Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty-Seven


The Hussite Uprising

Between 1388 and 1419, the German cities rebel against their king, and the Bohemian Hussites rebel against their church

THE KING OF THE GERMANS had been on his throne for ten years. For nearly the entire time, he had been at war with his own people.

Wenceslaus IV, twenty-seven years old, had followed his father, the Emperor Charles IV, onto the imperial throne. Just before his death in 1378, Charles IV had guaranteed his son’s election by distributing cash presents to the electors. To raise the money, Charles had mortgaged a cluster of imperial cities in Swabia; Wenceslaus inherited both the German crown and their displeasure.

“Imperial cities,” or Reichsstädte, had been founded on royal-owned land, or had grown up around imperial castles. They were directly under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor; imperial cities paid their taxes straight into the royal treasury, answered only to the emperor’s appointed governor (and not to any duke or elector, even if they stood within his duchy), and swore allegiance to the emperor alone.1

To “mortgage” an imperial city was to hand it over to the control of another, in return for payment; Charles IV had sold the right to appoint magistrates and other civil officials to a local Swabian aristocrat, the Count of Württemberg, which effectively put the cities under the Count’s power.2

The Swabian city of Ulm led thirteen others in revolt. Together, they declared themselves a League, a political alliance of German cities pledged to a common goal: to resist any outside princes who might try to dictate their affairs, and to reject the election of young Wenceslaus as their new emperor. Charles IV had barely begun to fight back against the rebellious Swabian League before his death in 1378; Wenceslaus spent the next decade struggling to force the cities into submission to his rule. It was not a good beginning.

His war with the Swabian League finally dragged to an unsatisfactory end in 1389, when Wenceslaus agreed to give the Swabian cities a carefully enumerated set of self-governing privileges (including the settlement of quarrels between “the lords and the cities who are in this peace” by an independent commission) in exchange for their recognition of him as their king—and the dissolution of the league. In fact, the general peace (or Landfriede) that he offered rejected any leagues of cities against the emperor: they were “against God himself, the Empire, and the law.”3

The Swabian cities, worn out by war, agreed to the compromise. But Wenceslaus IV’s attempts to squelch the will of his people were ultimately fruitless. The first ten years of his reign had been occupied with the struggle against the imperial cities; the second decade was taken up with a series of rebellions carried out by German dukes. They resented his methods of raising money (which had included recognizing Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the Lord of Milan, as a full duke in exchange for an enormous payment); they objected to his dealings with the clergy (he had reacted to an ongoing conflict with the Archbishop of Prague by tossing the archbishop’s subordinates into jail); they criticized his heavy drinking; and they complained about the amount of paperwork Wenceslaus generated in the governing of the empire.4

They were, in short, determined to rid themselves of the king. “The cities of Germany enjoy a very extensive liberty,” the sixteenth-century political philosopher Machiavelli wrote, not long after; “they . . . obey the emperor when they please, under no apprehension of being attacked either by him or by others, for the towns are defended by strong walls and deep ditches, and are provided with artillery and provisions for a year, so that the siege of these cities would be both long and painful.” And, which Machiavelli does not note, they were accustomed to running their own affairs, constitutionally disinclined to obey for the sake of obedience.5

Wenceslaus gave them the chance to abandon him when he made a move towards ending the double papacy. The Papal Schism was now in its second generation; the Naples-born Pope Boniface IX had succeeded Urban VI in Rome, and the Aragonese Benedict XIII had followed Clement VII onto the papal throne at Avignon. The religious fracture was widened by the political one; the mad king of France supported the Avignon pope, the German throne recognized the Roman pope.

In 1398, Wenceslaus IV agreed to meet with Charles VI at Reims, the traditional place of coronation for French kings, to discuss a compromise. He drank too much the night before and had to be shaken awake the next morning, late for the conclave; Charles VI, meanwhile, was suffering the first symptoms of a returning fit. Somehow, the hung-over German king and the withdrawn French monarch came to an agreement: they would ask both popes to resign, and a third would be elected to bring the papacy back together.

Boniface IX fought back. He offered to give the German electors the authority to depose their king, in exchange for their support of his papacy.

