On July 30, 1419, a Hussite procession headed by the priest Jan Želivský attacked the New Town Hall in Prague and threw the king’s representatives from the windows into the street in what came to be known as the First Defenestration of Prague.
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. He notably 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.
The First Defenestration of Prague
Jan Hus spoke out against the pope 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, Jan Hus was eventually excommunicated and fled to southern Bohemia, where he stayed in exile for two years.
When the Council of Constance assembled in 1415, Jan Hus was asked to be there and present his views. But upon arrival, the Czech reformer was arrested and, refusing to recant his views, was eventually burned at the stake for heresy. Unrest in Bohemia began soon after as Hussite preachers urged their congregations to take up arms against the Catholic rulers.
Combined with rising feelings of nationalism and inequality, the growing discontent at the contemporary direction of the Church increased the influence of the Hussites who began driving Catholic priests from their parishes. As disorder broke out in various parts of Bohemia, King Wenceslaus, under the influence of his brother and future Emperor Sigismund of Hungary, endeavoured to stem the rebel movement.
But despite the Crown’s best efforts, unrest continued to spread across Bohemia, and in July 1419, a Hussite procession headed by the priest Jan Želivský attacked the New Town Hall in Prague and threw the king’s representatives, the burgomaster, and some town councillors from the windows into the street.
Pope orders first anti-Hussite crusade
It has been suggested that King Wenceslaus was so stunned by the defenestration that it caused his death in August 1419, although he may have simply died of natural causes. But whatever its cause, the death of King Wenceslaus resulted in renwed troubles, and in March 1420, Pope Martin V published a papal bull in which he ordered Sigismund, now the titular King of Bohemia, to organize a crusade against the Hussite rebels.
Sigismund began assembling an army near the Lower Silesian city of Świdnica, where he was joined by German princes. 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 in the middle of June.
But in mid-July, Hussite commander Jan Žižka, a veteran of the Battle of Grunwald against the Teutonic Knights, having kept hold of the most important points in the fortifications of Prague, repelled the crusaders at the Battle of Vítkov Hill during which the Catholic forces lost up to 300 knights.
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.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.
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