See H. Kaminsky, History of the Hussite Revolution (1967).
The Hussite movement assumed a revolutionary character as soon as the news of the execution of Jan Hus by order of the Council of Constance (6 July 1415) reached Prague. The knights and nobles of Bohemia and Moravia, who were in favour of church reform, sent a protest to the Council of Constance on (2 September 1415), known as the protestatio Bohemorum, which condemned the execution of Hus in the strongest language. The attitude of Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor, who sent threatening letters to Bohemia declaring that he would shortly drown all Wycliffites and Hussites, greatly incensed the people.
Troubles broke out in various parts of Bohemia, and drove many Catholic priests from their parishes. Almost from the first the Hussites divided into two groups, though many minor divisions also arose among them. Shortly before his death Hus had accepted a doctrine preached during his absence by his adherents at Prague, namely that of Utraquism, or the obligation of the faithful to receive communion in both kinds (sub utraque specie). This doctrine became the watchword of the moderate Hussites known as the Utraquists or Calixtines, from the Latin calix (the chalice), in Czech kališníci (from kalich); while the more extreme Hussites soon became known as the Taborites (táborité), named after the city of Tábor that became their centre; or Orphans (sirotci) a name they adopted after the death of their beloved leader and general Jan Žižka.
Under the influence of his brother Sigismund, King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia endeavored to stem the Hussite movement. A certain number of Hussites led by Nicolas of Hus — no relation of Jan Hus, though of the same town — left Prague. They held meetings in various parts of Bohemia, particularly at Sezimovo Ústí (not to be confused with Ústí nad Labem), near the spot where the town of Tábor was founded soon afterwards. At these meetings they violently denounced Sigismund, and the people everywhere prepared for war.
In spite of the departure of many prominent Hussites the troubles at Prague continued. On 30 July 1419, when a Hussite procession headed by the priest Jan Želivský marched through the streets of Prague, anti-Hussites threw stones at the Hussites from the windows of the town-hall of the ‘new town’. The people, headed by Jan Žižka, threw the burgomaster and several town-councillors, who had instigated this outrage, from the windows (the first "Defenestration of Prague"), whereupon the crowd killed them immediately. King Wenceslaus died of natural causes a few days afterwards (16 August 1419).
The death of the king resulted in renewed troubles in Prague and in almost all parts of Bohemia. Many Catholics, mostly Germans — for they had almost all remained faithful to the papal cause — suffered expulsion from the Bohemian cities. In Prague, in November 1419, severe fighting took place between the Hussites and the mercenaries whom Queen Sophia (widow of Wenceslaus and regent after the death of her husband) had hurriedly collected. After a considerable part of the city had been destroyed, the parties declared a truce on 13 November. The nobles, who though favourable to the Hussite cause supported the regent, promised to act as mediators with Sigismund, while the citizens of Prague consented to restore to the royal forces the castle of Vyšehrad, which had fallen into their hands. Žižka, who disapproved of this compromise, left Prague and retired to Plzeň. Unable to maintain himself there he marched to southern Bohemia, and after defeating the Catholics at the battle of Sudoměř (25 March 1420) in the first pitched battle of the Hussite wars, he arrived at Ústí, one of the earliest meeting-places of the Hussites. Not considering its situation sufficiently strong, he moved to the neighbouring new settlement of the Hussites, called by the biblical name of Tábor.
Tabor soon became the centre of the advanced Hussites, who differed from the Utraquists by recognizing only two sacraments - Baptism and Communion - and by rejecting most of the ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church. The ecclesiastical organization of Tabor had a somewhat puritanical character, and the government was established on a thoroughly democratic basis. Four captains of the people (hejtmané) were elected, one of whom was Žižka; and a very strictly military discipline was instituted.
