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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 3 — John Huss and the Hussite Wars

Chapter 17 — Brilliant successes of the Hussites

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Another Crusade – Bishop of Winchester its Leader – The Crusaders – Panic – Booty reaped by the Hussites – Sigismund Negotiates for the Crown – Failure of Negotiation – Hussites Invade Germany and Austria – Papal Bull – A New Crusade – Panic and Flight of the Invaders.

SCARCE had this tempest passed over the Hussites when a more terrible one was seen rolling up against their devoted land. The very next year (1427)a yet greater crusade than that which had come to so inglorious an issue, was organized and set in motion. This invasion, like the former, was instigated by the Pope, who this time turned his eyes to a new quarter for a captain to lead it. He might well despair of finding a German prince willing to head such an expedition, after the woeful experience the nobles, of that land had had of Bohemian warfare. The English were at that time winning great renown in France, and why should they be unwilling, thought the Pope, to win equal fame, and at the same time to serve the Church, by turning their arms against the heretics of Bohemia?. Who could tell but the warlike Norman might know how to break the spell which had hitherto chained victory to the Hussite banners, although the Teuton had not found out the important secret?

Pope Martin, following out his idea, selected Henry de Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, the son of the celebrated John of Gaunt, and brother of Henry IV., as a suitable person on whom to bestow this mark of confidence. He first created him a cardinal, he next made him his legate-a-latere, accompanying this distinguished dignity with a commission equally distinguished, and which, if difficult, would confer honor proportionately great if successfully accomplished. In short, the Pope put him at the head of a new Bohemian crusade, which he had called into existence by his bull given at Rome, February 16th, 1427. This bull the Pope sent to Henry of Winchester, and the bishop had forthwith to provide the important additions of money, soldiers, and success. [1]

The bishop, now become legate-a-latere, published in England the bull sanctioning the crusade, not doubting that he should instantly see thousands of enthusiastic warriors pressing forward to fight under his banner. He was mortified, however, to find that few Englishmen were ambitious of taking part in an enterprise beyond doubt very holy, but which beyond doubt would be very bloody. Beaufort crossed the sea to Belgium, where better fortune awaited him. In the venerable and very ecclesiastical city of Mechlin he published the Pope's bull, and waited the effect. It was all that the warlike legate-a-latere could wish. No such response had been given to any similar summons since the day that the voice of Peter the Hermit had thrilled the Western nations, and precipitated them in fanatical masses upon the infidels of Palestine. The whole of that vast region which extends from the Rhine to the Elbe, and from the shores of the Baltic to the summits of the Alps, seemed to rise up at the voice of this new Peter. Around his standard there gathered a host of motley nationalities, composed of the shepherds of the mountains, and the artisans and traders of the towns, of the peasants who tilled the fields, and the lords and princes that owned them. Contemporary writers say that the army that now assembled consisted of ninety thousand infantry and an equal number of cavalry. This doubtless is so far a guess, for in those days neither armies nor nations were accurately told, but it is without doubt that the numbers that swelled this the fourth crusade very much exceeded those of the former one. Here were swords enough surely to convert all the heretics in Bohemia.

Led by three electors of the Empire, by many princes and counts, and headed by the legate-a-latere of the Pope, this great host marched forward to the scene, as it believed, of its predestined triumph. It would strike such a blow as would redeem all past defeats, and put it out of the power of heresy ever again to lift up its head on the soil of the holy Roman Empire. The very greatness of the danger that now threatened the Hussites helped to ward it off. The patriotism of all ranks in Bohemia, from the magnate to the peasant, was roused. Many Roman Catholics who till now had opposed their Protestant countrymen, feeling the love of country stronger in their bosom than the homage of creed, joined the standard of the great Procopius. The invaders entered Bohemia in June, 1427, and sat down before the town of Meiss which they meant to besiege.

The Bohemians marched to meet their invaders. They were now within sight of them, and the two armies were separated only by the river that flows past Meiss. The crusaders were in greatly superior force, but instead of dashing across the stream, and closing in battle with the Hussites whom they had come so far to meet, they stood gazing in silence at those warriors, whose features, hardened by constant exposure, and begrimed with the smoke and dust of battle, seemed to realize the pictures of terror which report had made familiar to their imaginations long before they came in contact with the reality. It was only for a few moments that the invaders contemplated the Hussite ranks. A sudden panic fell upon them. They turned and fled in the utmost confusion. The legate was as one who awakens from a dream. His labors and hopes at the very moment when, as he thought, they were to be crowned with victory, suddenly vanished in a shameful rout. The Hussites, plunging into the river, and climbing the opposite bank, hung upon the rear of the fugitives, slaughtering them mercilessly. The carnage was increased by the fury of the peasantry, who rose and avenged upon the foe, in his retreat,

the ravages he had committed in his advance. The booty taken was so immense that there was scarcely an individual, of whatever station, in all Bohemia, who was not suddenly made rich. [2]

