Hussite Wars

History of Proto-Communist fighters in Bohemia 

The Hussite Wars (1420-1434) involved a series of military conflicts between the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor and the followers of Jan Huss[1]. This paper will detail the political conditions that led to the outbreak of hostilities, the highly successful methods of warfare developed and utilization of new technology by the Hussites, the major battles of the conflict, and its influences on the European stage[2]. The purpose of this analysis is to shed light on the methods of revolutionary tactics of warfare employed and effectively utilized by the Hussites which included organized formations of infantry and the decisive contribution that hand held firearms made to warfare[3].

            Through the research, I conclude that the Hussite commander Jan Zizka was the equal of both Fredrick the Great or Gustdavis Adophus in terms of both leadership and battlefield innovation. Zizka throughout his time as leader of the Hussite military never lost a battle and continually inflicted loss on his opponents despite his smaller sized force and consider political might that was arrayed against him[4]. However, despite his contributions to military innovation, in history, Zizka is truly a largely forgotten military leader.

            However great Zizka was militarily the conditions of the time lent greatly to his cause. The teachings of Jan Huss, in terms of church reform, and the ideas spread and embraced by his followers have great bearing on the course and outcome of the Hussite Wars and perhaps more importantly the religious wars that would come to dominate Europe for the next century[5].

The Hussite movement in its military incarnation began for a number of reasons both ideological and political. The catalyst for their break in peaceful relations was chiefly the execution and burning of their ideological leader Jan Huss at the Council of Constance which then subsequently branded all Hussites heretics[6].  However, there were several other reasons why conflict was brewing in Bohemia.

            German officials held dominant positions in the councils of many Bohemian cities and towns[7]. These officials were thoroughly conservative in their stance of religious reform and owed their positions to ties with the papacy, very few of these officials would join in the revolution[8]. Indeed the influence of the Holy Roman Emperor, supported by the Pope, throughout Bohemia would be a major underlying cause of the war[9].

            Colonization of the east by the Roman-Christian lands was very active throughout the thirteenth century and mainly centered on Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia[10]. By far the most active colonizer of the bohemian lands were Germans as they were intensely favored by both the Pope and royal authorities. The end of the colonizing period (the early fourteenth century) was due to the both the limited availability of agricultural lands and the recovering population that had depleted during the outbreak of the Black Plague[11].

The distribution of agricultural lands was the single most important factor in determining the relative military and economic strength of the different social groups.  The closing of the eastern colonization efforts led to increased competition between social groups[12]. The Catholic Church owned a considerable amount of land elsewhere in Europe but the estate of Archbishop of Prague comprised more then half of the Bohemian land the early 1400’s. The King was the largest individual owner who is estimated to have owned one sixth of all bohemian land while other social groups (higher nobles, lower nobles, towns, free-holders, and peasants) owned the remaining third.

Among the latter third of land, the nobles were the largest individual owners among them as well as collectively, although in the years leading up to the Hussite movement they had been reduced significantly in favor of the catholic estate[13]. Many of these nobles would later seek to reduce the power of the church through the Hussite wars. The level of competition produced a highly stratified society that saw little to no movement from the lower nobility to the higher nobility[14].

The lower nobility had great degrees of wealth between the individual lords; some would own a castle and several towns while others may posses a single provincial hamlet. In many ways, the poorest of the lower nobles had much in common with any well off free-holder aside from the status of noble birth. The widespread impoverishment of the lower nobility created significant resentment[15]. The poor lower nobles and the landed free-holders would come to fill the ranks of the Hussite armies[16].

In the course of the Hussite Wars, the lower nobles made significant gains and strengthened it both economically and socially, by the wars end they would be recognized in the diet as a separate and independent house[17]. Although the Hussite Wars contain elements of class struggle, the sentiments of the lower nobles and landed, free-holders were likely seen as being personal as opposed to class conscience.

The city of Prague had also developed reformist leanings since the Papal Schism led to appointment of Pope Alexander V and the Council of Pisa in 1409[18]. Although Jan Huss and his followers had supported him upon taking office, under the urging of the Archbishop of Prague he issued a papal bull the same year calling for the destruction of all materials relating to the teachings of John Wycliffe (1320-1384)[19]. Wycliffe, an English theologian whose teachings influenced Jan Huss, drafted several attacks on church doctrines and ceremonial practices[20]. Under the papal bull all books containing his writings were to be confiscated, his teachings were to be revoked, and free preaching was to be stopped[21].