Depending on the terrain, Hussites prepared carts for the battle, forming them into squares or circles. The carts were joined wheel to wheel by chains and positioned aslant, with their corners attached to each other, so that horses could be harnessed to them quickly, if necessary. In front of this wall of carts a ditch was dug by camp followers. The crew of each cart consisted of 16-22 soldiers: 4-8 crossbowmen, 2 handgunners, 6-8 soldiers equipped with pikes or flails (the flail was the Hussite "national weapon"), 2 shield carriers and 2 drivers.
The Hussites' battle consisted of two stages, the first defensive, the second an offensive counterattack. In the first stage the army placed the carts near the enemy army and by means of artillery fire provoked the enemy into battle. The artillery would usually inflict heavy casualties at close range.
In order to avoid more losses, the enemy knights finally attacked. Then the infantry hidden behind the carts used firearms and crossbows to ward off the attack, weakening the enemy. The shooters aimed first at the horses, depriving the cavalry of its main advantage. Many of the knights died as their horses were shot and they fell.
As soon as the enemy's morale was lowered, the second stage, an offensive counterattack, began. The infantry and the cavalry burst out from behind the carts striking violently at the enemy - mostly from the flanks. While fighting on the flanks and being shelled from the carts the enemy was not able to put up much resistance. They were forced to withdraw, leaving behind dismounted knights in heavy armor who were unable to escape the battlefield. The enemy armies suffered heavy losses and the Hussites soon had the reputation of not taking captives.
These articles, which contain the essence of the Hussite doctrine, were rejected by Sigismund, mainly through the influence of the papal legates, who considered them prejudicial to the authority of the Roman see. Hostilities therefore continued. Though Sigismund had retired from Prague, the castles of Vyšehrad and Hradčany remained in possession of his troops. The citizens of Prague laid siege to the Vyšehrad (see Battle of Vyšehrad), and towards the end of October (1420) the garrison was on the point of capitulating through famine. Sigismund attempted to relieve the fortress, but was decisively defeated by the Hussites on 1 November near the village of Pankrác. The castles of Vyšehrad and Hradčany now capitulated, and shortly afterwards almost all Bohemia fell into the hands of the Hussites.
Internal troubles prevented the followers of Hus from fully capitalising on their victory. At Prague a demagogue, the priest Jan Želivský, for a time obtained almost unlimited authority over the lower classes of the townsmen; and at Tábor a religious communistic movement (that of the so-called Adamites) was sternly suppressed by Žižka. Shortly afterwards a new crusade against the Hussites was undertaken. A large German army entered Bohemia and in August 1421 laid siege to the town of Žatec. After an unsuccessful attempt of storming the city, the crusaders retreated somewhat ingloriously on hearing that the Hussite troops were approaching. Sigismund only arrived in Bohemia at the end of the year 1421. He took possession of the town of Kutná Hora but was decisively defeated by Jan Žižka at the battle of Německý Brod (Deutschbrod) on 6 January 1422.
Bohemia was for a time free from foreign intervention, but internal discord again broke out, caused partly by theological strife and partly by the ambition of agitators. Jan Želivský was on 9 March 1422 arrested by the town council of Prague and decapitated. There were troubles at Tábor also, where a more advanced party opposed Žižka's authority. Bohemia obtained a temporary respite when, in 1422, Prince Sigismund Korybut of Lithuania (nephew of King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland) briefly became ruler of the country. He was a governor sent by the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Vytautas, who accepted the Hussite proposal to be their new king. His authority was recognized by the Utraquist nobles, the citizens of Prague, and the more moderate Taborites. Sigismund Korybut, however, remained a short time in Bohemia, as in 1423 he was called to come back to Lithuania, after Jagiello had made a treaty with Sigismund. On his departure, civil war broke out, the Taborites opposing in arms the more moderate Utraquists, who at this period are also called by the chroniclers the "Praguers", as Prague was their principal stronghold. On 27 April 1423, Žižka now again leading, the Taborites defeated the Utraquist army under Čeněk of Wartenberg at the Battle of Hořice; and shortly afterwards an armistice was concluded at Konopilt.
