Jan Žižka (1360?–1424) I

Jan Žižka leading his troops (illumination from the late 15th century)

Leader of Hussite Forces during the Early Catholic Crusades

To most of his contemporaries he was, it seems, not so much an individual character as a great and frightful natural phenomenon: a terrific power, sent by God to save the Law of God and to punish the sinners; or, to his enemies, a great scourge of humanity, but even so: sent by God. That it was God indeed, who made him do what he did, was the firm conviction of Žižka himself.

—Frederick Heymann, John Žižka and the Hussite Revolution

The young life of Jan Žižka is a matter of much speculation, without even heroic legend to attempt to fill the gaps. Born in the Bohemian town of Trocnow, he seems to have been from a family in the minor nobility. He thus had some social standing, although sources disagree as to his family’s financial condition. Perhaps the most significant experience of his youth was the loss of sight in an eye, although how it came to be lost is also a matter of conjecture; it may have been from a childhood accident or from a teenaged fight. Some sources say Žižka was a nickname meaning one-eyed; his real name was John Trocnowski.

In 1306 the royal line in Bohemia died out, and the crown was offered to the Germanic House of Luxemburg. In 1347, King Charles IV began something of a nationalist movement by establishing the University of Prague, a center of learning not controlled by the church and thus a rare forum for free thinking. Charles died in 1378 and was succeeded by Vaclav IV as a dual monarch, both king of Bohemia and king of the Romans (i.e., Germans). In 1380 a Žižka is listed as entering King Vaclav’s service as a hunter. Vaclav loved to hunt, far more than ruling his domain, and as he was well known for not standing on formality, it is probable that he became quite friendly with young Jan. Jan’s rapid advancement at court supports this supposition, as do the politico-military events surrounding Vaclav’s reign.

The key players in the trouble brewing in Vaclav’s kingdom were of the House of Luxemburg. Vaclav’s younger brother Sigismund was king of Hungary. Vaclav also faced trouble with the Bohemian nobility, who chafed under any sort of rule; many of these nobles rallied around Henry of Rosenberg in 1395, creating the League of Lords, which allied with Sigismund and his cousin Margrave Jost of Brandenburg. King Vaclav had the assistance, however, of the youngest Luxemburg brother, Duke John of Görlitz, as well as Jost’s brother Prokop, margrave of Moravia. Large-scale fighting broke out in 1399 with the nobles on both sides backing bands of retainers and supporters that engaged in widespread pillage and guerrilla warfare. Sigismund convinced the Bohemian nobles to remove Vaclav as king of the Germans and replaced him with Rupert III (Sigismund later got himself elected to that position in 1411). The fighting continued into the early years of the fifteenth century, taking place throughout Bohemia and neighboring Moravia. The conflict was “fought out on three levels: the personal and political struggles between the two kings and the two margraves of the House of Luxemburg; the feuds of the barons, who supported one or the other side; and finally the guerilla warfare of the mercenary bands employed by the barons,” according to Žižka’s main biographer, Friederich Heymann.

Žižka’s name features regularly as an enemy in the records kept by the Rosenbergs, so it is certain he was fighting for one of these irregular bands in Vaclav’s service. His unit was commanded by Matěj Vůdce and was under the control of the lords of Lichtenburg, another of the noble families. Žižka apparently did not hold a command position; indeed, he apparently drew little attention from his own leaders other than as, perhaps, a useful junior officer. The fighting waned about 1406, when Vaclav’s ally Prokop died; Vaclav also made peace with Henry of Rosenberg and Margrave Jost, while Sigismund was diverted by issues in Hungary. However, support for or against the king of Austria (also fighting his own brother) drew in some of the marauding bands, so some pillaging continued for several more years. During these times of troubles, Žižka had come to the attention of John Sokol, the most militarily talented of the Bohemian nobles, who had placed himself under Vaclav’s banner. Sokol apparently had seen something in Žižka the previous commanders had not; in the guerrilla warfare Žižka had shown himself to be a natural leader. In 1409 Žižka joined himself to Sokol, who had been hired by the king of Poland to fight the Teutonic Knights.

