The Early Hussite Wars

Jerome, hearing of the arrest of Huss, quickly made his way to Constance in the hope of being able to be of some help to him. Upon his arrival, it became apparent to him that he was not going to be able to help his beloved master, but that he was in great danger himself. He attempted to flee and was well on his way to Prague when he was arrested and returned in chains to Constance.

Soon thereafter, a letter arrived from the barons of Bohemia, which convinced the council that it had been self-deceived when it had convinced itself that it was done with Huss when it threw his ashes into the Rhine. Very clearly a storm was brewing; and should they plant a second stake, it would all too certainly burst upon them. It was, therefore, decided that it would be most prudent to induce Jerome to recant, and to this the council now directed its efforts. They brought Jerome before them, depressed in mind and sick in body from four months of confinement in a noisome dungeon. When offered the alternative of recanting or the stake, he yielded to the council.

The retraction that Jerome gave was, however, a very qualified one. He submitted himself to the council and subscribed to the justice of its condemnation of the articles of Wycliffe and Huss, saving and excepting the “holy truths” which they had taught; and he promised to live and die in the Catholic faith.

There were men, however, who were determined that Jerome should pay the penalty for his errors, and a new list of charges were preferred against him. Meanwhile, from his cell, Jerome had an opportunity to reflect on what he had done. As he contrasted the peace of mind he had enjoyed before his retraction with the doubts that now darkened his soul, he realized that it was a gulf with no bottom into which he was about to throw himself. As he looked to His Saviour, his faith grew strong and peace returned to his soul.

The new charges were communicated to Jerome in prison, but he refused to answer and demanded a public hearing. On May 23, 1416, he was taken to the cathedral church where the council had assembled to consider his cause.

Greatly fearing the effect of his words, the fathers demanded a simple “Yes” or “No” answer. ” ‘What injustice! What cruelty!’ exclaimed Jerome. ‘You have held me shut up three hundred and forty days in a frightful prison, in the midst of filth, noisomeness, stench, and the utmost want of everything. You then bring me out before you, and lending an ear to my mortal enemies, you refuse to hear me. If you be really wise men, and the lights of the world, take care not to sin against justice. As for me, I am only a feeble mortal; my life is but of little importance; and when I exhort you not to deliver an unjust sentence, I speak less for myself than for you.’ ” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 171

The uproar that followed his words drowned out any further words. When the storm had abated, it was decided that he should be fully heard three days later.

At his earlier hearing, Jerome had subscribed to the justice of Huss’s condemnation; and at his second hearing he bitterly repented of this wrong, done in a moment of cowardice. Having known Huss since childhood, he stated that he knew him to be of a most excellent character. He continued, “Of all the sins that I have committed since my youth, none weighs so heavily on my mind, and causes me such poignant remorse, as that which I committed in this fatal place, when I approved of the iniquitous sentence recorded against Wycliffe, and against the holy martyr John Huss, my master and my friend. . . . You condemned Wycliffe and Huss, not because they shook the faith, but because they branded with reprobation the scandals of the clergy—their pomp, their pride, and their luxuriousness.” Ibid., 172

These words signaled another tumult in the assembly. From all sides the cry was raised: “What need is there of further proof? The most obstinate of heretics is before us.”

“Unmoved by the tempest, Jerome exclaimed: ‘What! do you suppose that I fear to die? You have held me for a whole year in a frightful dungeon, more horrible than death itself. You have treated me more cruelly than a Turk, Jew, or pagan, and my flesh has literally rotted off my bones alive; and yet I make no complaint, for lamentation ill becomes a man of heart and spirit; but I cannot but express my astonishment at such great barbarity toward a Christian.’ ” The Great Controversy, 114

Jerome was carried back to his cell to await sentencing.

On May 30, 1416, Jerome was brought out to receive his sentence. The townspeople, drawn from their homes by the rumor of what was about to take place, crowded to the cathedral gates to watch.

As Jerome was conducted through the city and out to the place of execution, with a cheerful countenance he began to loudly sing. As they arrived at the place, he kneeled down and began to pray. He was still praying when his executioners raised him up, and with cords and chains, bound him to the stake, which had been carved into something that was a rude likeness of Huss.

When the executioner, about to kindle the pile, stepped behind him, the martyr checked him: ” ‘Come forward,’ said he, ‘and kindle the pile before my face; for had I been afraid of the fire I should not be here.’ ” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, 2, vol. 1, 176

Though the light bearers had perished, the light to the truths they proclaimed could not be extinguished.