The Pope comforted the humiliated Henry de Beaufort by sending him a letter of condolence (October 2nd, 1427), in which he hinted that a second attempt might have a better issue. But the legate, who had found that if the doctrines of the Hussites were false their swords were sharp, would meddle no further in their affairs. Not so the Emperor Sigismund. Still coveting the Bohemian crown, but despairing of gaining possession of it by arms, he now resolved to try what diplomacy could effect. But the Bohemians, who felt that the gulf between the emperor and themselves, first opened by the stake of Huss, had been vastly widened by the blood since shed in the wars into which he had forced them, declined being ruled by him. Such, at least, was the feeling of the great majority of the nation. But Procopius was unwilling to forego the hopes of peace, so greatly needed by a stricken and bleeding country. He had combated for the Bohemian liberties and the Hussite faith on the battle-field. He was ready to die for them. But he hinged, if it were possible on anything like honorable and safe terms, to close these frightful wars. In this hope he assembled the Bohemian Diet at Prague, in 1429, and got its consent to go to Vienna and lay the terms of the Bohemian people before the emperor in person.

These were substantially the same as the four articles mentioned in a former chapter, and which the Hussites, when the struggle opened, had agreed on as the indispensable basis of all negotiations for peace that might at any time be entered upon – namely, the free preaching of the Gospel, Communion in both kinds, a satisfactory arrangement of the ecclesiastical property, and the execution of the laws against all crimes by whomsoever committed. The likelihood was small that so bigoted a monarch as Sigismund would agree to these terms; but though the journey had been ten times longer, and the chance of success ten times smaller, Procopius would have done what he did if thereby he might bind up his country's wounds. It was as might have been anticipated. Sigismund would not listen to the voice of a suffering but magnanimous and pious people; and Procopius returned to Prague, his embassy unaccomplished, but with the satisfaction that he had held out the olive-branch, and that if the sword must again be unsheathed, the blood which would flow 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 so often carried war into Bohemia experienced its miseries on their own soil. [3] This policy might appear to the Bohemians, on a large view of their affairs, the wisest that they could pursue. We know at least that it was adopted at the recommendation of the enlightened and patriotic man who guided their councils. Their overtures for peace had been haughtily rejected; and it was now manifest that they could reckon on not a day's tranquillity, save in the way of an unconditional surrender of their crown to the emperor, and an equally unconditional surrender of their conscience to the Pope. Much as they loved peace, they were not prepared to purchase it at such a price. And instead of waiting till war should come to them, they thought it better to anticipate it by carrying it into the countries of their enemies. Procopius entered Germany (1429) at the head of 80,000 warriors, and in the campaign of that and the following summers he carried his conquests from the gates of Magdeburg in the north, to the further limits of Franconia in the south. The whole of Western Germany felt the weight of his sword. Some hundred towns and castles he converted into ruins: he exacted a heavy ransom from the wealthy cities, and the barons and bishops he made to pay sums equally large as the price of their escape from captivity or death. Such towns as Bamberg and Nuremberg, and such magnates as the Elector of Brandenburg and the Bishop of Salzburg, were rated each at 10,000 ducats. This was an enormous sum at a time when the gold-yielding countries were undiscovered, and the affluence of their mines had not cheapened the price of the precious metals in the markets of Europe. The return homeward of the army of Procopius was attended by 300 wagons, which groaned under the weight of the immense booty that he carried with him on his march back to Bohemia.

We record this invasion without either justifying or condemning it. Were we to judge of it, we should feel bound to take into account the character of the age, and the circumstances of the men. The Bohemians were surrounded by nationalities who bitterly hated them, and who would not be at peace with them. They knew that their faith made them the objects of incessant intrigues. They had it in their choice, they believed, to inflict these ravages or to endure them, and seeing war there must be, they preferred that it should be abroad, not at home.

But we submit that the lasting tranquillity and the higher interests of the nation might have been more effectually secured in the long run by a policy directed to the intellectual, the moral, and especially the spiritual elevation of Bohemia. The heroism of a nation cannot be maintained apart from its moral and spiritual condition. The seat of valor is the conscience.

