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Hussitism

The Czech lands were affected by an economic depression under the reign of Wenceslas IV. Highwaymen and plague epidemics racked the country, while private wars raged. The Church, which was supposed to supervise the observance of God’s commandments, focused on attaining positions of power and accumulating property.  Clergymen had long been performing jobs in the royal administration and instead of money they received a church office as settlement. Church ceremonies were performed for them by a poor cleric without means.  Criticism of the Church grew stronger for its deviation from its original principles, not just in Bohemia, but all over Europe. Critics considered a return to the original ideals of the Church to be the remedy to this situation.  They demanded that the Church renounce secular power and extensive property, which of course it didn’t do.

Master Jan Hus, a teacher at Prague University, preached at the Bethlehem Chapel. For him the bible was the greatest paradigm for living and the highest authority. He promoted the idea of a poor church. Coming closer to the perfect world of God was supposed to be the purpose of earthly endeavour. According to him and his followers, the disintegration of contemporary life in the country was indicative of the imminent arrival of the Anti-Christ. The German teachers at Prague University did not agree with Hus’s opinions. They apparently complained to the Pope himself about the alleged Czech heretics. Angry at the damage done to the reputation of the kingdom abroad, Wenceslas IV took retaliatory measures. By way of the Decree of Kutná Hora in 1409, he put control of the university into the hands of the Hus faction. He changed the rules of voting so that the Bohemian nation received three votes as opposed to one joint vote for all foreign nations. This resulted in a deep rift leading to the departure of German teachers and students to other imperial universities.

The king initially supported Hus, but Hus’s criticism of the selling of indulgences and the worsening reputation of a kingdom where the king apparently stayed his hand over a heretic changed the situation.  The pope declared an interdict (i.e. a ban on church ceremonies – funerals, weddings, christenings, etc.) on Prague for as long as Jan Hus resided there.

Part of the Church tried to resolve problems (primarily consisting of a schism) with the aid of councils.

And this was timely, because in the second decade of the century, Europe had no fewer than three popes wrangling among themselves. Jan Hus went to the Council of Constance, which had been called by the king’s brother Sigismund Luxemburg, in order to defend the rightness of the Bohemian remedy for the Church.  His efforts were in vain. He did not convince the Church dignitaries, and he refused to renounce his opinions. On 6 July 1415 he was burned to death at Constance. Today, this date is commemorated as a national state holiday of the Czech Republic. The delegates at the council managed to end the papal schism.

Of course, the outcome of the council failed to calm the situation in Bohemia. On the contrary, the unrest grew in strength.  People went to extremes to show off their piousness. Pilgrimages took place and masses were held in “the mountains.” People were convinced that the end of a corrupted world was nigh. Faithful Christians could only attain salvation in a quintet of Bohemian cities – Žatec, Pilsen, Klatovy, Louny and Slaný – and in the aforementioned mountains.

On 30 July 1419. Prague citizens led by the preacher Jan Želivský, threw councilors out of the New Town Hall and killed them. The New Town defenestration began the Hussite revolution/movement, which placed Bohemia at the fulcrum of European events for several decades.  When it ended, the Catholic Church gave up on preserving the single faith in its sphere of influence.

In the spring of 1420, the Hussites founded their own city – Tábor. They strived to realize their idea of a socially just and equal society here.

Sigismund, whose claim to the throne was not recognized, tried to conquer the kingdom through strength of arms. He organized several crusades, but without success. At an assembly in Časlav in 1421, a collective twenty-member body was elected, which governed in place of the deposed Sigismund. This body comprised eight burghers, seven members of the lower nobility and five lords. The Hussite programme became the so-called Four Prague Articles – freedom for spreading the Word of God, receiving communion of consecrated bread and wine at mass (sub utraque specie), a ban on secular power for priests, and the punishment of mortal sins.

The greatest Hussite commander was Jan Žižka of Trocnov, the creator of defensive tactics based on using wagon fortifications. For the type of fighting waged at that time, a wagon fortification was practically an insurmountable obstacle for a knight’s charge.