They accepted the offer. It took them some time to agree on a successor, but on August 20, 1400, they met at Lahneck Castle, where the Archbishop of Mainz declared Wenceslaus to be “useless, idle, and incapable,” no longer worthy of the crown. Immediately afterwards, the gathered electors chose one of their own, the Elector Palatine Rupert, as the next king of Germany.6

Wenceslaus refused to recognize his deposition, but he had little support left in most of Germany; he was forced to retreat into Bohemia. There he continued to rule as king, but his power failed at the Bohemian border.

Rupert of Germany soon found that the problems he had inherited resisted any quick solution. After his coronation in 1401, he marched into Italy to reduce the power of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, now the Duke of Milan; but Visconti’s troops halted the imperial army at Brescia, and the following year Rupert gave up and went home. There he soon found himself embroiled in the same rebellions, complaints and intrigues as his predecessor.

Wenceslaus, barricaded in Bohemia, had already been battered by the imperial cities and overthrown by his dukes. Now he faced the third uprising of his rule: yet another revolt of the people, this one in support of a Bohemian priest named Jan Hus. And although the followers of Hus had far less power than the dukes of Germany or the imperial cities of Swabia, the Hussites turned out to be more formidable than either.

JAN HUS: in his thirties, priest and scholar, rector of the University of Prague, follower of John Wycliffe, now the polestar of a massive popular uprising.

Wycliffe himself had not long outlived the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. He had been engaged, at the time, in the massive task of translating the Bible from Latin into English: a shockingly anticlerical project that grew out of his conviction that “no simple man of wit should be afraid to study in the text of holy Writ.” The pride and greed of England’s priests, Wycliffe argued, caused them to be blind to the true understanding of the word of God; but the New Testament was “open to the understanding of simple men.”7

The English translation was not Wycliffe’s alone. Other English scholars, agreeing with Wycliffe’s radical ideas, lent a hand. Opposition had also spread: “By him, Scripture is become common,” snapped the English abbot Henry Knighton after the publication of Wycliffe’s Bible, “and more open to the lay folk and to women than it used to be to clerics of a fair amount of learning. . . . Thus, the Gospel pearl is cast forth and trodden under foot of swine . . . and the jewel of the clergy is turned into the sport of the laity.”8

Wycliffe had continued to preach and write, proposing among other things that the Church doctrine of transubstantiation (the transformation of the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the actual body and blood of Christ) was unscriptural and idolatrous. “We worship a false god in the chalice,” he protested, “. . . [for] a sacrament is no more but a sign . . . of a thing passed, or a thing to come.” This too was a slap at the clergy, who claimed that they alone had the divine right to handle the sacred body and blood; anyone could share bread and wine as a sign of things passed. He condemned indulgences as a “manifold blasphemy,” since promising sinners that their punishment would be revoked gave Christ’s saving power to the pope.9


87.1 Hussite Wars

By the time of his premature death from a stroke in 1384, Wycliffe had gained a substantial English following, not only among the poor but among the knightly class. They went by the name of Lollards: “ravening wolves,” snaps Thomas Walsingham, no fan of Wycliffe’s work, “infecting others with their wicked doctrines.” In 1401, Henry IV approved a parliamentary statute that forbade English subjects to own Wycliffe’s Bible, since it was “contrary to the Catholic faith.” Anyone preaching without a license granted by the Church could be arrested and tried. The statute never mentioned the Lollards, but it instantly prohibited them from ever speaking their beliefs out loud, on pain of death.10

Wycliffe’s beliefs were equally divisive on the other side of the Channel. In 1403, the University of Prague banned his teachings; when Hus continued to defend them, even translating Wycliffe’s work for the benefit of the university’s students, he was finally dismissed from his position.

In 1409, “Wycliffism” was formally condemned by a papal bull, a move that authorized the burning of all his books and the condemnation of all his teachings. But this papal bull was itself a contested document. It came not from either Rome or from Avignon but from Pisa, where the College of Cardinals had finally gathered and agreed to depose both competing popes in favor of a third, compromise candidate: the Franciscan Alexander V.

The condemnation of Wycliffe was one of Alexander V’s first acts. Unfortunately, neither of the other two popes would agree to step down. Now, in an excruciatingly embarrassing development, there were three popes in the west.

