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Friday, August 18, 2017
Date Posted:

Commencement of the Hussite Wars

Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

WENCESLAUS being dead, and the queen espousing the side of the Catholics, there was fresh tumult.

But the reformation fired by Wicliffe and furthered by the martyrdoms of his Bohemian followers Huss and Jerome was to be unstoppable. Sanguinary fighting between the Romanists and the Hussites on the Charles Bridge and the sack of Monasteries further steeled papal devotee Emperor Sigismund. As brother of the deceased Wenceslaus he was claiming the crown of Bohemia as he marched to Prague to quell insurrection. Thus commenced a campaign lasting eighteen years signalized throughout by the passions of the combatants, the carnage of its fields, and some truly miraculous victories achieved by the Hussites sealing Wicliffe‘s stand for Truth. (Dr Gillis has studied the circumstances of these battles and personally visited some of the battlefields and the impression of God honouring his cause is overwhelming.)

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 unarmed men, women and children assembled from the towns and villages around. Three tables were set and the minister gave the Communion in both kinds. The affair was simple with uncovered tables and unrobed ministers. They made a collection to indemnify the man on whose ground they had met, agreed a further meeting and separated, many returning to Prague. Such is the account given by an eye-witness, Benesius Horzowicki Huss‘ disciple and friend but later vouched for by Jesuit Balbinus that although "a heretic, his account of the affair is trustworthy". On the second occasion several hundreds were already on their way when they learned the troops of the emperor were lying in ambush. A small body of soldiers was dispatched to their aid following urgent requests by messengers. The imperial cavalry, though in superior force, were put to flight. After the battle, the pilgrims were acclaimed with joy on re-entering Prague.

The Turks attack Sigismund

Providentially the Turks attacked Sigismund in the east dividing his forces and preventing an all out attack against the Hussites. Ziska the Hussite leader saw his advantage and rallied Bohemia before German papal reinforcement could arrive. He issued a manifesto stating "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."

A second victory

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. 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, was now sadly tarnished by the violence committed on their opponents. Yet that the emperor could be worsted, supported by the forces of the Empire and Church combined, still seemed impossible. But that the Hussites were not the contemptible opponents Sigismund had taken them for caused him 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.

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. 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 centre 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.

Diet of Czaslau

In 1421 the Bohemians held a Diet at Czaslau (Now Caslav -70 km SE Prague with still existing medieval fortifications evocative of this time) to deliberate on their course for the future. The first matter that occupied them was the disposal of their crown. They declared Sigismund unworthy and sort 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 follows: -

  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.

Further, the Diet established a regency for the government of the kingdom, composed of magnates, nobles, and burghers, with Ziska as its president. 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. His promises and threats the Diet held in equal contempt. Their rejection also reminded Sigismund that he had broken his word in the matter of his own promised safe-conduct to Huss and Jerome resulting in their murder, and further, he became 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 ("for the destruction of the Wycliffites, Hussites and all other heretics in Bohemia" making these annals of Czech protestantism ours also which is why Wylie covers them at length.)

Odds forgotten

War resumed. 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 was 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 valour which he performed in the field, and the consummate ability which he displayed as a general. He completely outmanoeuvred 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.

Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis

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