Papal influence had meanwhile succeeded in calling forth a new crusade against Bohemia, but it resulted in complete failure. In spite of the endeavours of their rulers, Poles and Lithuanians did not wish to attack the kindred Czechs; the Germans were prevented by internal discord from taking joint action against the Hussites; and the King of Denmark, who had landed in Germany with a large force intending to take part in the crusade, soon returned to his own country. Free for a time from foreign aggression, the Hussites invaded Moravia, where a large part of the population favoured their creed; but, paralysed again by dissensions, they soon returned to Bohemia. The city of Hradec Králové, which had been under Utraquist rule, espoused the doctrine of Tabor, and called Žižka to its aid. After several military successes gained by Žižka in 1423 and the following year, a treaty of peace between the Hussites was concluded on 13 September 1424 at Libeň, a village near Prague, now part of that city.
In 1426 the Hussites were again attacked by foreign enemies. In June of that year their forces, led by Prokop the Great - who took the command of the Taborites shortly after Žižka's death in October 1424 - and Sigismund Korybut, who had returned to Bohemia, signally defeated the Germans at Ústí nad Labem. After this great victory, and another at the Battle of Tachov in 1427, the Hussites repeatedly invaded Germany, though they made no attempt to occupy permanently any part of the country.
From 1421 to 1427 the Hussites received military support from the Poles. Poland, though a devoutly Catholic nation, was supporting the Hussites on non-religious grounds. Poland's motive was revenge against Germany for the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War (1409-1411). Because of this, Jan Žižka arranged for the crown of Bohemia to be offered to Jagiello, the King of Poland, who, under pressure from his own advisors, refused it. The crown was then offered to Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania and Vytautas accepted it, with the condition that the Hussites reunite with the Catholic Church. In 1422, Žižka accepted the Polish king's nephew, Sigismund Korybut, as regent of Bohemia for Vytautas. Korybut never managed to return the Hussites to the Catholic Church; and he even had to resort to force of arms when dealing with the various factions. Korybut did not tolerate the Protestant rebels breaking their promise of reuniting with the Catholic Church. On a few occasions, he even fought against both the Taborites and the Oreborites to try to force them into reuniting. Large scale Polish involvement was ended in 1427 when Korybut was arrested by the Hussites after Polish plans to hand over the Hussite forces to Emperor Sigismund were discovered. The Poles, however, did not really want to withdraw; the only reason they did is because the Pope planned to call a crusade against Poland if they did not.
Spanilé jízdy, or beautiful rides, as the Hussites called them, were undertaken in many different foreign lands. Throughout the Hussite Wars, especially under the leadership of Prokop the Great, invasions were made into Silesia, Saxony, Hungary, Lusatia, and Meissen. Every raid that the Hussites carried out was against a country that had supplied the Germans with men during the anti-Hussite crusades. These raids were made to try to strike enough fear in these areas to make sure that they would not help out the Germans again. However, the raids did not have the desired effect; these countries kept supplying soldiers to the crusade against the Hussites. During yet another war between Poland and the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights, some Hussite raiders helped the Poles. In 1433, a Hussite army of 7000 fighting men marched through Neumark into Prussia and captured Dirschau on the Vistula River. They would eventually reach the mouth of the Vistula where it enters the Baltic Sea near Danzig. There, they performed a great victory celebration to show that nothing but the ocean could stop the Hussites. The Prussian historian Heinrich von Treitschke would later write that they had "greeted the sea with a wild Czech song about God's warriors, and filled their water bottles with brine in token that the Baltic once more obeyed the Slavs."
