A series of crusades launched in the fifteenth century against the Hussites, a religious movement in Bohemia that was held to be heretical by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Hussite movement derives its name from Jan Hus, an influential teacher at the University of Prague, who became popular as an eloquent and fervent preacher who severely castigated clerical vices. His theology was neither unique nor entirely revolutionary. But the situation in Bohemia was favorable for him. The Czech aristocracy and the mostly Czech citizens of lower rank resented the higher clergy and the leading citizens, who were predominantly German and supported the Crown. In 1409 Hus and his friends induced King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia to change the constitution of the university in order to secure better promotion of Czech students. As a consequence, many German students left Prague, and soon charges of heresy were made against Hus because he shared some views of the late John Wyclif, the English Lollard heretic.
Hus was forced to leave Prague in 1412 because of his criticism of a papal indulgence against King Ladislas of Naples. Sheltered by nobles in southern Bohemia, Hus came into closer contact with peasants and radicalized his preaching. The church Council of Konstanz, which convened in 1414, invited Hus to defend his opinions. He was given a safe-conduct by the protector of the council, Sigismund, king of the Romans, but he was burned to death on 6 July 1415. Embittered and enraged, 452 Czech lords and nobles issued a fierce protest. The religious reformers in Bohemia now began to be called Hussites. In March 1417 the University of Prague asserted that laymen should receive communion in both kinds (Lat. sub utraque specie), that is, wine as well as bread. This belief, known as Utraquism, became the dominant characteristic of the Hussite movement.
When the Hussites were expelled from their churches in Prague, rebels led by a former Premonstratensian monk, Jan Zelivsky, took over the city on 30 July 1419. King Wenceslas died on 16 August 1419. His brother and heir Sigismund was held responsible for the burning of Jan Hus, and was therefore unacceptable to the Hussites. Sigismund assembled his forces at Breslau, the capital of Silesia and the second city of the Bohemian realm, where on 17 March 1420 a crusade against the Hussite heretics was officially proclaimed. The royal troops conquered the western part of Prague with the royal palace and the cathedral, where Sigismund was crowned as king of Bohemia. On 14 July 1420, however, Jan Žižka, a former captain of Wenceslas’s palace guard, defeated the royal army near Prague. Bohemia proper— although not Moravia, Silesia, and Lusatia (Lausitz)—was lost to the king, with the exception of a few isolated towns that had German majorities or were anxious not to lose their commercial relations outside Bohemia. Fearing that the end of the world was near, radical preachers and peasants formed Christian model societies in southern Bohemia on a mountain called Tabor and in the northeast on a mountain called Horeb. The breakdown of traditional authority was followed by rioting. Lower-class radicals were defeated both at Prague, where Jan Zelivsky perished, and at Tabor, where Jan Žižka emerged as a military dictator.
In June 1421 a diet at Caslav deposed Sigismund and agreed on four principles proposed by the University of Prague, which became known as the Four Articles of Prague: freedom of preaching, reception of the chalice by laymen, relinquishing of worldly power and wealth by the church, and proper punishment of all public mortal sins. This program was accepted even by the highest officer of the realm, the burggrave Cenek of Wartenberg, and by the archbishop of Prague, the German-born Konrad von Vechta, who had recently crowned Sigismund. In order to replace Sigismund, Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania and then his nephew Sigismund Korybut were invited to Bohemia, but Hussite military leaders such as Jan Žižka (d. 11 October 1424) and his successor Prokop the Great opposed any restoration of the monarchy.
Crusades against the Hussites
Despite these quarrels, the Hussites successfully survived a second and a third wave of crusades in 1421 and in 1422. From August to October 1421, two incursions were made into Bohemia from the north and from the west. The Hussites defeated Margrave Frederick of MeiBen near Most, and Cardinal Branda and several princes of the Holy Roman Empire near Žatec. In October 1421 Sigismund, who was also king of Hungary, moved into Moravia, where he was largely accepted, especially in the towns of Brno and Jihlava, which were controlled by Germans. But when he passed on into Bohemia proper to attack Kutna Hora, he suffered defeat. In October 1422 Margrave Frederick I of Brandenburg advanced into Bohemia from the west and Margrave William of MeiBen moved from the north. Both were defeated, William near Chomutov in November 1422 and Frederick near Tachov in December 1422.
