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The Hussite Era

Wenceslas IV (1378-1419), son of Charles IV and heir to the Czech and Roman crowns, was a weak and ineffective ruler. He was also mean, a drunk, and wildly unpopular. He was imprisoned twice during his reign. Had times been different, this may not have mattered much. As luck would have it, however, he became king during a particularly turbulent time in Czech history.

Unfortunately, Wenceslas IV was much more interested in drinking than in ruling. He was terribly spoiled, and even as an adult he would throw fits when people didn't do exactly as he wished them to. He is remembered by history today in two ways: sometimes as a wishy- washy, good-for-nothing drunkard, and sometimes as a benefactor of the common man. The way in which this latter reputation was earned is usually explained in this way: Wenceslas IV used to go around Prague dressed as a commoner. He would go to pubs and shops this way, and whenever he found a merchant giving the public short measures, he would punish them by having them thrown off Charles Bridge into the river to drown. If this legend is based on fact, then it is probably likely that Wenceslas IV pursued this hobby not so much to help the common man, but rather from the pleasure he derived from having people thrown into the river.

Probably the most famous person Wenceslas IV had thrown into the river was an insignificant court clerk by name of John of Pomuk. During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church recovered the story of John of Pomuk's death and entirely overhauled it - making John's name John of Nepomuk, making his job the confessor to the Queen (instead of an office clerk), and making the reason for his execution the "fact" that John refused to divulge the Queen's secrets - told in Confession - to the king. John of Nepumuk was eventually made a saint on the basis of this story, but the Vatican rescinded the decision in 1961, explaining that testimony of his miracles and other evidence of his deeds was "fishy."

It's hard to say what the common people of the time really thought of Wenceslas IV, as common people don't usually have much of a say in the writing of history. It is known that he was wildly unpopular with the nobility, who had him imprisoned not once but several times during his reign.

He wasn't exactly revered by his brother, Sigismund, either. Even as the careless blood of his grandfather, John of Luxembourg, coursed through Vaclav IV's veins - so did the power-hungry blood of the early Przemyslide rulers flow freely through the arteries of Sigismund. In short, he wanted to be king, and it was he who was behind at least one of the conspiracies to imprison King Vaclav IV.

While this court intrigue was going on, things couldn't really have been all that good for the common man, else he'd not have been spending much of his leisure time listening to the rabble-rousing preachers who started travelling around the country at this time, full of criticism for the excesses of the Catholic Church.

One such religious reformer was to play a pivotal (though posthumous) role in deciding the country's fate for the next several hundred years.

Jan Hus had been greatly influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe, and he began conducting his sermons at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague in Czech rather than in Latin, so that the common man could understand them. He also advocated the giving of communion in both species, and was critical of the church for its excessive policies - of amassing wealth, selling indulgences, and allowing the rich to tithe their way out of even mortal sins.

Even as these ideas were gaining popularity in the Czech lands, they were becoming most wildly unpopular in other areas of the Holy Roman Empire (especially the Vatican.) This led to the burning of Master Jan Hus at the stake at the Council at Constance on July 6, 1415 when he refused to recant his words and despite that he had letter of safe conduct from Wenceslas IV's brother, Sigismund).

The brutal killing of Jan Hus only served to incense and unite his followers, who came to be known as the Hussites.

The Hussites were highly critical of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, and, in the Four Articles of Prague, they demanded that 1) all believers be permitted to receive Communion in both species; 2) all mortal and public sins be punished equally, regardless of the sinner's status 3) the Word of God be freely preached; and 4) the clergy give up their worldly wealth.

This situation culminated in 1419 with the First Defenestration of Prague, in which Hussites threw 7 members of the Czech Town Council out of Prague's New Town Hall window -- and to their deaths on the points of Hussite-weilded pikes below. To make the situation more interesting, King Wenceslas IV had an apopleptic fit and died of a heart attack upon learning of the defenestration.

But even after the death of his brother, Wenceslas IV, King Sigismund of Luxembourg, who also inherited the title of Holy Roman Emperor never really got to be king of Bohemia. The situation with the Hussites had gone too far, and he spent the rest of his life fighting them in the hopes of taking control of the throne he'd inherited from his brother. When his initial attempts to do this met with failure, he beseeched the Pope to send help.

The mighty Hussites, led by the one-eyed military genius, Jan Zizka, defeated five waves of crusaders in a row: in 1420, 1421, 1422, 1427, and in 1437.

Actually, the fifth army of crusaders sent to battle the Hussites turned tail and fled before even catching sight of the famed warriors - because they were so terrified at hearing the refrain of the terrible Hussite battle song, "Ye Warriors of God." It was either that, or maybe just that the warriors didn't sing very well.

Well, in addition to fear-inspiring songs and the other tricks the Hussites had up their sleeves, they also had the thing that matters most - conviction that their cause was the Just one. Their symbol was the chalice and their motto, "Truth Prevails." (this motto was later used by the first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, as well as by a later President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel - during the Velvet Revolution).

Well, despite this and despite their brilliant military successes, all was not well within the Hussite movement itself. From the very start, the Hussite movement had been divided into factions - the most prominent division was along economic lines.

A number of peasant Hussites were nothing more than hooligans at best - terrorists at worst - who joined the cause only so that they could have a good excuse to go around robbing churches and setting them aflame with Catholics inside. These practices were considered to be rather in poor taste by the aristocratic Hussites. Over time, the movement splintered even more - even spawning an early nudist sect, the Adamites. The history books usually divide the Hussites into radical "Taborites" - named for the town of Tabor, a city the Hussites founded for the occasion of the Second Coming, which many considered imminent - and the moderate "Utraquists" - derived from the Latin "sub utraque specie" for their belief that communion should be given "in both kinds" - made up mostly of the nobility. In reality, though, the situation on the ground just was not that simple.

This infighting came to a head at the Battle of Lipany on May 30, 1434, at which the Czech Hussite factions fought among themselves. This battle is considered by some to be the single most tragic event in all of Czech history.

Well, the victory at the Battle of Lipany went to the moderates, and this paved the way for an agreement to be reached between the "Utraquist Hussites" of Bohemia and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Basel Compact, ceremoniously announced in 1436, permitted the "Utraquist Hussites" to take Communion in both kinds, to have their church services conducted in the Czech language, and absolved them of having to pay dues to Rome. The Pope later refused to recognize the agreement, but not before it had served to bring an end to the costly Hussite wars.

The extremist "Taborite Hussites" were not a party to this agreement, and refused to accept it. While the moderates stayed in the Catholic Church, the extremists went underground, forming their own church, ordaining their own bishops, pioneering public education, sending out missionaries (even to the 13 original American colonies) and secretly printing Czech-language copies of the "Kralice Bible" - named for the town of Kralice in which it was printed. This translation is still in use in the Czech lands today, despite that it is often hard for modern speakers of the language to understand.

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