On July 14, 1420, Hussite commander Jan Žižka repelled the Catholic forces of the first anti-Hussite crusade, organized by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, at the Battle of Vítkov Hill, on the edge of the city of Prague.
After Czech reformer Jan Hus was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1415, the Bohemian Reformation started to oppose the Pope, and became a distinctive religious movement with its own symbols, rituals, and martyrs. Disorder soon broke out in various parts of Bohemia, as Hus’ followers, who became known as Hussites, drove many Catholic priests from their parishes.
Despite the Crown’s best efforts to stem the Hussite movement, the first Defenestration of Prague and the death King Wenceslaus resulted in renewed troubles in Prague and in almost all parts of Bohemia. And in March 1420, Pope Martin V published a papal bull in which he ordered Emperor Sigismund to organize a crusade against the Hussite rebels.
The son of the great King of Bohemia Charles IV, Sigismund began assembling an army near the Lower Silesian city of Świdnica. The Emperor was joined by German princes as the vast army of crusaders from all parts of Europe crossed the Bohemian border at the beginning of May, captured Hradec Králové and marched on Prague.
The siege of the Bohemian capital began on June 12. But while Sigismund seized the castles of Vyšehrad and Hradčany, Hussite commander Jan Žižka, a veteran of the Battle of Grunwald against the Teutonic Knights, kept hold of the most important points in the fortifications of Prague: Vítkov Hill, located on the edge of the city, which was defended by no more than 80 men.
On July 13, the crusaders’ cavalry crossed the Vltava and began their attack on the hill. But the next day, Hussite relief troops counter-attacked the knights through the vineyards on the southern side of the hill, established by Sigismund’s own father, Charles IV, forcing the crusaders down the steep northern cliff.
With panic spreading among them, the crusaders were routed from the field, many of them drowning in the Vltava during their retreat. It is believed they lost up to 300 knights during the battle. As a consequence of the Hussite victory on Vítkov, the crusaders lost any hope of starving the city. The castles of Vyšehrad and Hradčany soon capitulated and Sigismund was forced to withdraw from Prague.
The Hussites defeated four more consecutive papal crusades between 1420 and 1431 in what became known as the Hussite Wars. Bohemia remained majority Hussite for two centuries, but in 1620, Roman Catholicism was reimposed by the Holy Roman Emperor after the Bohemian Revolt and its defeat at the Battle of White Mountain.
Lasting for more than 200 years, the Bohemian Reformation and Hussite movement had a significant impact on the historical development of Central Europe and is considered one of the most important religious, social, intellectual and political movements of the early modern period.
A sculpture of Jan Žižka was later unveiled on top of Vítkov Hill on July 14, 1950, to mark the anniversary of the battle. It is believed to be the third largest bronze rider statue in the world. Situated south of Vítkov hill, Prague’s Žižkov district was also named after Hussite military leader.
The upcoming Czech historical drama about the life of Jan Žižka, starring American actor Ben Foster as the Hussite military commander, is set to become the most expensive Czech movie of all time, surpassing Jan Sverák’s 2002 World Word II epic, Dark Blue World.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.