor body, now appointed unto death.’” Ibid.
“The vestments were removed one by one, each bishop pronouncing a curse as he performed his part of the ceremony. Finally “they put on his head a cap or pyramidal-shaped miter of paper, on which were painted frightful figures of demons, with the word ‘Archheretic’ conspicuous in front. ‘Most joyfully,’ said Huss, ‘will I wear this crown of shame for Thy sake, O Jesus, who for me didst wear a crown of thorns.’” The Great Controversy, 109.
As the fire began to burn, Huss began to loudly sing, “Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.” Even his enemies were struck with his heroic bearing. One of the observers, AEneas Sylvius, who afterwards became pope and whose testimony is not liable to suspicion, commented on the heroic demeanor of both Huss and Jerome at their executions. It was said that the vehemence of the fire could scarcely stop their singing.
When Huss bowed at the stake, it was the infallible Council that was vanquished, not the martyr. “Heap together all the trophies of Alexander and of Caesar, what are they all when weighed in the balance against this one glorious achievement? . . . From the moment he expired amid the flames, his name became a power, which will continue to speed on the great cause of truth and light, till the last shackle shall be rent from the intellect, and the conscience emancipated for from every usurpation, shall be free to obey the authority of its rightful Lord.” Wiley, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 164, 165.
Already Bohemia was awakening; and within a hundred years, Germany and all Christendom would arise from their slumber to the awakening prophetically seen in the martyr’s dream.