Wenceslaus, still king of Bohemia, decided to recognize Alexander V as the genuine article. This meant that the bull against Wycliffism went into full and drastic effect in Bohemia, where it was published in March of 1410.

Jan Hus, along with several other Bohemian supporters of Wycliffe’s ideas, took their copies of Wycliffe’s writings to the Archbishop of Prague with a personal appeal. The books had been obtained “at great trouble and cost” and contained many things of value. It was ridiculous to burn them: “By the same reasoning, we must burn the books of Aristotle, the commentaries of Averrhoes, or the works of Origen.” The archbishop ignored them and ordered the bonfire built. At least two hundred books were burned, over the protests of their owners; two days later the archbishop excommunicated Hus and his colleagues as well.11

The archbishop’s autocratic decision did not sit well with most of Prague, particularly since it was rumored that he had saved the gold bindings and knobs from the most valuable books for himself. Songs were sung in the street: “The Bishop burnt the books,” one went, “but ne’er knew he / What was in them written.” Groups of rioters burst into churches and chased the priests away from the altars. Hus did not help, preaching a sermon that strongly suggested that the archbishop might be the Antichrist. And Wenceslaus IV did nothing to calm the tensions when he ordered the archbishop to pay back the cost of the burned books; Alexander V had suddenly and unexpectedly died, after only ten months on the third papal throne, which meant that the king of Bohemia could straddle the fence for a little while to see which way the wind was blowing.12

As it happened, it had shifted. Alexander V’s successor in Pisa, John XXIII, confirmed Hus’s excommunication and tactlessly criticized Bohemia for being “full of heresy.” Wenceslaus didn’t appreciate this wholesale condemnation of his kingdom. He told Hus to leave Prague, but refused to act against him any further; and for a number of months, Hus went on preaching and writing outside of the capital city: rejecting the claim of the pope to be Peter’s heir, condemning indulgences, and drawing more and more followers into his circle.13

Meanwhile, a rearrangement had taken place on the other side of the Bohemian border. Rupert, king of Germany, had died in 1410, after a frustrating and fruitless decade on the throne. The electors had quarreled over the next candidate until 1411, finally settling on Sigismund, king of Hungary (after the death of his wife the queen) and survivor of the 1396 Battle of Nicopolis, younger son of Emperor Charles IV and brother of Wenceslaus IV.

Sigismund had moved, steadily, into the center of international intrigues. He was now forty-three years old: “tall, with bright eyes, broad forehead, pleasantly rosy cheeks, and a long thick beard,” says the fifteenth-century chronicler Aeneas Sylvius, who later became Pope Pius II. “He had a large mind and formed many plans, but was changeable . . . witty in conversation, given to wine and women, and thousands of love intrigues are laid to his charge. . . . He made more promises than he kept, and often deceived.”14

Hoping to simultaneously recover Bohemia, corral Italy, and solve the embarrassment of the triple papacy, Sigismund used his new authority as king of Germany to propose an international church council. He needed only one pope to sign off on the idea, and John XXIII agreed; most likely, he expected that the council would depose his two papal rivals.

It took several years to organize the council, but it finally convened in the German town of Constance two days before All Saints’ Day, 1414. Nearly four hundred high-ranking clergy were present: archbishops, abbots, priors, and priests. But they were outnumbered by university leaders, scholars, and ambassadors from the courts of Europe. The council had two major problems to address—the spread of Wycliffe’s heresies and the scandal of the three popes—and both were as much academic and political puzzles as theological dilemmas.

Constance was crowded out—not just with council attendees but with hundreds of merchants, clowns, jugglers, conjurers, musicians, barbers, and prostitutes. There was more carousing than contemplation in the streets: “The Swabians say,” Jan Hus remarked, “that it will take thirty years to purify Constance of all its sins.” One local resident estimated that seventy thousand outsiders descended on the city during the Council’s deliberations.15

The opening act of the Council was to summon Jan Hus to defend his beliefs. Hus himself seems to have gotten the impression that the Council disapproved of him only because its members did not understand exactly what he was saying. He was further reassured when Sigismund himself pledged a royal safe-conduct: if Hus came to Constance, he would be allowed to depart again in peace. “Under the safe conduct of your protection, [I will] appear at the Council, the Lord Most High being my defender,” Hus wrote back to the king, accepting the promise. “I have taught nothing in secret, but only in public . . . so I desire to be heard, not privately, but before a public audience. . . . And I shall not be afraid.”16

