The Hussite Wars involved the military actions against and amongst the followers of Jan Hus in Bohemia in the period 1420 to circa 1434. The Hussite Wars were arguably the first European war in which hand-held gunpowder weapons such as muskets made a decisive contribution.
The Hussite movement assumed a revolutionary character as soon as the news of the death of Hus (6 July 1415) reached Prague. The knights and nobles of Bohemia and Moravia, who were in favour of church reform, sent to the council at Constance (2 September 1415) a protest, known as the protestatio Bohemorum, which condemned the execution of Hus in the strongest language. The attitude of Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor, who sent threatening letters to Bohemia declaring that he would shortly drown all Wycliffites and Hussites, greatly incensed the people.
Troubles broke out in various parts of Bohemia, and drove many Romanist priests from their parishes. Almost from the first the Hussites divided into two sections, though many minor divisions also arose among them. Shortly before his death Hus had accepted a doctrine preached during his absence by his adherents at Prague, namely that of Utraquism, or the obligation of the faithful to receive communion in both kinds (sub utraque specie). This doctrine became the watchword of the moderate Hussites known as the Utraquists or Calixtines, from the Latin calix (the chalice), in Czech kališníci (from kalich); while the more extreme Hussites soon became known as the Orphans (sirotci) or Taborites (táborité), from the city of Tábor that became their centre.
Under the influence of his brother Sigismund, king of the Romans, King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia endeavoured to stem the Hussite movement. A certain number of Hussites led by Nicolas of Hus - no relation of Jan Hus - left Prague. They held meetings in various parts of Bohemia, particularly at Usti, near the spot where the town of Tabor was founded soon afterwards. At these meetings they violently denounced Sigismund, and the people everywhere prepared for war.
In spite of the departure of many prominent Hussites the troubles at Prague continued. On 30 July 1419, when a Hussite procession headed by the priest Jan Zelivsky marched through the streets of Prague, anti-Hussites threw stones at the Hussites from the windows of the town-hall of the “new town.” The people, headed by Jan Zizka, threw the burgomaster and several town-councillors, who had instigated this outrage, from the windows (the first "Defenestration of Prague"), whereupon the crowd killed them immediately. On hearing this news King Wenceslaus succumbed to an apoplectic fit, and died a few days afterwards (16 August 1419).
The Outbreak of Fighting
The death of the king resulted in renewed troubles in Prague and in almost all parts of Bohemia. Many Romanists, mostly Germans - for they had almost all remained faithful to the papal cause - suffered expulsion from the Bohemian cities. In Prague, in November 1419, severe fighting took place between the Hussites and the mercenaries whom Queen Sophia (widow of Wenceslaus and regent after the death of her husband) had hurriedly collected. After a considerable part of the city had been destroyed, the parties declared a truce on 13 November. The nobles, who though favourable to the Hussite cause yet supported the regent, promised to act as mediators with Sigismund; while the citizens of Prague consented to restore to the royal forces the castle of Vysehrad, which had fallen into their hands. Zizka, who disapproved of this compromise, left Prague and retired to Plzen. Unable to maintain himself there he marched to southern Bohemia, and after defeating the Romanists at the battle of Sudomer (25 March 1420) in the first pitched battle of the Hussite wars, he arrived at Usti, one of the earliest meeting-places of the Hussites. Not considering its situation sufficiently strong, he moved to the neighbouring new settlement of the Hussites, called by the biblical name of Tabor.
Tabor soon became the centre of the advanced Hussites, who differed from the Utraquists by recognizing only two sacraments - Baptism and Communion - and by rejecting most of the ceremony of the Roman Church. The ecclesiastical organization of Tabor had a somewhat puritanical character, and the government was established on a thoroughly democratic basis. Four captains of the people (hejtmane) were elected, one of whom was Zizka; and a very strictly military discipline was instituted.
The First Anti-Hussite Crusade
Sigismund, had, by the death of his brother Wenceslaus without issue, acquired a claim on the Bohemian crown; though it was then, and remained till much later, doubtful whether Bohemia was an hereditary or an elective monarchy. A firm adherent of the Church of Rome, Sigismund was successful in obtaining aid from Pope Martin V who issued a bull on 17 March 1420 which proclaimed a crusade “for the destruction of the Wycliffites, Hussites and all other heretics in Bohemia". The vast army of crusaders, with which were Sigismund and many German princes, and which consisted of adventurers attracted by the hope of pillage from all parts of Europe, arrived before Prague on 30 June and immediately began the siege of the city, which had, however, soon to be abandoned. Negotiations took place for a settlement of the religious differences. The united Hussites formulated their demands in a statement known as the “articles of Prague". This document, the most important of the Hussite period, runs thus in the wording of the contemporary chronicler, Laurence of Brezova:
1. The word of God shall be preached and made known in the kingdom of Bohemia freely and in an orderly manner by the priests of the Lord.
