Jan Zizka

Jan Zizka

And now it's time for Czechs in History, with me Nick Carey, and this week we take a look at the life of Jan Zizka, the commander-in-chief of the Hussite forces at the start of the Hussite Wars...

We start off this week's Czechs in History at the statue of Jan Zizka on Vitkov Hill. He's sitting some way above me astride his horse, looking out over the city through his one eye. There is much controversy about Jan Zizka's religious beliefs, but one thing that has never been doubted is his military genius. One of his most astounding victories, a battle fought against overwhelming odds, took place on this very spot on July 14th, 1420. Such is the respect and awe that most Czechs have for Jan Zizka, that the neighbourhood adjoining the hill, Zizkov, was named after this quite remarkable man...

Jan Zizka
The records of Jan Zizka's early life are extremely vague. He was born to a family of the lower nobility, in the South Bohemian town of Trocnov. The first mention we have of Jan Zizka comes from the year 1378, in an official deed of sale for a piece of land, which he signed as an adult, so that puts his birth at somewhere around 1360.

The next we hear of him is in 1409, when he joined in an armed gang formed by members of the lower nobility, which held up and robbed members of the merchant class, and took part in minor conflicts between wealthy nobles. Jan Zizka was caught by the authorities. King Wenceslas IV granted him a pardon for his crimes, and the next we hear of him later that year, as Miloslav Polivka of the Historical Institute of the Academy of Sciences told me:

"Zizka turned up in Czech forces fighting in Poland in 1409 and 1410 against Prussia's Teutonic Knights. The Poles had been involved in a long war against the Teutonic Knights, in order to prevent them from spreading further East. A number of members of the Czech lower nobility fought for the Polish king. This was not just for political reasons, but because this was a way to make their fortune, as they were paid as mercenaries. Jan Zizka took part in the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, where the Polish army inflicted a heavy defeat on the Teutonic Knights."

Jan Zizka then returned to Prague and became a minor official at the king's court, and also served one of the wealthier nobles at the court. During this time the reform preacher Jan Hus preached regularly at the Bethlehem Chapel. Hus had many followers, but it is not known if Jan Zizka attended any of his sermons, although many people believe that he did.

Jan Hus's preaching for church reform, especially concerning the wealth of the church, caused outrage in the Catholic Church, and many claimed he was a heretic. He was invited to the Council of Constance to explain himself, and was burned at the stake. After Hus' death, many leading nobles sent letters to the council, denouncing the execution. Jan Zizka's signature and seal do not appear on any of them.

The situation deteriorated between the Hussite reformers and the Catholics, and in June 1419, a Hussite mob threw the city's leading officials out of the window of the Town Hall. People flooded to Prague and began sacking monasteries and churches, attacking the church's wealth. This resulted in the Battle of Vysehrad, where we find the first concrete mention of Jan Zizka in the Hussite Wars. A group of pro-Hussite nobles were trapped in Vysehrad Castle by Catholic forces. They broke out, and Jan Zizka apparently played a leading role in this battle.

This, of course, did not go over well with the Catholic Church. King Wenceslas IV died shortly after the Battle of Vysehrad, and his brother Sigismund, the King of Hungary also became king of the Czech Lands. He was pro-Catholic, and had crusades summoned to remove the Hussite threat from the Czech Lands. The stage was set for the Hussite Wars, which were to last until 1436.

It was at this point that Jan Zizka brought up the idea of a proper defence for the Hussites, as Larry Cada of the Catholic Bishop's conference told me:

Jan Zizka left Prague and went to Plzen, but it soon became clear that the Catholic forces there were too strong for him, so he moved to South Bohemia, where he helped found the stronghold of Tabor. On his way to Tabor, he was forced to fight Catholic forces at Sudomer:

"Jan Zizka had women's clothes placed on the bottom of a pond beside his forces, and when the enemy cavalry tried to cross the pond, the horses' hooves got stuck in the clothes. This prevented them from moving, and Zizka's men, who were poorly armed, untrained men, were able to cut these well-trained and well-armed soldiers down."

Jan Zizka had proved for the first of many times that he had streak of military genius. Once at Tabor, he was made one of the town's four captains, and he set about training an army of peasants. Trouble loomed in 1420, as a massive and professional army of crusaders, numbering around thirty thousand, from all over Europe arrived in Prague. Jan Zizka took a few hundred of peasants to help defend the city, which was still predominantly pro-Hussite. The crusaders camped on Letna plain beside Prague Castle, and Zizka's forces built fortifications on Vitkov Hill. On July 14th 1420, as Miloslav Polivka told me, the crusaders made their move:

"The crusaders made to attack Prague via Spitalske Field below Vitkov Hill. Zizka decide that his troops would stay on the hill, so that his troops could ambush the crusaders from behind. The crusaders gave up on the city's walls, and decided to attack Zizka's troops instead. Jan Zizka had had trenches and walls made to hide and protect his troops, and after a short but bloody battle Zizka's troops, although heavily outnumbered, repulsed the crusaders."

The army of crusaders broke up and left the country, but other armies or individual war bands came to the Czech Lands followed. Jan Zizka continued to lead the Hussites, but divisions with the movement led him to leave Tabor, which was a centre for radicals, and set up another, more moderate stronghold, called Little Tabor in East Bohemia. He continued to fight with great success, and trained a professional field army. He was inventive and creative in his military tactics. He had carts covered with armour, and filled with troops, making them mobile and more effective than the crusaders, and he even had his horses shoed the wrong way round, to confuse enemy troops as to which way his forces had gone.

Jan Zizka is famous for the fact that for much of his life he only had one eye, but again, there is little information available that can show when or how. Historians agree that this could either have taken place in his childhood, or possibly during his time as a soldier in Poland. In, 1421, his misfortunes increased added to:

"During the siege of Rabi, he was hit in the other eye by an arrow, rendering him blind. He remained a famous leader, because his military experience enabled him to direct battles just from being told what was happening, as was proven by his military successes in 1424."

Jan Zizka died suddenly of the plague in 1424. His Hussite forces continued to fight successfully until they were torn apart by internal rivalries at the Battle of Lipany in 1436.

Jan Zizka's role in Czech and military history is quite remarkable, as Larry Cada told me:

Now Jan Zizka has a neighbourhood in Prague named after him, and his statue stands on Vitkov Hill, but how is he perceived by the Czech people today?: