The Hussites are a Czech proto-Protestant religious movement that derived its name from John Huss, a Czech thinker and preacher.
In 1419 it took on a revolutionary character. The main principles of the Hussite community were formed under the influences of Matthias of Janov, John Wycliffe and the Waldensians. Radical Hussites believed that the only source of the true faith is the Holy Scripture. They rejected the Church’s influence and power. The more moderate Hussites insisted on the necessity of church reforms, they proposed to make the Mass simpler and more easy to understand and for it to be served in the Czech language.
The requirement of a chalice for laymen was first formed in 1414 by Jacob Maloi, a magister from Misa, during the Ecumenical council in Constanta. He thought that communion for laymen should be performed with both bread and wine. Consequently, he and his adherents became called ultraquists (Latin utraque specie, “in two kinds”), calixtinians (Latin calix, “a chalice”) or just “Chalice People”. For John Huss, the communion under both kinds was not necessary, yet permissible when bringing salvation. On June 15, 1415, at the 13th session, the Council decided to approve the custom adopted two hundred years previously and declared as heresy by those who rejected it.
The Hussites’ activities were extremely important for the history of Central Europe in the first half of the fifteenth century. and reveal many aspects of the doctrine of John Huss. First, people of different classes were able to join the Hussites. They were supported by the university professors, burgers (citizens) and the Czech nobility. They advocated the confiscation of property from the Church and a decrease of the church’s role in secular life. Citizens and nobility who were moderate Hussites were called the Chalice People.
Radical preachers advocated changing the old laws and predicted chiliasm, that is the “millennial reign of Christ on Earth”. Those sermons influenced the extreme Hussites. They drew Catholic priests out of their churches, demolished monasteries and killed monks. On July 30, 1419, in Prague radical Hussites caused an uprising when they seized power and threw seven councillors of the magistracy out of the windows of the city hall. Later this event became known as the “defenestration”. In August 1419 Wenceslaus IV, the king of Bohemia, died and none could withstand the radicals. The uprising spread all over Czechia.
Radical Hussites set up camp on the Tabor Mountain in the South of Czechia. For this reason, they were called the Taborites. The Taborites advocated creating “the community of the equal” similar to the future kingdom of God.
The Taborites elected a bishop and four military commanders. One of them was Jan Zizka (Jan Žižka) who shared the most radical of beliefs. Consequently, a split took place in the Tabor camp. The adherents of the idea of a common property found themselves in the minority and were expelled. The cities near Tabor signed a union.
The Moderate Hussites signed a document called the Four Articles of Prague, which was also approved by the Taborite priests. Thus, the Chalice people and the Taborites united against the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, the brother of Wenceslaus IV and an heir to the Czech throne. In the spring of 1420 Sigismund started a Crusade against the Hussites. First, he conquered the North of Czechia and then in June he besieged Prague.
Jan Zizka led the joint forces of the Hussites, and on July 14, 1420, the Hussites were victorious over the Crusaders. From June 3 to 7, 1421, in Čáslav, a Sejm (parliament) was created. A new temporary government was elected, and the Four Articles of Prague became the official law. Sigismund was consequently dethroned.
After Jan Zizka died in October 1424, the next Hussite leader was Prokop the Great, a politician, military leader and former priest. Radical Hussites trying to break the economic isolation of Czechia and to spread their religion outside its borders, launched an offensive. They started campaigns in Austria, Silesia and Germany, preaching their beliefs wherever they fought.
In 1431 the Crusaders attacked the Hussites again. This time the crusade was led by Cardinal Julian Cesarini.
The council of Basel started a dialogue with the Hussites represented by Prokop the Great. The negotiations lasted for two months but had no results. The Chalice People tried to agree with the Catholics, and this resulted in the Compacta of Prague (1433) which granted communion of both kinds to all who desired it. The Papal legate helped the Catholics and Chalice People to sign an agreement that was not approved by the Taborites.
The Hussite war ended on May 30, 1434, with the Battle of Lipany. The Taborites were defeated and Prokop the Great died in the battle. Hussite religious controversies lasted until 1444 when the Sejm of Prague claimed the teachings of the Taborites to be heretical. The Chalice People lost their enthusiasm after this victory. Although they were still a separate church with communion of both kinds and they still honoured John Huss, their spirituality gradually became more and more Catholic. Moderate Hussites became leaders in the country, and they wanted to gain an agreement with the state and Catholic Church. On July 5, 1436, peace was signed between the Chalice People and Sigismund. The Compacta of Prague was championed as an official law by the Emperor yet was not approved by Pope Eugene IV.
After the Hussite Crusades, all the power in Czechia was concentrated in the hands of the political unions of the nobility (“szlachta”) and the cities. Such unions were led by so-called “hetmans” (warlords). George of Poděbrady was one of these. He captured Tabor in 1452 and completely defeated the Taborites. At the Sejm of 1458, George of Poděbrady became the king of Czechia. He swore a secret oath of allegiance to Pope Pius II, promising to keep the unity of the Church and to fight against heresies, so, the Pope supported him. Yet Pius expected some more decisive actions against the heretics and by his definition of heretics he meant all the Hussite beliefs and organizations. But the Czech government called those who had not supported the Compacta of Prague heretics.
On March, 31, 1466, Pius II rejected the Compacta of Prague and that year George of Poděbrady was anathematized by the next Pope, Paul II. All of his vassals were freed from the oath of allegiance. Two years later a new Crusade began, which led to a war between Matthias Corvinus, the king of Hungary, and the allies of George. The king of Hungary was supported by the Catholic opposition in Czechia. During the war, the King of Czechia was Vladislaus II from the Jagiellon dynasty, who was a Catholic.
The treaty of Kutná Hora was signed in 1458 and peace was established between the Catholics and the Chalice People. In 1457 a new group was formed. These were the Bohemian Brethren who were more radical. In 1476 they separated themselves from the rest of the Hussites. The Brethren denied the sacraments and transubstantiation. In the 17th century, when the Reformation ideas came to Czechia, the peace between Catholics and Hussites was disturbed. The Bohemian Brethren adopted many of the beliefs of Calvinists and the moderate Hussites did so with the Lutherans.
In the 17th century, Habsburg’s dynasty sought to deprive the Hussites of their rights. This resulted in the Thirty Years’ War. Czechia was defeated and the Hussites ceased to exist for many years.
Nowadays, there is a community of Czech Brethren who have existed since the times of John Huss but do not claim themselves Hussites. Also, there exists a Moravian Church, a group of the Czech Brethren that later became influential. These movements were the first cases of legal non-Catholic churches in Europe.
Nowadays, there is a Czechoslovak Hussite church that traces its traditions to the Hussites. According to different sources, the church membership is estimated to be between 100 to 180 thousand adherents. Yet it has nothing to do with the 15th century Hussite movement. The church emerged in the 1918-1920 period after a split between the Moravian and Czech Roman Catholic clergy. It adopted the name in 1971.
There is a historical term – Hussite Wars. It clearly shows the nature of the movement. After the victory, the Hussites lost their incentive and gradually dissolved among the Catholics. Their victories were the result of their unity before the scattered forces of enemies, i.e. Poland, Hungary, Austria and Germany which had been fictitiously united by the German Emperor. Yet the Czechia was unable to conquer their land, to keep it and to be entirely victorious over the Crusaders.