Crusaders defeated with wooden wagons

When the priest Jan Hus is burned at the stake in 1415, his followers in Bohemia revolt. 80,000 Catholic crusading knights try to put down the rebellion - but a…

When the priest Jan Hus is burned at the stake in 1415, his followers in Bohemia revolt. 80,000 Catholic crusading knights try to put down the rebellion – but a one-eyed commander is standing by with a new and powerful weapon of war.

For months, the priest Jan Hus – in Icelandic always referred to as Jóhann Húss – has been imprisoned in a cold and mysterious cell in a monastery tower outside Konstanz, Germany. This Bohemian (Czech) theologian is accused of heresy and in early June 1415 a trial finally comes to determine his fate.

Jóhann Húss came to Konstanz under the protection of King Sigismund of Hungary and of course he shows his contempt for the king’s treachery.

“In the Kingdom of Bohemia, many wealthy and powerful high-ranking men showed me goodwill. Of course, I could have stayed put under their cover,” he says.

The indictment against the priest is long: He does not recognize the Pope as God’s representative on earth, he says the indulgences are a symbol of greed and corruption, and he believes that services in Bohemia should be conducted in Czech.

“If you are so mad as to continue this heresy, I myself will bring fire to the pyre under you!”
King Sigismund with Jóhann Húss

Straight back and with all the dignity he can show after his imprisonment, he listens to the accusations, before tearing into the arguments of both bishops and cardinals. But he speaks to deaf ears and King Sigismund says:

“If you are so mad as to continue this heresy, I myself will bring fire to the pyre under you!”

On July 6, 1415, it is time for the judgment to be pronounced. Now nothing can save Húss from the fire except to swear from his words and writings. But he sticks to his understanding of the church and is condemned for heresy.

It is Sigismund’s job to announce the sentence, and the churchmen ask the king to spare the life of the heretic, but he hands one of his dukes the scepter and says: “Do to him what a heretic deserves.” The duke does not wait to announce the verdict:

“Burn him!”

By executing Jóhann Húss, both the churchmen and King Sigismund hope to eradicate the rebellious congregation in Bohemia that Jóhann Húss led. The heresy burning in Konstanz instead turns out to be the trigger for a 15-year religious war in Central Europe.

Even when the fire reached Jóhann Húss’ feet, he refused to plead guilty to heresy.

Jóhann Húss became a martyr

When Jóhann Húss was burned at the stake in the summer of 1415, he had for more than a decade preached his reform ideas and criticism of the church in the Kingdom of Bohemia, where the Czech Republic is now. He began teaching at the University of Prague in 1398 and early took up the gauntlet for the English reformer John Wycliffe who criticized the Pope and the privileges of the human Church.

But he did not stop there. He also demanded national independence and separation from the German-Roman Empire as well as a settlement with the church’s greed and the sale of indulgences.

In particular, it was Hús’s nationalist and independence ideas that impressed his compatriots. Bohemia was part of the German-Roman Empire, and Germans held various positions of power in the country. Many of them had bought their positions or obtained them through widespread corruption. His followers were called Hussites and they could be found in all walks of life in Bohemia, from peasants to nobles.

The ideas of Jóhann Húss had great significance for Martin Luther and Protestantism.

After Jóhann Húss was executed, his followers in Bohemia sent out a declaration signed with the seals of 452 nobles. There, the actions of King Sigismund and the synod were condemned in sharp language. The Hussites asserted that the high cardinals carried “lies like treacherous enemies of our kingdom and nation and are themselves malicious heretics and even sons of the Devil who is the father of all lies.”

The king and church immediately responded by excommunicating the 452 nobles, declaring them to be “supporters of heresy”.

Sigismund was not interested in negotiations, but had this to say: “Make it clear to the people in Bohemia and Germany that we can hardly wait for the day when we drown all the Hussites.”

A few years later, the first crusade was launched against heretics in Bohemia.

The trial against Jóhanni Húss at the synod in Konstanz lasted a month. The priest defended himself, but his theological arguments fell flat.

A serious split within the church

In 1378, the Catholic Church found itself in a crisis of unprecedented proportions, when there was such a fierce conflict over the election of a new pope that two were elected. One pope sat in Rome and the other in Avignon. The Great Schism, as the period is called, shook the very foundation of the church, and in 1409, when an agreement was to be reached on one, new pope, the result was that there were three.

