On July 6, 1415, Jan Hus was led to the stake having been found guilty of charges of heresy by the Council of Constance against the doctrines of the Catholic Church. His attacks on the moral failings of the Church and its clergy, including the papacy, were part of a wider Bohemian reform movement and Hus’ arrest and execution, protested by many, marked a departure point in the history of medieval Europe’s most successful, though ultimately doomed, heresy.
Hus’ death occurred against a social and religious backdrop in which a burgeoning Czech nationalism in opposition to German influence and control and a growing demand for reform created the environment for popular dissent and ultimately revolution. Emperor Karel IV’s closer ties with the papacy during his reign had seen papal influence over the Bohemian church increase. Papal provisions for the appointment of senior clergy had created a natural interest group among the Czech nobility, whose rights of appointment under the existing Eigenkirche style of government had been steadily eroded. Such tensions were exacerbated by a growing Czech self-consciousness together with increasing resentment at German domination of Czech towns, in local government, and in senior positions at court and in the Church.
The Western Schism further contributed to tensions within Bohemia, giving a greater urgency to consideration of the Church, the need for reform, and a focus on both the Avignon and Roman popes as the source of troubles. Both popes, it must be said, positively fostered abuse in their quest for financial support to bolster their respective claims. The wealth of the Bohemian church further fostered abuse, whilst a surplus of clergy in effect created a clerical proletariat who were a source of dissension within the clerical body and a source of scandal to the laity. Preachers and writers such as Conrad Waldhauser, Jan Milič of Kroměříž, and Matthias of Janov encouraged a greater piety and reform of the Church, including more frequent communion for the laity and a return to the evangelical law found in Scripture. Though Karel IV showed some support, for example Waldhauser was invited by him to preach and appointed confessor and court chaplain, he had little interest in promoting reform of a system that benefited him rather than the interests of the Church.
In 1391 Vaclav Kris founded the Bethlehem Chapel where sermons were delivered solely in vernacular Czech. The preacher’s benefice was filled by the burgomaster of the Staré Město and three masters from the Bohemian nation, one of the four national colleges at Prague university, and the chapel became a focal point for reform. Hus became a rector and began preaching in 1402. Hus, among others in Bohemia had been influenced by the philosophy of John Wyclif, who was to be posthumously declared a heretic by the Council of Constance a month before Hus’s execution.
Wyclif’s arguments, among them that the Church should return to evangelical poverty, that temporal powers may take possessions from the Church if it is at fault, that clergy could preach without the authority of the apostolic see and Catholic bishop, and that the bread and wine retain their material substance during the Eucharist contrary to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, gained much support among the Czechs. In 1403 German masters at the university began their attack on what they saw as Wyclif’s heresy. An act that drew the Czechs together in defence of the right to read and teach Wyclif, and that the reformers saw as an attack on them. The Archbishop of Prague, Zbyněk Zajíc, to whom Hus was an advisor, delayed condemnation until 1408, by which time it was too late.
In 1409 the Council of Pisa, its members tired of the contest between the rival popes, took the step of electing a third pope, Alexander V. Vaclav IV, king of Bohemia, previously a supporter of Gregory XII, the Roman pope, transferred his allegiance to Alexander. Zbyněk, an ex-soldier, declined to break his oath to Gregory creating a rupture between Church and king. Vaclav needed the support of the university which was split between Czech and German factions. By the Decree of Kutná Hora Vaclav changed the university voting system, allowing the Bohemian nation three votes instead of one, and reducing the Bavarian, Saxon, and Polish to one vote overall. The resulting exodus in protest of German masters and students altered the balance of power in favour of the reformists.
Zbyněk responded by declaring an interdict on Bohemia, excommunicating those who held Wyclif’s work, and burning copies of his books at his court in Prague. Students and citizens responded with popular agitation, disrupting services and threatening priests, while both reformists and conservatives fulminated from the pulpit and the lectern for and against reform and Wyclif. Vaclav demanded that Zbyněk end the interdict. He refused and repeated the interdict, leading to the confiscation of his property by the king. Forced out of office he travelled to Hungary and died of illness at Pressburg (modern day Bratislava) aged 35.
Hus, now rector of the university became the principal symbolic figure of the reform movement. In 1412 he condemned the sale of indulgences in Prague for the papal crusade against Ladislas of Naples, earning the ire of Vaclav who supported the crusade and received some of the proceeds. On the streets of Prague popular agitation saw demonstrations against the sale of indulgences and increased radicalism. In 1412 Hus was excommunicated by Cardinal Stefaneschi and an interdict on Prague forced Hus out of the city. While in exile he wrote De ecclesia in which he rejected the papacy as an institution of divine origin and preached from his base in southern Bohemia.
In 1414 Hus was summoned to the Council of Constance where he hoped to defend and legitimize the Bohemian movement. It quickly became apparent that the Council was intent only on investigating Hus as a heretic. Czech nobles wrote letters of protest at his treatment, to no avail: Hus, refusing to abjure or to recant, was burnt at the stake. In September 452 nobles of Bohemia and Moravia put their seals to a letter that asserted that Hus had been falsely burnt.
On June 15, 1415, on the same day that the Council of Constance had decreed against Hus it also prohibited the practice of Utraquism, the administration of the chalice as well as the bread to the laity during the Eucharist, giving further impetus to the nascent Utraquist movement led by Hus’ successor at the Bethlehem Chapel, Jakoubek of Stříbro. Congregations responded eagerly and Prague was split between reformed congregations, where the chalice was given, and traditional ones where it was not. Where parish churches refused to give the chalice ad hoc congregations sprang up for whom Hussite priests administered Communion under both kinds. The more radical elements further called for the rejection of the intercession of saints, a different order of Mass, and the destruction of images. The Council remained obdurate to the point of raising the prospect of a crusade against Bohemia. In 1419 king Vaclav determined on the suppression of Hussitism, passing a decree banning Utraquism in Prague and royal towns.
In southern Bohemia Utraquist congregations, forced from their parish churches, renamed hills after Biblical sites and met in open-air congregations. A permanent settlement was established at Tábor. In Prague tensions between the orthodox and the Hussites escalated. While on his way to Mass the king was surrounded by a crown led by Nicholas of Hus demanding permission for the lay chalice. Vaclav arrested Nicholas and banished him after the intervention of the Utraquist councillors of the Nové Město (New Town). On July 6, 1419, Vaclav dismissed the Utraquist councillors, replacing them with Catholics, who forcibly took over the remaining Utraquist parish schools and banned processions.
On July 30, Jan Želivský, a radical preacher, took the consecrated Host in a monstrance at the head of his congregation to the church of St. Stephen. Finding it locked the group smashed down the doors and occupied the building. After celebrating an Utraquist Communion they proceeded to the Novoměstská radnice (New Town Hall) where they demanded the release of prisoners. When the councillors refused the crowd threw thirteen of them from the windows, killing those who survived the fall. Želivský took over the Novoměstská radnice, summoned the residents to arms, and elected new councillors and four military captains. Unable to dislodge Želivský and his supporters Vaclav, aware of the need to compromise, was forced to confirm the newly appointed councillors in their office. He died a fortnight later of apoplexy. With Vaclav’s death the crown passed to his brother, Sigismund.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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