In Bohemia, the deaths of Huss and Jerome sent a thrill of indignation and horror throughout the country. All ranks, from the highest to the lowest, were stirred by what had taken place; and every day the flame of popular indignation burned more fiercely. It was evident that a terrible outburst of pent-up wrath was about to be witnessed.

But deeper feelings were at work among the Bohemian people than those of anger. The faith which had been so notably evident in the lives of the martyrs was contrasted with the faith of those who had so basely murdered them, and the contrast was found to be very unfavorable to the latter. The writings of Wycliffe, which had escaped the flames, were read and compared with such portions of Holy Writ as were accessible to the people, resulting in a wide acceptance of the evangelical doctrines. The new ideas gained ground daily, and the adherents came to be known as Hussites.

The throne of Bohemia was at that time filled by Wenceslaus, who gave loose reins to his low propensities and vices. He cared little whether his subjects remained within the paths of orthodoxy or strayed into heresy. His dislike for the priests led him to turn a deaf ear to their pleadings that he forbid the preaching of the new doctrines, and he secretly rejoiced at the progress of the gospel teaching.

Meanwhile, back in Constance, the most pressing matter was the selection of a new pope; and on November 14, 1417, the cardinals announced that they had chosen Otho de Colonna. Upon receiving the position, he chose the name of Martin V.

Though the citizens of Bohemia were aflame with indignation, they had no one to organize or lead them. It was at this time that a most remarkable man came to the forefront to organize the nation and lead its armies. John Trocznowski, better known as Ziska, who was chamberlain to Wenceslaus, came to the rescue.

The shock that the martyrdom of Huss gave to the nation was not unfelt by Ziska in the palace. The gay courtier suddenly became thoughtful and quiet. One day the monarch, surprised by his thoughtful mood, exclaimed at finding him so. ” ‘I cannot brook the insult offered to Bohemia at Constance by the murder of John Huss,’ replied the chamberlain. ‘Where is the use,’ said the king, ‘of vexing one’s self about it? Neither you nor I have the means of avenging it. But,’ continued the king, thinking doubtless that Ziska’s fit would soon pass off, ‘if you are able to call the emperor and Council to account, you have my permission.’ ‘Very good, my gracious master,’ rejoined Ziska, ‘will you be pleased to give me your permission in writing?’ Wenceslaus, who liked a joke, and deeming that such a document would be perfectly harmless in the hands of one who had neither friends, nor money, nor soldiers, gave Ziska what he asked under the royal seal.” Ibid., 183

Ziska , who accepted the authorization as no joke, bided his time until the right opportunity should present itself. It soon came. The pope had sent his legate to Bohemia to ascertain how matters stood. In his report, the legate stated that the tongue and pen were no longer of any use and that without further ado, it was high time to take arms against such obstinate heretics. This further stimulated the excitement already felt in Prague where the burghers were assembled to deliberate on the measures to be adopted in avenging the nations’ insulted honor and defending its threatened independence.

Suddenly, Ziska appeared, armed with the royal authorization. The citizens were embolden when they saw one who stood so high, as they believed, in the favor of the king, putting himself at their head. They were led to conclude that Wenceslaus was also with them, but in this they were mistaken. The factions within the city became more embittered every day, and a tumult and massacre broke out against the Catholics. The king, hearing the news of the outrage, was so excited that he had a fit of apoplexy and died a few days later.

Once the king was dead, the queen espoused the side of the Catholics and the tumults broke out anew. For a whole week the fighting continued, resulting in considerable bloodshed and the pillaging of the convents. Emperor Sigismund, brother of the deceased Wenceslaus, now claimed the crown of Bohemia and marched on Prague to take possession of the crown. The Bohemians, however, resolved on resistance, and the pent-up tempest burst.

The Hussites had agreed to meet on Michaelmas Day, 1419, on a plain not far from Prague to celebrate the Eucharist. On the day appointed, 40,000 from all the surrounding towns and villages assembled and partook of the Communion. It was a very simple affair; and when it was concluded, they took up a collection to give to the man on whose ground they had met. Before parting, they agreed to a second meeting to take place before Martinmas.

The matter became known, and it was determined that the second meeting would not be allowed to pass so quietly. A body of the emperor’s troops were sent to lie in ambush. The knowledge of this was given to the approaching Hussites. Being armed only with walking staves, they sent messengers to the towns behind them, begging assistance. A small body of soldiers was dispatched to their aid; and in the conflict which followed, the imperial cavalry, though a superior force, was put to flight.