At the same time, the reform ideas of Jóhann Hús flared up and gained a lot of support in Bohemia, but his ideas included a fundamental criticism of the structure of the church.

A synod was held in Konstanz, Germany (1414-18) to resolve the great schism, as the foundation of the church itself was at stake. The congress was supposed to resolve disputes about the pope, but at the same time all deviations from Catholic orthodoxy had to be crushed.

Overall, the Synod was a good success. The three popes were deposed and a new pope, Martin V, was elected. In addition, Jóhann Húss was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. But his reform ideas lived on in secret, and a whole century later they became a great inspiration for Martin Luther in the reformation he led.

“I didn’t understand what was the reason for burning at the stake such a remarkable man who had expounded the sacred text with such energy and skill,” Lúter wrote about Jóhann Húss.

One-eyed Hussite commander

If Jóhann Húss was the pen of the Hussites, Jan Zizka was the sword. Historians know little about his upbringing other than that he was born into a landowning family in southern Bohemia around 1360 but moved to Prague in his twenties. He had lost one of his eyes when he was young, and in Prague he was nicknamed Zizka, which simply means one-eyed in Czech.

In 1409, Zizka was in the bodyguards of King Wenzel IV of Bohemia, and around that time he met Jóhanni Húss and his reform ideas. This priest was endowed with great personality and a clever speaker, and large parts of the court were impressed – not least Zizka, who was an ardent follower.

Jan Žižka wore a rounded lip in front of his blind eye. According to Czech legend, he lost his eye at the Battle of Tannenberg (1410), but today historians believe it happened earlier.

Numerous followers of Hús were filled with radicalism when news of the religious leader’s execution arrived, and even though King Wenzel was careful in his words and actions and tried above all to avoid a religious civil war in his kingdom, it broke out on July 30, 1419.

Several Hussites had been arrested and to get them released, Zizka marched with a large number of followers to the town hall in Prague. A stone was thrown out of a window and that was all it took. The group attacked the entry led by Zizka and occupied the town hall.

The Hussites swarmed the corridors and in their rage threw the mayor, the judge and numerous city council members out of windows and many of them died on the street stones.

The attack on the Prague City Hall angered King Venzel so much that he suffered a heart attack and died. The closest heir to the crown was none other than King Sigismund of Hungary, the arch-enemy of the Bohemian Hussites. Thus the Hussite Wars began.

The Catholic priests performed the mass in incomprehensible Latin, while the Hussite priests preached in Czech, including about doomsday.

The Hussites wanted to return to the ideals of Jesus

The reform ideas of the Hussites went against many fundamentals of the Catholic tradition. Just like Luther 100 years later, Jóhann Húss and his followers wanted to bring faith closer to the biblical texts.

Everyone was supposed to drink the wine

Catholics: Although old Christian writings specified that both wine and bread should be distributed to everyone at the altar, only the priests were allowed to partake of the wine. In that way, the position of the priest should be emphasized.

Hussites: According to the words of the Bible, the Hussites wanted everyone to receive both bread and wine at the altar. Contrary to Catholic tradition, they decided to let everyone drink the wine in 1414.

Priests were supposed to be poor

Catholic: Over the centuries, the Church had amassed great wealth and power. This was justified so that the riches should be used to sing the praises of Jesus Christ.

Hússites: One of the main points in Jóhann Hús’s message was to return the church to humility and simplicity. The church was to get rid of gold, precious stones and earthly possessions so that the priests could follow in the footsteps of Jesus and live in poverty.

Corruption heralded doomsday

Catholics: Although the Day of Judgment, when Jesus was supposed to return according to the Bible, was an ingrained part of the faith, the Church paid little attention to it in the late Middle Ages. Above all, people wanted the church to be the focal point of society.

Hussites: The Taborite movement in particular was imbued with doomsday belief. The Taborites believed that the corruption within the church was a sign that judgment day was near. They saw their struggle as a showdown with the Devil before the return of Jesus.

Crusade against heresy

The Hussite Rebellion resulted in religious chaos. Catholics and Hussites persecuted each other and killings were high on both sides. Among Catholics, the accusation of heresy alone could send men, women, and even children to the gallows.

