The Effects of the Hussites

  By Timotheus, 2005; Revised 28 January 2007
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Jan Hus was a religious reformer in Bohemia in the early 1400s. It seems surprising, then, that from the movement formed from his death, that radical changes in military science would take place. These new ideas came mainly from Jan Zizka[1], one of the most brilliant defensive military minds the world has ever seen. Yet very few know of him, or the revolution he led. Later, the remnants of the movement would spark the Thirty Year’s War. This paper will attempt to prove that:

THESIS: Jan Zizka and the Hussite Movement had great effect on military science and military history.

Jan Hus was born in Bohemia in either 1369 or 1373. He attended the Charles University in Prague and was greatly influenced there by the English reformer John Wyclif. After graduation, he rose to a prominent preaching position in the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. He first clashed with the Catholic Church in the form of the Archbishop of Prague, who opposed Hus because of his Wyclifite views. The support of King Vaclav IV, however, kept Hus safe. When, however, Hus opposed the representative of the Pisan Pope John XXIII[2], because of a sale of indulgences to finance a crusade against Naples, Hus was excommunicated; two years later, in 1414, he went to the Council of Constance to defend his cause.

At Constance, the King of the Romans[3] Sigismund of Luxembourg, half-brother and heir to Vaclav IV, denied Hus his protection, even though he had granted a safe-conduct. The most he would do for Hus was to insist that he would not be condemned without trial. He dared not offend the Council; his aim was to reconcile the Catholic Church to itself, and if they were opposed to Hus, Hus was a small price to pay for that. The hearings were disorderly, with Hus being given no chance to defend himself. He was condemned to be burnt at the stake on July 6, 1415, with the sentence carried out later that day. His killing greatly shocked the people and nobles of Bohemia, who were greatly fond of Hus; instead of rooting out heresy, Hus’s execution solidified the movement that he had begun, and Bohemia would be intermittently in revolt against the Roman Church for most of the rest of the century.

The story of the Hussites, though first the story of Hus, is primarily the story of Zizka. This remarkable man is unparalleled in military history for the range, scope, and enormity of his accomplishments. He conceived the idea of the modern tank in his war wagons, giant moving armored fortresses filled with crossbowmen and hand cannoneers. Despite the effectiveness of this tactic, it was largely forgotten to military scientists and only revived by different minds in the early 20th century. He was one of the first Europeans to use artillery and guns in battle, instead of the previous use of them solely in sieges, and the first to use an organized system of them.[4] To this day we use the words pistol, howitzer, and harquebus, each of which come from Czech words first applied in Zizka’s day[5].

Aside from these innovations, the Hussites had little in the way of conventional medieval weapons; most of their weaponry, including the wagons, were converted from farming implements; Zizka’s armies made great use of a modified agricultural flail. Besides this, he formed the first formal code of military conduct, applied the first form of the levee en masse, and two times turned back the best of Europe when they gathered in Crusade against his homeland (with three more crusades turned back by his successors). Most extraordinary of all, he conducted half of his career while completely blind – a feat neither seen before nor repeated since.

The fortitude of the Hussites is incredible to note. A historian would be hard pressed to find a smaller, more ill equipped group that defeated a superior foe more often. Leonidas and the Spartans stood bravely against the Persians at Thermopylae for one battle, after which they all were dead. Lee and the Confederates made stunning victories over the course of the Civil War and ultimately held out for four years. From the death of Hus to the first Defenestration of Prague itself was four years, after which hostilities commenced in earnest; from there to the death of Zizka by the plague, unconquered, was another five; from there, the two priest-generals named Prokop, using for the most part Zizka’s strategies, held out for another ten years until fellow Hussites in league with the Catholics defeated them at Lipany with their own tactics. Even then the movement was so strong, and the memory of the wars so fresh in Sigismund’s mind, that for nearly two hundred more years the Hussites were granted freedom of religion.

All this occurred with the entirety of Europe (with the exception of Poland-Lithuania, which was for the most part neutral) and the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church was arrayed against them, so that in all five formal crusades, as well as unaffiliated assaults by Sigismund, were destroyed by the Hussites. Of the seventeen official battles of the Hussite Wars, only one before Lipany had ever been won by the Germans[6], and that one without Zizka or the Prokops present.

Zizka was born to a family of the minor nobility at Trochnov around 1370[7]. Little is known about his early life, though legends abound. We know that he was active at the royal court, and served as a chamberlain of Queen Sophia. He seems to have always had the martial spirit, and fought with the Bohemian mercenaries under his commander Jan Sokol with the Lithuanians at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410. On that storied field he lost his right eye.[8] Returning home to convalesce, he met Jan Hus and became an ardent Hussite.[9] His name first rose to prominence on July 30, 1419, at the First Defenestration of Prague.

After Hus’s execution, four hundred and fifty-two barons and lords affixed their seals to a letter defying the orders of the council regarding his followers.[10] Vaclav IV was a weak man, too weak to stand up to the might of the nobility, and thus he tolerated the Hussites for a time. This time was sufficient for the religious minds in Prague to define serious Hussite doctrine in the Four Articles[11] and for the peasant movement at Tabor to form. But the king, being pressured by the Church and Sigismund, began to suppress the Utraquist teachers. On July 6, 1419, he installed new anti-Hussite councilors in Prague.[12] Twenty-four days later, after careful planning and conspiracy[13], the city erupted in revolt.

Jan Zelivsky, a radical Hussite priest, preached an inflammatory sermon at the church Our Lady of the Snows. He then took the bread of the mass and led his flock in a procession to St. Stephen’s, the church from which he had just recently been dismissed as minister by the king. Forcing through the doors, the Hussites celebrated mass in the church and marched to the Town Hall, where the burgomaster, three magistrates, and a number of anti-Hussite burghers were having a hasty conference regarding the uproar.

Having sent for reinforcements, the burgomaster began to engage the Hussites in talk, stalling for time.[14] The Hussites demanded the release of all Hussite prisoners. The magistrates refused and unwisely added some insulting language. Someone threw a rock at the Hussites, and the situation got out of hand. Zizka took command, stormed the Town Hall, and threw thirteen of those inside out the window.[15] Those that were not killed by the fall were killed by the crowd. The intent was to get King Vaclav to conform to Hussite policies, but Vaclav spoiled that by becoming so angry that he suffered a fit of apoplexy and died two weeks later.[16] As he had no children, the throne went to Sigismund, the perceived murderer of Hus. This naturally the Hussites could not accept, and so open revolt began. The Hussite Wars had started.

Zizka garrisoned the Vyssehrad fortress in Prague, but after some fighting between it and other, Royalist-held fortresses, the Prague Hussites there made an armistice with the Catholics.[17] Disgusted with the action, Zizka withdrew to Plzen, which he made his base of operations.[18] He trained his men as best he could, who came to him from miles around. These were mainly peasants, almost completely infantrymen. They came with their farming instruments, wagons and flails. Zizka, who had nothing to equip them with, quickly realized that a spike driven through the end of the flail made it a deadly weapon. If one added a scythe to the end of a long pole, he had a weapon the equal or superior of a spear. In a pinch even a pitchfork could be useful. The flail, however, was most commonly used and became a symbol of the Hussite movement.[19]

It is unknown what was the inspiration for Zizka’s primary innovation, the war wagon. Some suggest he learnt it from the Lithuanians with which he fought at Tannenberg. Others give the idea to have originated from the Russians. To be sure, a wagon fortress was nothing new, and had been used quite often in the past to protect a headquarters. Zizka’s idea was to make the wagon fortress movable within battle, and an offensive as well as defensive weapon. It is most likely that Zizka did not get this idea from anybody, but that necessity was the mother of invention.[20] In December of 1419, Zizka took three hundred men and seven wagons with cannons on them to besiege the town of Nekmer. Lord Bohuslav of Svamberk, an ardent Royalist, intercepted him with more than 2000 cavalry as well as foot soldiers.[21] Details of the battle are virtually nonexistent, except that the Royalists were handily defeated. We can reasonably assume Zizka circling the wagons around his men as a defensive move, then using the cannon within them to rebuff the enemy. It is my opinion that Zizka was as surprised as his enemies at the effectiveness of the tactic, and realized he had a potentially impregnable fortress-weapon in his hands. Zizka returned to Plzen to drill his men in this new type of warfare, and, over the years, applied his keen soldier’s mind to perfect this Wagenburg system that would make the Hussites virtually undefeated.[22]

In March 1420 Zizka decided to move his base of operations to Tabor, home of the Taborite group of Hussites and ruled by Mikulas of Hus[23]. On his march there he was ambushed by Royalist forces, called the “Iron Lords” because of their great armor, under Jindrich of Hradec. Zizka had 400 people with him, including women and children, and only six men on horse. Setting his wagons in three lines between two dry fishponds, he fought the Iron Lords and roundly defeated them. (A Hussite chronicler describes a miracle. A Catholic writes that Zizka had the women place their veils on the ground so as to entangle the horses.)[24] This victory put Zizka firmly in place as leader of the Hussite resistance. Zizka surely needed the reputation, for in that very month, a bull from Martin V was read all over Europe. The Crusade was being preached against Bohemia.

Sigismund arrived at Prague on the 30th of June 1420, after some minor skirmishes. Zizka, though outnumbered and with two fortresses in the city held by Royalists, fortified the gallows hill (Vitkov Hill). When Sigismund tried to attack, the Hussites defended with great fortitude while Zizka made a surprise flank attack from the south.[25] Despite this the Hussites were near defeat before being encouraged by the arrival of a priest carrying the host of the mass.[26] Sigismund went down to heavy defeat, and the crusaders, seeing that an easy victory was not to be had, lost their will to fight and resorted to beating up the Czechs who were fighting for the crusade. The crusade broke up shortly, after Sigismund was coronated king of Bohemia.

Zizka withdrew to the south to raise more troops, for though one crusade had been turned back, more would be coming. Later that year Zizka returned to the Vyssehrad fortress, the one point of resistance left in Prague, and proceeded with a thorough siege in which the defenders were reduced to eating horseflesh. Sigismund did not want to lose face by surrendering to the heretics so he ordered a frontal assault. His men were slaughtered and he himself barely escaped with his life.[27]

Growing more and more worried about the situation of the rebels, a group of German princes, bishops, and cities formed a pact with Sigismund against the Hussites. The pope granted his blessing and the Second Hussite Crusade began. Zizka began calling for men for an army, and began to besiege various Royalist fortresses around Bohemia. In June 1421, besieging the castle of Rabi, he was struck in his good eye by an arrow from the walls. He was taken to Prague and doctors treated the wound skillfully so that he survived, but his sight was irreparably gone. “These blind people were delighted to follow a blind leader,” marveled Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini[28]. “Generations to come will be amazed by this tale and will not believe it.” Zizka’s blindness is indeed the greatest part of his mystique, for he returned to lead his army in early October.

The cause of that was the crusading army, which besieged Zatec. The siege lasted for three weeks before news came that Zizka was coming with an army, at which the crusaders fled. Zizka, however, rightly supposed that Sigismund would have additional actions in mind, and further supposed that Sigismund would head for Kutna Hora, a predominantly Catholic town in the east ruled by the Hussites.[29] He marched there, hoping to beat Sigismund to a secure position, but reckoned without the people of Kutna Hora. He set up his wagons in a semi-circle facing the crusader army, but Sigismund failed to attack.

Instead, he sent a group of Hungarian cavalrymen to the rear of the city and were let in by the inhabitants. Moving for once more quickly than Zizka, they secured all of the city gates so that Zizka was now surrounded, and began massacring the Hussites in the city. The crusaders then fought with the Hussites until nightfall. After spending the night in prayer and fasting, Zizka concentrated all his firearms in a dawn attack on Sigismund’s personal camp. The enemy, being surprised, let Zizka break out, who disappeared with the remainder of his army. Assuming Zizka dealt with, Sigismund set the crusaders in winter quarters.[30]

Zizka, however, broke the conventional rules of fighting during the winter, spent two weeks raising more forces, and counterattacked on January 6th, 1422, at Nebovidy. Zizka fell on the Hungarians “like a thunderbolt”[31] and routed them quite easily because of their surprise. They retreated to Kutna Hora but, seeing Zizka following, they fired the city and fled. Notwithstanding, the Hussites extinguished the flames and set off in pursuit. The crusaders made a stand at Habry on January 8th, but collapsed rapidly and fled so fast they left their standards behind.[32] On the 10th, Sigismund drew up on final time in the loyalist town of Nemecky Brod but again fled shortly after the attack, leaving large numbers of supply wagons behind and fleeing over the ice of the Sazava River. The ice did not hold and many fell through the ice and were drowned. The Hussites then sacked and razed Nemecky Brod; humiliated, Sigismund returned to Brno, Hungary.[33] He would not set foot in Bohemia again until the Hussite Wars ended six months before his death.