The Poles had recently allied themselves with Lithuania, which had long been targeted by the Teutonic Knights as a pagan nation. That changed in 1386 when Lithuanian prince Jagiello became king of Poland and converted his nation to Christianity. The Knights had come to dominate Prussia since their arrival at the beginning of the fourteenth century and, with no pagans to fight, expanded their holdings just because they could. They had the finest heavy cavalry in the region and no organized resistance to slow them down. However, with Poland and Lithuania united, an organized government now could place an army in the field that might present a real threat to the Knights. The Polish cavalry was made up of bold nobles on outstanding mounts, proving themselves a fit rival. The Lithuanians were primarily light cavalry on the Asiatic model, having faced the Mongols for many decades. Unfortunately, the Polish-Lithuanian infantry was poorly armed and trained, no match for the Teutonic Knights in open battle except in terms of bravery. Hence, the government needed to recruit soldiers from Bohemia, who at the time were considered to be superior to almost anyone in central and eastern Europe.

During the Battle of Tannenberg between the Knights and the Polish royal forces in July 1410, Sokol was with the Polish king Władisław. Whether Žižka was with him is debated. However, Žižka got either firsthand experience of fighting heavy cavalry or exposure to high command procedures. He stayed with Sokol as the Polish army moved deeper into the Knights’ lands, and was involved in the capture and subsequent defense of the fortress of Radzyń, staying there until the 1411 peace treaty went into effect. Unfortunately Sokol died during the siege, and Žižka lost both his patron and mentor in warfare.

By 1411 Žižka was in Prague, employed in Vaclav’s household guard. (His official title, portulanus regius, or doorkeeper, was much the same position held by Subedei when he joined the Mongols.) Žižka seems to have gotten closer to King Vaclav as well as to his wife, Queen Sophia, whom he regularly escorted to church. It was on those Sunday trips that Žižka must have first heard the preaching of Jan Hus, a proctor at the University of Prague who was on his way to upsetting the religious life of east-central Europe. A follower of the English theologian John Wycliffe, Hus believed in the ultimate authority of scripture over the church hierarchy. His sermons, as well as his teachings at the university, horrified the Catholic nobility of Bohemia, who were predominantly of German heritage in keeping with the lineage of the House of Luxemburg. The two main criticisms Hus leveled at the church were its worldliness and its practice of “communion in one part,” wherein the priest received both the wine and the bread, but the communicants received the bread only. Hus argued that the practice violated the scriptures, and he called instead for “communion in both parts,” or sub utraque specie: hence his followers came to be known as Utraquists. Hus’s sermons must have affected Žižka. Heymann comments, “We know that at that time Hus had his most faithful and most determined adherents among the King’s courtiers…. There is no doubt that Žižka later fought for what he believed to be Hus’s tenets, though we may be much less certain whether Hus, had he lived, would have approved of Žižka’s fierce ways.” It is true, however, that Hus was often described in the same words that would be used to depict Žižka: bold, fiery, powerful, and popular.

The more popular Hus became, the more the German nobles pushed for church action. When the Czech ecclesiastical authorities condemned Wycliffe’s works in 1408, Hus refused to recognize their action; the archbishop of Prague excommunicated him, as did Cardinal Collona, speaking for “anti-pope” Pope John XXIII. The city of Prague was laid under an interdict until Hus was removed from the city. Hus appealed the ruling to a general council in 1411 and received another excommunication in return. In 1412 Vaclav convinced him to leave Prague for a castle in the country, but this only gave Hus the opportunity to take his message to the peasants. In 1414, Hus was summoned before the Council of Constance to answer a charge of heresy. Hungary’s King Sigismund, who hosted the council, granted Hus safe passage to and from Constance. When the council condemned Hus and his teachings, however, Sigismund reneged on his promise; Hus was burned at the stake in 1415. In his history of the Moravian Church, J. E. Hutton describes the execution: “At last the cruel fire died down, and the soldiers wrenched his remains from the post, hacked his skull in pieces, and ground his bones to powder. As they prodded about among the glowing embers to see how much of Hus was left, they found, to their surprise, that his heart was still unburned. One fixed it on the point of his spear, thrust it back into the fire, and watched it frizzle away; and finally, by the Marshal’s orders, they gathered all the ashes together, and tossed them into the Rhine.”

The execution was a turning point for Bohemia. There is always a risk in killing popular religious leaders: if their followers don’t dry up and blow away, they hunker down and get tough. That’s what became of the new movement, the Hussites. Sigismund was held responsible for not enforcing the safe conduct of Hus to Constance, and all Germans in Bohemia felt the citizens’ hostility. A group of 452 nobles signed a document protesting the execution of Hus, and public opinion turned against the Catholic Church. In towns where the Hussites dominated, Catholic priests were expelled and monasteries attacked. In the countryside, pro-Hussite noblemen distributed parish offices to priests identified with Hus. In response, the Council of Constance in 1417 declared a mass excommunication of all Hussites. Vaclav tried to enforce the ruling, offering cash rewards for information identifying Hussites and ordering their churches to be seized and destroyed. Prisons were soon filled while hundreds were burned at the stake, drowned, or died as slaves in the Kutná Hora silver mines.

