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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 3 — John Huss and the Hussite Wars

Chapter 14 — Commencement of the Hussite Wars

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War Breaks out – Celebration in Both Kinds – First Success – The Turk – Ziska's Appeal – Second Hussite Victory – The Emperor Besieges Prague – Repulsed – A Second Repulse – The Crown of Bohemia Refused to the Emperor – Valour of the Hussites – Influence of their Struggle on the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century

WENCESLAUS being dead, and the queen espousing the side of the Catholics, the tumults burst out afresh. There was a whole week's fighting, night and day, between the Romanists and the Hussites, on the bridge of the Moldau, leading to the royal castle. No little blood was shed; the churches and convents were pillaged, the monks driven away, and in some instances massacred. [1] But it was likely to have fared ill with the insurgent Bohemians. The Emperor Sigismund, brother of the deceased Wenceslaus, now claimed the crown of Bohemia.. A bitter partizan of Rome, for whose sake he had incurred the eternal disgrace of burning the man to whom he had given his solemn promise of safety, was not likely to stand on scruples or fear to strike. He was marching on Prague to quell the insurrection and take possession of the crown. "Perish that crown," said the Bohemians, "rather than it shall sit on the head of one who has incurred the double odium of tyrant and traitor." The Bohemians resolved on resistance; and now it was that the tempest burst. But the party to strike the first blow was Sigismund.

The campaign, which lasted eighteen years, and which was signalized throughout by the passions of the combatants, the carnage of its fields, and the marvelous, we had almost said miraculous victories which crowned the arms of the Hussites, owed its commencement to the following incident: –
The Hussites had agreed to meet on Michaelmas Day, 1419, on a great plain not far from Prague, and celebrate the Eucharist. On the day appointed some 40,000, it is said, from all the towns and villages around, assembled at the place of rendezvous. Three tables were set, the sacred elements were brought forth and placed upon them, and a priest officiated at each, and gave the Communion in both kinds to the people. The affair was the simplest possible; neither were the tables covered, nor did the priests wear their habits, nor had the people arms; they came as pilgrims with their walking-staves. The affair over, they made a collection to indemnify the man on whose ground they had met; and agreeing to assemble again for a like purpose before Martinmas, they separated, the most part taking the road to Prague, where they arrived at night with lighted torches. Such is the account given by an eye-witness, Benesius Horzowicki, a disciple and friend of Huss; but, says the Jesuit Balbinus, "though a heretic, his account of the affair is trustworthy."

The matter got wind; and the second meeting was not allowed to pass off so quietly as the first. Several hundreds were already on their way, bearing, as before, not arms but walking-staves, when they were met by the intelligence that the troops of the emperor, lying in ambuscade, were waiting their approach. They halted on the road, and sent messengers to the towns in their rear begging assistance. A small body of soldiers was dispatched to their aid, and in the conflict which followed, the imperial cavalry, though in superior force, were put to flight. After the battle, the pilgrims with their defenders pursued their way to Prague, which they entered amid acclamations of joy. The first battle had been fought with the troops of the emperor, and the victory remained with the Bohemians. [2]

The Rubicon had been crossed. The Bohemians must now go forward into the heart of the conflict, which was destined to assume dimensions that were not dreamed of by either party. The Turk, without intending it, came to their help. He attacked the Empire of Sigismund on the side opposite to that of Bohemia. This divided the emperor's forces, and weakened his front against Ziska. But for this apparently fortuitous but in reality Providential occurrence, the Hussite movement might have been crushed before there was time to organize it. The prompt and patriotic Hussite leader saw his advantage, and made haste to rally the whole of Bohemia, before the emperor should have got the Moslem off his hands, and before the armed bands of Germany, now mustering in obedience to the Papal summons, should have had time to bear down upon his little country. He issued a manifesto, signed "Ziska of the Chalice," in which he invoked at once the religion and the patriotism of his countrymen. "Imitate," said he, "your ancestors the ancient Bohemians, who were always able to defend the cause of God and their own... We are collecting troops from all parts, in order to fight against the enemies of truth, and the destroyers of our nation, and I beseech you to inform your preacher that he should exhort, in his sermons, the people, to make war on the Antichrist, and that every one, old and young, should prepare himself for it. I also desire that when I shall be with you there should be no want of bread, beer, victuals, or provender, and that you should provide yourselves with good arms... 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! – Ziska of the Chalice: in the hope of God, Chief of the Taborites." [3]

