Part II; Battle of Vitkov Hill: Hussites Defeat German Crusaders

 
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Part II; Battle of Vitkov Hill: Hussites Defeat German Crusaders

Jan Žižka and a Hussite priest looking over Prague after Vitkov Hill battle
Painting by Josef Mathauser, late 19th century?
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 14, 1420

Prelude to the Battle

After the Pope's call for a crusade against the Bohemian heretics, the conflict centered around the city of Prague. This town was the capital of the kingdom of Bohemia, so was important to the extirpation of the Hussites. It was occupied early in the conflict by the Hussites, except for two guard forts. One was Hradcany, situated on the western bank of the River Vltana; the second was Vysehrad, south of the city. Imperial forces were contained, and at first contributed little to the anti-Hussite fighting.

Between mid-March and early June of 1420, King of the Romans Sigismund gathered a crusading army to eradicate the Hussite rebels. He had also declared himself the rightful kind of Bohemia, owing to the fact that the now-deceased Bohemian monarch Wenceslaus IV was his brother. [However, this act was controversial, as Bohemians nobility elected their king, and Sigismund had neither been nominated nor elected for the position. This added another debit on the Hussite ledger against the Imperials.]

The Imperial army set up camp across the Vltana from Prague. The invading army scouted the perimeter of the city, looking for some vulnerable point to begin the assault. After several days, it was determined that Vitkov Hill, a prominent ridge to the east of the town, which featured vineyards and hops fields, should be the Imperial target. Vitkov boasted an old stone watch tower, which the Hussites had strengthened with a long wooden palisade, anchored at both ends by wooden blockhouses. The palisade was further strengthened with stones, clay, and whole tree trunks.

Sigismund realized it would be impossible to assault the city without reducing or capturing the Vitkov palisade. On July 13 he ordered part of his artillery train – which contained a number of bombards – to cross the Vltana and set up in an area called the Sickhouse Field. In combination with other batteries set up outside his camp, the Imperials could concentrate their fire on either the northern portion of the palisade or the area just behind it.

Seeing the danger to his defenses, Jan Žižka noticed that the Imperialist guns in the Sickhouse Fields had no supporting troops. He quickly organized an infantry sortie from the city. This force quickly charged the guns, killed or captured their crews, seized several of the bombards and dragged them back to the city. Sigismund decided that more direct action was necessary.

Hussite Army

Hussite flailer, c 1419-1434; Image courtesy of http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_176_figure_1.htm
Hussite flailer, c 1419-1434
Image courtesy of http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_176_figure_1.htm

There were about 9000 Hussite soldiers occupying Prague in the summer of 1420. The army was dominated by infantrymen, armed predominantly with spears, axes, and various agricultural equipment reinforced to take on armored opponents (flails, billhooks, halberds and the like). Another important component of Hussite forces were the hand gunners and crossbowmen. There were also contingents of minor nobles and wealthy merchants, loyal to the Hussite orthodoxy, who could provide heavy knights and men-at arms, as well as some experienced swordsmen and similar foot soldiers.

German Crusader Army

Emperor Sigismund arrived near Prague in late June, with an army estimated by modern historians at 80,000 men. These soldiers came from all over the Holy Roman Empire: Germans, Hungarians, even loyal Catholic Bohemians. This force included mounted knights and men-at-arms, infantrymen, mounted crossbowmen and Hungarian light cavalry armed with bows. There were also numerous contingents of mercenaries, which were easier to recruit than most feudal levies, but required large sums of gold to pay for their services. [The funds to hire the many mercenary bands had come from the German Diet (parliament), who had originally earmarked the money towards a lavish coronation ceremony for Sigismund presided over by Pope Martin. Knowing that the Diet would be unlikely to hand out any more cash to quell the Bohemian Hussite rebellion, Sigismund merely pocketed the money and hired professional soldiers.]

Battle of Vitkov Hill

On the morning of July 14, King of the Romans Sigismund set his army into motion. He ordered the garrisons of the castles Hradcany and Vysehrad to make diversionary attacks on the Prague defenses in their area. He then had large portions of his heavy cavalry and infantry ferried across the River Vltana to prepare for the main thrust.

Approximately 1000 Saxon knights were assigned the task of assaulting the Hussite barricade, with about 15,000 other horsemen, men-at-arms, and infantry forming a second wave of mounted Imperialists on the Sickhouse Fields. This group was aimed at one of Prague's main gates, the Porici. However, Vitkov Hill was quite steep on the north end. As a result, many of the mounted Imperial soldiers found it necessary to dismount and attack the enemy on foot. Soon a large herd of riderless steeds milled about near the front of the Imperialist body, causing great confusion during the attack.

The Hussites focused on defending the Vitkov Hill palisade, though there were only about 60 or so staunch defenders of the works. They sold their lives dearly, as the overwhelming number of Imperialist soldiers managed to capture the old watchtower, and one of the two wooden blockhouses. Eventually, according to one chronicler, only 26 men and three women remained to defend the remaining Hussite strongpoint. At this critical juncture, reinforcements were sent from Prague to Vitkov Hill, about 50 bowmen, handgunners, and flail-wielding footmen. They helped strengthen the defense of the palisade.

Battle of Vitkov Hill, artist unknown; Image courtesy of http://www.bellum.cz/en/battles-of-vitkov-hill.html
Battle of Vitkov Hill, artist unknown
Image courtesy of http://www.bellum.cz/en/battles-of-vitkov-hill.html

Meanwhile, Jan Žižka deemed that the time was right to become involved. He formed a counterattack, centered around the men of his personal bodyguard, numbering some 3000 cavalrymen and foot soldiers. Žižka led his contingent from a lesser of the city's gates, and struck the Imperialist attacks in the left flank. The invaders were so focused on their objective that the flanking attack took them by complete surprise.

Spurred on by their religious fervor, the Hussites crashed into the swarming mass of Imperialist troops, pushing them down the steep northernt ridge of Vitkov Hill. These disordered troops were forcibly mingled with the second assault group, which had not yet made their attack. At this moment, several thousand Hussite troops came pouring out of the Porici gate, and slammed into the disordered mass of Imperialist soldiers milling about in the SIckhouse FIelds. With no one to give the invaders any orders or to re-organize them, the Imperialist troops routed back to their camp. They were closely pursued by Jan Žižka and his fanatical troops. The battle of Vitkov Hill was over…

Aftermath

Casualties for the Imperialists are estimated at 100-300 knights, but several hundred more were likely wounded or captured. It is also likely that many drowned while trying to cross the Vltana River. Hussite casualties are unknown, but could probably be termed light.

Footnote #1: The battle of Vitkov Hill was one of the few fights of the Hussite Wars where the Hussites did not depend upon their wagenberg (war wagon) tactics. A number of chroniclers stated that the battle lasted only about one hour.

Footnote #2: "King of the Romans" Sigismund was present during much of the Council of Constance of 1414-1418, during which Jan Hus was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. At some point during the council proceedings, Sigismund was giving a speech and misspoke a phrase in Latin. A cardinal attempted to correct Sigismund's grammar, to which the king replied, in Latin, "Ego sum rex Romanus et super grammaticam" (I am king of the Romans and am above grammar). His egotism was likely drawn from the fact that he spoke several languages, including French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin.

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