The Hussite successes were due to several reasons. Sigismund, his subjects in Silesia and Hungary, and the German princes were unable to coordinate their invasions effectively. By contrast, the Hussites profited from the short lines of communication within Bohemia. Their forces included many religious fanatics who fought fiercely to defend their faith and their country, whereas the crusader armies were led by politicians and suffered from indiscipline, because their rank-and-file soldiers were serving for pay and looking for easy looting. Furthermore, the crusaders were surprised by military innovations such as war-wagons and battle flails. The Hussite use of a mobile barrier of wagons started as an improvised defense for the vulnerable infantry, but developed into rectangular formations strengthened by ditches. This tactic resulted in a virtually impregnable fortification, which could, however, be rapidly dismantled for counterattacks. The battle flails, too, started as an improvisation, because the Hussite peasants were initially armed only with the flails that they used to thresh grain. Žižka and other military leaders also taught their troops how to use firearms and other long-distance weapons, which were despised by traditional knightly ethics of warfare.
The fourth crusade against the Hussites was not launched until 1427. Margrave Frederick I of Brandenburg, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, and the archbishop-elect of Trier Otto von Ziegenhain assembled at Tirschenreuth in Franconia, the same place where Frederick had begun the third crusade in 1422. This time the crusaders bypassed Tachov, but were soon routed near Strfbro. A trade embargo on the Hussite lands and the massive devastation caused by the fighting induced the Hussite military leaders to invade neighboring countries for plunder and also to spread religious propaganda. Hungary, Austria, Franconia, MeiBen, Brandenburg, Poland, and even Prussia were raided, and the Hussites occupied strongholds from Lusatia through Silesia and Moravia to northern Hungary (mod. Slovakia). The heretics won little sympathy and aroused much hatred, and as the Hussites were predominantly Czech, national antipathies were used to stir up resistance. Although the religious zeal of the Hussites aimed at universal conversion, they sometimes deliberately played on Slavic resentment against German predominance. This approach was not enough, however, to win the support of Catholic Poland.
In August 1431 the fifth and last crusade again concentrated efforts from the east and from the west. Sigismund’s son-in-law and heir-presumptive, Duke Albrecht of Austria, moved from Austria into Moravia, but his troops fled at Prerov. In the meantime the main forces assembled near Weiden in the Upper Palatinate under Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini, Margrave Frederick I of Brandenburg, and Duke Frederick II of Saxony. This time they avoided Tachov and Stribro, using a more southern road to Pilsen (mod. Plzen, Czech Republic), a Catholic stronghold. Near the Taborite town ofDomažlice, they were routed by the Hussites on 15 August 1431.
Now both sides realized that a compromise had to be reached. Negotiations began with the Council of Basel and with Sigismund. When the Compacts of Prague permitted the chalice to laymen in 1433 (the main Utraquist goal), the military leader Prokop the Great and his radical supporters were defeated at Lipany in 1434 by the more moderate nobility and citizens. When Sigismund permitted the great nobles to retain former ecclesiastical property, he was finally accepted as king by the victorious Hussite majority. The archbishopric of Prague, however, had to be left vacant, because the Utraquist candidate Jan Rokycana was not recognized by the Catholics.
On Sigismund’s death in 1437, his son-in-law Albrecht of Austria met with strong opposition by the Utraquists, who maintained that the ruling dynasty had become extinct in the male line and that the Bohemians had the right to elect a new king. On Albrecht’s death (1439), the lords, nobles, and towns of Bohemia did not agree upon a royal election or succession for years. Finally, an Utraquist nobleman called George of Podébrad conquered Prague and defeated both the radical Hussites from Tabor and the Catholic lords under Ulrich of Rosenberg. George was appointed governor for the boy-king Ladislas, the posthumous son of King Albrecht. When Ladis- las died, George himself was elected king in 1458. After swearing a secret oath that he would return to Catholicism, George was legitimately crowned by two Catholic bishops from Hungary. His hopes, however, that Pope Pius II would confirm the Compacts of Prague of 1433 and accept Jan Rokycana as archbishop of Prague proved to be futile.
George was deposed as a stubborn heretic by Pope Paul II in 1466, and in 1467 crusades were again preached against Bohemia. Although the papal legates appealed to the national pride of the Germans, nothing substantial was achieved. Only pro-Catholic Moravia, Silesia, and Lusatia were conquered by the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, who was also elected as king of Bohemia in 1469 by magnates and towns of Moravia and Silesia, despite the fact that the papacy would have preferred him as a crusader against the Ottoman Turks. In 1471 the Utraquists accepted the Catholic prince Vladislav from Poland as George’s successor; in 1479 he ceded the territories of Moravia, Silesia, and Lusatia to Matthias. In 1483 Vladislav recognized the Utraquists as a legal church with a status vaguely similar to the Orthodox Church in Poland and Lithuania. Nevertheless, Vladislav was reconciled with Pope Innocent VIII in 1487. This series of events proved that traditional crusades within Europe were no longer successful, because papal or conciliar definitions no longer controlled the internal affairs and the external relations of states. So the instrument of crusades against heretics that had been developed by Innocent III and his immediate successors in the thirteenth century failed against the Hussites in the fifteenth century and could no longer be used against the Reformation from the sixteenth century onward.