Wenceslas College at Charles University, Prague, was a hotbed of reform in the 1390s, and black-bearded Jerome of Prague was perhaps the hottest head of all. Tall and impressive, impetuous and adventurous, he got into plenty of trouble. Only once was he unable to get out.

Jerome received his Bachelor of Arts in 1398, then he gained leave to study abroad. Close links had developed between Bohemia and England since the marriage of King Václav's sister, Anne, to Richard II, and scholarships encouraged students to further their studies at Oxford University.

While his friend Jan Hus pursued an academic career at Prague, Jerome avidly absorbed the teachings of John Wyclif, the English reformer, at Oxford. Jerome copied Wyclif's books, then carried them back to Prague in 1401.

As Hus and the other Czech masters devoured the books, Jerome's restless spirit set him traveling again. Jerome made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1403, and he was no sooner back in Prague than he was off to Paris. He never finished a degree in theology or sought ordination, but he eagerly participated in theological debates wherever he went.

On a journey to Poland and Lithuania in 1413, he helped spread reform even as he gathered fuel for the Czechs' cause. At a great public disputation at the University of Kraków, he caused a fantastic commotion. He also learned that Orthodox churches administered Communion in bread and wine—knowledge that helped his colleagues in Prague solidify their case for the practice.

Jerome's abilities as a scholar and orator gained him acceptance as a master at the Universities of Paris, Heidelberg, Cologne, and Vienna. His rhetorical skills also brought his downfall, as he increasingly used them to condemn the evils and corrupt teachings of the Catholic Church. Jerome barely escaped from each university and city in turn, having outraged the university masters, city fathers, and church authorities.

As his reputation for oratory grew, so did his arrogance. After his 1410 arrest on heresy charges in Vienna, he broke parole and fled the city. Once in the safe company of friends, he thought it highly amusing to send his presiding judge an insolent letter, informing him of his good health and professing his continued loyal service.

Despite his wanderlust, Jerome fervently loved his home country and was always drawn back to Prague. He was not, however, blind to its faults. When the city's preachers proclaimed the sale of indulgences in 1412, Jerome was the principal organizer of popular demonstrations that disrupted the sermons. Three young demonstrators were beheaded by the authorities, and Jerome led the grieving procession that conveyed the martyrs' bodies to the Bethlehem Chapel.

In this volatile atmosphere, Jerome sometimes resorted to violence. He boxed the ears of one friar and drew a knife on another; he might have killed the second man, if he had not been stopped. He once heaved an indulgence-preaching friar into a small boat and rowed him into the middle of the fast-flowing Vltava River. Jerome then threw the terrified monk into the turbulent water with only a thin rope as his lifeline.

A friend in need

When Hus was lured to Constance in 1414, Jerome promised him help if the need arose. Both men believed that Sigismund's promise of safe conduct would be upheld, but Hus later remembered that Jerome had said, "If I go to the council, I suppose I shall not return."

After Hus's arrest, he wrote to Jerome and urged him not to come. Nonetheless, on April 4, 1415, Jerome snuck into the city. He went about Constance nailing inflammatory posters on church doors and other public places, demanding a safe conduct and the right to speak before the council. Warned by friends to flee and avoid arrest, he slipped away from the city at night and secretly made his way toward Bohemia. He almost made it, but his luck ran out in Bavaria and he was dragged back to Constance in chains.

Once more Jerome sought to escape his fate, this time by very publicly recanting all that he had so loudly proclaimed. He wrote: "I, Jerome of Prague, master of liberal arts, confess hereby the true catholic faith and condemn all errors, especially those with which I have been hitherto befouled and which were formerly held by John Wyclif and Jan Hus … for which they, along with their views and errors, were condemned by this sacred Council of Constance as heretics."

Though Jerome thought he would soon be free, the council pressed harder for his condemnation and ordered a new trial. Defeated, and overcome with remorse at his disloyalty, Jerome denounced his recantation as being made "for fear of death" and resolved to defend himself.

When the council attempted to interrogate him again, he lashed out: "What iniquity is this! While I have languished for three hundred and fifty days in the most cruel prisons, in stench, squalor, excrements, and chains, lacking all things, you have ever heard my adversaries and slanderers; but me you now refuse to hear even for an hour! …

"For you have already in your minds condemned me as an unworthy man, before you could learn what I really am. But you are men, not gods, not immortals, but mortals! You can fall, blunder, be deceived and misled just like other men. It is said that here are gathered the lights of the world and the wisest of men. For that reason you should take care not to do anything rashly, inconsiderately, or unjustly."

Jerome's speech impressed a few observers but only enraged the council. He was swiftly sentenced to death.

Capped with a tall paper hat painted with red devils, Jerome sang hymns in Latin and Czech as he was led to the stake. When all was ready, with some compassion the torchbearer stepped behind Jerome.

"If I were afraid of the flames I would not have come to this place," Jerome retorted. "Light the fire here before my eyes." His death was prolonged and agonizing, but it earned Jerome lasting honor as a Hussite martyr.

Frieda Looser is a senior tutor in history at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.