The Hussite Wars (1421-1436)

By Kor

In the history of Europe the Hussite Wars are often neglected, despite standing out as a prelude to both military and religious reform. The Bohemian Reformation of Jan Hus can be directly linked to the Reformation of the 16th Century, and the military developments begun by Jan Zizka had a major effect on the art of war, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. It is therefore worth taking a look at this long conflict.

Origins of the Wars

By the beginning of the 15th century, there was unrest in Bohemia. The Czech and German ethnic groups were struggling for control of the country, and there was some religious dissent, caused by the teachings of the rector of Prague, Jan Hus, a Czech. He was strongly opposed to the Catholic habit of selling indulgences – basically tickets to heaven – to pay for Church undertakings such as Crusades. When his teachings became known outside of Bohemia, he was quickly denounced by the Church, but invited to argue his case at the Council of Constance in 1415. He received a promise of safety from the brother of the King of Hungary, Sigismund; however, his pledge proved worthless and Hus was put on trial for heresy and subsequently burnt. The angry Czechs rose in revolt, throwing Catholic priests out of churches and replacing them with Hussites, who gave communion in both bread and wine to the people. In the Catholic Church, only priests took communion in wine and the people received only the bread. The Hussites, therefore, adopted the chalice that kept the wine as their symbol in battle, and they became known as Ultraquists – from the Latin “Sub Ultraque Parte”, meaning “[Communion] In both kinds”.

First Crusade

When the Hussites of Prague, in their anger, threw out a number of councillors from the Town Hall and murdered them, King Wenceslas suffered a stroke and died. His brother, Sigismund of Hungary, promptly claimed the throne. However, as he had been responsible for the death of Jan Hus, the Hussites took up arms and the Hussite Wars began. After strongly garrisoning Prague, the Royalists got the citizens to surrender. Jan Zizka, a one-eyed general who had for a time garrisoned the Prague castle of Vysehrad, then abandoned the city in favour of the stronghold Hradiste, which was renamed to Tabor, after the Biblical Sermon on the Mount.

Then, on 17 March 1420, a crusade was declared and all Christians were invited to join and subdue the heretic Hussites. Before these crusaders arrived, the Royalists tried to destroy Jan Zizka’s force. However, at Sudomer he inflicted a serious defeat on them, largely due to his novel use of War Wagons, from which crossbowmen and handgunners could attack the enemy without great personal risk. Zizka’s flailmen and other infantry did the rest. After his success and further fortification of Tabor, Zizka received a plea for help from the Prague Hussites. Since their surrender they had been grievously persecuted, and they now sought liberation from Sigismund. However, the crusaders had by now arrived and laid siege to the city.

Zizka immediately came to their help. The crusaders had nearly surrounded the city, and Zizka noticed that only the Vitkov hill was kept open. Realising its importance, he hurried to it and fortified it with his war wagons, palisades and wooden bulwarks. The crusaders, discovering their error too late, attacked Zizka on 14 July, but were defeated. They fled in disorder, abandoning the siege. Sigismund had himself crowned King of Bohemia in St Vitus Cathedral, which was still in Royalist hands, but no one was impressed. Sigismund abandoned the country a few months later, with Hussite presence in Bohemia growing ever stronger and the Czechs uniting in their resistance.

Second Crusade

The Hussites denounced King Sigismund, and promoted Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania to King of Bohemia. Negotiations with the Lithuanians would take some time, and in 1421 the Hussites were to suffer a serious setback: Jan Zizka, while directing a siege, was hit by an arrow in his one good eye. Miraculously, he survived, but he was now fully blind. The rest of his battles he would direct and plan based on oral reports of the situation.

By now a new crusading army, led again by Sigismund, arrived. They laid siege to a Hussite stronghold, but when they heard Zizka was on his way with a relieving army, they abandoned the enterprise. For a moment the Royalists trapped and slaughtered Hussites at Kutna Hora, but Zizka broke through the crusading army and escaped north. There was no pursuit, and soon Zizka was again attacking groups of crusaders. Sigismund, fearing for his position at Kutna Hora, decided to evacuate and tried to make a stand against Zizka at Habry. This attempt failed and the crusaders were hunted down as they tried to escape, first jamming the bridge and then, when trying to cross the ice, breaking through and drowning in large numbers. It was by now clear that the Second Crusade, too, was a failure.

Third Crusade

Grand Duke Vytautas declared in 1422 that he would take the Hussites under his wing and bring them back into the fold of the church. Sigismund, fearful of losing what was left of his reputation and honour, decided to press on with the Third Crusade to try and break the Hussites before the Lithuanians arrived. The crusaders managed to break up the siege of Karlstein, and signed a truce with the Lithuanians. They then returned home, and thus made the Third Crusade the most successful of the wars against the Hussites.

Fourth Crusade

By 1427, the Hussites had fought a series of civil wars, and Jan Zizka had died. The crusaders hoped that now the Hussites – who had been invading Austria and Silesia – would be weakened from the constant fighting and might be subdued. Thus the Fourth Crusade was proclaimed, beginning with the siege of Stribro. However, this was something of a disaster, as the crusaders abandoned the siege when the Czechs approached, only suffering casualties when the Hussites caught up with the fleeing mass. The Hussites were not attacked again for another four years, and in stead brought the war to Europe. Their “Beautiful Rides”, as they called them, brought them to Hungary, Austria, Germany and Poland, where they burnt down everything in their path and amassed as much plunder as possible.

Fifth Crusade

By now, Sigismund was not just facing the Hussites but also civil wars, rebellions, and a Turkish threat to Hungary through Serbia. A Fifth Crusade was declared to lighten the pressure from the Hussites, in 1431. At the battle of Domazlice, however, the Hussites scattered the crusaders, who this time had War Wagons of their own. Nevertheless, they were not properly outfitted for battle and were also used incorrectly. This final humiliation brought the Catholic powers to the negotiating table, while the Beautiful Rides continued and brought the Czechs as far as the Baltic. However, religious strife broke out among the Hussites, fighting over minor theological disputes. The Hussite leader Prokop the Great was killed in a large battle in which the moderate Hussites defeated the more fanatical groups, known as the Taborites and Orebites. The flower of the Hussite forces had died, and King Sigismund, in 1437, declared the war with the Hussites to be over. Moving into Prague again, he took great care not to antagonise his former opponents. His death, a short while later, as well as the short reign of his successor, meant that the Ultraquist heresies survived and transformed into the Reformed Church of Bohemia.