Sigismund, Emperor of Germany, had sworn to put an end to the Hussite rebellion in Bohemia, and to punish the rebels in a way that would make all future rebels tremble. But Sigismund was pursuing the old policy of cooking the hare before it was caught. He forgot that the indomitable John Ziska and the iron-flailed peasantry stood between him and his vow. He had first to conquer the reformers before he could punish them, and this was to prove no easy task.
The dreadful work of religious war began with the burning of Hussite preachers who had ventured from Bohemia into Germany. This was an argument which Ziska thoroughly understood, and he retorted by destroying the Bohemian monasteries, and burning the priests alive in barrels of pitch. "They are singing my sister's wedding song," exclaimed the grim barbarian, on hearing their cries of torture. Queen Sophia, widow of Wenceslas, the late king, who had garrisoned all the royal castles, now sent a strong body of troops against the reformers. The army came up with the multitude, which was largely made up of women and children, on the open plain near Pilsen. The cavalry charged upon the seemingly helpless mob. But Ziska was equal to the occasion. He ordered the women to strew the ground with their gowns and veils, and the horses' feet becoming entangled in these, numbers of the riders were thrown, and the trim lines of the troops broken.
Seeing the confusion into which they had been thrown, Ziska gave the order to charge, and in a short time the army that was to defeat him was flying in a panic across the plain, a broken and beaten mob. Another army marched against him, and was similarly defeated; and the citizens of Prague, finding that no satisfactory terms could be made with the emperor, recalled Ziska, and entered into alliance with him. The one-eyed patriot was now lord of the land, all Bohemia being at his beck and call.
Meanwhile Sigismund, the emperor, was slowly gathering his forces to invade the rebellious land. The reign of cruelty continued, each side treating its prisoners barbarously. The Imperialists branded theirs with a cup, the Hussites theirs with a cross, on their foreheads. The citizens of Breslau joined those of Prague, and emulated them by flinging their councillors out of the town-house windows. In return the German miners of Kuttenberg threw sixteen hundred Hussites down the mines. Such is religious war, the very climax of cruelty.
In June, 1420, the threatened invasion came. Sigismund led an army, one hundred thousand strong, into the revolted land, fulminating vengeance as he marched. He reached Prague and entered the castle of Wisherad, which commanded it. Ziska fortified the mountain of Witlow (now called Ziskaberg), which also commanded the city. Sigismund, finding that he had been outgeneralled, and that his opponent held the controlling position, waited and temporized, amusing himself meanwhile by assuming the crown of Bohemia, and sowing dissension in his army by paying the Slavonian and Hungarian troops with the jewels taken from the royal palaces and the churches, while leaving the Germans unpaid. The Germans, furious, marched away. The emperor was obliged to follow. The ostentatious invasion was at an end, and scarcely a blow had been struck.
But Sigismund had no sooner gone than trouble arose in Prague. The citizens, the nobility, and Ziska's followers were all at odds. The Taborites—those strict republicans and religious reformers who had made Mount Tabor their head-quarters—were in power, and ruled the city with a rod of iron, destroying all the remaining splendor of the churches and sternly prohibiting every display of ostentation by the people. Death was named as the punishment for such venial faults as dancing, gambling, or the wearing of rich attire. The wine-cellars were rigidly closed. Church property was declared public property, and it looked as if private wealth would soon be similarly viewed. The peasants declared that it was their mission to exterminate sin from the earth.
This tyranny so incensed the nobles and citizens that they rose in self-defence, and Ziska, finding that Prague had grown too hot to hold him, deemed it prudent to lead his men away. Sigismund took immediate advantage of the opportunity by marching on Prague. But, quick as he was, there were others quicker. The more moderate section of the reformers, the so-called Horebites,—from Mount Horeb, another place of assemblage,—entered the city, led by Hussinez, Huss's former lord, and laid siege to the royal fortress, the Wisherad. Sigismund attempted to surprise him, but met with so severe a repulse that he fled into Hungary, and the Wisherad was forced to capitulate, this ancient palace and its church, both splendid works of art, being destroyed. Step by step the art and splendor of Bohemia were vanishing in this despotic struggle between heresy and the papacy.
As the war went on, Ziska, its controlling spirit, grew steadily more abhorrent of privilege and distinction, more bitterly fanatical. The ancient church, royalty, nobility, all excited his wrath. He was republican, socialist, almost anarchist in his views. His idea of perfection lay in a fraternity composed of the children of God, while he trusted to the strokes of the iron flail to bear down all opposition to his theory of society. The city of Prachaticz treated him with mockery, and was burnt to the ground, with all its inhabitants. The Bishop of Nicopolis fell into his hands, and was flung into the river. As time went on, his war of extermination against sinners—that is, all who refused to join his banner—grew more cruel and unrelenting. Each city that resisted was stormed and ruined, its inhabitants slaughtered, its priests burned. Hussite virtue had degenerated into tyranny of the worst type. Yet, while thus fanatical himself, Ziska would not permit his followers to indulge in insane excesses of religious zeal. A party arose which claimed that the millennium was at hand, and that it was their duty to anticipate the coming of the innocence of Paradise, by going naked, like Adam and Eve. These Adamites committed the maddest excesses, but found a stern enemy in Ziska, who put them down with an unsparing hand.