2. The sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist shall be freely administered in the two kinds, that is bread and wine, to all the faithful in Christ who are not precluded by mortal sin - according to the word and disposition of Our Saviour.
3. The secular power over riches and worldly goods which the clergy possesses in contradiction to Christ’s precept, to the prejudice of its office and to the detriment of the secular arm, shall be taken and withdrawn from it, and the clergy itself shall be brought back to the evangelical rule and an apostolic life such as that which Christ and his apostles led.
4. All mortal sins, and in particular all public and other disorders, which are contrary to God’s law shall in every rank of life be duly and judiciously prohibited and destroyed by those whose office it is.
These articles, which contain the essence of the Hussite doctrine, were rejected by Sigismund, mainly through the influence of the papal legates, who considered them prejudicial to the authority of the Roman see. Hostilities therefore continued. Though Sigismund had retired from Prague, the castles of Vysehrad and Hradcany remained in possession of his troops. The citizens of Prague laid siege to the Vysehrad (see Battle of Vysehrad), and towards the end of October (1420) the garrison was on the point of capitulating through famine. Sigismund attempted to relieve the fortress, but was decisively defeated by the Hussites on 1 November near the village of Pankrác. The castles of Vysehrad and Hradcany now capitulated, and shortly afterwards almost all Bohemia fell into the hands of the Hussites.
The Second Anti-Hussite Crusade
Internal troubles prevented the followers of Hus from availing themselves completely of their victory. At Prague a demagogue, the priest Jan Zelivsky , for a time obtained almost unlimited authority over the lower classes of the townsmen; and at Tabor a communistic movement (that of the so-called Adamites) was sternly suppressed by Zizka. Shortly afterwards a new crusade against the Hussites was undertaken. A large German army entered Bohemia, and in August 1421 laid siege to the town of Zatec. The crusaders hoped to be joined in Bohemia by King Sigismund, but that prince was detained in Hungary. After an unsuccessful attempt to storm Zatec the crusaders retreated somewhat ingloriously, on hearing that the Hussite troops were approaching. Sigismund only arrived in Bohemia at the end of the year 1421. He took possession of the town of Kutná Hora, but was decisively defeated by Zizka at the battle of Nemecky Brod (Deutschbrod) on 6 January 1422.
Bohemia was now again for a time free from foreign intervention, but internal discord again broke out caused partly by theological strife, partly by the ambition of agitators. Jan Zelivsky was on 9 March 1422 arrested by the town council of Prague and decapitated. There were troubles at Tabor also, where a more advanced party opposed Zizka’s authority. Bohemia obtained a temporary respite when, in 1422, Prince Sigismund Korybutovic of Poland (nephew of king Ladislaus II Jagiello of Poland) became for a short time ruler of the country. He was a governor sent by duke Alexander of Lithuania (brother of Polish king), who accepted hussite proposal to be their new king (Poland and Lithuania were in a conflict with Sigismund). His authority was recognized by the Utraquist nobles, the citizens of Prague, and the more moderate Taborites. Korybutovic, however, remained a short time in Bohemia, but in 1423 he was called to come back to Lithuania, after king Jagiello had made a treaty with Sigismund Luksemburg. After his departure civil war broke out, the Taborites opposing in arms the more moderate Utraquists, who at this period are also called by the chroniclers the "Praguers", as Prague was their principal stronghold. On 27 April 1423, Zizka now again leading, the Taborites defeated at the battle of Horic the Utraquist army under Cenek of Wartemberg; shortly afterwards an armistice was concluded at Konopilt .
The Third Anti-Hussite Crusade
Papal influence had meanwhile succeeded in calling forth a new crusade against Bohemia, but it resulted in complete failure. In spite of the endeavours of their rulers, Poles and Lithuanians did not wish to attack the kindred Czechs; the Germans were prevented by internal discord from taking joint action against the Hussites; and the king of Denmark, who had landed in Germany with a large force intending to take part in the crusade, soon returned to his own country. Free for a time from foreign aggression, the Hussites invaded Moravia, where a large part of the population favoured their creed; but, again paralysed by dissensions, soon returned to Bohemia. The city of Hradec Králové, which had been under Utraquist rule, espoused the doctrine of Tabor, and called Zizka to its aid. After several military successes gained by Zizka in 1423 and the following year, a treaty of peace between the Hussites was concluded on 13 September 1424 at Liben, a village near Prague, now part of that city.
Campaigns of 1426 and 1427
In 1426 the Hussites were again attacked by foreign enemies. In June of that year their forces, led by Prokop the Great - who took the command of the Taborites shortly after Zizka’s death in October 1424 - and Sigismund Korybutovic, who had returned to Bohemia, signally defeated the Germans at Usti nad Labem. After this great victory, and another at Tachov in 1427, the Hussites repeatedly invaded Germany, though they made no attempt to occupy permanently any part of the country.
Peace Talks and Renewed Wars
The almost uninterrupted series of victories of the Hussites now rendered vain all hope of subduing them by force of arms. Moreover, the conspicuously democratic character of the Hussite movement caused the German princes, who were afraid that such views might extend to their own countries, to desire peace. Many Hussites, particularly the Utraquist clergy, were also in favour of peace. Negotiations for this purpose were to take place at the ecumenical council which had been summoned to meet at Basel on 3 March 1431. The Roman See reluctantly consented to the presence of heretics at this council, but indignantly rejected the suggestion of the Hussites that members of the Greek Church, and representatives of all Christian creeds, should also be present. Before definitely giving its consent to peace negotiations, the Roman Church determined on making a last effort to reduce the Hussites to subjection. On 1 August 1431 a large army of crusaders, under Frederick, margrave of Brandenburg, whom Cardinal Cesarini accompanied as papal legate, crossed the Bohemian frontier; on 14 August it reached the town of Domazlice; but on the arrival of the Hussite army under Prokop the crusaders immediately took to flight, almost without offering resistance.
On 15 October the members of the ccuncil, who had already assembled at Basel, issued a formal invitation to the Hussites to take part in its deliberations. Prolonged negotiations ensued; but finally a Hussite embassy, led by Prokop and including Jan of Rokycany , the Taborite bishop Nicolas of Pelhrimov , the “English Hussite" Peter Payne and many others, arrived at Basel on 4 January 1433. It was found impossible to arrive at an agreement. Negotiations were not, however, broken off; and a change in the political situation of Bohemia finally resulted in a settlement. In 1434 war again broke out between the Utraquists and the Taborites. On 30 May of that year the Taborite army, led by Prokop the Great and Prokop the Lesser , who both fell in the battle, was totally defeated and almost annihilated at Lipany.
The moderate party thus obtained the upper hand; and it formulated its demands in a document which was finally accepted by the Church of Rome in a slightly modified form, and which is known as “the compacts.” The compacts, mainly founded on the articles of Prague, declare that:—
I. The Holy Sacrament is to be given freely in both kinds to all Christians in Bohemia and Moravia, and to those elsewhere who adhere to the faith of these two countries.
2. All mortal sins shall be punished and extirpated by those whose office it is so to do.
3. The word of God is to be freely and truthfully preached by the priests of the Lord, and by worthy deacons.
4. The priests in the time of the law of grace shall claim no ownership of worldly possessions.
On 5 July 1436 the compacts were formally accepted and signed at Jihlava, in Moravia, by King Sigismund, by the Hussite delegates, and by the representatives of the Roman Church. The last-named, however, refused to recognize as archbishop of Prague, Jan of Rokycany, who had been elected to that dignity by the estates of Bohemia.
The Utraquist creed, frequently varying in its details, continued to be that of the established church of Bohemia till all non-Roman religious services were prohibited shortly after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. The Taborite party never recovered from its defeat at Lipan, and after the town of Tabor had been captured by George of Podebrady in 1452 Utraquist religious worship was established there. The Bohemian brethren , whose intellectual originator was Petr Chelčický, but whose actual founders were Brother Gregory, a nephew of Archbishop Rokycan, and Michael, curate of Zamberk, to a certain extent continued the Taborite traditions, and in the 15th and 16th centuries included most of the strongest opponents of Rome in Bohemia.
J. A. Komensky (Comenius), a member of the brotherhood, claimed for the members of his church that they were the genuine inheritors of the doctrines of Hus. After the beginning of the German Reformation many Utraquists adopted to a large extent the doctrines of Martin Luther and of John Calvin; and in 1567 obtained the repeal of the compacts, which no longer seemed sufficiently far-reaching. From the end of the 16th century the inheritors of the Hussite tradition in Bohemia were included in the more general name of "Protestants" borne by the adherents of the Reformation.
All histories of Bohemia devote a large amount of space to the Hussite movement. See:
- Count Lützow, Bohemia; an Historical Sketch (London, 1896)
- Palacky, Geschichte von Bohmen
- Bachmann, Geschichte Bohmens
- L. Krummel, Geschichte der bohmischen Reformation (Gotha, 1866)
- L. Krummel, Utraquisten und Taboriten (Gotha, 187 i)
- Ernest Denis, Huss et la guerre des Hussites (Paris, 1878)
- H. Toman, Husitské válečnictvi (Prague, 1898).
Original text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica
Joan of Arc's Letter to the Hussites (23 March 1430) - In 1430, Joan of Arc dictated a letter threatening to lead a crusading army against the Hussites unless they returned to, quote, "the Catholic Faith and the original Light". This link contains a translation of the letter plus notes and commentary.
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