This appeal was responded to by a burst of enthusiasm. From all parts of Bohemia, from its towns and villages and rural plains, the inhabitants rallied to the standard of Ziska, now planted on Mount Tabor. These hastily assembled masses were but poorly disciplined, and still more poorly armed; but the latter defect was about to be supplied

in a way they little dreamed of.

They had scarce begun their march towards the capital when they encountered a body of imperial cavalry. They routed, captured, and disarmed them. The spoils of the enemy furnished them with the weapons they so greatly needed, and they now saw themselves armed. Flushed with this second victory, Ziska, at the head of his now numerous host, a following rather than an army, entered Prague, where the righteousness of the Hussite cause, and the glory of the success that had so far attended it, were tarnished by the violence committed on their opponents. Many of the Roman Catholics lost their lives, and the number of churches and convents taken possession of, according to both Protestant and Catholic historians, was about 500. The monks were specially obnoxious from their opposition to Huss. Their establishments in Prague and throughout Bohemia were pillaged. These were of great magnificence. AEneas Sylvius, accustomed though he was to the stately edifices of Italy, yet speaks with admiration of the number and beauty of the Bohemian monasteries. A very short while saw them utterly wrecked, and their treasure, which was immense, and which consisted in gold and silver and precious stones, went a long way to defray the expenses of the war. [4]

That the emperor could be worsted, supported as he was by the whole forces of the Empire and the whole influence of the Church, did not enter into any man's mind. Still it began to be apparent that the Hussites were not the contemptible opponents Sigismund had taken them for. He deemed it prudent to come to terms with the Turk, that he might be at liberty to deal with Ziska.

Assembling an army, contemporary historians say of 100,000 men, of various nationalities, he marched on Prague, now in possession of the Hussites, and laid siege to it. An idea may be formed of the strength of the besieging force from the rank and number of the commanders. Under the emperor, who held of course the supreme command, were five electors, two dukes, two landgraves, and more than fifty German princes. But this great host, so proudly officered, was destined to be ignominiously beaten. The citizens of Prague, under the brave Ziska, drove them with disgrace from before their walls. The imperialists avenged themselves for their defeat by the atrocities they inflicted in their retreat. Burning, rapine, and slaughter marked their track, for they fancied they saw in every Bohemian a Hussite and enemy. [5]

A second attempt did the emperor make on Prague the same year (1420), only to subject himself and the arms of the Empire to the disgrace of a second repulse. Outrages again marked the retreating steps of the invaders. [6] These repeated successes invested the name of Ziska with great renown, and raised the expectations and courage of his followers to the highest pitch. It is not wonderful if their minds began to be heated, seeing as they did the armies of the Empire fleeing before them. Mount Tabor, where the standard of Ziska continued to float, was to become, so they thought, the head of the earth, more holy than Zion, more invulnerable than the Capitol. It was to be the center and throne of a universal empire, which was to bless the nations with righteous laws, and civil and religious freedom. The armies of Ziska were swelled from another and different cause. A report was spread throughout Bohemia that all the towns and villages of the country (five only excepted) were to be swallowed up by an earthquake, and this prediction obtaining general credence, the cities were forsaken, and many of their inhabitants crowded to the camp, deeming the chance of victory under so brave and fortunate a leader as Ziska very much preferable to waiting the certainty of obscure and inglorious entombment in the approaching fate of their native villages. [7]

At this stage of the affair the Bohemians held a Diet at Czaslau (1521) to deliberate on their course for the future. The first matter that occupied them was the disposal of their crown. They declared Sigismund unworthy to wear it, and resolved to offer it to the King of Poland or to a prince of his dynasty. The second question was, on what basis should they accept a Peace? The four following articles they declared indispensable in order to this, and they ever after adhered to them in all their negotiations, whether with the imperial or with the ecclesiastical authorities. These were as follow: –