In 1421 Sigismund again roused himself to activity, incensed by the Hussite defiance of his authority. He incited the Silesians to invade Bohemia, and an army of twenty thousand poured into the land, killing all before them,—men, women, and children. Yet such was the terror that the very name of Ziska now excited, that the mere rumor of his approach sent these invaders flying across the borders.
But, in the midst of his career of triumph, an accident came to the Bohemian leader which would have incapacitated any less resolute man from military activity. During the siege of the castle of Raby a splinter struck his one useful eye and completely deprived him of sight. It did not deprive him of power and energy. Most men, under such circumstances, would have retired from army leadership, but John Ziska was not of that calibre. He knew Bohemia so thoroughly that the whole land lay accurately mapped out in his mind. He continued to lead his army, to marshal his men in battle array, to command them in the field and the siege, despite his blindness, always riding in a carriage, close to the great standard, and keeping in immediate touch with all the movements of the war.
Blind as he was, he increased rather than diminished the severity of his discipline, and insisted on rigid obedience to his commands. As an instance of this we are told that, on one occasion, having compelled his troops to march day and night, as was his custom, they murmured and said,—
"Day and night are the same to you, as you cannot see; but they are not the same to us."
"How!" he cried. "You cannot see! Well, set fire to a couple of villages."
The blind warrior was soon to have others to deal with than his Bohemian foes. Sigismund had sent forward another army, which, in September, 1421, invaded the country. It was driven out by the mere rumor of Ziska's approach, the soldiers flying in haste on the vague report of his coming. But in November the emperor himself came, leading a horde of eighty thousand Hungarians, Servians, and others, savage fellows, whose approach filled the moderate party of the Bohemians with terror. Ziska's men had such confidence in their blind chief as to be beyond terror. They were surrounded by the enemy, and enclosed in what seemed a trap. But under Ziska's orders they made a night attack on the foe, broke through their lines, and, to the emperor's discomfiture, were once more free.
On New Year's day, 1422, the two armies came face to face near Zollin. Ziska drew up his men in battle array and confidently awaited the attack of the enemy. But the inflexible attitude of his men, the terror of his name, or one of those inexplicable influences which sometimes affect armies, filled the Hungarians with a sudden panic, and they vanished from the front of the Bohemians without a blow. Once more the emperor and the army which he had led into the country with such high confidence of success were in shameful flight, and the terrible example which he had vowed to make of Bohemia was still unaccomplished.
The blind chief vigorously and relentlessly pursued, overtaking the fugitives on January 8 near Deutschbrod. Terrified at his approach, they sought to escape by crossing the stream at that place on the ice. The ice gave way, and numbers of them were drowned. Deutschbrod was burned and its inhabitants slaughtered in Ziska's cruel fashion.
This repulse put an end to invasions of Bohemia while Ziska lived. There were intestine disturbances which needed to be quelled, and then the army of the reformers was led beyond the boundaries of the country and assailed the imperial dominions, but the emperor held aloof. He had had enough of the blind terror of Bohemia, the indomitable Ziska and his iron-flailed peasants. New outbreaks disturbed Bohemia. Ambitious nobles aspired to the kingship, but their efforts were vain. The army of the iron flail quickly put an end to all such hopes.
In 1423 Ziska invaded Moravia and Austria, to keep his troops employed, and lost severely in doing so. In 1424 his enemies at home again made head against him, led an army into the field, and pursued him to Kuttenberg. Here he ordered his men to feign a retreat, then, while the foe were triumphantly advancing, he suddenly turned, had his battle-chariot driven furiously down the mountain-side upon their lines, and during the confusion thus caused ordered an attack in force. The enemy were repulsed, their artillery was captured, and Kuttenberg set in flames, as Ziska's signal of triumph.
Shortly afterwards, his enemies at home being thoroughly beaten, the indomitable blind chief marched upon Prague, the head-quarters of his foes, and threatened to burn this city to the ground. He might have done so, too, but for his own men, who broke into sedition at the threat.
Procop, Ziska's bravest captain, advised peace, to put an end to the disasters of civil war. His advice was everywhere re-echoed, the demand for peace seemed unanimous, Ziska alone opposing it. Mounting a cask, and facing his discontented followers, he exclaimed,—
"Fear internal more than external foes. It is easier for a few, when united, to conquer, than for many, when disunited. Snares are laid for you; you will be entrapped, but it will not be my fault."