Huss and his followers protested, which resulted in them being branded heretics and excommunicated. It was at this time that the government took the side of Huss leading to the steady spread of his ideas, which were growing more and more critical of the papacy and the church in general[22]. Prague effectively refused to enact the papal bull.

The decree of Kunta Hora, issued in 1409, guaranteed the university of Prague three Bohemian votes to counter the one vote of the foreign members of the university in the election of the rectorship (president). This led to the majority of the German masters and German students to leave the university and subsequently found the University of Leipzig, thereby making the institution effectively a bohemian institute[23].

Jan Huss assumed the position of university rector and from that point onward he was able to use his position to strengthen the Hussite movement[24].  King Wenceslaus and Queen Sofia (of Bavaria) supported him to varying levels thus allowing Huss to convert a growing number of higher nobles and gentry to his interpretation of Christianity. Based upon these patrons and his position at the university he was able to gain mass support in the city of Prague whose citizens began to view him as their spiritual leader and patron saint[25].

The Council of Constance was called together in 1414 in Konstanz, Baden[26]. Although Jan Huss was promised safe passage to the council, which he accepted, he was summarily burned at the stake by the council in 1415[27]. When word of this treachery reached Prague violent riots erupted and the estates of Bohemia and Moravia called a diet to condemn the Council of Constance themselves as heretics[28].

The period between the burning of Jan Huss and the outbreak of violence saw the increase of Hussite factions, mounting papal pressure on King Wenceslaus to act against the Hussite preachers, and the end of the great papal schism[29].

            Within the provincial areas many peasants whose farms and lands had been burned by previous wars or abandoned believing that Christ was set to return in the near term began to organize themselves into theocratic communities that derived their leadership from lower nobles and priests[30]. These groups encompass the most radical elements of the Hussite movement styled themselves as “true Christians” and maintained religious and political autonomy in their regions[31]. Foremost among these groups were the Taborites who believed that the return of Christ was impending and would bring about an age of no masters and no servants, many consider them proto-socialists as well as early reformers[32].

            Mounting pressure from the Papacy on one side and Hussite courtiers on the other had left King Wenceslaus indecisive thus contributing to the religious tension felt throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, in 1419, he gave in to the Papacy and restricted his permission for holding Hussite mass; regulating them to only three of Prague’s many churches[33]. Because these churches were small this led many Hussites to leave the city and join with the rural Taborite movement, strengthening their ranks. 

            This repression of the Hussites led to the first defenestration of Prague, in which the seven members of the city council were killed when an angry mob of Hussites stormed the town hall and threw them from the windows onto the spears of the armed mob[34]. Present at this event were several figures of importance but for our purposes we will mention only Jan Zizka (or “Jan the One Eyed”), King Wenceslas’ personal attendant, whom led the storming of the town hall and the subsequent occupation[35]. This was the turning point from diplomacy to violence.

            Jan Zizka acted quickly following the events of the first defenestration and called for new elections to replace the city council and the creation of a Hussite defense force[36]. When news of these events reached the king he was so overcome with rage that he violently struck the messenger and then suffered an immediate stroke that paralyzed his left side and eventually led to his death several months later[37].

            Sigismund, margrave of Brandenburg, King of Hungary, and King of the Romans now assumed the throne of Bohemia. Riots engulfed Prague, destroying the last catholic institutions that expressed loyalty to the Papacy. Zizka, elected captain of Prague defense, personally led a group of Hussites to set flame to the monasteries[38]. What began as a slow migration of Germans from Prague began to grow into a mass exodus while similar riots and migration occurred in many bohemian towns and cities[39].

            The Germans fleeing Prague were quickly replaced by incoming Taborites whose manpower Zizka utilized to drive all vestiges of royalist control from within the city walls[40]. On November 6th Prague received declarations of war from thirty five barons, nearly one hundred knights, and a half dozen royal towns and cities, all allied to Sigismund[41]. This led to the moderate Hussites centered around the university to accept a truce that allowed for protection of their rights as Hussites and the ceasing of attacks on monasteries and non-Hussites. The Taborites as well as Jan Zizka expelled into the countryside to prevent radicalism, however they would later gather together in the new city of Tabor where they would lead the revolution against Sigismund[42].