And in Prague, where Zizka remained, a fierce civil war broke out. The streets of the city became battlegrounds for royalist Catholics and Hussites. Large urban districts fell prey to fire, and both groups made every effort to capture fortified positions.

But the Hussites in Prague split when the more conservative wing of the movement – the so-called Utraquists – decided to negotiate with the Catholics. Subsequently, the Utraquists abandoned the fortresses that Zizka had captured. In November 1419, Zizka fled Prague in anger with other Taborites, the radical wing of the Hussite movement.

“The church has not only become a stepmother, but a filth that eats its own offspring.”
The Hussite priest Jan Zelivsky 1420

In Rome, Pope Martin V wanted to crack down on all attempts at schism within the Church. On March 17, 1420, he declared a crusade against heretics in Bohemia to Plzen. The Hussites prepared for war and their advocates did not spare the big words.

“The church has become not only a stepmother, but a filth that eats its own offspring,” thundered the priest Jan Zelivský.

Shortly after the Pope’s crusade proclamation, Catholic forces besieged Plzen and Zizka was forced to admit his hopeless situation. But this one-eyed man had a lot of war experience and had been both a mercenary and a bandit leader. It was therefore natural that he was chosen to lead the Taborite war and he managed to reach an agreement with the general of the Catholics in a short time.

Against leaving Plzen, Zizka received permission to move his force to Tabor in southern Bohemia, where the Taborites were the most numerous. A force of 400 men set off with 12 horse-drawn wagons loaded with supplies and weapons. However, the Catholics broke the promise of peaceful passage, as promises given to heretics were not binding under Catholic law.

The Hussite resistance to the Catholic Crusades quickly became an important national story in Bohemia. Illustrated here in a late 15th century Czech manuscript.

The wooden wagons are too much for the knights

Around noon on March 25, the Hussites were outside the town of Sudomer, and General Zizka saw about 2,000 enemy cavalry heading towards the Hussites. The Hussite army was located on flat land in a vast valley with a river running along it, and no natural defenses could be found anywhere. Zizka now had to play with his fingers to survive.

In no time at all, he managed to line up the twelve horse-drawn carriages in a narrow area between the dam and the marshland. During the war, wooden wagons were mainly used for transport, and only in exceptional cases was an attempt made to form a defensive line with them, and then mostly as a means of micro-cleaning. But now Zizka ordered the wagons to be set up like a mobile fortress and chained together to defend against the raids of the knights. In each chariot he placed crossbowmen and men armed with forward charges. Behind the wagons, others took up positions, including the women, and armed themselves with everything that could possibly be used.

Ziska hoped that the path between the dam and the marshland would act as a funnel, preventing the knights from advancing in large groups. When the wagons had halted the advance, the peasant army was waiting, armed with cutting tools and other useful tools.

In the hands of Jan Žižka, the carts became military fortifications capable of supporting large armies.

The general was barely able to set up this defense when the attack came. About a thousand knights made a charge, but they were unable to dislodge the heavily built chariots. The area in front of the wagons became a field of blood as the knights were cut down by the hundreds with harvest tools, crossbows and lead bullets.

In desperation the cavalry tried to go out into the marsh to attack the Hussites from the side, but the horses were stuck and the knights had to rush on foot and were crushed like the others.

This battle lasted for hours, and by the time the sun set, the cavalry army no longer had an overview. Under cover of darkness, Zizka managed to escape with his team. The one-eyed general’s 400-man army, with only 12 chariots and poor weapons, had defeated a 2,000-man cavalry force. In one day he had changed the art of medieval warfare.

Wooden wagons look innocent, but they were strong enough to withstand the onslaught of heavily armed cavalry.

The wagon defense was enough for almost a century

Wagons have always been used in war, but mainly as means of transport, war chariots or as a final defense attempt, but Jan Zizka brought them to the front line and they became the most important military equipment in his military art.

It dawned on the general that by forming a bastion of reinforced wooden wagons he could destroy the cavalry’s strongest weapon, the combined charge.

Specially reinforced wagons proved to be the hardest stone wall for the knights and they had to stop their horses. This prevented them from rushing into the ranks of the infantry.

Zizka’s chariot defense was continued after his death, but was not very long-lived. As early as the beginning of the 16th century, firearms had become powerful enough that the bullets easily broke their way through the wood, and at the same time it became completely useless to defend yourself in a wooden wagon.

