Battle of Vitkov Hill: Hussites Lift Siege of Prague, Defeat German Crusaders

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Battle of Vitkov Hill: Hussites Lift Siege of Prague, Defeat German Crusaders

Battle of Vitkov Hill by Adolf Liebscher, date unknown
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 14, 1420

Today we return to 15th century central Europe to examine a battle fought during the conflict known as the Hussite Wars. This series of crusades involved a religious group of reforms known as the Hussites, who were an early form of Protestant reforms who were condemned by the Catholic Church. In 1419, the reigning pope declared a crusade against them, and the Holy Roman Empire organized forces to wipe them out; easier said than done…


Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415); Artist and date unknown
Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415)
Artist and date unknown

Starting around 1402, priest and scholar Jan Hus denounced the corruption of the Catholic Church and the Papacy, and promoted the reformist ideas of English theologian John Wycliffe. His preaching was widely heeded in Bohemia (part of the modern Czech Republic), and provoked repression by the Church, which had declared Wycliffe a heretic. In 1411, in the course of the Western Schism, "Antipope" John XXIII proclaimed a "crusade" against King Ladislaus of Naples, the protector of rival Pope Gregory XII. To raise money for this, John authorized the sales of indulgences in Bohemia. Hus bitterly denounced this practice, and explicitly quoted Wycliffe against it, provoking further complaints of heresy, but winning much support in Bohemia.

In 1414, King Sigismund of Hungary convened the Council of Constance to end the Schism and resolve other religious controversies. Hus went to the Council under a promise of safe-conduct from Sigismund, but instead was taken, imprisoned, tried, and executed on July 6, 1415. The knights and nobles of Bohemia and Moravia, who were in favor of church reform, sent a petition to the Council of Constance on September 2, 1415, which condemned the execution of Hus in the strongest language. This angered Sigismund, who was "King of the Romans" (head of the Holy Roman Empire, though not yet emperor), and brother of King Wenceslaus of Bohemia. He had been persuaded by the Council that Hus was a heretic. He sent threatening letters to Bohemia declaring he would shortly drown all Wycliffites and Hussites, which greatly angered the people.

Disorder broke out in various parts of Bohemia. Almost from the beginning the Hussites divided into two main groups, though many minor divisions also arose among them. Shortly before his death Hus had accepted the doctrine of Utraquism preached during his absence by his adherents at Prague: the obligation of the faithful to receive communion in both kinds, bread and wine (sub utraque specie). This doctrine became the watchword of the moderate Hussites known as the Utraquists or Calixtines, from the Latin calix (chalice). The Utraquists were mainly comprised of the Bohemian urban merchants and minor nobility, and still considered themselves Catholics, but supported some reform. The more extreme Hussites became known as Taborites, after the city of Tábor that became their center. These were mainly peasants and craftsmen, who also favored communal ownership of property and rejected feudal government, favoring elected officials.

King Sigismund of Hungary and
King Sigismund of Hungary and "King of the Romans"
Painting attributed to Pisanello (c. 1433)

Under the influence of his brother Sigismund, Wenceslaus endeavored to stem the Hussite movement. A number of Hussites left Prague, holding meetings in various parts of Bohemia. At these meetings they violently denounced Sigismund, and the people prepared for war.

In spite of the departure of many prominent Hussites, the troubles at Prague continued. On July 30, 1419, when a Hussite procession marched through the streets of Prague, anti-Hussites threw stones at the marchers from the windows of the New Town Hall. The people, headed by Jan Žižka, threw the burgomaster and several town councilmen who had instigated this outrage, from the windows and into the street (this act became known as the first "Defenestration of Prague"). Those that were not killed by the fall were dispatched by the Hussite crowd. [It has been suggested that when King Wenceslaus received word of the defenestration, the shock caused his death on August 16, 1419. Alternatively, it is possible that he may have just died of natural causes.]

