Jan Žižka (1360?–1424) II

While peasants provided the bulk of the manpower, Žižka did have some nobles in his army with cavalry expertise. They stayed within the wagenburg until the enemy charge had been broken; then the defenders would open a gap and the cavalry would engage in pursuit. The infantry were the backbone of the army, however. They were protected by whatever armor they could scavenge after the battles, so there were no standardized uniforms. Since most soldiers did their fighting behind wagon walls, helmets were the most necessary armor. The broad-brimmed iron “kettle hat” was the typical helmet of the Germanic lands and appeared in many slightly varied forms. Weapons included standard swords and maces, supplemented with peasant farm tools: knives, hatchets, pitchforks, and scythes. The threshing flail, with spikes added, became the Hussite trademark weapon. In yet another change from normal warfare, peasant women also aided in building defenses and even engaged in combat. After one battle in 1420, Hungarians captured 156 armed Hussite women dressed as men. In another battle in 1422, Hussite women fought openly alongside the men, often with the same intensity and ferocious zeal as the men, for they were involved in a holy war. The last reference to Hussite women in battle was in 1428.

Perhaps most important in the Hussite arsenal was the use of gunpowder weapons. While they certainly did not invent them or even improve on them, almost all use of such weapons to this time had been only in sieges. The handguns were basic in construction: an iron tube some sixteen inches long was fastened to the end of a short wooden pole, long enough to hold firmly under the arm but short enough for the gunner to reach the rear of the tube with a smoldering wick to light the touchhole. The weapon was somewhere between .50 and .70 caliber. It was virtually impossible to aim, so only had any effect when fired at a crowd. In German sources these are referred to as Pfeifenbüchsen or “pipe guns,” a reference to the musical instrument rather than to a tobacco pipe. In Czech the expression is pistala or pischtjala, meaning a fife. This may be the origin of the word pistol.

Some sources say slightly larger guns were mounted within the wagons, but the cramped conditions make this unlikely. The somewhat larger tarasnice (a small cannon) was mounted on a stand and placed behind the pavises between the wagons. Later, the even larger houfnice (from which comes the word howitzer) was mounted on wheels. Both handguns and tarasnice had been in general use since the 1380s, and it should be noted that Žižka didn’t make any innovations in gunpowder weaponry. It was his tactical exploitation of the devices from mobile bases that mark his contribution to warfare. As Charles Oman comments, “It was evident that these war-waggons, when once placed in order, would be impregnable to a cavalry charge: however vigorous the impetus of the mail-clad knight might be, it would not carry him through oaken planks and iron links.”

The Opponents

While King Sigismund of Hungary was deciding how to proceed against the Hussites in Bohemia, fighting flared up again in Prague. At the beginning of November 1419, one of Sigismund’s princes had attacked and slaughtered a band of Hussite pilgrims; that news spurred the Hussites into action. Žižka’s forces stormed across the Charles Bridge into the western half of Prague. Days of fighting with royalist forces destroyed much of the area, but Queen Sophia finally negotiated a truce. The Hussite citizens of Prague were granted the right to communion in both kinds in return for the removal of the throng of countryside pilgrims and the return of Vysehrad Fort (in the south part of the city) to royal control. Žižka was disgusted with this Utraquist agreement to abandon such a significant point of defense for the city, so he took his Taborite followers out of Prague to prepare the defenses of Plzen, which covered the main road into Bohemia from the west. The temporary unity of the moderate and radical Hussites fell apart for the first time, but not the last.

Meanwhile, the Catholic royalists saw the outcome of the Prague fighting as a victory over the Hussites, especially Žižka’s extreme Taborites. In the heavily Germanic city of Kutná Hora, site of the silver mines that provided much of Bohemia’s wealth, Hussites were convicted of heresy and hanged in large numbers. Indeed, the numbers became so large that to save time the authorities began to throw prisoners into abandoned silver mines instead of hanging them. Such punishment inflamed not only religious hostility but ethnic hatred as well. One of the key demands of the Hussites had always been to hold their services in Czech rather than Latin, as well as to have the Bible translated into the vernacular. For the Bohemians, “Catholic” increasingly came to mean both German and upper class. Thus, the Hussite wars were class oriented as well as religious and nationalistic.