  • 1. The free preaching of the Gospel.
  • 2. The celebration of the Sacrament of the Supper in both kinds.
  • 3. The secularization of the ecclesiastical property, reserving only so much of it as might yield a comfortable subsistence to the clergy. 4. The execution of the laws against all crimes, by whomsoever committed, whether laics or clerics. [8]

Further, the Diet established a regency for the government of the kingdom, composed of magnates, nobles, and burghers, with Ziska as ,its president. [9] The Emperor Sigismund sent proposals to the Diet, offering to confirm their liberties and redress all their just wrong, provided they would accept him as their king, and threatening them with war in case of refusal. The promises and the threats of the emperor, the Diet held in equal contempt. They returned for answer an indignant rejection of his propositions, reminding Sigismund that he had broken his word in the matter of the safe-conduct, that he had inculpated himself by participating in the murder of Huss and Jerome, [10] and that he had assumed the attitude of an enemy of Bohemia by publishing the bull of excommunication which the Pope had fulminated against their native land, and by stirring

up the German nationalities to invade it. [11]

The war now resumed its course. It was marked by the usual concomitants of military strife, rapine and siege, fields wasted, cities burned, and the arts and industries suspended. The conflict was interesting as terrible, the odds being so overwhelming. A little nation was seen contending single-handed against the numerous armies and various nationalities of the Empire. Such a conflict the Bohemians never could have sustained but for their faith in God, whose aid would not be wanting, they believed, to their righteous cause. Nor can any one who surveys the wonderful course of the campaign fail to see that this aid was indeed vouchsafed. Victory invariably declared on the side of the Hussites. Ziska won battle after battle, and apart from the character of the cause of which he was the champion, he may be said to have deserved the success that attended him, by the feats of valor which he performed in the field, and the consummate ability which he displayed as a general. He completely outmaneuvered the armies of the emperor; he overwhelmed them by surprises, and baffled them by new and masterly tactics. His name had now become a tower of strength to his friends, and a terror to his enemies. Every day his renown extended, and in the same proportion did the confidence of his soldiers in him and in themselves increase. They forgot the odds arrayed against them, and with every new day they went forth with redoubled courage to meet their enemies in the field, and to achieve new and more glorious victories.

The cause for which they fought had a hallowing effect upon their conduct in the camp, and raised them above the fear of death. In their marches they were commonly preceded by their pastors, who bore aloft the Cup, the symbol in which they conquered. Before joining battle the Sacrament was administered in both kinds to the soldiers, and, having partaken, they went into action singing hymns. The spirit with which the Hussites contended, combining that of confessors with soldiers, was wholly new in the armies of that age. In the rear of the army came the women, who tended the sick and wounded, and in cases of necessity worked upon the ramparts. Let us pause a moment in our tragic narration. To this day the Hussites have never had justice done them. Their cause was branded with every epithet of condemnation and abhorrence by their contemporaries. At this we do not wonder. But succeeding ages even have been slow to perceive the sublimity of their struggle, and reluctant to acknowledge the great benefits that flowed from it to Christendom. It is time to remove the odium under which it has long lain. The Hussites present the first instance in history of a nation voluntarily associating in a holy bond to maintain the right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. True, they maintained that right with the sword; but for this they were not to blame. It was not left to them to choose the weapons with which to fight their sacred battle. The fulmination of the Pope, and the invasion of their country by the armies of the emperor, left them no alternative but arms. But, having reluctantly unsheathed the sword, the Hussites used it to such good purpose that their enemies long remembered the lesson that had been taught them. Their struggle paved the way for the quiet entrance of the Reformation upon the stage of the sixteenth century. Had not the Hussites fought and bled, the men of that era would have had a harder struggle before they could have launched their great movement. Charles V. long stood with his hand upon his sword before he found courage to draw it, remembering the terrible recoil of the Hussite war on those who had commenced it.


Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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