The die had been cast; and the Bohemians were involved in a conflict, the scope of which they but little dreamed. The Turks, with no thought of intentionally aiding them, struck the empire from the opposite side, thus dividing the emperor’s forces. Ziska, recognizing this Providential occurrence, hurriedly rallied the whole of Bohemia before the emperor could ease the situation with the Moslems and before the bands of Germany, summoned by the pope, should arrive. He at once issued a manifesto in which he invoked both the religion and the patriotism of his country men. In it he said, “Remember your first encounter, when you were few against many, unarmed against well-armed men. The hand of God has not been shortened. Have courage, and be ready. May God strengthen you!” Ibid., 185

The appeal put forth by Ziska was responded to with a burst of enthusiasm. From all parts of the country, the people rallied to the standard. Unfortunately, these hastily assembled masses were but poorly disciplined, and still more poorly armed. This shortage was, however, supplied in a way that they but little dreamed of.

They had but scarcely begun their march toward the capital when they encountered a body of imperial cavalry. They quickly routed, captured, and disarmed them, thus gaining the weapons they so desperately needed. Marching on to Prague, they entered the city and proceeded to sack the monasteries which were known for their beauty. The treasure taken, which was immense, went a long way to defray the expenses of the war.

Sigismund deemed it prudent to come to terms with the Turks that he might more effectively deal with the Hussites. Assembling an army of 100,000 men of various nationalities, he marched on Prague, now in possession of the Hussites, and laid siege to it. The citizens, under the brave Ziska, drove them with disgrace from the field. The imperial forces avenged themselves by committing atrocities in their retreat.

A second attempt was made to take Prague the same year, resulting only in further disgrace to the imperial forces, who again marked their retreat by outrages against the populace.

In the war that followed, the small nation of Bohemia was pitted against the combined nations of Europe. No one can doubt that the hand of Providence covered them as Ziska won battle after battle. He completely outmaneuvered the armies of the emperor, overwhelming them by surprises and baffling them by new and masterly tactics.

The cause for which they fought had a hallowing effect on the conduct in the camps of the Hussites. Often in their marches they were preceded by their pastors, reminiscent of the march of Jehoshaphat against the combined forces of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir when the priests led the army with singing. In the rear of the army the women followed, tending the sick and wounded; and in cases of necessity, working on the ramparts.

This struggle by the Bohemians, reluctant to unsheathe the sword, taught their enemies a lesson long remembered. Their struggle paved the way for the quiet entrance of the Reformation a century later. Charles V long pondered the situation before lending his sword to the cause of the papacy, well remembering the terrible price that had been extracted from those who sought by conflict of arms to crush the Hussites.

Ziska , the greatest general that ever lived, had been deprived of the sight in one of his eyes by an accident in boyhood. During the course of the war, at the siege of Raby, ziska lost the other and was now entirely blind. In spite of this apparent setback, he demonstrated a marvelous genius for arranging an army and directing its movements. When an action was about to take place, he would call a few officers around him and have them describe the nature of the ground and the position of the enemy. His arrangement was instantly made as, if by intuition, he saw the course the battle must run and the successive maneuvers by which victory was to be gained. His inner eye surveyed the whole field and watched every movement.

One contributing factor to his brilliant successes was his manner of arranging his defense. The wooden wagons were linked to one another by strong iron chains, and, ranged in line, were placed in front of the army. This fortification, ranged in the form of a circle, at times enclosed the whole army. Behind this first rampart rose a second wall formed by the long wooden shields of the soldiers, stuck in the ground. The movable walls were formidable obstructions to the German cavalry. Mounted on heavy horses and armed with pikes and battle-axes, they had to force their way through this double fortification before they could close with the Bohemians. All the while they were hewing their way through the wagons, the Bohemian archers were plying them with their arrows. It was a thinned and exhausted force that at length was able to join battle with the foe.

Even when engaged in battle, they found themselves at a disadvantage. The Bohemians were armed with long iron flails which they swung with great force and accuracy, allowing them to crash through the brazen helmet of their opponents. Moreover, they carried long spears which had hooks attached with which they speedily brought the German horsemen to the ground and dispatched them. In addition to numerous skirmishes and many sieges, Ziska fought sixteen pitched battles, all from which he returned a conqueror.

Suddenly Ziska ’s career was ended. It was not in battle that he fell but by the plague. He died October 11, 1424. By his hand, God had humbled the haughty pride of that power which had sought to trample the convictions and consciences of his countrymen in the dust, filling Europe with the fear of his name. The little nation laid him to rest with a sorrow more universal and profound than that with which she had buried any of her kings.

The End