Despite his harangue, however, peace was concluded between the contending factions, and a large monument raised in commemoration thereof, both parties heaping up stones. Ziska entered the city in solemn procession, and was met with respect and admiration by the citizens. Prince Coribut, the leader of the opposite party and the aspirant to the crown, came to meet him, embraced him, and called him father. The triumph of the blind chief over his internal foes was complete.
It seemed equally complete over his external foes. Sigismund, unable to conquer him by force of arms, now sought to mollify him by offers of peace, and entered into negotiations with the stern old warrior. But Ziska was not to be placated. He could not trust the man who had broken his plighted word and burned John Huss, and he remained immovable in his hostility to Germany. Planning a fresh attack on Moravia, he began his march thither. But now he met a conquering enemy against whose arms there was no defence. Death encountered him on the route, and carried him off October 12, 1424.
Thus ends the story of an extraordinary man, and the history of a series of remarkable events. Of all the peasant outbreaks, of which there were so many during the mediŠval period, the Bohemian was the only one—if we except the Swiss struggle for liberty—that attained measurable success. This was due in part to the fact that it was a religious instead of an industrial revolt, and thus did not divide the country into sharp ranks of rich and poor; and in greater part to the fact that it had an able leader, one of those men of genius who seem born for great occasions. John Ziska, the blind warrior, leading his army to victory after victory, stands alone in the gallery of history. There were none like him, before or after.
He is pictured as a short, broad-shouldered man, with a large, round, and bald head. His forehead was deeply furrowed, and he wore a long moustache of a fiery red hue. This, with his blind eye and his final complete blindness, yields a well-defined image of the man, that fanatical, remorseless, indomitable, and unconquerable avenger of the martyred Huss, the first successful opponent of the doctrines of the church of Rome whom history records.
The conclusion of the story of the Hussites may be briefly given. For years they held their own, under two leaders, known as Procop Holy and Procop the Little, defying the emperor, and at times invading the empire. The pope preached a crusade against them, but the army of invasion was defeated, and Silesia and Austria were invaded in reprisal by Procop Holy.
Seven years after the death of Ziska an army of invasion again entered Bohemia, so strong in numbers that it seemed as if that war-drenched land must fall before it. In its ranks were one hundred and thirty thousand men, led by Frederick of Brandenburg. Their purposes were seen in their actions. Every village reached was burned, till two hundred had been given to the flames. Horrible excesses were committed. On August 14, 1431, the two armies, the Hussite and the Imperialist, came face to face near Tauss. The disproportion in numbers was enormous, and it looked as if the small force of Bohemians would be swallowed up in the multitude of their foes. But barely was the Hussite banner seen in the distance when the old story was told over again, the Germans broke into sudden panic, and fled en masse from the field. The Bavarians were the first to fly, and all the rest speedily followed. Frederick of Brandenburg and his troops took refuge in a wood. The Cardinal Julian, who had preached a crusade against Bohemia, succeeded for a time in rallying the fugitives, but at the first onset of the Hussites they again took to flight, suffering themselves to be slaughtered without resistance. The munitions of war were abandoned to the foe, including one hundred and fifty cannon.
It was an extraordinary affair, but in truth the flight was less due to terror than to disinclination of the German soldiers to fight the Hussites, whose cause they deemed to be just and glorious, and the influence of whose opinions had spread far beyond the Bohemian border. Rome was losing its hold over the mind of northern Europe outside the limits of the land of Huss and Ziska.
Negotiations for peace followed. The Bohemians were invited to Basle, being granted a safe-conduct, and promised free exercise of their religion coming and going, while no words of ridicule or reproach were to be permitted. On January 9, 1433, three hundred Bohemians, mounted on horseback, entered Basle, accompanied by an immense multitude. It was a very different entrance from that of Huss to Constance, nearly twenty years before, and was to have a very different termination. Procop Holy headed the procession, accompanied by others of the Bohemian leaders. A signal triumph had come to the party of religious reform, after twenty years of struggle.
For fifty days the negotiations continued. Neither side would yield. In the end, the Bohemians, weary of the protracted and fruitless debate, took to their horses again, and set out homewards. This brought their enemies to terms. An embassy was hastily sent after them, and all their demands were conceded, though with certain reservations that might prove perilous in the future. They went home triumphant, having won freedom of religious worship according to their ideas of right and truth.
They had not long reached home when dissensions again broke out. The emperor took advantage of them, accepted the crown of Bohemia, entered Prague, and at once reinstated the Catholic religion. The fanatics flew to arms, but after a desperate struggle were annihilated. The Bohemian struggle was at an end. In the following year the emperor Sigismund died, having lived just long enough to win success in his long conflict. The martyrdom of Huss, the valor and zeal of Ziska, appeared to have been in vain. Yet they were not so, for the seeds they had sown bore fruit in the following century in a great sectarian revolt which affected all Christendom and permanently divided the Church.