Zizka came to Prague’s rescue

After this feat at Sudomer, Zizka came to Tabor as a hero, and the Hussites believed that he must have been chosen by God. Soon after, he was made commander-in-chief of the Hussites.

Under Zizka, the civil war in Bohemia became even bloodier. He took his men on short expeditions out of Tabor with the purpose of causing panic among the Catholics in the vicinity. Every time he succeeded in surprising his opponents, numerous prisoners of war were executed in revenge for the killing of Catholics by the Hussites.

During one of these trips, six prisoners were taken, and the Taborites offered to spare the life of one of them in return for his execution of the other five—an offer which the Catholic readily accepted.

“If you want to uphold the laws of God, then come to our rescue and with as many men as you possibly can gather”.
In 1420, the Utraquists begged the Taborites to save them from King Sigismund.

While the general was winning one small battle after another with the Taborites in Southern Bohemia, King Sigismund had entered the country from the north with about 20,000 German mercenaries.

On May 16, Zizka received a letter from the Utraquists in Prague, begging him to come to the rescue of the city as it was threatened by Sigismund’s army.

Without thinking, the general gathered his forces and set off for the north with about 9,000 men. Sigismund failed to send troops to stop him on his way, and only four days had passed when Zizka brought his army to Prague after a march of 90 kilometers.

This seasoned warrior immediately began to strengthen the city’s defenses, not least at the approach of the townspeople, which he thought he knew Sigismund would attack. These preparations were scarcely completed when Sigismund’s armies arrived at Prague. Crusaders from around Europe had now joined the group, and now an army of about 80,000 men stood outside the city.

After Jan Žižka’s glorious victory over the Catholics on Vítkov Hill, the area was named Žižkov after the general. It is today part of the center of Prague.

Just as Zizka had planned, Sigismund attacked the fortifications on Vitkov Hill, but they ensured the supply to the city. The king didn’t mind that his soldiers had to walk along a canal outside the fortress wall, and on the other side of that path was a steep slope and a long drop.

This bottleneck outweighed the advantages of a larger army so that a much smaller defense force could hold off the attackers for long periods of time, giving highly trained soldiers time to come to the rescue. Zizka had his soldiers attack the rear of the cavalry where desperation broke out.

More than 200 knights tumbled off the edge and fell down the steep slope to certain death. The Crusaders only lost about 500 men in the battle, but the defeat led to more and more Catholics losing faith in Sigismund’s military leadership skills, and on July 30, a little over two weeks after this battle, the knights disbanded.

Five crusades were not enough

The Hussite Wars lasted for 15 years from 1419 to 1434. The Hussites in Bohemia had to constantly defend themselves against the invasions of the Catholic Crusaders and King Sigismund who demanded that the heresy be completely eradicated.

Click on an image to see it larger with description

Wanted to secure Bohemia

The attack on Prague had united the two Hussite factions, but that alliance did not last long. The Taborites wanted a complete separation from the Catholic Church along with a deal with adultery, gluttony, restraint in dress and drunkenness, but the Utraquists basically just wanted to be allowed to practice their faith in peace within the Catholic Church.

Zizka left Prague and now used his military power to ensure absolute Taborite control of all cities, towns and villages in Bohemia. While his army was besieging Rabí fort, he was struck by an arrow that damaged his healthy eye. He survived but was now almost completely blind.

But being blind did not seem to affect his martial arts and the march of victory continued.

However, Sigismund had less than given up hope of freeing Bohemia from the hands of the heretics. Thanks to him, a second crusade was called, and in the fall of 1421, he invaded Bohemia from Hungary with an army of 40,000 men. The army headed for the silver mining town of Kutná Tora and along the way almost every village was attacked with great ferocity. The men were killed and the women raped.

King Sigismund was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, and fought most of his life to usurp his father’s throne. He was finally crowned emperor in 1433 – four years later he died.

Zizka was a master of mobility and he managed to reach Kutná Hora before Sigismund. The general had only 10,000 soldiers, but now he had more than 100 chariots that the Catholic knights had found impossible to overcome. With the city behind them, the approach route was secured, and Zizka lined up the wagons in a large, tight circle in front of the city walls – a kind of wagon fortress.