The Hussite movement had already divided into several strands during Žižka’s lifetime – the Praguers, Orphans (although they were only called this after Žižka’s death) and the Taborites. The leading Taborite figure became the priest Prokop Holý, also called Procopius the Great.  Under his leadership, the Hussite forces won battles at Ústí nad Labem in 1426 and at Tachov in 1427. The prepared battle at Domažlice in 1431 did not even happen because the crusader troops fled when the Hussite forces roared the chorale “Ktož sú boží bojovníci” (“Ye Who Are Warriors of God”) in unison before the start of the battle when they were in full view.

During the first phase of the revolution, the Hussites focused on defending against external attacks.  In the second phase, they themselves began to launch offensives.  They not only headed for the other lands of the Bohemian Crown (which besides Bohemia also comprised Moravia and Silesia, as well as Upper and Lower Lusatia) but also went to Slovakia, German areas of the Empire and even reached the Baltic in the service of the Polish king.

The Catholic Church was then happier to stake its hopes on diplomacy rather than brute force. Consequently, it began negotiations with the Hussites at the Council of Basle. The Hussites’ radical wing wanted to make the creed of sub utraque specie an obligation for all inhabitants of the kingdom regardless of the casualties, fatigue and exhaustion ensuing from long wars. In an effort to weaken the Catholics, they laid siege to the Catholic bastion of Pilsen, but the city held firm.

They themselves were defeated by a coalition of moderate Hussites and Czech Catholics at the battle of Lipany in 1434. The cause of the defeat was not the numerical superiority of the coalition attackers, but a military trick – by pretending to flee the battlefield, the coalition tempted the radicals into launching an ill-considered foray out of their wagon fortifications.  The subsequent counterattack and the rolling over of the open wagon fortifications resulted in their defeat.

In 1436, the so-called Compactata, an agreement with the Council of Basle, was declared. For the kingdom of Bohemia and the Moravian margraviate, taking the host from a chalice was permitted and the other three Prague articles were allowed in a diluted form. For the first time in history, the Catholic Church reconciled itself to two faiths on a territory it controlled. Hussitism foreshadowed the European Reformation and it was a step forward for religious freedom. It made the Bohemian military art famous and Czech warriors were in demand in many armies.

At that time, the fortified wagon arranged in an appropriate place could not be vanquished by military means.  It was only in danger of being destroyed while being moved, if its crew could not set it up and close it off in time. Its importance didn’t wane until the development of cannons.

Hussitism resulted in major property transfers. The richest class – the German burghers – disappeared from the cities.  Assets that had originally been Church assets were stripped by nobles and cities regardless of whether they professed to follow the Ultraquist or Catholic faith. The political influence of the Church also declined. It lost its representation in the estates assembly. After many years of waiting, Sigismund eventually became king, but he had to confirm the given situation in order to take charge of government.

In 1452, George of Poděbrady was elected governor of the Bohemian diet.  He was a member of a Bohemian aristocratic family and a moderate Hussite who had fought on the winning side at the Battle of Lipany.   In 1458 he was elected king by the estates of the nobility following the death of King Ladislaus (Ladislav Pohrobek). He struggled with the label of being the “Hussite heretic” ruler, because he reigned in a kingdom where parity between both the Ultraquist and Catholic faiths was embedded.   Pope Pius II exploited the fact that the Compactata had been approved by a council and not the pope and so he declared it null and void.

George of Poděbrady faced up to the threat of international isolation and the subsequent restoration of the sole Catholic faith through diplomatic negotiations.  He proposed the creation of a peaceful union of European monarchs with its own legislative and judicial bodies (e.g. in a manner similar to today’s UN). A mission from the Bohemian king travelled to the courts of European sovereigns in the years 1464–1466, but unfortunately it was not a success.

Moreover, George of Poděbrady had to deal with a deteriorating domestic situation, because Czech Catholics allied themselves with the Gruneberg (Zelená Hora) alliance and rose up against him.   The state faced an external threat from the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, who hankered after the Bohemian throne. In this situation, George of Poděbrady concluded a succession agreement towards the end of his life with the Jagiellon family of Polish kings.