On December 21, 1421, thanks to what some historians believe to be the first mobile artillery manoeuver in history, Hussite commander Jan Žižka repelled the crusading forces of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, at the Battle of Kutná Hora.
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.
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 excommunication 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.
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.
The Hussite Wars
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 while Sigismund seized the castles of Vyšehrad and Hradčany, Hussite commander Jan Žižka, a one-eyed 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.
In mid-July, the crusaders’ cavalry finally 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 Battle of Kutná Hora
But internal troubles between warring Hussite factions prevented the followers of Jan Hus from fully capitalizing on their victory, and by the end of 1421, Sigismund again attempted to subdue Bohemia. In the early winter, he laid siege to the all important town of Kutná Hora, which occupied a strategic location and controlled the flow of silver from the local mines.
Despite having now lost sight in his remaining eye, Jan Žižka led a force of 10,000 Hussites to intercept Sigismund’s far superior imperial army. During the first day of fighting the pro-Catholic groups within the city rose and opened the gates allowing a detachment of the crusader army to enter and a general massacre of the Hussites within ensued.
This reverse not only lost the Hussites the city, but also saw Jan Žižka and his troops surrounded. The following morning, the Hussite commander launched an all-out attack on the weak points of the imperialist lines. He broke free of the surrounding enemy ring using his war wagons with handgunners and mounted cannons as medieval tanks to successfully break free, safely extricating his forces from certain destructionn thanks to what historians believe to be the first mobile artillery manoeuver in history.
Sigismund eventually ordered a retreat, and throughout the rest of December, Jan Žižka launched numerous counteroffensives and raids on the Germans’ lines, mounting raids that would draw his opponent into attacking his wagon fort. His maneuvers were quite successful, and by the end of the month, Sigismund’s demoralized army, constantly harried by Zizka’s seemingly invincible soldiers, fled Bohemia.
The Hussites defeated three 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.
Jan Žižka was also recently introduced in the second expansion for the video game Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, with the famous Hussite Wagon as his unique unit. A new campaign added to the game also sees you play as the Hussite commander himself, pitting the player against the Holy Roman Emperor’s crusaders.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.