Jan Hus: A Gallery of Foes in High Places
Zbynek Zajic of Hazmburk (c. 1378-1411)
Archbishop and archenemy Zbynek had exactly one qualification for the highest ecclesiastical office in Bohemia: money. He purchased the archbishopric in 1402 for 2,800 gulden, plus 1,480 gulden to cover the debts left by his two predecessors. Merely 25 years old, he lacked the education, theological training, or maturity to handle the demands of his new job.
Despite his inexperience, however, this ex-soldier had faith, enthusiasm, and an earnest desire to do God's work. At first, Zbynek and Hus got along extremely well. Zbynek joined Hus’s efforts to curb immorality among Prague’s clergy, and he asked Hus to alert him personally or by letter to any offenses he had missed. He also invited Hus to preach at two important church synods held in Prague in 1405 and 1407.
Their friendship did not last very long, for antireformers soon converted the naive archbishop to their cause. In 1408 they convinced Zbynek that local reformers held heretical beliefs, and Zbynek determined to end the movement. The archbishop issued a decree forbidding anyone to teach Wyclif’s errors or even mention the words “bread” and “wine” during the Eucharist. Hus disobeyed both orders and went on to write a treatise examining, among other things, the uses of the word “bread” in the New Testament. Jesus used it 11 times in John 6 alone). The relationship between archbishop and pastor never recovered.
Zbynek used every ecclesiastical weapon in his arsenal against Hus. He asked the pope to forbid Hus from preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel. Hus disobeyed, saying, “Am I bound to obey the archbishop in his command contrary to the command of God? Be it far from me!” So Zbynek excommunicated him. The archbishop also repeatedly forced Hus to defend himself against heresy charges.
In the process of harassing and prosecuting Hus and other Czech reformers, Zbynek brought Hus’s case to the pope's attention. The pope ordered an investigation into Hus’s theology, which eventually led to the preacher’s appearance at the Council of Constance on charge of heresy.
Zbynek did not live to see his adversary’s condemnation. He died suddenly in 1411 while fleeing Prague, having lost the support of its proreform populace. According to the Old Czech annals, he was poisoned by his cook
Stanislav of Znojmo Štepán of Pálec
As a student of theology at Charles University in Prague, Hus became friends with a fellow student, Štepán of Pálec. Both Pálec and Hus studied closely with one of their revered teachers, Stanislav of Znojmo.
The threesome became so interested in the Czech reform movement and the works of English reformer John Wyclif that the anti-reform German masters at the university formulated a mock genealogy of Wyclifite heresy: “Stanislav begat Peter [of Znojmo, another Wyclifite], Peter begat Pálec, and Pálec begat Hus.”
Stanislav and Pálec, far more than Hus, were attracted to Wyclif’s more extreme ideas, such as remanence—the idea that the bread and wine remain unchanged after consecration. (Catholic teaching insists that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ.)
Under an old system designed to attract foreign scholars, the German masters at Charles University got three votes to the Czech masters’ one. In 1403, this voting bloc maneuvered to declare Wyclif’s works heretical and ban them.
Stanislav, Pálec, and Hus all defended Wyclif, and Pálec even proclaimed: “Let anyone who wishes rise and impugn one word of it, and I will defend it!”
Zbynek, siding with the anti-reformers, reported the “heretics” to the pope. Pope Gregory XII ordered Stanislav and Pálec to defend their thoughts personally before him. However, they were detained by Cardinal Baldassare Cossa (later Pope John XXIII) in Bologna, Italy, and imprisoned for a year. They were released only after rejecting Wyclif and promising to hold strictly Catholic beliefs.
On returning to Prague, they were true to their word. In fact, they became ardent supporters of the anti-reform movement. Before long, they were Hus’s sworn enemies. They publicly denounced Hus and wrote several treatises challenging his beliefs.
Both Stanislav and Pálec prepared documentation to condemn Hus at the Council of Constance. While traveling there, Stanislav fell ill and died, but Pálec was instrumental in the attack on Hus. He identified 42 “heresies” in Hus’s work—including some beliefs Pálec once held but Hus had never accepted.
Hus complained to his friends in a letter, “Almost the whole last night I wrote responses to the articles formulated by Pálec. He labors directly for my condemnation.”
When Hus’s case was nearing its conclusion, he made one last attempt at reconciliation with his old friend. He met with Pálec and apologized for calling him “Fictor” (liar) and “a pointer dog,” but he also brought up the wound Pálec had inflicted by telling the council, “This man does not fear God.” Pálec denied it and harsh words were exchanged, but the conversation brought both men to tears.
A few weeks later, Hus was dead.
Bohemia’s weak-willed king
In principle, Václav favored the Czech reform movement. He supported the foundation of the Bethlehem Chapel well before Hus preached there. By the time Hus was employed at the Chapel, it was a well-established place for Praguers to be inspired by messages of godliness and faithfulness.