            Jan Zizka was in innovative military commander whose improvisation led him to make several important contributions of European warfare of the time. Unlike many European armies of the time he was generally without mounted knights and possessed few soldiers compared to his opponents[43]. Zizka mainly drew his soldiers from the townspeople of Tabor, artisans who had fled Prague and the city of Sezimovo Utsi, and rural peoples whom adhered to the Taborite movement[44].

            Although some of these men used traditional weapons such as swords, pikes, and crossbows, an even larger number of them were peasants who brought clubs or flails which they had used to thresh their grain. Zizka ordered the traditional farm equipment modified for warfare with the addition of iron spikes. His forces were then divided into three groupings called Cepnici (regular infantry), Sudlic (pike-men), and crossbowmen[45].

            Although he was able to build up a sizable infantry force he realized that without a companion cavalry force his troops could not withstand a frontal charge by German knights[46]. From his experiences fighting under King Wenceslaus in Poland he had witnessed knights defeated by strong fortifications, this knowledge combined with his experience in mapping battlefield terrain led him to his greatest contribution to Hussite Warfare: Wagenburg[47]. Wagenburg combined the concepts of the fortress and that of mobility.

            The device that Jan Zizka ordered constructed was the War Wagon[48], an innovation that played a dominant role in the Hussite army for many years and heavily influenced the way in which wars were fought through Europe even contributing to the defensive strategies of the Afrikaans Boers and the American Pioneers[49]. Like the flails, the wagons began as improvisations.

            The wagons originally used were sturdy four wheeled peasant carts made of strong wood. The success of the Wagenburg strategy led to various improvements of their design, notably an armored exterior with gun notches, movable boards to protect the wheels, and a stabilizing spike that would anchor the wagon in place[50]. The advantage of Wagenburg was primarily when assembled into a camp-fortress.

            The Wagenburg strategy involved assembling the wagons in a circular formation, linking the wagons together with heavy chain, and placing extremely large shield bearers between the gaps in the wagons[51]. This highly organized method of warfare was also a revolutionary concept of the time as medieval warfare had previously relied upon tactics largely based off individual combat. The knights of Europe fought in battles that tended to become disorganized after the initial charge having little opportunity for leadership or battlefield tactics[52].

            The obedience of the men fighting under Jan Zizka related directly to the development of the war wagon, which had to be kept in good condition and quickly moved into a specific position on the battlefield in sometimes short amounts of time. Not only the wagon crews (about 18 soldiers each) but every Taborite within the quickly constructed defense structure had their own duties to perform in its defense[53].

            The Taborite army under Jan Zizka was notable for its division of troops, its organization, and battlefield cooperation that was beyond any standing army of the medieval era[54]. Flogging was punishment for any breach or failure of Zizkas’ discipline and the war wagons also allowed for the development of another revolutionary technology: firearms[55].

            The most lasting change that Jan Zizka helped to develop was the use of field artillery. While siege weapons were familiar to Europeans of the time their size and weight coupled with the extensive use of mounted knights in warfare limited their use as weapons of the battlefield. In the Hussite army field guns were used extensively in connection with the war wagons where two or three hand weapons were carried with a large number of crossbows. Zizka also utilized war wagons known as gun carriages which housed larger weapons[56].

            Zizka also realized that good soldiers need experience not only training and weapons to be an effective force, thus he organized raids of small royal towns and villages near Tabor both to harden his troops and to seize weapons[57]. The Taborites, due to their strict adherence to biblical humbleness, rarely took plunder or booty. In many instances the Taborites took weapons, guns, and horses but placed all clothing, jewelry, and other articles of worth into heaps and burned them[58].

            Zizka also busied himself by improving the fortifications of Tabor itself. Tabor was located atop a steep hill that sat on a peninsula formed by two rivers; this natural fortification was strengthened by the addition of a double wall all around it. The narrow land that separated the two rivers was joined with the creation of a moat and a triple thick wall. The fortress of tabor itself was made hexagon shaped while each point was strengthened by a tower. When Zizka had completed these building projects Tabor was considered by the royalists to be impregnable[59].

