On July 6, 1415, Czech reformer Jan Hus was convicted of heresy at the Council of Constance and sentenced to be burned at the stake.
A rector at Charles University and a preacher at Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel, Czech theologian and philosopher Jan Hus opposed many aspects of the Catholic Church in Bohemia, such as their views on ecclesiology, simony, the Eucharist, and other theological topics.
Agreeing with many of the points raised by English reformer John Wycliffe, particularly his plea for restraining clergy, who had become powerful landowners in Bohemia, Jan Hus denounced the moral failings of bishops and even the papacy from his pulpit and opposed the sale of indulgences, Church documents which supposedly shortened or terminated a soul’s stay in purgatory.
As such, Jan Hus is considered the second church reformer, predecessing the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin by more than a century.
When Alexander V was elected as a pope in 1409, he was persuaded to side with the Bohemian Church authorities against Jan Hus and his disciples. Archbishop Zbyněk Zajíc of Bohemia, initially a supporter of Hus, turned against him and, empowered by a Papal bull, prohibited preaching in private chapels and eventually had Jan Hus excommunicated.
But Jan Hus continued to preach and teach at the university. He spoke out against Alexander V’s successor, John XXIII, for selling indulgences in Bohemia to raise money, which did not sit well with King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, who had received a share from indulgence sales. Without the King’s support, Hus’ excommunication was reinforced, and Jan Hus fled to southern Bohemia, where he stayed in exile for two years.
When the Council of Constance assembled in 1415, in an attempt to end the Western Schism, Jan Hus was asked to be there and present his views on the dissension within the church. But when he arrived, he was immediately arrested and put in prison. Refusing to recant his views, Jan Hus was burned at the stake for heresy.
Hus’ followers, who became known as Hussites, refused to elect another Catholic monarch and took up arms. So Pope Martin V published a papal bull in which he ordered Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to organize a crusade against the Bohemian Hussites. But the crusading army was defeated by Hussite commander Jan Žižka at the Battle of Vítkov Hill in 1420.
The Hussites defeated four more consecutive papal crusades between 1420 and 1431 in what became known as the Hussite Wars, before the religious conflict turned into the so-called Hussite civil war, fought between the more compromising Utraquist and the radical Taborite factions of the Hussite movement.
Nonetheless, within fifty years of Jan Hus’ death, some of his followers had become independently organised as the “Bohemian Brethren” (Čeští bratři) or Unity of the Brethren (Jednota bratrská) in Moravia. Since these actions predate the Protestant Reformation by a century, some historians claim the so-called Moravian Church was the first Protestant church.
Schools and printing-shops established by the Moravian Church began to flourish throughout the Bohemian Crown, and by the middle of the 16th centuy, as many as 90 per cent of the inhabitants of the Czech lands were Protestant. Bohemia and Moravia remained majority Hussite for two centuries until Catholicism was reimposed by the Emperor after the Bohemian Revolt and its defeat at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620.
The Emperor then ordered all Calvinists and other non-Lutherans to leave the realm in three days or to convert to Catholicism, and by 1627, most Bohemians had converted.
The end of the Bohemian Revolt thus brought two centuries of re-Catholicization of the Czech lands and the decline of the Czech-speaking aristocracy. It also ensured that the Bohemian lands would remain in Habsburg hands for nearly three hundred years…
Jan Hus Day, which marks the anniversary of Hus’ martyrdom, is a public holiday in the Czech Republic.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.