But Václav was a weak ruler. He was impulsive and insecure, often violent, and he drank far too much. He is sometimes called a “second Nero.” This impulsiveness explains his on-again, off-again support of Hus.
In 1409 the Council of Pisa tried to elect a new pope to replace the existing two popes. Václav and Hus supported the move, but the German masters at the university in Prague did not. This gave Václav a reason to change the university’s constitution, giving the voting majority to Czechs rather than foreigners. Incensed, the German professors marched out of Prague. Hus became the new rector.
Hus’s favor with Václav was short-lived. In 1411, Pope John XXIII declared a crusade against Ladislas, the king of Naples, who had taken Rome and driven the pope into exile in Bologna. To pay for the campaign, the pope urged the sale of indulgences. Václav supported the idea because he received a percentage of the profits.
Hus criticized the king’s decision because he was disgusted by the way corrupt clerics and subordinate sellers infected the whole operation. “What a strange thing!” he wrote. “They cannot rid themselves of fleas and flies, and yet want to rid others of the torments of hell.” The king, Hus thought, had no business getting mixed up in such a scheme.
Before the pope banished Hus from Prague in 1412, Václav and his wife, Queen Žofie, did try to get Hus’s heresy case dealt with by the more lenient Bohemian ecclesiastical courts. This was the last time Václav attempted to help Hus.
When hundreds of Czech nobles signed petitions to free Hus at the Council of Constance, the king remained silent. Unlike Sigismund, Václav did not want Hus condemned, but once Hus left Bohemia for Constance, Václav believed that Hus was no longer his problem. He left Hus to face his fate alone.
Zofie (c. 1378-1428) Royal ally
Aside from his enemies, Hus also had many friends and supporters in Bohemia. One of the most ardent and influential was Vaclav’s second wife, Queen Zofie, who had married Vaclav in 1389 at the tender age of 13.
Extremely fond of Hus, she was influenced by his religious reform ideas, attending the Bethlehem Chapel on a number of occasions when Hus was preaching. On these excursions, her escort was one of the king’s most loyal guards, Jan Zizka, who would in the 1420s lead so many Hussite military campaigns.
When Hus was repeatedly persecuted, Zofie used her royal power to support “her beloved, faithful, and godly chaplain.” For example, she urged the pope to revoke Archbishop Zbynek’s ban on preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel. She also protested the burning of Wyclif’s books.
At Constance, Hus wrote to Zofie several times expressing his gratitude for her support. In a letter from prison, he calls her “my gracious lady” who has “dealt affectionately with me … [and] striven diligently for my liberation.”
Zofie’s association with a suspected heretic created consternation in papal circles. At Constance, she was accused of heresy for protecting Bohemian reformers such as Hus. The charge, luckily, was not pursued.
After Hus’s death, Zofie openly supported the Hussite movement. She promoted Hussite priests to nine of her churches.
In 1419, under pressure from the church and her brother-in-law Sigismund, she returned to the Catholic fold. After Vaclav’s death, she spent her remaining years a virtual prisoner at Sigismund’s court in Hungary. Her many escape attempts all failed, and she died alone, in grief and forgotten.
Sigismund (1368-1437) The evil emperor
Of all the people responsible for Hus’s death, Sigismund, the king of Hungary, tops the list. Sigismund was Vaclav’s half-brother, but there was little love between the two siblings. On two separate occasions, Sigismund kidnapped and imprisoned Vaclav, each time trying to usurp him as monarch of Bohemia.
Unable to keep the Bohemian crown, Sigismund angled to become Holy Roman Emperor. To facilitate his coronation, he forced Pope John XXIII to call the Council of Constance.
When Sigismund offered Hus a safe-conduct to Constance, Hus’s friends urged him not to go. They did not trust the Hungarian king. Naively, Hus did. Not only was the safe-conduct of little use once papal representatives captured Hus in Constance, but when John XXIII fled the city, he gave Sigismund the keys to Hus’s cell. Rather than free the Czech reformer, Sigismund locked Hus in another, bleaker cell.
Sigismund had great contempt for Hus and the reform movement. He told the council, “I was but a boy when this sect began and spread in Bohemia and now look how strong it has already become.” He was also overheard at Constance saying, “There is enough to condemn him. If he will not recant his errors let him be burned.”
The burning of Hus haunted Sigismund for the rest of his life. When Bohemians made Hus their hero, Sigismund became public enemy number one.
Because Vaclav did not have children, Sigismund was heir to the Bohemian throne. Although Sigismund was crowned as the new king soon after Vaclav’s death in 1419, his ascension to the throne was not possible until 17 years later. In those 17 years, Hussite revolutionaries led by another Czech hero, the blind Jan Zizka, successfully defeated several crusades commanded by Sigismund.
Sigismund himself died only a year after being accepted as the new Czech king in 1436.
By Maartje M. Abbenhuis
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #68 in 2000]Maartje M. Abbenhuis is a graduate student at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
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