Hus arrived at Constance in early November of 1414; he wrote back to his friends in Bohemia, telling them that he had been welcomed politely (and noting, with some worry, that lodging and food in Constance was much more expensive than he had expected). But while he was preparing his defense, his lodging house was surrounded by soldiers. The College of Cardinals had decided to treat him as a heretic, not a guest.17

He was imprisoned in a dank cell at a local monastery, right next to the latrines, and soon he was suffering from severe dysentery. Sigismund, finding out about the arrest after the fact, protested the violation of the royal safe-conduct. But he soon saw that freeing Hus would alienate much of the Council; and so he sacrificed Hus to the greater cause, the end of the Great Schism of the papacy.

Hus remained imprisoned for months. “Please get me a Bible,” he wrote to his friends, “and some pens and small inkhorn. . . . And send another shirt by the bearer.” Meanwhile, the Council turned back to deal with the three popes. The Pisan pope John XXIII, who had been present since the council opened, soon saw that the assembled clergy were bent on removing him. In March of 1415 he took his leave; in his absence, the council deposed him.18

This left two popes to be dealt with. The pugnacious Roman pope Boniface IX had died nine years before, and his successor Gregory XII had always hoped to bring the schism to an end. He now offered to abdicate, on condition that the council also depose the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, and agree on a single papal candidate who would take the place of all three.19

Benedict flatly refused to cooperate. Sigismund began negotiations with his secular allies—most notably, the king of Aragon—in an attempt to force him out of Avignon. But this was a slow and delicate operation, and as it dragged on, the Council of Constance turned its attention back to Hus. Debates and arguments followed; but not until June was Hus allowed to speak for himself. None of his defenses were accepted. He was given several chances to recant and refused. Finally, on July 6, he was brought to the cathedral of Constance and condemned as a heretic. Directly afterwards, he was taken outside the city to an execution site known as the Devil’s Place. He was chained to a stake, firewood piled up to his chin: “In the truth of the gospel I have written, taught and preached,” he called out, “today I will gladly die.” And then the fire was lit.

No one from the Council was present; they had all gone back to their deliberations, and were already arguing again about the papacy.20

ULTIMATELY, THE KING OF ARAGON agreed to support the deposition of the obstinate Avignon pope, and the Council was able to end the schism. In 1417, a single pope was appointed by the cardinals and approved by the Council: the Roman priest Martin V. With its work done, the Council began to wind up its business, the assembled ambassadors, priests, professors, and prostitutes finally heading home.

But John Hus was not forgotten. At the news of his death, his followers in Bohemia had begun to gather weapons and organize themselves into groups: no longer simply followers of Wycliffe, they were now Hussites, an increasingly bold movement that was rapidly transforming into a popular army.

The new pope Martin V excommunicated all of Hus’s followers early in 1418, forcing King Wenceslaus to act against them or be accused of defying the one true Church. Pragmatically, Wenceslaus ordered the arrest of priests in Prague who had allowed laypeople to serve the Eucharist, a clear Hussite acceptance of the radical ideas first proposed by Wycliffe. But Wenceslaus had no more luck with the Hussites than with the imperial cities. His punishment led to a riot; in July of 1419, Hussites stormed through the streets of Prague, breaking into the town hall and demanding that the officials there release the imprisoned priests. In the scuffle that followed, Hussites threw thirteen Prague administrators out of the windows. Seven were killed in the street below.

King Wenceslaus died shortly afterwards, reputedly of shock, more likely of acute alcohol poisoning. His brother Sigismund reclaimed Bohemia for Germany, adding the duchy back to his combined German-Hungarian empire. He then set out to destroy the Hussites; but the incident at the town hall (later nicknamed the “First Defenestration of Prague”) had been only the first act in a long and bloody struggle between the imperial German armies and the militant Hussite resistance. The Hussite Wars would drag on for another twenty years: a bloody, extended, and explicit rejection of the authority of emperor, king, pope, and Church.21


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