What were the Hussite Wars?
Sometimes known as the Hussite Revolution or the Bohemian Wars, the Hussite Wars lasted roughly 15 years, between 1419 and 1434. They were fought between a coalition of Catholic forces – backed by the pope, the Bohemian king (and later Holy Roman Emperor) Sigismund and numerous Catholic-friendly European states – and a group known as the Hussites, who represented a precursor to the Martin Luther-led Protestant Reformation a century later.
The Hussites were devoted followers of Jan Hus, a theologian and religious reformer from Bohemia (a kingdom that broadly covered what is now the Czech Republic), whose memory they set out to protect and whose teachings they sought to promote.
What did Jan Hus believe in?
A preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, where he delivered sermons in Czech rather than Latin, Hus was outspoken about the indulgences of the Catholic Church, which at that time was experiencing the Western Schism, a split within the Church where rival bishops claimed to be the true pope. Hus spoke out against Pope Alexander V and his successor, the antipope John XXIII, and was eventually excommunicated.
A Council of Constance was convened in 1414 to settle the Western Schism once and for all. Hus was called before the council to repudiate his past pronouncements, which he refused to do: “I would not for a chapel of gold retreat from the truth!” Despite being assured of his immunity from prosecution by the council, Hus was imprisoned for heresy and eventually burned at the stake in 1415.
How did the Hussites form?
Once news of Jan Hus’s killing emerged, there was much disquiet across Bohemia, with many cases of civil disturbance breaking out. Hus’s followers were no minority group. A great many enraged Bohemian noblemen united to voice their protest to his death, offering protection to anyone being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Hussites were also found in the corridors of governmental power, while King Wenceslas IV also expressed his anger towards the perpetrators.
How did the Hussite movement grow?
At first, this coalition of noblemen did little more than use words against those who’d authorised the killing of Hus. Some then ordered the removal of Catholic priests from their parishes for failing to give communion using both bread and wine, a key tenet of Hus’s teachings. Hussitism began to spread strongly across this region of central Europe, which drew the ire of the Catholic Church and raised the spectre of a civil war.
To avoid this, Wenceslas was persuaded by his half-brother Sigismund of the need to stop protecting Hussites, whom he regarded as heretics. As a result, those previously banished Catholic priests were reappointed while prominent Hussites were exiled. The outcry over this accelerated Wenceslas’s demise and he died of a stroke in 1419. Sigismund was now king of Bohemia.
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How did the Hussite Wars break out?
The Hussites weren’t a single unified group. They contained many factions with differing aims and doctrines. For instance, the Utraquists represented the more moderate wing and favoured reform within the Church’s existing hierarchy, while the more radical factions, such as the Taborites, sought to abolish the hierarchy, its rituals and its earthly possessions.
They stood for stripping back the practice of worship to include only that referred to in the Bible. Nonetheless, despite their differences, the Hussites enjoyed early success once war broke out. In 1420, Sigismund acted on a papal bull from Martin V permitting a crusade against whom he saw as heretics. Backed by a multitude of German princes and boasting significant military numbers, he laid siege to Prague, causing the Hussites to set forth their demands in a document known as the Four Articles of Prague.
These articles were essentially a distillation of their core beliefs, but were rejected by Sigismund and the conflict continued, resulting in his defeat at the battle of Vítkov Hill in the summer of 1420 by Jan Žižka, the head of the Hussite army.
How successful were subsequent crusades?
Little more than 12 months later, a second crusade was launched, but Sigismund’s occupation of the town of Kutná Hora was short-lived and his men were again defeated in battle by Jan Žižka. By 1427, two more crusades had been declared. The crusaders were unsuccessful in both of these too.
How were the Hussite Wars resolved?
Such was the defensive strength of the Hussites that the crusade-supporting German princes desired a peaceful settlement, as did the moderate Utraquists. But, still eager to completely eradicate the Hussite influence, the Church authorised one last crusade before entering into negotiations. Again, the crusaders were vanquished.
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Throughout the wars, there had been internal division within the Hussite ranks, and in 1434 hostilities broke out between the Utraquists and the Taborites, with the latter defeated at the battle of Lipany (where they also faced opposition from loyalist Catholics). A compromise agreement was then reached between the moderate Hussites and Rome – demands known as ‘the compacts’.
As a result, the Utraquists represented the dominant church in Bohemia for the best part of the next two centuries until, in 1620, any and all religious activity that wasn’t Catholic in nature was outlawed.
Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed