When the time came for great moral and spiritual revival to sweep the world Wicliffe was raised up.
Endued with the Holy Spirit, of which Councils and Popes vainly imagined they had the exclusive monopoly, Wicliffe received such deep insights into Scriptures that he was able to lay hold of the scheme of Free Salvation revealed in the Bible. He emancipated himself from the errors that had caused so many ages to miss the path which he now found anew . Further the clarity of his writings easily conveyed his understanding to others.
All Bohemia stirred
Wicliffe had spoken and now spoke again. His voice was silent but his writings mightily awakened Europe. The Council of Constance posthumously condemned him and went on to burn at the stake Huss and Jerome for adhering to these same doctrines. Yes (says Wylie taking a lofty view) the Spirit of God was present at Constance, guiding the Council in its decisions. Huss had been burned and his ashes committed to the Rhine but His death went on to move the hearts of his countrymen more powerfully than even his living voice had been able to do.
All Bohemia was stirred by what had occurred. The University of Prague issued a manifesto vindicating the memory of the man who had fallen a victim to the hatred of the priesthood and the perfidy of the emperor. His death was declared to be murder, and the Fathers at Constance were styled "an assembly of the satraps of Antichrist." The consequences of pent-up wrath were about to be witnessed.
Back in Bohemia the barons and nobles held a full council. Speaking in the name of the Bohemian nation, they addressed an energetic protest to Constance against the crime there enacted. They called Huss the " Apostle of Bohemia", declaring,
"Whoever shall affirm that heresy is spread abroad in Bohemia, lies in his throat, and is a traitor to our kingdom; and, while we leave vengeance to God, to Whom it belongs, we shall carry our complaints to the footstool of the indubitable apostolic Pontiff, when the Church shall again be ruled by such an one; declaring, at the same time, that no ordinance of man shall hinder our protecting the humble and faithful preachers of the words of our Lord Jesus, and our defending them fearlessly, even to the shedding of blood".
Neighbouring Moravia concurred. The doctrines of Huss were taught and the writings of Wicliffe read, and each compared with such portions of Holy Writ as were accessible to the people. The fast multiplying followers of these evangelical doctrines began to be called Hussites. The King, Wenceslaus, shut up in his palace seemed indifferent but he secretly rejoiced in the progress of Hussism hoping the spoiling of the wealthy ecclesiastical corporations and houses would benefit him. Disliking the priests, "the most dangerous of all the comedians," he did not condemn Hussism. Within four years from the death of Huss, the bulk of the nation had embraced the faith for which he died. The Bohemians resumed their practice of Communion in both kinds, and worshipped in the national language.
Taborites and Calixtines
Some Hussites entirely rejected the authority of the Church of Rome, and made the Scriptures their only standard. These came to bear the name of Taborites, from the scene of one of their early encampments on a hill resembling , they thought, the Scriptural Tabor. Others, the Calixtines remained nominally in the communion of Rome but insisted upon retaining the cup which became the national Protestant symbol. It was blazoned on their standards and carried in the van of their armies; it was sculptured on the portals of their churches, and set up over the gates of their cities. It was ever placed in studied contrast to the Roman symbol, which was the cross.
Back at Constance the Council fanned smouldering Bohemia into a conflagration. Covetous and wealthy Otho de Colonna was elected pope on November 14th, 1417 after a short conclave in the council house. He was conducted aloft in dazzling pontifical splendour amongst the acclamations of voices and the pealing of bells to the cathedral, where seated upon the high altar he was incensed and received homage under the title of Martin V. Bohemia was amongst his first cares. He hurled excommunication against the land of Bohemia determined to crush the Hussites. He then exhorted the Emperor Sigismund and several neighbouring German states to a crusade. The Council closed with the pope granting a plenary indulgence forgiving all their sins. The Bohemians saw the terrible tempest gathering on their borders, but they were not dismayed.
Leaving Pope Martin to pursue his journey to Rome in further extravagant magnificence , we shall again turn our attention to Prague. Alas, the poor land of Bohemia! Woe on woe seemed to be coming upon it. Its two most illustrious sons had expired at the stake; the Pope had hurled excommunication against it; the emperor was collecting his forces to invade it; and the craven Wenceslaus had neither heart to feel nor spirit to resent the affront which had been done his kingdom. The citizens were distracted, for though on fire with indignation they had neither counsellor nor captain.
At that crisis a remarkable man arose to organize the nation and lead its armies. His name was John Trocznowski, but he is better known by the sobriquet of Ziska - that is, the one-eyed. The circumstances attending his birth were believed to foreshadow his extraordinary destiny. His mother went one harvest day to visit the reapers on the paternal estates, and being suddenly taken with the pains of labour, she was delivered of a son beneath an oak-tree in the field. The child grew to manhood, adopted the profession of arms, distinguished himself in the wars of Poland, and returning to his native country, became chamberlain to King Wenceslaus. In the palace of the jovial monarch there was little from morning to night save feasting and revelry, and Ziska, nothing loath, bore his part in all the coarse humours and boisterous sports of his master. But his life was not destined to close thus ignobly.
The shock which the martyrdom of Huss gave the whole nation, was not unfelt by Ziska in the palace. The gay courtier suddenly became thoughtful. He might be seen traversing, with pensive brow and folded arms, the long corridors of the palace, the windows of which look down on the broad stream of the river Moldau (today Vlatava in Czech), and at other times on the towers of Prague which look down upon the plains beyond, which stretch out towards that quarter of the horizon where the pile of Huss had been kindled.
One day the monarch surprised him in this thoughtful mood. "What is this?" said Wenceslaus, somewhat astonished to see one with a sad countenance in his palace. "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.
Matters come to a head
Ziska, who had accepted the authorization not in jest but in earnest, watched for his opportunity. It soon came. The Pope fulminated his bull of crusade against the Hussites. There followed great excitement throughout Bohemia, and especially in its capital, Prague. The burghers assembled to deliberate on the measures to be adopted for avenging the nation's insulted honour, and defending its threatened independence. Ziska, armed with the royal authorization, suddenly appeared in the midst of them. The citizens were emboldened when they saw one who stood so high, as they believed, in the favour of the king, putting himself at their head; they concluded that Wenceslaus also was with them, and would further their enterprise. In this, however, they were mistaken. The liberty accorded their proceedings they owed, not to the approbation, but to the pusillanimity of the king.
The factions became more embittered every day. Tumult and massacre broke out in Prague. The senators took refuge in the town-house. They were pursued thither, thrown out at the window (one of two famous protestant defenestrations in Prague) and received on the pikes of the insurgents. The king, on receiving the news of the outrage, was so excited, whether from fear or anger is not known, that he had a fit of apoplexy, and died in a few days, but the events Wicliffe‘s witness had kindled were now unstoppable.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis