When radical preacher Jan Želivský arrived in Prague in 1418, he stepped into a seething conflict. In the three years since Jan Hus's death, Praguers had grown more passionate about reform—particularly about receiving both the bread and the chalice in Communion.

Reform-minded clergy, enjoying the support of commoners, nobles, and university masters, had expelled Catholics from most of the city's churches. King Václav did not interfere, but then he grew to fear the reformers' escalating power and in 1419 forced many of them, including Želivský, from their pulpits.

Želivský wanted his church back.

On July 30 he and his followers, some armed with pikes, swords, and clubs, marched to their former sanctuary. Finding the doors locked, they smashed through, then held a Communion service with bread and wine.

The group proceeded to the town hall, where several newly appointed Catholic councilmen were gathered. The angry crowd demanded the release of imprisoned reformers. When the councilmen refused, the protesters threw 13 of them out the window. Any who survived the fall were killed—but their corpses were not robbed.

The event was less a riot than a planned coup. The rebels succeeded in gaining some concessions from the king, who died a fortnight later of apoplexy. The victory was only temporary, though, and for the next 17 years Bohemia became a military and ideological battleground.

The great divide

The Czech reform movement comprised two major camps: the radical wing, including the Táborites, and the more moderate Utraquists. Radicals largely came from the lower levels of society (Želivský sometimes called himself "preacher of the poor, unfortunate, miserable, oppressed"), while moderates drew from the ranks of nobles and university masters.

When Václav had reneged on reform and placed Catholics in power, some Hussites began gathering for Communion in the hills outside Prague. They gave these hills biblical names like Tábor, Horeb, and Olivet. Because of increasing persecution in the cities, and because the group believed the end times were coming soon, the meeting places became refuge settlements.

"Therefore do not resist evil," a Táborite song proclaimed, "but go out to the mountain, and here learn Truth; for so Christ commanded when he prophesied on the mountain and preached of the destruction of the temple."

The Táborites, early proponents of sola scriptura, rejected anything not found in the Bible, including the veneration of saints, prayers for the dead, transubstantiation, and indulgences. They lived communally, conducted their austere worship services in Czech, and welcomed laymen and women to preach.

Utraquists, like Táborites, firmly believed that lay people should receive Communion in both bread and wine (sub utraque specie). As Jacob of Mies had argued at the Council of Constance, citing Scripture, "Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you." However, being generally wealthier, they were not nearly so eager to upset the order of Bohemian society.

"Warriors of God"

Upon Václav's death, Sigismund gained formal right to the Bohemian crown. But Hussites hated Sigismund, "the dragon of the Apocalypse," for his duplicity at Constance. Pope Martin V, hoping to silence the reformers, gave Sigismund permission to take the kingdom by force.

Utraquists attempted to reach a diplomatic compromise with the incoming monarch, asking only that Communion with the lay chalice be permitted, not imposed. This was hardly enough for the Táborites, who threw their support behind Jan Žižka, a royal guard turned radical.

Žižka fortified Táborite settlements and trained a militia. Lacking conventional weapons, his men, the "warriors of God," adapted their farming implements: threshing flails, studded with iron spikes, served in hand-to-hand combat, while armored peasant carts became highly mobile war-wagons. The rebels' zeal, combined with Žižka's strategic genius, led to several early victories, despite the fact that Žižka was nearly blind.

Utraquists initially opposed Žižka's efforts because they were unsure about the rightness of holy war. Then in 1420 Sigismund abandoned the bargaining table and launched a crusade against Bohemia, going so far as to enlist German soldiers, the Czechs' "natural enemies." In declaring war on his own kingdom, Sigismund became the common foe uniting both wings of the Hussite movement.

To work together, the moderates and radicals needed a formula for basic agreement. They arrived at the Four Articles of Prague (see "The Reformation Connection"), guidelines for reform that left a lot of room for interpretation. But this vagueness contributed to their acceptance—the factions could barely agree on that much.

Advance and retreat

As reformers were hammering out their articles of agreement, an international force under Sigismund's direction entered Bohemia and besieged Prague. Though the army was large, it suffered from long supply lines and low morale. At the battle of Vítkov Hill, Žižka's inferior forces secured a strategic position and broke the siege. Sigismund, defeated, had himself crowned quietly, then withdrew to non-Hussite territory.

At a national assembly, the Czechs declared their position: "Because of great cruelty and injustice brought about by Sigismund, the king of Hungary, the entire Kingdom of Bohemia has endured great harm. We have never accepted him as king nor recognized his right as lord."

The king attacked again later in 1421, aiming to take the strategic city of Kutná Hora. Žižka and his men camped near the city, unaware that its citizens intended to help Sigismund. Žižka was surrounded by enemies, but before they could close in on him, he used his blindness as an advantage and launched a deadly night raid. Crashing through the enemy line with guns blasting from the war-wagons (the first documented use of mobile firepower in Europe), Žižka escaped. He also earned such a fearsome reputation that on at least one occasion, a hostile army fled at the sight of the Hussite banner.

More crusades followed in 1422, 1427, and 1431, with lesser forays in between. The Hussites held their ground but also sustained losses: Želivský was murdered in Prague in 1422, Žižka succumbed to the plague in 1424, and Jakoubek of Stríbro, a leading moderate theologian, died in 1429. The country grew weary of constant battle, and Táborites and Utraquists remained unable to forge a shared vision of Bohemia's future.

The dragon's forked tongue

Finally, in October 1431, Sigismund and the Catholic Church gave up on a military solution and invited the Hussites to negotiations at the Council of Basel. Most Hussite factions agreed—after securing ironclad safe-conduct and the assurance that they would be treated, not as heretics, but as brothers in Christ.

The radicals were reluctant to negotiate. Žižka's replacement, Prokop Holý, believed war was necessary "in order to bring about the recognition of these holy truths by the Church of God, and to live and see the blessing of peace and good days from which unity, brotherly love, moral reform and everything else will come." Only when the radical forces lost a major campaign against Bohemian Catholics did Prokop join discussions.

The Hussites argued for concessions described in the Four Articles of Prague. Like Hus they believed that if they were allowed to make a case for reforms, church leaders would be converted and reform would spread. Like Hus they were disappointed.

Pope Eugenius IV, Martin V's successor, opposed reforms. The church's leading representative at the council, Cardinal Cesarini, believed some changes were needed; he feared the radicals, having barely escaped a clash with them at Domaælice. Sigismund played both sides of the table, holding a hard line during meetings but promising support for reform when talking to the Hussites in private.

Duped again by Sigismund, the Hussites agreed with the council on a watered-down version of the Four Articles. The lay chalice would be permitted but not encouraged—a decision that set the stage for Hussite-Catholic civil war in Bohemia. Priests and deacons would be allowed to preach, but not laymen or women. Priests would be required to give up their estates and maintain fiscal responsibility—the church's largest concession. Mortal sin would continue to be punished by those "whose office it is."

The agreement achieved what the Roman church and empire could not win in battle. In 1436 Sigismund assumed Václav's long-vacant throne, then initiated a Catholic uprising against the Hussites. Utraquist priests found themselves shut out of Bohemian churches once again.

The new king lived only a year, and at his death the country was in turmoil. Divisions that had always plagued the reform movement widened, and Utraquists sometimes joined Catholics in persecuting radicals. But from 1415 to 1436, the Hussites proved that "heretics" could fight Rome—and survive.

Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.