Previous page Page 2 of 5 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
From the 9th century AD
15th - 16th century
     Bethlehem Chapel and Huss
     The Hussite cause
     Hussites established
     Bohemia, Poland and Hungary
     Battle of Mohacs

17th - 18th century
19th century
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
The Bethlehem Chapel and John Huss: 1402-1414

John Huss, a teacher of philosophy in Prague university, is appointed in 1402 to a controversial position. He is put in charge of the Bethlehem chapel in Prague.

The chapel, founded about ten years previously, is associated with a radical approach to Christianity. The pulpit here is as prominent a feature as the altar. It is to be a place for sermons in the Czech language, comprehensible to ordinary people. The preachers argue for a simple Christianity, a religion of poverty and humility, very different from the worldly grandeur of the papacy.


At about the time of Huss's first involvement with the chapel, tension is heightened by the return from Oxford of his young friend Jerome of Prague. Jerome brings with him books by John Wycliffe, whose views - particularly on the unholy nature of the papacy - coincide with those of Huss.

For several heady years the reformers preach and agitate in Prague. The papacy is an easy target. Since 1378 there have been two rival popes. From 1409 there are three. One of them even has the effrontery to sell indulgences in Prague to finance his campaign against his opponents.


Eventually a council is called at Constance, in 1414, to resolve the issue of the three popes. As a prominent voice in the argument for ecclesiastical reform, Huss is invited to Constance to put his case.

The invitation poses evident personal danger to Huss, but he is reassured by a promise of safe conduct from the emperor Sigismund. Huss bravely sets off for the small German town which is now the scene of a glittering assembly of Christian potentates. Within weeks of his arrival he is arrested, with the emperor's tacit approval.


The Hussite cause: 1415-1433

When news reaches Prague of Huss's death, burnt at the stake in Constance, the movement for reform is greatly strengthened. His successor as preacher in the Bethlehem chapel lists four radical principles upon which the Hussites insist.

The Four Articles of Prague demand: the freedom to preach; the wine as well as the bread to be given to the congregation in the mass; a clergy committed to poverty, together with the expropriation of church property; and the public punishment of notorious sinners, among whom prostitutes are singled out for special attention. The Hussites also differ from Rome in conducting their services in Czech rather than Latin.


These ideas spread rapidly through Bohemia, fuelled by a nationalist wave of anti-German sentiment. Germans are prosperous and influential in Bohemia. Huss was killed by a council on German soil. The man who betrayed his trust, revoking the promised safe conduct, is the German king and Holy Roman emperor Sigismund.

Sigismund is the half-brother of the Bohemian king Wenceslas IV. On the death of Wenceslas, in 1419, Sigismund presses his claim to the throne of Bohemia. The kingdom erupts.


In 1420 the Hussites build a fortified town at Tabor, on a bluff above a river about 50 miles south of Prague. From here their leader, Jan Zizka, conducts a series of brilliant campaigns against the armies of Sigismund and the new pope, Martin V.

The pope proclaims, in 1420, a crusade against the Hussites. It is not the first crusade against fellow Christians who are judged to be heretics (the Albigensian crusade is two centuries earlier). But it is the first time the heresy is specifically an attack on Roman Catholic practice, arguing that the papacy betrays the example of the early Christians in two ways - in its worldliness and in its restriction of the sacrament.


Marching under their symbolic banner (which displays a communion chalice), the Hussites defeat half a dozen papal and imperial armies sent against them between 1420 and 1431. They fight with the zeal of nationalism and piety. They benefit too from a military tactic pioneered by Zizka - his so called 'war wagon fortress', using farm wagons as mobile barricades behind which an attacking force can shelter (an idea more familiar, subsequently, in the Wild West, but also used by Babur in India in 1526).

These victories eventually wring from the papacy some notable concessions to Bohemia, in terms agreed in 1433.


Hussites established: 1433-1458

By the Compacts of Prague, agreed in 1433 and confirmed at a peace treaty in 1436, the Hussites are granted papal permission to give the sacrament in both kinds; their seizure of church lands in their territories is authorized; and Bohemia is granted an independent church under an elected arcbhishop.

These major concessions do not end the argument. The religious split remains the chief issue throughout the 15th century - which even sees the election of a Hussite king, George of Podebrady, to the Bohemian throne in 1458.


Bohemia, Poland and Hungary: 1471 - 1526

After the reign of George of Podebrady, the Bohemian crown becomes closely linked with the strongly Roman Catholic neighbouring kingdoms of Poland and Hungary. In 1471 the Bohemian estates elect to the throne Vladislav, son of Casimir IV of Poland. Their condition is a vow that he will safeguard the hard-won liberties of the Hussite church of Bohemia. In 1490 Vladislav also acquires the throne of Hungary.

In the reign of Vladislav's son Louis, who succeeds him in 1516, there is an even greater threat to these Christian kingdoms than their own sectarian struggles. Louis dies in 1526 at Mohacs, fighting the Turks.


Battle of Mohacs: 1526

The weakness of Hungary and Bohemia, under the rule of the 15-year-old Louis II, attracts the interest of an aggressive young sultan of Turkey, newly on the throne as Suleiman I. In 1521 he sends a demand for tribute. When it is rejected he marches west and captures Belgrade.

In 1526 Suleiman pushes further up the Danube. Forced now into action to defend Budapest, Louis II brings an army south to meet him. Devoted until now to a life of pleasure, the young king approaches his enemy with reckless courage but little wisdom. At the centre of 20,000 hastily gathered troops, he rides against some 100,000 Turkish janissaries, well trained and hardened in warfare.


The clash occurs at Mohacs. The Hungarians are annihilated and the king killed, probably by drowning when in flight. Suleiman briefly advances as far as Budapest and then withdraws, taking with him 100,000 Hungarians.

This disaster, devastating in itself, also has significant repercussions. The Habsburg ruler of Austria, Ferdinand I, is married to the sister of Louis II, who has died without an heir. Ferdinand now claims Louis' two thrones. After some initial opposition the Habsburg claim is accepted in Bohemia, but it provokes years of civil war in Hungary.


Bohemia, after Mohacs, enters nearly four centuries as little more than a province of the Austrian empire. The Habsburg rulers, fervently Roman Catholic, find it hard at first to resist demands for religious liberty from a predominantly Protestant population. This is, after all, the land in which the battle for freedom of conscience was first won, by the followers of John Huss. In the turbulent 16th century, Bohemia has its share of unrest.

But in the long run religious dissent proves Bohemia's undoing. Action by the Protestant assembly in Prague in 1618 lights the spark of the Thirty Years' War. At its end, the peace of 1648 enables the Habsburgs to impose a strict uniformity of doctrine which stifles Bohemia's vitality.


Previous page Page 2 of 5 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF BOHEMIA