Jan Zizka
Jan Zizka
The sack of Nemecky Brod was to figure importantly in Hussite history. Such abominations were rare in Zizka’s army, and in April of 1423 Zizka commanded that the army leaders return to Nemecky Brod, repent, and do penance in the place they sinned.[34] Shortly thereafter Zizka drew up the first code of military order in European military history. It was a thoroughly democratic document, enjoining that violators of the rules would all be punished equally (usually forfeiture of goods and life) regardless of rank or sex.[35] Among actions forbidden were lighting fires without express permission, camping away from the army, quarrels within the army, desertion, theft, independent plunder, drunkenness, disobedience, and adultery. Other articles in the document commanded strict marching formation, the execution of commanders who by carelessness caused the rest of the army to suffer harm, and an organized and socialistic division of plunder.[36]

Meanwhile, the Hussites were trying to strengthen their diplomatic situation abroad. As they had no king, Zizka de facto ruled the Taborites while Jan Zelivsky ruled Prague, but Zizka was focusing on defense and Zelivsky was somewhat unpopular, and neither could be everywhere at once nor had the authority of a king. Clearly if anarchy were to be avoided, something would have to be done. The crown was first offered to Wladislav II Jagiello of Poland, who, though secretly happy to see the Germans discomfited, did not wish to risk the ire of the Roman Church, and declined. It was then offered to his cousin Grand Duke Witold of Lithuania, a close ally of Poland’s; more ambitious and less wary than his kinsmen, he wrote to Martin V that he was now king of Bohemia, would return the Hussites to the fold of the church, and was sending his nephew and heir Zygmunt Korybut to Bohemia as regent. This annoyed Sigismund to no end but he was too busy administrating the wars against the Hussites to have open war against Lithuania and Poland. Zygmunt at least nominally became a Hussite, took communion in both kinds, and began helping Zizka organize against the Third Crusade. For the next six years the Hussites would have at least tacit support from Poland and Lithuania.[37]

The Third Crusade was a short affair. Zygmunt Korybut had been besieging Karlstejn Castle southwest of Prague for most of the latter half of 1422. The crusaders came to the relief of the castle, but, as Zizka was operating in the east, the crusaders were unaware of his location and wary to attack; likewise Zygmunt, lacking in most of the skills Zizka had, did not think himself capable of winning a major victory. An armistice was worked out on the 8th of November and the crusaders went home.[38] The next crusade would not begin for five more years.

This turned out to be actually bad for the Hussites. In the previous years the necessities of war had caused the various factions within the Hussites to stick together against the crusades; now with those constraints gone, they began to fight amongst themselves. In 1420 Zizka had exterminated a particularly murderous splinter group of the Hussites called the Adamites[39]; now his attentions were turned against the Praguers. Cenek of Vartenberk, a powerful baron and Lord High Burgrave of Prague, who would turn from Royalist to Hussite to Royalist three times, led the forces of Calixtine Prague in the battle of Horice on April 20th 1423, dwarfing Tabor’s 3000 men and 120 wagons. Zizka deployed at the top of a hill so that the cavalry could not attack; moving slowly up the hill in heavy armor, the Praguers were battered by artillery fire from the wagons. After several minutes of this, Zizka parted the wagons and sent the reserve of Hussite cavalry charging down the hill, sweeping the demoralized Royalists from the field.[40]

Later the Taborites split into two main movements, Zizka leading the Orebites[41] and the Taborites remaining under the same name. The main difference was in the regulations for the mass, the Orebites being less radically different from the Catholics than the Taborites. The two groups did not particularly fight much between each other until after the death of Zizka, who was somewhat of a unifying leader.[42] In May of 1424, while he was nearing the town of Kostelec to besiege it, a superior force of Royalists trapped Zizka within a small bend of the Labe River. He set up his wagons in a circle as if they were town walls and stayed under siege for a week. Windecke reports a conversation between Sigismund and Oldrich of Rozmberk[43] with Oldrich claiming that Zizka was finally finished and Sigismund being highly skeptical. On the night of June 4-5, Zizka slipped across the river with all of his wagons and equipment, being helped by Lord Hynec Bocek of Podebrady who had come to his aid.[44]

The Royalists received a tremendous shock the next morning to find that their prey had flown the net. However, imagining Zizka to be in retreat, they pursued him to the town of Malesov, near Kutna Hora. Zizka again deployed at the top of a hill, and filled several of his wagons with rocks. As the enemy passed through the valley below, Zizka sent his cavalry partway down, drawing the enemy up the hill. Once this was done, he had his foot soldiers push the ballast wagons down the hill. The Hussite cavalry got out of the way easily, but the enemy foot was in great confusion to avoid the wagons. Taking maximum advantage of the situation, the Hussites began firing their cannon and sending all troops charging forward. The enemy was routed, and 1200 Royalists were killed at the price of 200 Hussites.[45]

This was to be Zizka’s last great battle. Zizka marched on Prague, and prepared to do battle for it; however, Zygmunt Korybut, leader of the Praguers, negotiated a peace, switching the alliance of the Utraquists from the Crusader/Royalists back to the Taborite/Orebites. Zizka then marched off to his base of operations in eastern Bohemia. En route, he stopped at the Royalist-held castle of Pribyslav; while besieging it, he fell ill with the plague and died on the 11th of October, 1424. As he died, he enjoined the Hussites to faithfully and unwaveringly continue to defend God’s truths.[46]

The death of Zizka, who had been the commander of both the Taborite and Orebite forces, sparked a reorganization of the Hussites. The Taborites selected as commander a priest named Prokop, variously called Prokop Holy[47], Prokop the Shaven, Prokop the Bald, and Prokop the Great. The Orebites took the name of Orphans, because the loss of Zizka to them was as if they had lost a father. They also elected as commander a priest named Prokop, causing much confusion; thus, the Orebite’s Prokop was called Prokupek, or Prokop the Lesser (to distinguish from the Great). The Prokops had a different idea of war than Zizka; Zizka fought strictly defensively within Bohemia, while the Prokops favored extensive preemptive strikes throughout Germany and Hungary. Prokop the Great was generally regarded as a talented soldier, though not the equal of Zizka, and slightly superior to Prokupek.

After a defeat of the Germans at Usti-nad-Labem, the Pope declared a Fourth Crusade. Command was given to the Englishman Henry Beaufort. This crusade is noteworthy for the Crusaders’ attempted use of war wagons in the style of the Hussites. They however did not use the wagons properly. Meeting near Tachov in August 1427, the crusaders were routed, mainly because a great deal of the army fled as the battle began for fear of the Hussites. Beaufort enjoined his fleeing army by the cause of the pope, the empire, the crusade, and the cross, to turn and fight, yet turning, they saw the Hussites coming after, and fled only the faster. At this Beaufort tore his banner to pieces, cursed the Germans out, and fled with them. Many were killed in the subsequent flight.[48]

For the next three years the Hussites spread terror about Central Europe. Prokop Holy concluded that a strong offensive strategy was the only way to be left in peace, and conducted invasions of Hungary, Silesia, Lusatia, Meissen and Saxony. His aim was not to conquer land but rather to crush the spirit of his foes. The Czechs took great plunder, and the German fiefdoms paid them great sums of money to leave them alone. Their depredations were told across Europe to such an extent that a letter purportedly from Jeanne d’Arc was sent to the Hussites warning that she would come and eradicate them, should they not cease![49]

These “beautiful rides” (spanile jizdy) as the Hussites termed them, could not escape the notice of Martin V, who declared another crusade and set Cardinal Julian Cesarini as legate over it. Recruitment was intensive; absolutions for crimes up to the murder of priests and destruction of church property were given to volunteers. Fully 90,000 infantry and 40,000 cavalry were sent into Bohemia; with all the camp followers, the crusade numbered over a quarter of a million.[50] Prokop Holy, commanding a combined Taborite, Orphan, and Utraquist army, met them near Domazlice on August 14, 1431. As the battle was about to be joined, Frederick of Brandenburg sent his baggage train to the rear. This was perceived by many as a retreat, severely disheartening the forces. As the Hussites marched into battle, they sang their hymn “Ye Warriors of God” (Kdož sú Boží bojovníci). This was enough to so completely unnerve the rest of the crusaders that they, including Cesarini, fled from the battlefield without even a drop of blood shed. In victory, the Hussites pursued the crusaders and inflicted heavy losses on them. It would be the most decisive Hussite victory of the war – Cesarini himself barely escaped with his life, losing in the process his cardinal’s hat, robes, gold cross, and even the crusade bull.[51]