But when Sigismund’s army reached the city on December 21, the citizens betrayed Zizka. The vast majority of the city’s inhabitants were German, and the inhabitants preferred the control of the church. So they sent their own army against Zizka who was now suddenly surrounded by enemies.


Now good advice was expensive. The Hussite wagon fort was now under siege and food supplies were limited as Zizka had relied on supplies from the city. But Zizka decided not to wait for the next match of the enemies.


The only weak point

Under the cover of night he lined up his wagons in two rows and went as quietly as possible. The target was the only weak point in the opponents’ military equipment, the king’s own camp. When the wagon train had entered the center of the camp, where everyone was fast asleep, the firing began. Hussite cannons and forward charges fired indiscriminately at the sleeping Catholics.


Instantly the chariot train was moving again and now the arrows of the crossbows rained down on the knights as the guns were reloaded.


Again the wagons stopped and new gunfire rang out in the darkness. The cries of despair rang out in the Catholic camp. No one had expected an attack at night, and the cannon fire was so loud that nothing seemed more like fire and brimstone from hell raining down on Sigismund’s camp.


Completely according to plan, Zizka managed to break through the enemy’s camp and army and his entire army escaped.


Sigismund himself escaped alive, but was so frightened that he did not dare to pursue Zizka. For the next few days, he idly watched the Hussite army make one attack after another on the Catholic forces, and eventually Sigismund was forced to retreat with the army back into Hungary.

From the mid-1420s, the Hussites began to invade the lands around Bohemia to discourage them from sending soldiers to the crusades against them. Here the wagon fort also proved to be successful.

The plague took Zizka

Once the external enemies had been defeated, it was not long before a conflict broke out between the two Hussite movements, and by 1423 this conflict had turned into a bitter civil war.

Zizka now turned his Taborite forces against the Utraquists and against them too he celebrated victory and was now able to unite all the Hussites under his banner. In the peace agreements that now went hand in hand, Zizka was the supreme leader of the Hussites.

The Taborites were about to greatly expand their territory, but soon after the military operations began, the 64-year-old general fell ill from the plague. Jan Zizka died on October 11, 1424 and had never lost a battle in his long life. On his deathbed, he is said to have asked his followers to tan their skin and use it as a war belly so that he could continue to lead them into battle.

Zizka’s death did not stop the Hussites, but they lost their most important leader.

In his work “Historia Bohemica”, the author who later became Pope Pius II wrote about the death of Zizka that “he who no living hand was destroyed, was extinguished by the finger of God.”

Ziska had trained his soldiers well, and although he himself was no longer in command, the military power of the Hussites was strong. But after nine years of civil war, the Utraquists had enough and joined hands with the Catholics. Without the mastery of the great commander, the Taborites were finally defeated on May 30, 1434.

After 15 years of bloody wars and five crusades, the Hussites were finally forced back under the authority of the Catholic Church. For the next eight decades, this movement was largely forgotten, until the German monk Martin Luther took up many of its struggles. And Luther’s movement became so powerful that it eventually split the church in two.

The Battle of Lipany in 1434 ended horribly for the Taborites. All the main leaders of the movement were killed and soon after, the radical congregation disintegrated.

Betrayal marked the end of the taborites

The Taborites continued to win victories in warfare after the death of Jan Zizka. After 14 years of war and five failed crusades, the Catholics were forced to the negotiating table in 1433, but the Taborites stubbornly refused all compromises and nothing came of it.

The Utraquists were more conciliatory and willing to make peace and end this endless war. In 1434 they anticipated renewed war and had enough. They therefore betrayed the Taborites and made an alliance with the Catholics. During the Battle of Liparny, the Allied forces fled. The Taborites considered victory at bay and dismantled their chariots. However, the escape was only a military trick, and without the chariot fort, the Taborites were crushed.

King Sigismund said after the battle that “only the people of Bohemia could defeat the people of Bohemia”.

In gratitude for the help, the Utraquists received a few exemptions from the strictest Catholic traditions and were allowed, for example, to distribute wine to the public during altar processions.

A 15-year religious war had devastated Bohemia. Before the war, the population was close to 3 million, but at the end of the war it was halved. Many towns and villages were in ruins.


Victor Verney: Warrior of God: Jan Žižka and the Hussite Revolution , Frontline Books, 2009

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