            Shortly after the construction of these fortifications Jan Zizka received a plea from the city officials of Prague in 1421 to aid in their defense against crusaders from German lands. Zizka moved his troops to the defense of Prague and thus the war entered another phase, that of raiding to full scale warfare against the royalist armies[60].

                        Although Jan Zizka had many victories as commander of the Hussites nowhere are his troops more successful in combat then they are at the battle of Kutna Hora. After the successful defense of Prague and the destruction of several key fortifications surrounding the areas of Hussite control, Jan Zizka, anticipating Sigismunds attack route, moved his forces to annex Kutna Hora, the last city that bore fierce loyalty to the Papacy. In December and January of 1421 and 1422 Sisgimund himself led a crusader force against the position determined to destroy the main Hussite force with vastly superior numbers[61].

            With the city walls defended by Praguers (men from Prague) and German militia, Jan Zizka led his troops out of the city westward between the two roads to thus keep them under watch. They had just completed the construction of their Wagenburg fortress when King Sigismund appeared at the head of his army. Sigismund is estimated to have 30,000 troops (mostly Hungarian knights) while the Hussites under the command of Zizka were said to be 10,000-12,000[62].

            The forces of King Sigismund fanned out into dual wings to encircle the Hussite concentration and to make the force appear to be more formidable the Hungarians used cattle to fill the holes in the gaps.  Soon after the knights were in position they were ordered to make a sustained frontal assault against the Hussite Wagenburg formation which were kept up throughout the morning and continued throughout the majority of the afternoon.  Each time that the Hungarians closed within firing range of the Wagenburg they were forced back diminishing their ranks[63].

            The first night the forces of Sigismund had gained entry to the city through the gates due to traitors within the German militia forces. The Hungarians cut down the Hussites and Praguers along with many other residents of the city who were unaware of the royalist password.[64] This maneuver had now isolated the Hussite Wagenburg outside the city walls and surrounded them from both sides, Zizka now found himself in a desperate situation.

            Zizka now made preparations to escape from encirclement. Sisgismund postponed his triumphal march into the city for the following morning thus giving the Hussite scouts time enough to locate his encampment. Zizka knew that Sigisumnd whenever possible avoided getting involved in actual combat thus he considered this the weakest point to breach enemy lines[65].

            On the night of December 22, 1421 the Hussite army and their wagons rolled forward to strike at King Sigismund directly. This is one of the earliest documented actions where field artillery was used in an offensive sense[66]; use of artillery previously by the Hussites in Wagenburg was still stationary in the battlefield sense even though the formation of the wagon camp was a strategically offensive move.

            Here the guns firing from the Hussite war wagons, which stopped only to fire, were given a more specific task that many field artillery units would be charged with in battles for centuries to come. They were not being used to block or discourage enemy approach but to destroy the enemy ability to keep in formation, to dislodge the Hungarians from their positions and open the way for an assault[67].

            In this way the war wagons functioned as modern weapons platforms such as tanks, having no other basic task aside from this. With the use of artillery and the war wagons to supplement his infantry and light horsemen, Zizka led his troops straight through those of the fleeing king, thus escaping encirclement. The Hussites proceeded to move their forces to the nearby hamlet of Kank[68].

            The Hussites used the same tactic on the night of December 23 to once again break free of encirclement, this time the Hungarians did not pursue them. The Hussites marched to the city of Kolin as winter set in. meanwhile the Hungarians, believing that the Hussites had fled, dispersed a third of their forces and prepared for winter quarters. Sigismund perhaps believed that winter would bring an end to the campaign and thus he began talks to convince the Hussites in Prague to surrender[69].

            Jan Zizka instead used this time to rebuild his troops from recruits and draftees at the city of Kolin; by January 6th he was again on the march crushing the royalist fortress of Nebovidy on his way towards Kutna Hora. The destruction of this royalist force dealt a significant blow to the defenses of Kutna Hora. Sigismund fled the city and Zizka arrived the same day (January 6th) to put out the fires started by the retreating Hungarians[70].

            The Hussites began pursuit of the royalists the next morning harassing them and depleting their numbers until reaching the small town of Nemecky Brod (meaning “German ford”) where collapsing bridges and panicked soldiers led to the drowning of more then 500 soldiers. On January 9th the Hussites besieged the town and killed many within[71].

