Jan Žižka: one of history's greatest military leaders, who was blind but undefeated
During the Hussite Wars, one Bohemian military leader triumphed in every battle – despite constantly being outnumbered, outgunned and not even being able to see the battlefield. Jonny Wilkes explores the real story of Jan Žižka, protagonist of new Hollywood blockbuster Medieval
Any list of history’s greatest military commanders will include some clear and undeniable choices: Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, and maybe Sun Tzu for his book The Art of War. But no list is complete without Jan Žižka.
A national hero to the Czechs, the medieval general was an unmatched tactician and an innovator in weaponry, who never lost a single battle despite leading an army of peasants and farmers against hardened soldiers. And most of the time, he was either partially or (later in his life) completely blind.
While Žižka’s deeds in the Hussite Wars made him a legend, his life before has either been lost to history or can only be guessed. Maybe born c1360 or 1376 in Trocnov, Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic) to an upper-class family, it is believed he became an experienced mercenary, maybe a bandit too. At some point, he lost one of his eyes. He may have fought in the first battle of Tannenberg in 1410, a major engagement that shifted the balance of power in Europe, before possibly entering the service of King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia's wife, Sophie of Bavaria.
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What can be said is that Žižka became a follower of the religious firebrand Jan Hus, whose movement was a forerunner of the Reformation. For criticising the Roman Catholic Church and seeking reform, Hus had been condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415. His ‘Hussites’, hailing him as a martyr, continued to grow in number and split into factions, with Žižka joining the more radical and militant Taborites, who called for a complete break from Rome.
In 1419, religious tensions between the Church and Hussites snapped. In what became known as the First Defenestration of Prague (not to be confused with the second, the 1618 Defenestration of Prague) a Hussite procession led by priest Jan Želivský – with, according to some accounts, Žižka present – turned violent and several of Prague’s town councillors were thrown out of a window. The town judge (or ‘magistrate’) and the burgomaster were also reportedly defenestrated.
Shortly afterwards, Wenceslas died and his half-brother Sigismund, King of Hungary, looked to take the Bohemian throne. He was a staunch opponent of the Hussites, who had betrayed Hus to his death.
These events lit the spark of the Hussite Wars. Žižka was immediately appointed a commander of the Taborite forces and undertook the daunting task of getting them ready to face not only Sigismund’s royalist armies, but – since the pope launched a crusade to eradicate the Hussites – thousands of experienced mercenaries and knights from across Europe.
He had to make do with Bohemian peasants or farmers, poorly armed and equipped, and with next to no training. Žižka set about introducing drills and discipline, as well as a devotion to their cause to turn the Hussites into an army. His real strength as a leader, though, was his ability to utilise his limited resources effectively: farmers were more used to agricultural flails and pitchforks than swords and bows, so he simply adapted and gave them flails and pitchforks as weapons.
But to be one of history’s greatest commanders required innovation. That came in the shape of his war wagons and battle-winning tactic Wagenburg (wagon fort). Reinforcing common carts with thick wooden sides, mounting small cannons and guns on top, and manning each with up to 20 soldiers with hand weapons, crossbows and pistols, Žižka developed the rudimentary concept of mobile artillery.
His real strength as a leader was his ability to utilise his limited resources effectively: farmers were more used to agricultural flails and pitchforks than swords and bows, so he simply adapted and gave them flails and pitchforks as weapons
These could be positioned in a square to form a defensive barricade – the wagenburg – against which enemy cavalry could not launch an attack. The fighting was on his terms. His Hussites could stand their ground against numerically superior forces, and win.
From his first battle, at Sudoměř in March 1420, Žižka’s revolutionary tactics and strategic mind proved their worth. By establishing a position in a swampy area, his 400-strong force, which included women and children being escorted across Bohemia, defeated an estimated 700–2,500 crusaders forced to dismount in the unfavourable terrain. He followed that by defending Prague at the battle of Vítkov Hill. Thousands of knights led by Sigismund were repulsed by an estimated 60-80 Hussites, before retreating in panic amidst Žižka’s surprise counterattack.
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Even losing his other eye – legend states that he got hit by a splinter from a tree struck by a crossbow bolt – could not stop Žižka. Totally blind, he won the battle of Kutná Hora in 1421; surrounded, he organised his wagons into an offensive column and broke his way through Sigismund’s lines. At nearly every engagement, notably Deutschbrod (1422) and Horice (1423), his forces were always outnumbered – yet not once did Žižka lose a battle.
When the Hussites fought among themselves, hurling Bohemia into a civil war, he continued his perfect record. His eventual end, in 1424, came not on the battlefield, but the sickbed after succumbing to plague. His soldiers were so grief stricken that they referred to themselves as “orphans”.
Yet according to legend, just before he died Žižka ordered his skin to be flayed from his body and used to make a drum; that way, he could still lead and inspire – as only a truly great military commander could.
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.