Conscience can make of the man a coward, or it can make of him a hero. Living as the Hussites did in the continual excitement of camps and battles and victories, it could not be but that their

moral and spiritual life should decline. If, confiding in that Arm which had hitherto so wonderfully guarded their land, which had given them victory on a score of battlefields, and which had twice chased their enemies from their soil when they came against them in overwhelming numbers – if, we say, leaning on that Arm, they had spread, not their swords, but their opinions over Germany, they would have taken the best of all revenges, not on the Germans only, but on Her whose seat is on the Seven Hills, and who had called up and directed against their nation all those terrible tempests that had burst, one after the other, over it. These are the invasions which Rome dreads most. It is not men clad in mail, but men clad in the armor of truth, wielding not the sword but the Scriptures, before whom Rome trembles. But we must recall our canon of criticism, and judge the Hussites by the age in which they lived.

It was not their fault if the fifteenth century did not put them in possession of that clear, well-defined system of Truth, and of those great facilities for spreading it over the earth, which the nineteenth has put within our reach. Their piety and patriotism, as a principle, may have been equal, nay, superior to ours, but the ethical maxims which regulate the, display of these virtues were not then so fully developed. Procopius, the great leader of the Bohemians, lived in an age when missions were yet remote.

There was trembling through all Germany. Alarm was felt even at Rome, for the Hussites had made their arms the terror of all Europe. The Pope and the emperor took counsel how they might close a source of danger which threatened to devastate Christendom, and which they themselves in an evil hour had opened. They convoked a Diet at Nuremberg. There it was resolved to organize a new expedition against Bohemia. The Pope – not Martin V., who died of apoplexy on the 20th of February, 1431; but Eugenius IV., who succeeded him on the 16th of March – proclaimed through his legate, Cardinal Julian Cesarini, a fifth crusade. No ordinary advantages were held forth as inducements to embark in this most meritorious but most hazardous service. Persons under a vow of pilgrimage to Rome, or to St. James of Compostella in Spain, might have release on condition of giving the money they would have spent on their journey to aid in the war. Nor were rewards wanting to those who, though unable to fight, were yet willing to pray. Intending crusaders might do shrift for half a Bohemian penny, nor need the penitent pay even this small sum unless he chose. Confessors were appointed to give absolution of even the most heinous crimes, such as burning churches, and murdering priests, that the crusader might go into battle with a clear conscience. And verily he had need of all these aids to fortify him, when he thought of those with whom he was about to join battle; for every Hussite was believed to have within him a legion of fiends, and it was no light matter to meet a foe like this. But whatever might happen, the safety of the crusader had been cared for. If he fell in battle, he went straight to Paradise; and if he survived, there awaited him a Paradise on earth in the booty he was sure to reap in the Bohemian land, which would make him rich for life. [4]

Besides these spiritual lures, the feeling of exasperation was kept alive in the breasts of the Germans, by the memorials of the recent Hussite invasion still visible on the face of the country. Their ravaged fields and ruined cities continually in their sight whetted their desire for vengeance. Besides, German valor had been sorely tarnished by defeat abroad and by disaster at home, and it was not wonderful that the Teutons should seize this chance of wiping out these stains from the national escutcheon. Accordingly, every day new troops of crusaders arrived at the place of rendezvous, which was the city of Nuremberg, and the army now assembled there numbered, horse and foot, 130,000 men. [5]

On the 1st of August, 1431, the crusaders crossed the Bohemian frontier, penetrating through the great forest which covered the country on the Bavarian side. They were brilliantly led, as concerned rank, for at their head marched quite a host of princes spiritual and temporal. Chief among these was the legate Julian Cesarini. The very Catholic Cochlaeus hints that these cardinals and archbishops might have found worthier employment, and he even doubts whether the practice of priests appearing in mail at the head of armies can be justified by the Levites of old, who were specially exempt from serving in arms that they might wholly attend to their service in the Tabernacle. The feelings of the Hussites as day by day they received tidings of the numbers, equipments, and near approach of the host, we can well imagine. Clouds as terrible had ere this darkened their sky, but they had seen an omnipotent Hand suddenly disperse them. They were prepared, as aforetime, to stand shoulder to shoulder in defense of their country and their faith, but any army they could hope to bring into the field would not amount to half the number of that which was now marching against them. They reflected, however, that victory did not always declare on the side of the largest battalions, and, lifting their eyes to heaven, they calmly awaited the approach of the foe. The invading host advanced, "chanting triumph before victory," says Lenfant, and arriving at Tachau, it halted there a week. Nothing could have better suited the Bohemians. Forming into three columns the invaders moved forward. Procopius fell back on their approach, sowing reports as he retreated that the Bohemians had quarreled among themselves, and were fleeing. His design was to lure

the enemy farther into the country, and fall upon him on all sides. On the morning of the 14th August the Bohemians marched to meet the foe. That foe now became aware of the stratagem which had been practiced upon him. The terrible Hussite soldiers, who were believed to be in flight, were advancing to offer battle.