            Sigismund had fled the country and the Hussites declared victory. In all the Hussites had destroyed the king’s army. Through siege, assault, and pursuit the king lost an estimated 8,000-12,000 men on the campaign and the Hussites had claimed more then 500 wagons and horses[72]. For a number of years Sigismund would stay far from the borders of Bohemia and leave the task of fighting the Hussites to the German princes. This short campaign meant that the Hussites would no longer face a coordinated threat from two fronts and contributed to the survival of the Hussite movement.

            In conclusion the Hussites, thanks to the political conditions of Bohemia were able to create the organizational structures that allowed movements like the Taborites to muster the support of the nobles and attract talented officers such as Jan Zizka to their military forces. Jan Zizka and other talented commanders were able to organize these rag tag forces into potent and highly disciplined military units and thus, coupled with new and innovative tactics and technology, allowed the Hussites to capitalize on the weaknesses of their enemies despite their inferior numbers.

            Jan Zizka is one of the few military commanders whom never lost a battle. Given his record of victory, his development of Wagenburg and the use of firearms for assault purposes he is undoubtedly one of the most important military figures of his time, bridging the gap between medieval warfare and modern warfare that would become prevalent in conflicts such as the Schmalkaldic War and the Thirty Years War. His development of the war wagon which preceded the modern concept of the tank by 500 years as well as organizing his peasant army according to their abilities illustrated that Zizka was not the typical commander of his day, rather a genius far ahead of his time. Jan Zizka, who earned the title of Anti-Christ from the Papacy, would die a natural death in 1424 but not before taking the war beyond the borders of Bohemia on what he called “beautiful rides” into Saxony, Hungary, Lusatia, and Meissen[73].  

            The Hussite movement would eventually do away with the more radical elements such as the Taborites in brokered for peace with Sigismund, now Holy Roman Emperor, in 1436. This ensured the free practice of the Hussite denomination and eventually led to the establishment of the modern church of the Czech people[74].

 


Bibliography:

 

Restitution and Dissent in the Late Medieval Renewal Movements: The Waldensians, the Hussites and the Bohemian Brethren
J. K. Zeman
Journal of the American Academy of Religion > Vol. 44, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 7-27

 

Chiliasm and the Hussite Revolution
Howard Kaminsky
Church History > Vol. 26, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 43-71

 

The Hussite Wars

Lützow, Francis, hrabě, 1849-1916. 
London, J. M. Dent & sons; New York, E. P. Dutton & co., 1914.

 

Joan of Arc: Letter to the Hussites

March 23rd 1430

The Joan of Arc Archive (http://archive.joan-of-arc.org/)

 

The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437
Bartoš, František Michálek, 1889- ,
Boulder :bEast European Monographs ; New York : Distributed by Columbia University Press, 1986.

 

            A History of the Hussite Revolution

Howard Kaminsky

Berkley and Los Angeles, University of California Press 1967

           



Notes:

[1] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 21

[2] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 43    

[3] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 29

[4] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 12

[7] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 11  

[8] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 25

[9] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 30

[10] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 38  

[11] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 41-42

[13] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 30  

[14] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 33  

[16] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 44

[17] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 71

[18] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 110

[19] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 90

[21] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 110 -111

[22] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 25-26

[23] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 77

[24] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 59-60

[25] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 59-60

[26] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 49

[27] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 55-56

[28] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 55-56

[29] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 67

[33] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 33 

[34] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 38 

[35] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 38 -39

[36] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 80-81

[37] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 80-81

[38] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 84

[43] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 78

[44] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 79

[45] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 102

[46] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 22

[47] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 43

[48] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 43-45

[49] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 47

[50] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 45

[51] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 45-46

[52] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 49

[53] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 49-50

[54] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 45-46

[55] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 51-53

[56] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 51-53

[57] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 79

[59] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 144

[60] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 120

[61] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 128

[62] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 129-132

[63] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 129-132

[64] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 129-132

[65] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 138

[66] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 144

[67] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 138-139

[68] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 138-139

[69] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 138-139

[70] A History of the Hussite Revolution, Howard Kaminsky, p 138-139

[71] The Hussite Revolution, 1424-1437, Bartoš, František Michálek, p 121

[72] The Hussite Wars, Lützow, Francis, p 161