The Blind Bohemian General: Czech Hero Jan Zizka and the Hussite Wars
Jan Zizka is best remembered for his involvement in the Hussite Wars, during which he became the leader of the Taborites. A Bohemian general, who lived between the 14 th and 15 th centuries, Zizka has gone down in history as one of the finest military strategists of all time. Despite being at the head of a group of rebellious militant peasants, he channeled the religious zeal of the Taborites and managed to instill strict military discipline into the men under his command. This, along with Zizka’s revolutionary military tactics, enabled the Taborites to triumph over their enemies. The Taborites fought not only against other rival Hussites, but also against the forces of the Holy Roman Empire and its Catholic allies. Today, Zizka is regarded as a Czech national hero.
Detail of painting by Jan Matejko depicting Jan Zizka during the Battle of Grunwald. ( Public domain )
Jan Zizka Before the Battle of Grunwald
There is little evidence remaining of the early life of Jan Zizka. Historians believe he was born around 1360, though some sources claim that he was born around 1376, in the small village of Trocnov in the Kingdom of Bohemia (today the Czech Republic ). There are no records about his family background, though it is assumed that they were aristocrats. This may be plausible, as Zizka is said to have spent his early life at the court of Wenceslaus IV, the King of Bohemia.
Although Zizka is best known as a general today, there’s practically no register related to his military exploits until the year 1410, when he was about 50 years old. It is assumed that as a young man, Zizka fought as a mercenary on behalf of the Polish Crown. In addition, it is believed that sometime during his early military career Zizka lost an eye, hence obtaining the nickname “one-eyed Zizka”.
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In any event, in 1410 Zizka participated in the Battle of Grunwald, known also as the First Battle of Tannenberg. This battle was fought on the 15 th of July, and was part of the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. Thus, the battle pitted the Teutonic Knights against the alliance of Poland and Lithuania. Although the Teutonic Knights were decisively beaten at the battle, the order was not completely destroyed. Nevertheless, the Battle of Grunwald marks a turning point in the history of Eastern Europe. The Teutonic Knights , who had been the dominant power in that region, began to decline, whilst Poland-Lithuania emerged as one of Europe’s most powerful states.
During the Battle of Grunwald, Zizka fought for Poland-Lithuania, and therefore was on the winning side. Incidentally, he was depicted by Jan Matejko, a 19 th century Polish painter, in his painting Battle of Grunwald . Following the battle, however, Zizka disappears from the pages of history once again, only to re-emerge in 1419, when he became involved in the Hussite Wars. Therefore, it may be reasonably assumed that at some point after the Battle of Grunwald , Zizka returned to Bohemia. It may also be deduced that whilst he was back in Bohemia, Zizka became a follower of the religious reformer Jan Hus, from whom the Hussites derived their name.
This painting of the Battle of Grunwald includes the image of Jan Zizka in the midst of the fighting. ( Public domain )
Zizka, Jan Hus and the Hussites
Jan Hus was a Bohemian religious reformer who lived between the 14 th and 15 th centuries, and the movement he founded is regarded as a precursor to the Reformation sparked by Martin Luther about a century later. It seems that there was also a nationalistic element to Hus’ reformist agenda. For instance, the Council of Pisa, which was held in 1409, was aimed at resolving the Western Schism, which had split the Roman Catholic Church since 1378, as well as to reform the Church. Hus, who was a master of the University of Prague at that time, supported the council and its reformist agenda, as did the other Bohemian masters. The German masters, on the other hand, were less keen on church reforms, and therefore opposed the Council of Pisa.
Ultimately, however, the Council of Pisa failed to end the Western Schism. Instead, it made matters worse, as there were now three popes, one more than before the council began. Hus supported the newly elected Alexander V, in opposition to the higher clergy in Bohemia, who supported Gregory XII. Although Hus got into a conflict with the archbishop of Prague because of this, he had the backing of the king, Wenceslas, and therefore did not suffer much harm. In 1412, however, Hus denounced the sale of indulgences, a curious religious practice whereby people could literally buy forgiveness and redemption from sin by paying a monetary penalty to the church. This caused a break with Wenceslas, who approved of the sale of indulgences, and shared in the proceeds. Consequently, Hus was persecuted by his enemies for heresy, and ultimately left Prague.
In the years that followed, Hus found refuge mostly in southern Bohemia, where he stayed in the castles of his friends. During this period, he wrote many treatises, as well as a collection of sermons. In 1414, the Council of Constance was called. Apart form ending the Western Schism, the council also sought to end all the heresies that were circulating at the time. Therefore, Hus was invited to explain his views to the council, an invitation that he, naturally, was reluctant to accept. In the end, however, Hus consented, arriving in Constance in November 1414. It was of course a trap. He was put on trial, condemned as a heretic, and sentenced to burn at the stake in the following year.
The death of Jan Hus in 1415, however, did not mark the end of his movement. In fact, it continued to spread in Bohemia, since the king was not particularly opposed to it. Things changed in 1419, when Wenceslas died, and was succeeded by his younger half-brother, Sigismund. Unlike his predecessor, Sigismund was not at all a friend of the Hussites. The feeling was mutual, as the Hussites regarded Sigismund as the man who delivered Hus to the Council of Constance. However, although the Hussites opposed Sigismund, they were themselves divided into factions, one of which being the Taborites.
On the left, a depiction of the devil selling indiulgences from the Jena Codex ( Public domain ). On the right, the burning of Jan Hus at the Council of Constance, an action which set the stage for the Hussite Wars. ( Public domain )
Leading Taborite Militants into Battle and Creating a Medieval Tank
The Taborites derive their name from the biblical Mount Tabor, which was the name that they gave to the fortified settlement they established to the south of Prague. The Taborites were radicals, who, amongst other things, rejected all the sacraments except Baptism and the Eucharist, insisted on receiving a Eucharist of both bread and wine, despite not believing in transubstantiation, and allowed the clergy to marry. The Taborites were also militants, and were prepared to take up arms for their beliefs. It was thanks to Zizka that the Taborites were able to achieve their military success.
Although it is quite likely that Zizka was a follower of Hus, it is unclear as to how he ended up joining the Taborites. In any case, having years of experience in warfare under his belt, Zizka was just the right man to train lead them in battle. Although the Taborites were fired by religious zeal, they had, till that point of time, been peasants, and therefore had no combat experience at all. Moreover, considering that the armies sent against them consisted of battle-hardened mercenaries and heavily armored cavalry, the Taborites were at a great disadvantage.
Zizka did what he could to instil discipline amongst his men, but he was well aware that this was not going to be enough. Therefore, he came up with a new war machine that brilliantly made use of the resources he had on hand. Zizka mounted cannons onto mobile, armored farm wagons, thus turning these farming vehicles into a sort of medieval tank. By linking the wagons together with strong chains, a fort could be formed. Each wagon was manned by about 20 soldiers, eight of whom were armed with crossbows, another eight with pikes, two with handguns, and the last two being the drivers.
With this new war machine came new tactics as well. Although the armored farm wagons were cumbersome, they were perfect for holding defensive positions. Zizka understood this, and used it to his full advantage. Instead of attacking the enemy, Zizka would force them to attack the Taborites, who were able to successfully hold off the attackers with their wagons. The wagons were particularly effective against enemy cavalry, as the horses would be shot down whilst they were charging. The dismounted riders could then be easily dealt with. This not only caused casualties amongst the enemy, but also severely demoralized them. Once the enemy had taken a heavy beating, however, the Taborites would launch a counterattack. This tactic allowed the Taborites to win battle after battle, even against numerically superior enemies.
1400s depiction of Jan Zizka leading the Taborites into war. ( Public domain )
Zizka’s Taborites and the Hussite Wars
The effectiveness of Zizka’s armored farm wagons was first demonstrated in 1420, at the Battle of Sudomer, which was fought on the 25 th of March. This was the second major battle of the Hussite Wars , and Zizka proved his worth as a general. On the one hand, the Taborites had about 400 fighting men. One the other, the Taborites’ Catholic enemies had a force of about 2,000 cavalry. Even though the Taborites were outnumbered by about five to one, they were still able to get the better of their opponents.
In addition to the wagon fort, Zizka chose to engage the enemy in the marshes. This was a strategic choice, as the soft ground greatly hindered the movement of the enemy’s cavalry. In the end, the Catholics not only failed to destroy the Taborites, but they lost many men. The Taborites themselves did not manage to defeat their enemy entirely, but escaped during the night. Nevertheless, this was a great victory, considering that the Taborites were able to hold their ground against a much stronger enemy. This would have boosted their morale.
A few months later, Zizka and the Taborites faced Sigismund at the Battle of Vitkov Hill. As its name indicates, this battle took place on Vitkov Hill, which is located on the edge of Prague. This hill is the strategic point for the defense of the city. As the Taborites had captured Prague in May, Sigismund wanted to recapture the city, launching an attack in June. This time, the Taborites were even more outnumbered. Whilst Zizka had only about 130 men, the king brought an army of about 8,000 knights.
Unlike the Battle of Sudomer, the Taborites did not really need their farm wagons this time, as there were fortifications already on the hill. Like this previous battle, however, Zizka used the terrain to its maximum advantage. Sigismund besieged the Taborites for about a month, before marching up the hill to attack them. The following day, however, Hussite reinforcements launched a surprise attack on Sigismund’s forces. This caused panic amongst the knights, which ended in a rout. As the knights retreated in chaos, many of them drowned during their attempt to cross the Vitava River. At the end of the battle, about four to five hundred of Sigismund’s men had lost their lives, whereas the Taborites only suffered two or three casualties.
The Hussite Wars have gone down in history as a bloody struggle between the Hussites and Catholic crusaders. ( Public domain ).
Unexpected Victory at the Battle of Kutna Hora
The next major battle that was fought between Zizka and Sigismund was the Battle of Kutna Hora, which occurred in December 1421, about a year and a half after the Battle of Vitkov Hill. This time, Sigismund came with an army of about 92,000 men, whilst Zizka was in command of a much smaller army of only 18,000 Hussites. Using his numerical superiority, Sigismund encircled Zizka and his men. Although defeat seemed inevitable, Zizka ordered the wagons to be aligned in a column, and charged at the enemy. By these means, the Hussites were able to break out of the enemy’s orbit.
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Believing that the Hussites had been utterly defeated, Sigismund did not pursue them. Unfortunately for the king, he had made a grave miscalculation, and in the days after the battle, Zizka launched numerous counter attacks on Sigismund. In the end, Sigismund’s army was so demoralized that the king had no choice but to retreat. The defeat of Sigismund’s numerically superior army is itself a notable feat. What is more amazing is the fact that Zizka achieved this victory whilst he was completely blind. It is recorded that he had lost an eye in his youth, and another just a few months before the legendary battle of Kutna Hora.
In the next few years, Zizka continued his fight against Sigismund, as well as against other Hussite factions, and won every battle he fought. On the 11 th of October 1424, however, Zizka died of the plague. It might be said that Sigismund had the last laugh, as he lived long enough to see the end of the Hussite Wars , when the radical Hussites, including the Taborites, were ultimately defeated in 1434 by the Catholics and moderate Hussites. In any case, Jan Zizka is remembered till this day as a Czech hero, and in 1950, an equestrian statue of the famed Taborite general was erected on top of Vitkov Hill.
Top image: Jan Zizkais remembered as a Czech hero, as depicted in this equestrian statue on Vitkov Hill in Prague. Source: frimufilms / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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