Sigismund of Luxembourg

Sigismund of Luxembourg

By Alena Skodova.

Sigismund of Luxembourg
The Luxembourg family is the most famous aristocratic family in Czech history, mostly thanks to Charles IV, who founded the oldest university in Central Europe and had large new parts of Prague built. Today we'll be focusing on his son, Sigismund of Luxembourg. Sigismund was born in 1368, and Sigismund 's mother, Elizabeth of Pomerania, was Charles' fourth wife. Historian Miloslav Polivka, from the Czech Academy of Sciences, says the Czech Kingdom at that time was at the peak of its glory:

"Charles IV ruled the so-called 'Lands of the Czech Crown' - large territories which extended far north of today's Czech border - they included Lusatia, Silesia, Brandenburg and several other principalities. Sigismund was Charles' second son, and therefore the second heir to the throne. His elder brother Vaclav was King of Bohemia - and had been since the age of two - and Charles IV was looking for a way of making his second son king of another part of his empire. And so in 1387, the 19-year-old Sigismund was crowned King of Hungary. But that was a rather unwelcome development for young Sigismund, who had been raised at the enlightened Prague court with rich contacts to the Western world. All of a sudden he found himself in the eastern-most corner of the empire, which had a completely different lifestyle and quite a serious problem to tackle."

It was the Turks who posed the biggest threat to Hungary: they were doing everything they could to expand successfully into Central Europe, and Sigismund was one of those rulers who spent most of his life fighting the invading Turkish armies. But endless struggles with the Turks also had another disadvantage: the Hungarian nobility soon realised that all of their king's time and energy was being taken up by fighting the Turks, and forced him to make a number of concessions. In 1410 Sigismund was elected Holy Roman Emperor, but this only brought him more trouble. While up until now he had only had to concentrate on Hungary, suddenly he found himself burdened with ruling the whole of the Holy Roman Empire, which at that time covered almost all of Europe.

Jan Hus
Moreover, there were serious problems in the Czech Kingdom. At the beginning of the 15th century, the Hussite movement launched its crusade against the Catholic oppressors. Named after the most ardent thinker and reformer of the time, Jan Hus, the Hussites demanded greater social justice and a completely different approach to religion. They were scathing of the Roman church, and were ready to take up arms to bring their teachings to the people. Jan Hus's life ended in the town of Constance, where he was burnt at the stake in July 1415.

"The problem in the Czech Kingdom was that after the death of Jan Hus, the Czech nobility and those Czech towns which sympathised with Hussite teachings stood up against Sigismund. As Holy Roman Emperor, he was naturally fiercely opposed to the Hussites. In 1419, when the Hussite revolution was at its full strength, Sigismund was made King of the Czech Lands by the electors of the Holy Roman Empire. But it was a rather comic election, because more than a half of the politically-oriented nobility in Bohemia and Moravia refused to recognise him as their ruler. And so Sigismund tried to do what every politician of his time would have done: to conquer the Czech Kingdom with the help of an army, having collected mercenaries from around Europe. He seized Prague with the aim of starving the town and forcing it to capitulate."

Battle on Prague's Vitkov Hill
But in fact the opposite happened: in July 1420, after his mercenaries were defeated on Prague's Vitkov Hill, following an abortive attempt to cut off the capital from the lands and fields which fed it, Sigismund's intention of winning the crusade against the Hussites lay in ruins. The Hussite warriors forced Sigismund's soldiers to flee in panic. The King tried to conquer Hussite Prague once again that summer, but was routed once more on Vysehrad Hill. Many years were to pass before Sigismund officially took the royal crown.

Dr. Polivka told me that Sigismund was behind all five crusades against the Hussites, declared by a papal nuncio:

"Sometimes he participated in the crusades in person, sometimes he had to stay home, because he had to resolve problems in Hungary or within the Holy Roman Empire. What followed, though, were two landslide victories by the Hussite army, one in 1426 near Usti nad Labem in Northern Bohemia, and the second at the battle of Tachov a year later. Regardless of the fact that the Hussites had dispersed into many groups, ranging from moderate to radical, they all wanted a reformed church, and Sigismund - surprisingly, despite all the crusades - was a man who preferred diplomacy, not war."

In 1429 he called a meeting in Bratislava to negotiate with the Hussites, represented by Jakoubek of Stribro and Prokop Holy. Although the atmosphere at the meeting was tense and unhappy, it was agreed that Sigismund would try to arrange a hearing for the Hussite cause with the Roman Church, at a council in Basle in 1431. But before the council even began, politicians had talked Sigismund into waging a 5th crusade against the Hussite Czechs. The crusade was a catastrophe. Sigismund's army was routed in the battle of Domazlice in August 1431. Sigismund started negotiating again, but once again it was war, not diplomacy, that won the day. The historical battle of Lipany in May 1434, where the Hussites were heavily defeated, ended the glorious Hussite wars. A moderate Hussite wing won, whose aim was only partial reform of the Catholic church.

"A new chance opened for Sigismund - to be again, this time properly, elected Czech King. It happened two years later, in August 1436, in the Moravian town of Jihlava. Sigismund, however, was forced to respect the so-called 'compactata' - that is articles which gave the Hussites the right to their reformed church. It was a unique time in the Czech Kingdom, when everyone was given a choice to profess either the Hussite of the Catholic faith. Sigismund's position in the Czech Lands was a difficult one and till the end of his life he had to fight for at least some respect. By that time he fell seriously ill - he suffered from gout, called a 'royal' illness in those times, caused by eating too much meat and not enough vegetables and fruit. Sigismund set out for a journey to his beloved Hungary, but he died on his way, in December 1437 in the town of Znojmo."

For most Czech historians Sigismund of Luxembourg is very much a controversial figure. Many of them were extremely critical of him. Very often this was due to an imagination of Sigismund drawn by the early 20th century Czech writer of historical novels, Alois Jirasek, who in his books described Sigismund as a red-haired and crooked man, meaning not only his body but also his lack of moral principles. And what does Dr. Polivka think about Sigismund?

"When we look at a portrait of Sigismund by a Vienna master from the mid 15th century we can see Sigismund's face betrays a highly intelligent, undoubtedly well-educated man, who became unpopular due to the fact that as a young boy he was sent to Hungary, and consequently never linked his personality with the fate of the Czech kingdom and became estranged from the Czech nation. But I think that he was a remarkable personality fully comparable to his enlightened father, and an outstanding politician, because he brought many concrete deeds to both Czech and imperial politics, which are closely linked with the fate of the Czech state and the Holy Roman Empire of his time."