Persecution only hardened Hussite resolve, however. Although there was some success suppressing believers in Prague, the peasants organized themselves and began to fortify towns and hilltops. The old town of Nemějice, some fifty miles south of Prague, was renamed Mount Tabor, and became the soul of the Hussite movement and the headquarters for Jan Žižka.

The Hussite movement gained new leadership under the priest Jan Zelivský, more a firebrand than Hus himself. He and Žižka got the Hussite rebellion against the Catholic Church under way at the end of July 1419. On 6 July Vaclav had replaced the Hussite councilors of the New Town of Prague with hard-line Catholics, signaling a restoration of Catholic priests throughout the city’s churches and a corresponding removal of the Hussite priests. On 30 July Zelivský held mass and served the communion in both kinds, then led a march through the streets that ended up at the New Town Hall, where they discovered a number of the Catholic councilors the king had appointed. They demanded the release of the Utraquists being held in prison. When the councilors refused, the mob broke in and threw thirteen of them from the windows into the street below, where those who survived the fall were killed. (A similar defenestration in Prague two centuries later would set off the Thirty Years War.) This proved entirely too much for the increasingly vacillating Vaclav: he died of a stroke two weeks later.

Whether Žižka actually led the citizens in the defenestration is questioned, but he was soon elected captain of the Hussite troops to serve in Prague; by late October he had seized Vysehrad Castle, which dominated the southern approach to the city. The situation across Bohemia was fluid, with no single Hussite faction in charge and Hussites making a wide spectrum of demands. There were relatively conservative groups that wanted limited reform, mainly the communion in both kinds. Others, epitomized by the force centering on Mount Tabor (the Taborites), were increasingly millenarian, calling for a war against the church in order to bring on Christ’s second coming. Conservative and reform groups among the Catholics also vacillated. Queen Sophia, whom Sigismund had named regent, wanted to preserve the peace (and the government) in spite of her own Hussite leanings. She reinforced Hradčany Castle to defend the western half of Prague and waited for outside aid.

Warfare of the Time

By the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the era of heavy cavalry in the form of the armored knight was declining. In France the English longbow was reestablishing the dominance of the infantry; the Swiss pikemen were doing the same with a reborn but more effective phalanx. Neither of these developments, however, had reached eastern Europe by the time of the Hussite wars, so the German aristocrats still dominated the invading armies. On the other hand, they were hardly the only military arm deployed in combat; infantry, especially cross-bowmen, outnumbered the mounted knights.

The relative importance of the knights is the subject of much debate. Some scholars have argued that in spite of the increasing number of infantry from the lower classes, the aristocrats were still the dominant arm with their heavy cavalry. The charge of the heavy horse breaking through anything in its way was receding, but it could still play a decisive role in coordination with the other arms. The early Middle Ages (up to about 1300) actually saw few wars and few battles outside the Crusades, so the knights suffered few casualties in European warfare, which may have given impetus to the concept of their bravery and overall success.

The knights had reached the apogee of body armor by the time of the Hussite wars. Chain mail continued to be used by soldiers in the fourteenth century, but as longbows and crossbows were able to break the rings and penetrate, new, more capable defensive wear was needed. Ultimately, this led to the development of plate armor, initiated in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and lasting well into the sixteenth century. Plate armor was developed first for the upper body and later for the limbs as well. The suits of armor for which knights are today best known were a trade-off between protection and weight. A standard suit of armor weighted fifty to sixty pounds. Thus, an unhorsed rider was at the mercy of swarming infantry, especially on muddy terrain. While astride his charger, however, armed with a strong straight sword and with a lance supported by a bracket fastened to the breastplate (an arrét de cuirasse), the heavy cavalryman of the fifteenth century remained a formidable warrior when intelligently used.

Siege warfare dominated the era, and infantry was a vital component. After the start of the fourteenth century, as battles became more frequent and casualties mounted, what had once been chivalric combat between Christian soldiers became class warfare. Perhaps the most convincing reason for the increased numbers of battles after 1300 is that infantry was beginning to dominate the battlefield. Although several battles during the Middle Ages had been fought using primarily infantry and in some instances these troops had been victorious, the myth of cavalry superiority prevailed. Perhaps the fact that the defeated aristocrats were saved for ransom while defeated peasants were without financial worth finally motivated the peasants to see killing knights as retribution for being ignored. Certainly the increasing sense of freedom and self-worth felt by Hus’s peasant followers could account for their disregard for the lifestyle, and the lives, of their “betters.”