The almost uninterrupted series of victories of the Hussites now rendered vain all hope of subduing them by force of arms. Moreover, the conspicuously democratic character of the Hussite movement caused the German princes, who were afraid that such views might extend to their own countries, to desire peace. Many Hussites, particularly the Utraquist clergy, were also in favour of peace. Negotiations for this purpose were to take place at the ecumenical council which had been summoned to meet at Basel on 3 March 1431. The Roman See reluctantly consented to the presence of heretics at this council, but indignantly rejected the suggestion of the Hussites that members of the Greek Church, and representatives of all Christian creeds, should also be present. Before definitely giving its consent to peace negotiations, the Roman Church determined on making a last effort to reduce the Hussites to subjection. On 1 August 1431 a large army of crusaders under Frederick, Margrave of Brandenburg, whom Cardinal Cesarini accompanied as papal legate, crossed the Bohemian border and on 14 August the crusaders reached the town of Domažlice. Upon the arrival of the Hussite army reinforced with some 6000 Polish hussites and under the command of Prokop or — as the legend has it — upon seeing the Hussite banners and hearing their battle hymn "Kdož jsou Boží bojovníci" ("Ye Who are Warriors of God"), the crusaders immediately took to flight.
On 15 October the members of the council, already assembled at Basel, issued a formal invitation to the Hussites to take part in its deliberations. Prolonged negotiations ensued; but finally a Hussite embassy, led by Prokop and including John of Rokycany, the Taborite bishop Nicolas of Pelhřímov, the ‘English Hussite’ Peter Payne and many others, arrived at Basel on 4 January 1433. It was found impossible to reach an agreement. Negotiations were not, however, broken off, and a change in the political situation of Bohemia finally resulted in a settlement. In 1434 war again broke out between the Utraquists and the Taborites. On 30 May of that year the Taborite army, led by Prokop the Great and Prokop the Lesser, who both fell in the battle, was totally defeated and almost annihilated at Lipany. An end to the Polish Hussite movement in Poland would arrive as well: the Polish Hussites, often reinforced by their Czech Slav brethren, had been raiding there for years, and the royal Polish forces under Władysław III of Varna would defeat the Hussites at the Battle of Grotniki, bringing the Hussite Wars to an end.
The moderate party thus obtained the upper hand; and it formulated its demands in a document which was finally accepted by the Church of Rome in a slightly modified form, and which is known as ‘the compacts.’ The compacts, mainly founded on the articles of Prague, declare that:—
I. The Holy Sacrament is to be given freely in both kinds to all Christians in Bohemia and Moravia, and to those elsewhere who adhere to the faith of these two countries.
2. All mortal sins shall be punished and extirpated by those whose office it is so to do.
3. The word of God is to be freely and truthfully preached by the priests of the Lord, and by worthy deacons.
4. The priests in the time of the law of grace shall claim no ownership of worldly possessions.
On 5 July 1436 the compacts were formally accepted and signed at Jihlava (Iglau), in Moravia, by King Sigismund, by the Hussite delegates, and by the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The last-named, however, refused to recognize as archbishop of Prague John of Rokycany, who had been elected to that dignity by the estates of Bohemia.
The Utraquist creed, frequently varying in its details, continued to be that of the established church of Bohemia until all non-Catholic religious services were prohibited shortly after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. The Taborite party never recovered from its defeat at Lipan, and after the town of Tábor had been captured by George of Poděbrady in 1452, Utraquist religious worship was established there. The Bohemian brethren, whose intellectual originator was Petr Chelčický but whose actual founders were Brother Gregory, a nephew of Archbishop Rokycany, and Michael, curate of Žamberk, to a certain extent continued the Taborite traditions, and in the 15th and 16th centuries included most of the strongest opponents of Rome in Bohemia.
J. A. Komenský (Comenius), a member of the brotherhood, claimed for the members of his church that they were the genuine inheritors of the doctrines of Hus. After the beginning of the German Reformation many Utraquists adopted to a large extent the doctrines of Martin Luther and of John Calvin; and in 1567 obtained the repeal of the compacts, which no longer seemed sufficiently far-reaching. From the end of the 16th century the inheritors of the Hussite tradition in Bohemia were included in the more general name of "Protestants" borne by the adherents of the Reformation.
All histories of Bohemia devote a large amount of space to the Hussite movement. See:
Original text from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica