Of peasant origin, he was born in Husinec, Bohemia (from which his name is derived). He studied theology at the Univ. of Prague, was ordained a priest c.1400, and in 1402 was appointed preacher of the Bethlehem Chapel, a foundation dedicated to preaching in the Czech language. He early came under the influence of the writings of John Wyclif, and though he did not fully espouse Wyclif's doctrine, he opposed its condemnation (1403) by the Univ. of Prague and translated Wyclif's Triologus into Czech.
In his sermons Huss attacked the abuses of the clergy, thus earning the hostility of many priests, who turned the archbishop of Prague against him. Huss, however, had the support of Wenceslaus IV (see Wenceslaus, Holy Roman emperor). He furthermore represented the Czech national aspirations in conflict with the German elements in Bohemia. In 1408 the archbishop and the university opposed the king's scheme to have Bohemia observe neutrality between the rival popes Gregory XII and Benedict XIII (Pedro de Luna). Only the Czech members of the university supported Wenceslaus, who as a result changed (1409) the university charter, giving the Czechs a predominant position; he made Huss rector of the university. The Bohemian clergy thus were split into two groups.
This situation was not helped when, in the same year, the Council of Pisa deposed both popes and chose Pietro Cardinal Philarghi as Alexander V, who was shortly succeeded by Baldassare Cardinal Cossa as John XXIII. With papal support, the archbishop forbade preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel, ordered the burning of Wyclif's books, and excommunicated (1410) Huss and his followers. Wenceslaus stood by Huss and in 1411 brought about a truce, but the fight flared up again in 1412, when Huss openly denounced the bulls of the antipope John XXIII against King Lancelot of Naples and preached against indulgences.
The pope excommunicated Huss, who—to save Prague from the papal interdict—retired to a castle near Tabor. During his two years of exile he wrote his chief works, including the De ecclesia, which increasingly reflected Wyclif's influence. He denied the infallibility of an immoral pope, asserted the ultimate authority of Scripture over the church, and accorded the state the right and duty to supervise the church. Because of these ideas he is generally considered a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.
At the invitation of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who granted him a safe-conduct, Huss presented himself in 1414 at the Council of Constance to justify his views. The council refused to recognize his safe-conduct, and Huss was imprisoned and tried as a heretic. His friend Jerome of Prague was also seized and put on trial. Huss denied some of the beliefs attributed to him; others he refused to modify unless convinced of their error. The council condemned his writings and sentenced him to be burned at the stake, where he died heroically. By his death he became a national hero. He was declared a martyr by the Univ. of Prague, and the modern Czech Protestant church claims to continue his tradition.
See his De ecclesia (tr. by D. S. Schaff, 1915); letters (ed. by M. Spinka, 1973); biography by M. Spinka (1968, rev ed. 1978).