When in July 1419, Czech Hussites threw Catholic members of the Prague city council out of the window of a town hall, very few expected 17 years of bloody religious war would follow. These so-called Hussite wars brought forth several Czech national heroes. Among them was Jan Zizka, a great general and strategist. 

He withstood several crusades sent against him by King Sigismund of Hungary. Against all odds and always heavily outnumbered, Zizka used modern tactics such as armoured battle wagons to take on much larger armies.

 Early on during the war, he was fully blinded, yet he commanded his forces for four more years, with incredible success. Background Not much is known about Jan Zizka’s early life. He was born around 1360 in Trocnov, a town in southern Bohemia. 

He was born to a poor family who worked the land between Budovice and Krumlov, owned by the mighty Bohemian Rozmberk family. Because Trocnov was close to current-day Austria, Zizka grew up in a bilingual culture, speaking both Czech and German. During this time an increasing number of Czech-speakers were disgruntled about the powerful position of the German-speaking minority in Bohemia. 

Jan thanked his nickname, Zizka, which translates to one-eyed, to losing his eye. Sources conflict whether he lost it during a fight in childhood or one of his first actual battles as a mercenary. The court of King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia employed Zizka as a royal hunter in Zahorany, near the royal castle of Orlik. In 1405, most likely already in his 40s, he abandoned the king’s service and joined a band of mercenaries.

 When he returned four years later, King Wenceslaus pardoned him and employed him in his army. As part of a Bohemian force, Zizka participated in the significant 1410 Battle of Grunwald, pitting the Teutonic Knights against the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania. There is no doubt Zizka’s military skills were honed, tested and tried by the combat he had seen so far.

 According to official documents from Prague’s court register, Zizka bought a house in the capital in 1414, married a woman and had a daughter who died in infancy. Two years later he sold his house and was once again employed at the royal court. Now, while all this was happening, another man caused shockwaves through religious Europe. Rector at Prague University, Jan Hus stood at the forefront of the Bohemian Reformation. It is likely Zizka heard Hus preach during his stay in Prague. Hus opposed the sale of indulgences, becoming one of its most vocal critics. As a result, Pope John XXIII excommunicated him, even demanding his church to be burned down. 

Hus went into voluntary exile, producing many writings and gathering a large following of different social layers, all attracted to his open-air sermons. In 1414 Hus was invited to the Conference of Konstanz to present his ideas. Lured under false pretences as King Sigismund of Hungary promised him safe passage, he was arrested and burned at the stake when he arrived. Hus became a martyr, and his following was understandably outraged. 

This contributed to the ever-increasing powder keg Bohemia was sitting on. Bohemian nobles began publicly demanding the curbing of corruption among the clergy, the prohibition of indulgences and altering religious rituals such as drinking wine at Holy Communion. Bohemian priests who refused to allow both forms of ritual were chased from their churches. These Hussites referred to themselves as Ultraquists, with the chalice of wine becoming their symbol.

 Sporadic massacres against Hussites and Catholics took place for the next few years. When three years later, the newly elected Pope Martin V decided he wanted to curb Bohemian unrest. Using King Sigismund’s influence over his half brother Wenceslaus, the latter was told he should take action against the Hussites. 

When Wenceslaus announced measures against Hussites, a protest march to Prague’s town hall led to the First Defenestration of Prague. In July 1419 that year, members of the city council were thrown out of the window. One month later, King Wenceslaus died, supposedly due to shock.

 Sigismund quickly seized the opportunity to proclaim himself as King of Bohemia, albeit without coronation. Considering him responsible for Hus’s death and the entire mess, Hussites rose up in arms.

 The famous Four Articles of Prague were drawn up, a programme Zizka defended and referred to until his death. In short, the four points were that there should be Freedom to preach the word of God, the celebration of the communion should allow both kinds, the clergy’s property should be expropriated, and punishment for sins should be followed through regardless of social standing. Still, there were different interpretations of these articles, with Zizka being one of the most radical interpreters.

 First Anti-Hussite Crusade (1420) Around this time is when Zizka rose to prominence in the incredibly complicated political area of Bohemia. There were several split-offs from the Hussites.

 Zizka joined the so-called Taborites named after the biblical mount Tabor. They were an apocalyptical branch who throughout the war would often be at odds with the moderate Ultraquists. After the defenestration, royal forces did everything they could to fortify Prague, increase garrisons, root out and execute Hussites and barricade entrances. Still, Zizka saw an opening and countering an ambush, with a bunch of followers, he captured the royal castle Vysherad and ransacked it. 

The fighting now spread through Prague, with eventually just two castles under royalist control. Things got heated to the degree both parties negotiated peace, and Sigismund guaranteed Hussite worship if the Taborites retreated and returned the castle. They did so, albeit against Zizka’s wishes. Zizka and his men travelled to the town of Plzen. But around the country, royalist forces began persecuting Hussite communities. For example, in Kutna Hura, nearly all Hussites were massacred.

 Rumours reached Zizka about massacres around Pilsen, and he decided to move to an old strategic fortress, Hradiste, which they renamed Tabor. Meanwhile, Pope Martin V issued a bull, calling for the extermination of all Hussites and other heresies. 

Hussite opponents now considered their war against these rebels a holy crusade, whereas the Hussite branches united against the domestic and eventual foreign Catholic crusaders. But another significant event happened that month. 

Zizka, together with twelve wagons, a cannon and a group of loyal rebels, made their way to Tabor. What followed was one of the most spectacular and essential victories for strategic warfare as a whole. At the village of Sudomer, Zizka’s troops were ambushed by royal forces, outnumbering them 5-to-1. Making clever use of the wagons, something that pioneers in the New World would later use, they inflicted heavy losses on the royalists. 

Then, under the guise of fog, Zizka’s troops managed to leave before any counteroffensive could be organised, leaving behind a heavily battered royalist force. It ensured radical Hussites could remain in Tabor and elevated Zizka to one of the rebellion leaders. The morale boost was spectacular, for it was the first real victory for the Hussites. Garnering fame with his victory, Zizka was elected as one of the four commanders of the Taborites. 

He was instrumental in the fortification of Tabor and leading bands of radical Hussites on raids against towns and castles. But King Sigismund too received news of his victory. He could not let this happen unpunished. Together with approximately 80.000 troops, he rode onto Prague. When the Hussites received word of the impending invasion, they asked Zizka for help. 

A brief rebellion within Prague failed miserably, and soon after, Sigismund’s forces began their month-long siege. They used all strong points around the city, except hill Vitkov. 

Zizka’s mainly peasant soldiers rapidly installed themselves on the hill. When attacked, they managed to defeat the crusader’s army thanks to a surprise attack in the rear of the attackers. Nowadays, the hill is named Zitkov in Zizka’s honour. Things for Sigismund took a turn for the worse. After being routed at Prague, he stationed himself at Kutna Hora, planning his next move. 

In July, he had himself crowned as King of Bohemia, attempting to gain legitimacy against the rebels. Meanwhile, his troops suffered sickness and hunger, and because of the harsh quartering, he could not count on much local support. Zizka had retreated to Tabor and defeated the King’s most loyal commander Oldrich von Rosenberg’s troops in his native territories. 

Receiving word, Sigismund left Bohemia altogether. Subsequently, the rebels gained much ground and even took over the loyal town of Kutna Hora. Skirmishes continued around Bohemia, but no large scale campaigns took place until the Second Crusade. The Second Crusade (1421) As foreign troops left Bohemia, royal commanders such as Cenek of Wartenberg joined the Hussites and castles were quickly turned. In summer, the Hussites denounced King Sigismund and elected Lithuanian Grand Duke Alexander Vytautas as King, without consulting him. While all this was going on, Zizka led many military campaigns. 

As he led the siege of castle Rabi, a crossbow arrow hit a tree next to him, and the splinter blinded his other eye. Now fully blind, Zizka maintained command for the next four years, with surprising success. In July the German Frederick of Wettin launched an attack against Most and surrounding forts.