Infantry training came from an almost guild-like organization in the cities and towns. As military historian Dennis Showalter suggests, “If each task had its specific skill, taught and supported by specific guilds and craft brotherhoods, was it not correspondingly reasonable to divide up the labor of military service, and to provide specialists in this craft as in all the others? From a few experienced captains and armorers held on retainer, the permanent armed forces of Europe’s cities and city-states tended to increase during the fourteenth century.” Infantry levies were expected to provide their own weapons and acquired some training either at fairs or under the direction of local commanders. As in all militia, training standards varied wildly and there was no training in cooperation with the cavalry. In Germanic states the basic unit of manpower was the gleve, numbering up to ten men with at least one horseman in the group. This varied, however: in Swabia a gleve denoted four horses; in Nuremberg, it meant two horses and a spearman; in Strasbourg, five horses; in Regensburg, one spearman, one archer and three horses. Further, there could be a variety of attendants, servants (who may or may not have fought), and archers. Each city had a set number of gleven they were to provide when called upon. Ten gleven were commanded by a hauptman (captain), a hundred commanded by an oberhauptman.

Infantry tended to carry what weapons were handy: townspeople used clubs or spears, peasants employed farm implements. The only infantry technology was the bow and crossbow. Although crossbows were easy to use and required little training, there were still some professionals (like the Genoese) who were specialists and widely used as mercenaries. By the early 1400s the crossbow had evolved into a sophisticated weapon made of steel. Although it could launch a bolt at a high velocity, the increased power required increased technical measures to cock the bow, which lowered the rate of fire. The crossbow’s penetrating power versus the knight’s armor led to a constant game of tag through the medieval period, and a crossbowman had minimal time to launch a bolt and reload with a cavalry charge approaching at high speed. Only large units of crossbowmen behind some sort of protective screen could hope to break a charge once it was under way. Generally, crossbowmen tried to prevent cavalry’s forming-up process with harassing fire, for they were lambs at the slaughter in an open field.

It was these types of soldiers and weapons the Hussites faced: heavy cavalry to break an enemy’s line followed by infantry to take advantage of the disorder. Thus, the best way to defend against such an assault was, as noted above, from behind some sort of protective screen. Žižka made defense the key to his battles, but kept his defense mobile by employing wagons that had been specially adapted to stop arrows or bolts and to provide a position for missile fire to cause disorder among the attackers. The concept of circling wagons to provide a quick defensive position had been used at least as early as the Roman experience in Gaul. A Gothic wagon fort was employed at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, and the practice was used regularly by the Byzantines. The Mongols likewise used the tactic, and brought the practice into Eurasia. It has been suggested that the Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg retreated into what came to be called a wagenburg, or wagon fort. The formation was also called a tabor, from the Czech word for camp. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor Dupuy call it “one of the simplest and most effective tactical systems in history.”

Žižka’s contribution was to use wagons as specially constructed war machines that could create a sophisticated defense; this became the main part of his tactics. He started with common baggage wagons and modified them for maximum defense. First, he had a quick release harness developed to get the horses away from the wagon and the harness poles made removable to get the wagons end to end as close to each other as possible. The wagons were then chained together and any gaps between them covered with a removable shield called a pavise. An extra wall of boards was suspended from the side facing the enemy, with the bottom board covering the wheels and access underneath. This board had loopholes for crossbow fire. On the opposite side an opening, often with a ramp, facilitated reinforcement and resupply. Each wagon was ten feet long and held a crew of sixteen made up of crossbowmen and hand gunners as well as soldiers with threshing flails and polearms such as halberds. Completing the wagenburg were small cannon placed between the wagons.

Even though the concept of a wagenburg was not new, Žižka perfected it by constantly training his drivers. On hand or flag signals they could very quickly deploy into circle, square, or triangle formation. Signal flags raised on the leading and trailing wagon of each file controlled the maneuvers. The wagon line moved ahead in four columns: two outer ones and two inner ones. The wheels of the tabor were large and usually iron rimmed. The front pair projected out slightly from the body, allowing one front wheel to be locked into place with the rear wheel of another tabor and chained together. The forming up and chaining together took one to two hours. Given more advance notice of the enemy approach, the Hussites would strengthen the position with ditches and throw the excavated dirt under the wagons for extra security against infiltration. The first time Žižka used the formation he had but seven wagons, but as his army grew he regularly deployed 180 wagons, which created a position some 2,500 yards in circumference.


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