With the death of King Wenceslaus, war was inevitable. The cities of Bohemia and Moravia were populated with large numbers of Germans, who were still loyal to the Papacy. Fighting broke out between the Germans and the Hussite supporters. King Wenceslaus's widow Sophia of Bavaria – acting as regent for Bohemia – formed a number of mercenary bands to retake Prague from the rebels. The result was that by mid-November of 1419, large parts of the city of Prague were damaged or destroyed. A truce was agreed to on November 13, and negotiations began. These talks broke down when Žižka – who had emerged as the military leader of the Hussites – eschewed any compromise and left Prague. He eventually made his way to southern Bohemia, and began training the Hussite military forces.

On March 17, 1420 Pope Martin V issued a Papal bull proclaiming a crusade "for the destruction of the Wycliffites, Hussites and all other heretics in Bohemia". However, fighting between government forces and the rebellious Hussites had been going on since the previous fall. And it was only eight days later that the crusaders suffered their first major defeat at the hands of the Hussites, at the battle of Sudomĕř.

The Hussite Army: Warriors of the Wagenburg

Equestrian statue of Jan Žižka at National Memorial by Bohumil Kafka; Located on Vítkov Hill, near Prague, Czech Republic; Dedicated on July 14, 1950; (Hidden by the horse's body is Žižka's weapon, a large mace)
Equestrian statue of Jan Žižka at National Memorial by Bohumil Kafka
Located on Vítkov Hill, near Prague, Czech Republic
Dedicated on July 14, 1950
(Hidden by the horse's body is Žižka's weapon, a large mace)

Jan Žižka was one of the most intriguing and innovative military commanders of the Middle Ages, if not of all time. He was born into the Bohemian gentry in about 1360, losing an eye at some point in his childhood. He later became a mercenary soldier, participating in the battle of Tannenberg in 1410, as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth defeated the Teutonic Knights. Nine years later, he was back in his native Bohemia as the Hussite rebellion began.

Žižka knew that the core of his army – merchants, minor nobility, craftsmen, and peasants – were ill-equipped to wage a stand-up fight against the German knights, men-at-arms, and professional mercenaries that comprised the Crusader army that was coming against them. With so many craftsmen and artisans in his forces, he ordered them to construct a new weapon: the hradba vozova or war wagon. It was also known as a "tabor."

Modern reconstruction of a Hussite tabor (war wagon)
Modern reconstruction of a Hussite tabor (war wagon)

The use of wagons or carts in wartime actually goes back to at least the 4th century AD, when the Goths used a wagon laager as a defense against a Roman army at the battle of Adrianople in AD 378. Žižka developed the tactics for his armed forces, using the war wagon as the heart of that system.

The body of the tabor was a rectangle of stout planking some 3-4 feet high from the floor. Fixed to the top of these sides with hinges were additional boards. These could be raised and fixed in place forming a tall shed-like structure (usually roofless but not always). The sides of these boards were pierced to allow archers, handgunners and crossbowmen to fire on the enemy with maximum protection. [The Hussites were one of the first armies of the Middle Ages to deploy large numbers of handguns, in addition to the usual bows and crossbows.]

Some of the later tabors were further modified with doors or a ramp on one side to allow the crews to disembark on the inner side of the laager. The tabors also had a large container filled with stones, either attached to the rear of the tabor or held within it. This was to increase stability and to provide additional missiles for the crew. Slung below the body of the tabor was another hinged large plank, pierced with firing slits. This plank could be lowered to close off the space under the tabor, helping to prevent enemy infantry gaining access to the tabor laager and allowing defending infantry to fire from comparative safety.

The tabors also carried large mantlets or pavises that could be attached between them to provide additional protection for defenders. These were generally used when a 'quick' or extended defensive formation was required.

The wheels of the tabor were large and usually iron rimmed. The front pair projected out slightly from the body. This was done to allow one front wheel to be locked into place with the rear wheel of another tabor and chained together. This method of securing the tabors together was for two reasons. The first was enhanced stability. In this locked position it was almost impossible for enemy infantry to overturn the tabor. The second was for tactical advantage. The interlocking tabors formed a series of enfilading fire zones. This method eventually became the norm for a defensive tabor formation but as it required greater effort and time to construct meant the tabors could form an in line defense using the pavises and chains to cover the larger gaps. The chains were also used to secure the front and rear wheels together (at their closest point) this help to prevent the tabor being manhandled out of the defensive line.

The tabors could be formed either into a circular or square formation. They were usually deployed in groups of 10 under a single officer. When a large defensive perimeter was used, the army would dig a deep ditch surrounding the entire laager. Some of the army's pikemen, halberdiers, and flailmen would be positioned in front of the war wagons and behind the ditch.

Hussite haufnitze, which could fire solid shot or canister (Illustration courtesy of
Hussite haufnitze, which could fire solid shot or canister
(Illustration courtesy of

In addition, the Hussites used a number of small (relative term) caliber cannon (similar to the one depicted above). These were called haufnitze, with a bore of 8-12 inches and it also had a short body allowing it to be wagon-mounted. The name is probably the origin of the modern word "howitzer." The wagons for the haufnitze would have been especially constructed to cope with the recoil. The availability of these large cannon would have been limited as they were extremely hard to cast. The Hussites did mount a number of the smaller cannon on fixed wagon frames from which they could, allegedly, be fired.

Although not used in vast numbers the field pieces used by the Hussites added significantly to their firepower, particularly as it is likely that the haufnitze was used to fire a primitive form of canister at point-blank range. The Hussites also used handguns, which were also firing canister at very close range. There were large numbers of handguns – called pistalas – in the Hussite army, as they were fairly easy to manufacture and learn how to use. They more closely resembled smoothbore muskets, and also could fire 2-inch stone or metal balls.

The vast majority of the Žižka-trained army was comprised of peasants, who used mainly spears or pikes, modified agricultural flails, axes, and halberds. The pikes and flails were sufficiently long enough that they could be used either from the wagons themselves or from behind them. Some few better trained Hussites wielded swords, but they were usually former soldiers or mercenaries. In the latter stages of the Hussite wars, some light cavalry and noble Czech cavalry joined the army. The light cavalry were mainly scouts; the heavy knights were used – in conjunction with the light horse – in the pursuit of the enemy after the battle.

Hussite war wagon in action, c. 1423; [Note handgunners, crossbowmen, and flailmen, as well as small cannon] (Illustration courtesy of
Hussite war wagon in action, c. 1423
[Note handgunners, crossbowmen, and flailmen, as well as small cannon]
(Illustration courtesy of

A Hussite battle was waged in two principal stages. The first one was defensive; the second offensive (counterattack). In the first stage the Hussite army placed their wagenburg near the enemy's army and, by means of artillery fire, provoked the enemy into attacking. As a matter of fact, the artillery fire inflicted heavy losses on the knights standing in close formation. In order to avoid more losses, the crusader knights and their mounted men-at-arms finally attacked. Then the missile troops hidden behind the tabors by means of firearms and crossbows warded off the attack, weakening the enemy. The shooters aimed first of all at the horses, depriving the cavalry of its main advantage, mobility.

As soon as the enemy was physically and psychologically weakened, the second stage of the battle began – that is, the Hussite counterattack. Suddenly the Czech infantry and the cavalry burst out of the carts striking violently at the enemy, mostly from the flanks. While fighting on the flanks and being shelled from the carts the weakened enemy could not put up too much resistance. Finally it was forced to withdraw and leave behind its dismounted and/or wounded knights and other soldiers. As the knights were dressed in the heavy plate armor and without their major mode of transport (horses), they could not quickly escape from the battlefield. That was the reason that the enemy armies suffered such heavy losses of knights and were absolutely terrified of the Hussites, who were famous for not taking captives.

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