At the same time, moderate nobles had sent representatives to Sigismund to negotiate: he would be welcomed as king of Bohemia if he would guarantee communion in both kinds, support the Hussites against the church’s persecution, and fight against corruption in the church. Sigismund foolishly declined any compromise, assuming he could amass sufficient military power to crush any resistance. He had difficulty convincing the Germanic princes to provide enthusiastic support, however, so he convinced the recently enthroned Pope Martin V to authorize a crusade. Martin agreed on March 17, 1420, when his legate Ferdinand, bishop of Lucena, read from the pulpit the text of the bull Omnium plasmatoris domini. This proclaimed a crusade with the task of exterminating all “Wyclifites, Hussites, other heretics, and those favoring, accepting, and defending such heresies,” and contained the usual addition that men fighting this war for the church would expiate all their sins. Sigismund thus rallied supporters from across the Holy Roman Empire to join his cause, and he gave the order for his soldiers to execute on the spot any Hussite who refused to recant.

The Hussites responded with calls for a holy war of their own, with heavenly rewards also guaranteed. Jan Zelivský preached that all those who had voted to burn Jan Hus were guilty of murder because it was done by hate and not for the cause of faith. In his work on the Hussite wars, Thomas Fudge writes, “By extension and implication, the crusade itself was nothing but militarism based on malice and was therefore murder on an unimaginable and unconscionable scale…. The counter-crusading anthem of the heretics Ktoz jsú bozí bojovníci [You who are the warriors of God] identified death at the hands of the wicked crusaders as martyrdom. ‘You who are the warriors of God…. Christ will reward you for all that is lost…. Whoever gives their life for him… Shall gain life eternal.’”

With Catholic nobles in Bohemia beginning to enforce both Sigismund’s and the pope’s commands, Žižka’s arrival in Plzen was well timed. He had begun work with the priest of the city, Father Nicholas Koranda, to strengthen the defenses. Meanwhile, he decided to lay siege to the town of Nekměř just to the north. Royalist forces under Lord Bohuslav of Svamberg approached, and Žižka repulsed them with his hand gunners and crossbowmen firing from inside his seven wagons. This surprise response obliged Bohuslav to retreat, and Žižka led his men back to Plzen. The Battle of Nekměř marks the first application of the war wagons that was to be Žižka’s hallmark.

Battle of Sudoměř

Žižka led the defense of Plzen through March 1420. The citizens of the city, more moderate than Žižka or Father Koranda, finally convinced Žižka to negotiate with Bohuslav rather than face their fate if the city was taken by storm. Bohuslav agreed to let the Taborites leave under safe passage. The group of 400 men left on 23 March in twelve war wagons with a number of regular transport and baggage carts carrying women and children. Bohuslav, however, did not hold to his promise of safe passage. Messengers were sent out secretly from Plzen to inform the king’s followers all over the country of the impending movement of the little caravan that would surely be at the mercy of any strong force sent against them. Two royalist groups responded. Two columns met at Písek, about twenty miles west of Tabor. They numbered 2,000 mounted men, called the “Iron Lords” by the locals. One thousand were under the command of Henry of Hradec, the grand master of the Knights of St. John, based in Strakonice. The rest were led by Peter of Sternberg.

Žižka was traveling on relatively flat terrain, but in an area full of fish ponds. Seeing the mass of cavalry approaching from the north, he drove his wagons onto a dam between two ponds, both drained for the winter. Here he lined up his twelve wagons end to end and chained them together. His deployment obliged the royalists to attack on a very narrow front. The Hussite cannon caused more panic than actual damage among the horses; the raised position of the defenders and the length of their spears, halberds, and flails were equal to the assaults from the knights’ lances. Henry’s Knights of St. John failed to break through on their initial assault in late afternoon, so they dismounted to try their luck on foot. Casualties are described as heavy on both sides and three of the wagons were reported damaged, but the combination of guns, bows, and farm implements kept the attackers at bay.

Peter of Sternberg’s force tried to flank the line of wagons by attacking through the empty but very muddy pond on the Hussite right flank. Their horses quickly mired themselves in the mud, forcing the knights forward on foot. Their armor also caused them to move slowly, and Žižka’s peasants came out of reserve with their flails and pitchforks to deliver a beating to the bogged-down knights. The melee was still going on as darkness fell, and in the confusion the knights at times attacked each other. Žižka’s annalist describes the early darkness and fog as a miracle sent to befuddle the knights; a Catholic chronicler claimed the Hussite women spread veils and scarves on the ground to trip the attacking horses and knights.

Sources for the battle at Sudoměř lack a lot of detail, but two key results emerged. First, it was the beginning of Žižka’s career as a tactical leader, with his successful use of war wagons as the main element in the defensive formations. Second, it made Žižka, at that point in his fifties, a Bohemian national hero. Occurring as it did almost exactly as the pope announced the crusade against them, the battle gave the Hussites a major morale boost.

As the forces approached each other, Žižka led his opposition to a meeting engagement on his own choice of ground, quickly chosen as it may have been. The rapidly deployed defensive wall of the war wagons gave him the element of surprise, as did the use of gunpowder weapons to panic the horses. On the defensive, Žižka used the terrain to maximize the strength of his defense, with both flanks covered by the empty ponds creating a narrow front to funnel the enemy’s charge. That gave the attackers fewer heavy cavalry at the point of attack. The position was aided by the wagon fort and use of firepower to break the normal power of a heavy cavalry charge. Both mounted and dismounted, the knights were at a disadvantage, primarily in their lack of missile weapons compared with the concentrated fire of the Hussite defenders. Owing to the nature of the defense and his lack of manpower, Žižka was unable to engage in an offensive defense until the royalist flanking movement. Here, he was able to employ his small reserve of unarmored manpower and woman-power to take advantage of the immobility of the armored attackers in the mud. There was no pursuit or exploitation, as exposing infantry even to a defeated cavalry force on open ground would have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The next day the defeated royalists were gone, and Žižka moved on to Tabor. He arrived on 27 March to a tumultuous reception. Soon the citizens settled down to elect their leaders: Žižka was named one of four captains and took over the organization and training of the army, while Nicholas of Hus served as the political head of the community. Žižka thus took on a new role, the central focus of which was to improve the Hussite forces.

If Žižka had a dominating principle in his work of creating a new military organization, it was to disregard the traditions of centuries. He had to use to the best advantage whatever manpower and arms were available, which often meant relying on new technologies and innovations that had not been employed before. Žižka had by this time decided to use his war wagons as the center of his military operations. As he had primarily peasants and a few city artisans upon which to draw for his troops, he played to their strengths. Artisans made the weaponry, including forging guns of various sizes. The peasants, who had handled wagons their entire lives, received directions in how to work together to quickly form up the wagenburg, unhitch the horses, chain the wagons together, and man them for battle. Coupled with the native talent of his men, Žižka also had their religious fervor on which to draw for motivation. Not only did Žižka create a perfect style of warfare for his followers, he also trained them to an extent unknown in medieval times. The force received on-the-job training as well when Žižka led an early-morning attack on the nearby town of Vozice. One of the enemy commanders at Sudoměř, Nicholas Divoký, occupied the town and its castle. The surprise of the attack forced the garrison into the castle, while Žižka’s men grabbed anything of military value, including horses and prisoners (which were exchanged for thirty Taborites captured after Sudoměř). Thus did he form the basis of a cavalry force for counterattack in battle and scouting on the march.

On 16 May, word arrived of a royalist threat in Prague, and within two days Žižka and his army were in formation and on the move. He led 9,000 men to Prague: 5,000 infantry, a few hundred cavalry, and the remainder war and supply wagons. The first day they covered fifty miles, at the end of which they drove a 400-man royalist cavalry force away from the town of Benesov. A three-pronged force of royalists totaling 13,000 men converged on the Hussite force near the village of Porci, just south of Prague. Žižka deployed his wagenburg atop a hill and beat back the attackers, inflicting about fifty casualties. That was enough for the Italian mercenary commander to call for a withdrawal. The Hussite force entered Prague on 21 May.

Žižka immediately began strengthening the moat on the south side of town facing Vysehrad Fort while simultaneously beginning a siege of Hradčany Castle. King Sigismund, basing himself in Kutná Hora, seemed paralyzed. He would do no more than feint against Prague, diverting Žižka just enough to slip supply wagons into Hradčany, but he refused to offer battle. Žižka finally gave up on the siege and turned to strengthening the city’s defenses. Meanwhile, after losing a force in an abortive siege of Tabor and another at Hradec Krolové, Sigismund finally decided to head for Prague in mid-July 1420. Žižka realized that in order to keep from being besieged himself, he needed to keep open the one remaining road to the outside, which ran east over Vítkov Hill and overlooked the south bank of the Vltava. He ordered the hilltop fortified.

The Battle of the Vítkov

Sigismund’s army of 80,000 came from all across the empire, reportedly from thirty-three principalities and kingdoms from almost all of Europe except Scandinavia. It was more infantry (ca. 45,000) than cavalry (ca. 35,000 heavy and light), and most of the troops were mercenaries. They set up camp north of Prague on high ground overlooking the Vltava River and the Old Town. With Vyšehrad and the Lesser Town occupied by the royalists as well, the Hussites were surrounded on three sides.

The steep sides of Vítkov Hill had been cleared of cover. On the west end of the ridge stood an old watchtower. Žižka ordered the watch-tower strengthened and a rampart-backed ditch constructed across the hundred-yard width of the hilltop, with a tower built on either end of the dirt embankment. The flanking positions could only hold about 30 troops each, but Žižka apparently assumed he could reinforce them before an assault could be launched. He was wrong.

Sigismund planned two attacks as diversions. On 14 July one came out of Hradčany and assaulted the Charles Bridge; the second came north out of the Višerhad against the south flank. When these were under way, he sent 7,000–8,000 cavalry across the Vltava far to the east where the river turns north. This allowed the cavalry to approach the hill on a shallower slope, then charge across the top of the ridge. Not until the cavalry had already crossed the river were they noticed, and Žižka rushed to put reinforcements in play. In the meantime, the handful of defenders behind their parapet had to hold on as best they could.

Luckily, the terrain favored the Hussites in the same way the dike had served them at Sudomer, narrowing the front the attackers could utilize. Thus, thousands of cavalry were reduced to dozens as they assaulted the defense across a mere hundred yards of frontage. The ditch did its duty of slowing down the charge, possibly even obliging some knights to dismount and fight on foot. The maneuverability of the unarmored peasants fighting with their flails from behind their parapet and shooting arrows from the towers also proved effective. Žižka led a small force toward the western end of the hill to give the beleaguered soldiers direct aid. He also sent a larger Taborite and Prague force along the road to climb the hill further to the east in order to strike the attackers’ flank. Heymann describes his relief effort: “Finding the situation critical, he threw himself into the fight, trying to hold the remaining bulwark with his little troop at all costs and at the risk of his life. From this moment till the arrival of the larger Taborite force there was only a short interval, but this was the military and psychological crisis of the battle.”

With all attention focused on Žižka’s struggle, the flank attack was a complete surprise. It was the typical deployment of the Taborite troops, with a priest in the lead carrying the host, followed by archers, with the rear brought up by peasants with their flails and spikes. Unprepared for the assault, the knights broke and ran or rode away, possibly losing more men in the hasty retreat down the steep hillside than in the battle itself, some 300–500 men in total. A sally of Hussite reserves emerged from the Porcini Gate and pursued the retreating imperial troops across Hospital Field. The royalists made no further attack, but Žižka had the defenses strengthened nonetheless.

Žižka’s preparation for the battle had included the strengthening of existing defenses and the construction of new ones, all before the emperor’s forces were deployed. He failed to provide adequate security, however, for the imperial attack was on them quickly and without advanced notice, forcing an undermanned garrison to take up the defense. Luckily, the prepared positions were strong and the terrain favorable for the defense. From the initial stand, Žižka launched his counterattack. Although he could not control the tempo of the battle, he could concentrate sufficient reinforcements at the point of the enemy attack to both hold the position and hold the attackers’ attention. With the battle raging along the western end of the ridge, no one had time to notice the outflanking force on the move. The fact that they were on the reverse slope, away from the royalist camp, aided in the surprise. The surprise flank attack was successful enough to make up for the disparity in numbers, since the counterattack was made up of perhaps 3,000 troops. Any further attempt at exploitation would have been foolish, as they would have been chasing the retreating troops across the Vltava River and into the imperial camp.

The losses were minimal for Sigismund’s army. Nevertheless, they were enough to cause discontent and the first desertions. To make matters worse, the summer heat combined with epidemics to decimate the royalist forces. As Sigismund continued to do nothing, rumors even began to spread through the camp that he was conspiring with the Hussites. Seeing his army falling apart, Sigismund made a few political moves. He went to the Catholic-controlled Hradčany Castle and had himself crowned king of Bohemia in St. Vitus Cathedral. It was a less than satisfying occasion, as he had hoped for pomp and circumstance in the wake of a major victory. He then lifted the siege by moving his remaining forces (ca. 16,000) to Kutná Hora, site of the silver mines he needed to control even if he held nothing else. Practical as these moves were, their value was far overshadowed by the precipitate rise in Hussite morale at holding on to their half of Prague and obliging the retreat of a massive force. The Hussites scored another victory later in the year. But by the end of the year, Sigismund had mobilized a new army, which stood before Prague. Once more the Taborites came to assist and, in a victorious battle below the castle of Vyšehrad, Prague and the Hussite movement were saved on 1 November 1420. Hradčany Castle and the western side of Prague fell to the Hussites a few months later.


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