Thoroughly shaken, Sigismund called a council at Basel where he met with the Hussites and worked out an agreement accepting the Four Articles within Bohemia. In the meantime, the Hussites famously served as mercenaries for Poland in a war against the Teutonic Knights, making a final insult to German authority by wasting their way all the way to the Baltic Sea, where they sang their hymn, danced in celebration, and declared they would march to the ends of the earth, were it not for the sea that was in their way.[52]

The Compactata of Basel on its face appeared a complete giving in to Hussite ideas. However, if one looked closer, he would notice that there were subtleties of Catholicism that watered down what seemed to be great concessions.[53] The Utraquists decided this was a good enough deal and accepted the Compactata; the Taborites and Orphans refused. So on the 30th of May, 1434, the Utraquist and Catholic armies combined to meet the Taborites and Orphans, at the field of Lipany. Being deceived with a false retreat, a tactic Zizka had used a dozen times, Prokop’s army charged against the enemy wagon formation and was thoroughly annihilated. Both Prokops fell, as did most of the Taborite army, numbering 12,000.[54] This effectively ended the Hussite Wars.

Sigismund died shortly after. He had been the most powerful man in Christendom, but was unable to use his power because of his inability to destroy a handful of heretics. After Sigismund’s death, Albert II became king of Germany and Bohemia; at his death, his infant son Ladislaus succeeded. Tolerance was granted to the Hussites, both Utraquists, the remnants of the Taborite community, and Petr Chelcicky’s Unity of the Brethren[55]. When Ladislaus died in his minority, Jiri z Podebrad (George of Podebrady) was elected as king of Bohemia, the only non-Catholic European monarch until Luther’s time. He was opposed by Pope Pius II, and once again Bohemia fell into war. Podebrady resisted with some success, but at his death in 1471 the throne reverted to a Catholic.[56] The Compactata of Basel had been revoked in 1462, but tolerance was still given to those who took communion in both kinds.

The Hussite movement continued through the Reformation until 1618. The Utraquists gradually reverted to the Roman rite, and the Unitas Fratrum mostly subsumed Tabor. Hussite barons, in protest of Hapsburg infringements on their religious freedom, took up the spirit of Zizka and threw two Austrian governors and a secretary out the window of Prague Castle in Prague, touching off the Thirty Years’ War.[57] The Czech’s part in the war, however, was destined to last only two years. At the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 the Hussites were crushingly defeated by the Austrians. All the nobility were killed there; without any protection, most of the rest of the Hussites were slaughtered after the battle. A tiny remnant fled to Moravia and became the Moravian Church.[58]

What then was Zizka’s effect on the course of military science? His contributions are broad and remarkable. He realized the infantry revolution in the age of the mounted knight. His peasants, citizen-soldiers all, were as deadly with his innovative polearms as a German foot soldier with years of training. He also was a precursor of the gunpowder revolution; the Hussites made “pistols” and “harquebuses” for use within their famous wagons, and “howitzers” as field artillery. Previously, artillery was almost exclusively used in sieges; Zizka brought them onto the battlefield consistently, with great effect.

Still more importantly, he invented mobile armor; history books that have him record him as the first to use a tank. Wooden shutters were added to the outwardly sloping sides of the farmwagons for greater protection; these also doubled with the purpose of using chains to lock with other wagons to make a wagon fortress. The wagons would carry 18-21 men: 4-8 crossbowmen, 2 handgunners, 6-8 soldiers equipped with pikes or flails, 2 shield carriers and 2 drivers.[59] Naturally, not all of these would be in the wagon at the same time. Only the missile troops would be in there, for cover while firing; the flailmen would stand by for defense, the drivers would be caring for the horses directly behind the wagon so as to be ready in a moment to move the wagon, while the shield carriers defended the spaces in between the wagons, or the drivers and beasts when needed. Other times, wagons would carry larger artillery, for use in blasting the enemy’s formations into pieces.

The general Hussite strategy was to provoke the enemy to attack with artillery fire, then let loose a barrage of crossbow bolts and bullets from the handguns at the enemy. Often they would utilize high ground to prevent cavalry attacks, causing the knights to move forward slowly in heavy armor. When the enemy was sufficiently weakened and demoralized, the wagon formation would be parted and the cavalry and infantry would strike hard at the flanks, all the while keeping up a bombardment in the center from the wagons. The enemy would be forced to withdraw, and an unusually high percentage of knights, who could not flee quickly without their horses, would be left on the field to be mopped up by the victorious Hussites.[60] As the wars progressed and the luster of the Hussite victories increased, dread played an ever-increasing role in deciding the battles, as is evidenced at Domazlice. Only fellow Hussites, using Hussite tactics, were able to finally sunder the movement and destroy it in battle.

The wagons would also be used offensively. Several groups of wagons would form lines, columns and squares, and

Castle Rabi
Castle Rabi
advance on the enemy with the army in the middle. The Hussite would have been previously instructed in how the wagons were deployed, but the enemy, being unable to see over the wagons, would be thoroughly confused when they got into the maze, and would be easily cut to pieces with flails.[61]

Zizka’s successes were not unnoticed by the rest of Europe. Infantry began to replace the mounted knight as the main player in battles; gunpowder was used increasingly in Western wars. The Germans tried to emulate the war wagon; however, they lacked certain factors that made wagons work: first, commanders with the skill of Zizka or Prokop; second, the rolling plains of Eastern Europe relatively uninterrupted by mountains, streams, and forests; third, a well trained, well disciplined infantry force. War wagons, sometimes staffed by aging mercenary Hussites, would be adopted in some small measure by Polish, German, and Russian armies, but never to the extent and measure of effectiveness that Zizka’s fearsome mobile armies. By the time infantry began to make its impact on the rest of Europe, artillery would begin to use iron projectiles rather than stone ones, and wooden armor became ineffective. It was not until the turn of the 19th century that the armored tank was developed with metal plating, reviving Zizka’s tradition.[62]

How much can we be sure that it was the Hussites who influenced these decisions, and they were not reached by simple trends that would have been reached anyway? Fairly sure; the Hussite army was dreaded in the 15th century – Aeneas Sylvius, though condemning Zizka as an agent of the devil, could not but write with horrified respect of his military prowess – well-remembered in the 16th, and well written about from then on. Only with the World Wars has a new chapter in military history come, distracting our attention from Zizka; he was well written about in past times. Even if others came up with his ideas independently, it is remarkable that he came up with them all in such a short time, with such a disability, and such an army.

Zizka’s effect on history cannot be denied. He preserved the Hussite movement at its critical hour, ensuring its survival into the 17th century; Martin Luther would meet with Hussites and be surprised with how much he agreed with them,[63] encouraging him greatly in his architecture of the Reformation. The Hussite Wars shook up Central European politics, causing a shift in power for Sigismund’s Hungary, increasingly seen as ineffective, to Hapsburg Austria. And in Hussitism’s dying breath, it started the Thirty Years’ War, which finally brought religious tolerance to Germany.

Jan Zizka, one of the most remarkable generals who ever lived, and the Hussite movement he shepherded after the death of its father Hus, had large effect on military history and military science. His contributions cannot be denied, and the effect of those contributions on other’s thinking can be little questioned. The historical imprint of such a small movement on such a large area of history is surely one of the most outstanding feats of history.


[1] Note: I have mainly not included diacritics in my spelling of Czech names. Zizka should of course be Žižka, but the inclusion across the paper of these marks for the denoting of exact pronunciation would be tedious and of doubtful use. Wikipedia’s articles usually use diacritics throughout, and should you be in confusion how to use them, should be helpful.

[2] Later deemed antipope. The Great Schism was going on at the time and Bohemia owned obedience to the Pisan line of popes. Constance was called primarily to resolve the schism; Hus’s case was a sideline.

[3] Holy Roman Emperor elect. The Emperor had to be coronated by the pope, and as there was no clear pope, there was no coronation. Sigismund was king of Hungary and the last non-Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor.

[4] A previous edition of the paper stated that he was the first to use them in battle, an error that seems to be slightly persistent. In fact, the Teutonic knights used artillery at Tannenberg (Grunwald) in 1419. I was corrected at

[5] From Czech píšťala, houfnice, and hákovnice. Stephen Turnbull, The Hussite Wars 1419-36, pp. 35-37. Confirmed in American Heritage Dictionary.

[6] Thomas A. Fudge, The Crusade against Heretics in Bohemia, 1418-1437, map 3 p. xxii.

[7] though the date is dubious. Even in other Wikipedia languages the date is variously given as 1360, 1370, and 1374; some other sources indicate 1354.

[8], though some sources say he lost it in a childhood accident.

[9] Other versions of the story have him, after Tannenberg (called Grunwald by the victorious Poles and Lithuanians), fighting with the Hungarians against the Turks and even serving with the English at Agincourt. The first is possible and the second highly unlikely. An unverified legend states that his sister had been violated by a monk and died of it; thirsting for vengeance, he joined those who opposed the Catholic Church. I prefer the explanation that his spirit of vengeance was akin to that of all fellow Bohemians – to continue the work of their martyr Hus.

[10] Fudge, p. 14 document 2.

[11] 1. Freedom for the laity to preach the Word of God. 2. Communion in both kinds for the laity. 3. Secular power forbidden for the clergy. 4. Deposition of magistrates who have committed mortal sins. No indulgences.

[12] Howard Kaminsky, A History of the Hussite Revolution, p. 289.

[13] So says Kaminsky, and Lambert is inclined to agree. It is of course possible that the uprising was spontaneous. Kaminsky, p. 292-3; Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation p. 326.

[14] Kaminsky, p. 294.

[16] Lambert, p. 326.

[17] The Hussites had ideological differences among them. The Praguers were significantly more moderate and given the name Calixtines or Utraquists, after Chalice (the communion cup) and sub utraque specie, communion in both kinds. Though all Hussites believed in the necessity of this, this title was specially given to the moderate Hussites. The more radical of them were called Taborites, after their religious origin from the town of Hradiste, better known as Tabor. These, though divided even among themselves, would provide the military defense of all Hussites throughout most of the wars. Zizka was a Taborite.

[18] Turnbull, p. 8-9. (The identical Plzen world-famous for beer.)

[19] Turnbull, p. 22.

[20] Turnbull, p. 33.

[21] Fudge, p. 31-32, doc. 9.

[22] The alternative is that Zizka conceived of this in Plzen and used it at Nekmer, but the documents indicate a somewhat more deliberate use of wagons at Zizka’s next battle, Sudomer. Oddly enough, Bohuslav of Svamberk would be taken prisoner by Zizka in 1422; after Sigismund showed no inclination to repay him for his loyal service by freeing him, Bohuslav became a Hussite and remained faithful the rest of his days, even becoming general commander of the Taborites for a brief time before his death in 1425.

[23] Not related to Jan Hus, but Lord of Hussinec, which was the area Hus was from.

[24] Fudge, p. 37-38, doc 13.

[25] Turnbull, p. 10.

[26] MacMillan’s Magazine, Volume LXXII (May-Oct. 1895), p. 351. (Found on a search of Google Books.) Vitkov Hill is usually considered Zizka’s greatest victory, and that hill is now variously called Zitkov, Zizkov, or Zizkaberg, in his honor.

[27] Fudge, p. 89-93, doc. 42.

[28] Later Pope Pius II, and a papal legate to Bohemia during and after the crusades. His work, cited extensively in Fudge, is one of our most important anti-Hussite sources. Fudge, p. 126, doc. 70.

[29] Kutna Hora (German Kuttenberg) also housed silver mines and the silver mint which were the source of much of Bohemia’s wealth. Once in 1419, the Catholic inhabitants grew determined to exterminate the Hussites in the area and threw 1,600 down the mineshafts. (Kaminsky, p. 310-11.)

[31] MacMillan’s Magazine, Volume LXXII (May-Oct. 1895), p. 353.

[32] Fudge, p. 145, doc. 81.

[33] Fudge, p. 148, doc. 84.

[34] Fudge, p. 164, doc. 95.

[35] The second distinction is somewhat important, for women are recorded to have fought alongside the men in Hussite combat. It makes sense, for with the wholesale invasion of the land and the reputation for rape among the crusaders, the women were often more safe with the army, and as they had all used the same farm tools that were now improvised weapons, they could fight as well as the men. Turnbull, p. 18.

[36] Fudge, p. 167-171, doc. 97.

[37] This state of affairs would come to an end in 1427, when the pope threatened a crusade against Poland if they did not cease their involvement, and Zygmunt was discovered in secret negotiations with Martin V, causing his expulsion from the country.

[38] Turnbull, p. 12.

[39] Most famous for their nudism.