The enemy were encamped near the town of Reisenberg. The Hussites were not yet in sight, but the sounds of their approach struck upon the ear of the Germans. The rumble of their wagons, and their war-hymn chanted by the whole army as it marched bravely forward to battle, were distinctly heard. Cardinal Cesarini and a companion climbed a little hill to view the impending conflict. Beneath them was the host which they expected soon to see engaged in victorious fight. It was an imposing spectacle, this great army of many nationalities, with its waving banners, its mail-clad knights, its helmeted cavalry, its long lines of wagons, and its numerous artillery. The cardinal and his friend had gazed only a few minutes when they were startled by a strange and sudden movement in the host. As if smitten by some invisible power, it appeared all at once to break up and scatter. The soldiers threw away their armor and fled, one this way, another that; and the wagoners, emptying their vehicles of their load, set off across the plain at full gallop. Struck with consternation and amazement, the cardinal hurried down to the field, and soon learned the cause of the catastrophe. The army had been seized with a mysterious panic. That panic extended to the officers equally with the soldiers. The Duke of Bavaria was one of the first to flee. He left behind him his carriage, in the hope that its spoil might tempt the enemy and delay their pursuit. Behind him, also in inglorious flight, came the Elector of Brandenburg; and following close on the elector were others of less note, chased from the field by this unseen terror. The army followed, if that could be styled an army which so lately had been a marshaled and bannered host but was now only a rabble rout, fleeing when no man pursued.

To do him justice, the only man who did not lose his head that day was the Papal legate Cesarini. Amazed, mortified, and indignant, he took his stand in the path of the crowd of fugitives, in the hope of compelling them to stand and show fight. He addressed them with the spirit of a soldier, bidding them remember the glory of their ancestors. If their pagan forefathers had shown such courage in fighting for dumb idols, surely it became their descendants to show at least equal courage in fighting for Christ, and the salvation of souls. But deeming, it may be, this style of argument too high-pitched for the men and the occasion, the cardinal pressed upon the terrified crowd the more prudential and practical consideration, that they had a better chance of saving their lives by standing and fighting than by running away; that they were sure to be overtaken by the light cavalry of the Bohemians, and that the peasantry, whose anger they had incurred by the pillage and slaughter they had inflicted in their advance, would rise upon them and cut them down in their flight. With these words he succeeded in rallying some bodies of the fugitives. But it was only for a few minutes. They stood their ground only till the Bohemians were within a short distance of them, and then that strange terror again fell upon them, and the stampede (to use a modern phrase) became so perfectly uncontrollable, that the legate himself was borne away in the current of bewildered and hurrying men. Much did the cardinal leave behind him in his enforced flight. First and chiefly, he lost that great anticipated triumph of which he had been so sure. His experience in this respect was precisely that of another cardinal-legate, his predecessor, Henry de Beaufort. It was a rude awakening, in which he opened his eyes, not on glorious victory, but on humiliating and bitter defeat. Cesarini incurred other losses on this fatal field. He left behind him his hat, his cross, his bell, and the Pope's bull proclaiming the crusade – that same crusade which had come to so ridiculous a termination. The booty was immense. Wagon-loads of coin, destined for the payment of the troops, became now the property of the Bohemians, besides the multifarious spoil of the field – artillery, arms, banners, dresses, gold and silver plate, and utensils of all kinds; and, adds an old chronicler, with a touch of humor, "many wagons of excellent wine." [6]

This was now the second time the strange phenomenon of panic had been repeated in the Hussite wars. The Germans are naturally brave; they have proved their valor on a hundred fields. They advanced against the Bohemians in vastly superior numbers; and if panic there was to be, we should rather have looked for it in the little Hussite army. When they saw the horizon filled with German foot and horse, it would not have been surprising if the Bohemians had turned and fled. But that the Germans should flee is explicable only with reference to the moral state of the combatants. It shows that a good conscience is the best equipment of an army, and will do much to win victory. But there is something more in the facts we have related than the courage inspired by the consciousness of a good cause, and the feebleness and cowardice engendered by the consciousness of a bad one. There is here the touch of a Divine finger – the infusion of a preternatural terror. So great was the stupefaction with which the crusaders were smitten that many of them, instead of continuing their flight into their own country, wandered back into Bohemia; while others of them, who reached their

homes in Nuremberg, did not know their native city when they entered it, and began to beg for lodgings as if they were among strangers.

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