 It wasn’t until Zizka led a relief force against them that the besiegers fled over the border again. Meanwhile, Sigismund had built up an enormous army of mercenaries, commanded by Pippo Spano, a Florentine mercenary. By late summer, they began their march on Bohemia, gathering more troops in adjacent Moravia. Their first goal was to liberate Kutna Hura and its Catholics. Zizka’s troops, using modern weaponry such as artillery, handguns and of course weapons, took their positions around the town. In December Pippo’s troops arrived and managed to encircle all defensive positions thanks to their numerical superiority. Using battle wagons Zizka’s troops managed to break through the northern strongpoints and escape.

 The crusaders decided against pursuing them, assuming rebel losses were significant. However, in contrast, throughout the following weeks, Zizka launched multiple guerilla attacks against crusader encampments.  

In January, Zizka launched a powerful attack against Nebovidy, chasing the soldiers garrisoned there back to Kutna Hura. Sigismund received the news and decided to evacuate Kutna Hora, hoping to be able to halt the Taborite advance at Nemecky Brod. The chaos of the retreat led to jammed bridges and soldiers trying to flee the advancing Taborites via ice. Many drowned and Sigismund could do no more than flee Bohemia to the neighbouring Brno in Moravia upon the ice breaking. According to chroniclers, when Zizka captured Nemecky Brod he razed the city “so thoroughly that wolves and dogs ate the corpses in the town square.” 

The Third Crusade (1422-1424) It faded slightly to the background perhaps, but the Hussite resistance still didn’t have a recognised leader. That was until March 1422, when Grand Duke Vytautas replied to the Pope. In a letter, he declared he accepted the crown offered to him. Not awaiting a response, he sent an army under his nephew Sigismund Korybut to Bohemia. Korybut presented himself as regent and was acknowledged as the de-facto ruler of Bohemia. King Sigismund wasn’t eager to stand at the forefront of yet another crusade, but many Catholic commanders felt it was the only way to remove the Lithuanian grip over Bohemia. It wouldn’t be a spectacular affair. In October, Catholic armies once again entered Bohemia, quickly capturing the city of Chomutov. Their next objective was to capture the castle of Karlstjen, the only stronghold to remain in Royalist’s hands since the start of the rebellion and holding the Imperial Regalia, which was hastily brought under there after Prague fell. 

Korybut had been besieging the castle, catapulting animal carcasses and human corpses over the wall. Still, with the Crusading armies approaching, he was all too willing to enter peace negotiations and in November, an armistice was signed. It was a lacklustre conclusion of hostilities. But the subsequent peacetime washing over the Hussites brought anything but stability. Without a common enemy, internal religious debates led to multiple split-offs. By August 1923 skirmishes between rivalling Hussite groups were no rare sight. As for Zizka, he left Tabor for eastern Bohemia and assumed command over the Orebites, a radical Hussite branch. At the Battle of Malesov in June 1424 Zizka’s radical army faced moderate Hussites and Catholics who joined forces against them. One of the bloodiest battles of the entire war followed, which really says something. Zizka emerged victoriously, decisively crushing his enemies. Following his victory, he united the Oberite and Taborite branches, forging an even stronger radical opposition. 

In October, Zizka’s forces passed through the city of Nemecky Brod and laid siege to the castle of Pribyslav. It would be his last campaign. He fell ill with the plague along the way and passed away on October 11. Chroniclers write Zizka asked his men to create drums out of his skin so he could still serve with his army during military campaigns. Considering Zizka’s life and reputation as a brutal commander, imagining this isn’t a reach. Showing the degree of adoration Zizka received, the Oberites began referring to themselves as the Orphans after his death. As for the Hussite wars, two more crusades followed. For another decade, skirmishes, besiegements and massacres would continue to pester Bohemia.  

 At last Utraquists accepted peace and Sigismund as king 

and marched their armies against the Taborites and decisively defeated them in 30th May 1434 at the battle of Lipany . Finally in 5th July 1434 the old King Sigismund proclaimed peace between ‘all types of Christians’ and signed a peace treaty with Hussite representatives at Jihlava and ended the 17 years of war .