Martyrdom of Jan Hus

The martyrdom of Jan Hus at the Council of Constance made him a Bohemian national hero and led to a Hussite revolt against the Holy Roman Emperor and a new schism within the Catholic Church.

Summary of Event

In 1382, Ann of Bohemia married Richard II and became queen of England. Through that connection, Czech students began to attend Oxford University and came under the influence of John Wyclif’ Wyclif, John teaching. Although the Catholic Church had condemned Wyclif for holding heretical beliefs, the legacy of his teaching at Oxford remained after he had to leave the faculty. Jerome of Prague Jerome of Prague became acquainted with the writings of the English theologian and took them to Bohemia, where he presented them to Jan Hus, who already had been assailing abuses and corruptions in the late medieval church. [kw]Martyrdom of Jan Hus (July 6, 1415)
[kw]Hus, Martyrdom of Jan (July 6, 1415)
Hus, Jan
Bohemia;martyrdom in
Germany;July 6, 1415: Martyrdom of Jan Hus[3130]
Bohemia;July 6, 1415: Martyrdom of Jan Hus[3130]
Government and politics;July 6, 1415: Martyrdom of Jan Hus[3130]
Religion;July 6, 1415: Martyrdom of Jan Hus[3130]
Hus, Jan
Jerome of Prague
Zbyněk, Zajic
John XXIII (d. 1419)

Hus, a master of arts at the University of Prague, joined its faculty in 1398 and was dean in 1401-1402. He was a popular preacher at Bethlehem Chapel, where he expounded Scripture in the Czech language and called for reforms in the Church in a manner similar to that of Wyclif.

As in Wyclif’s England, the religious issues in Bohemia were connected with national resentment against foreign interference. Until the fourteenth century, Bohemia inclined more toward Constantinople than toward Rome for leadership in religion, because the country had received Christianity originally from the Eastern Church. The University of Prague had Czech and German faculties that opposed each other over various teachings of Wyclif. The Czechs distrusted the Germans and Rome, and antipapal sects such as the Waldensians Waldensians had gained a following in Bohemia.

At first Archbishop Zajic Zbyněk Zbynêk, Zajic supported Hus’s efforts to cleanse the Church, but his vehement attacks upon clergymen involved in corruptions led Zybněk to oppose Hus and other reformers. The Papacy at that time was divided between rivals at Rome and Avignon, and both would-be pontiffs urged the archbishop to suppress the dissidents on the grounds that they promoted Wyclif’s heresies.

Hus, like Wyclif, espoused the Augustinian understanding of the true church as the body of people God predestined for salvation. Although the Bohemian reformer acknowledged the authority of the visible Catholic Church, he refused to equate it with the true church because so many of its members led evil lives and some of its practices were corrupt. In a book entitled De ecclesia (The Church, 1915), Hus published his doctrine, which ecclesiastical leaders deemed subversive. When the antipope Alexander V Alexander V (antipope) ordered the burning of Wyclif’s books, Hus defended some, but not all, of the English reformer’s doctrines. King Wenceslas Wenceslas (king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor) of Bohemia protected Hus, so Archbishop Zbyněk and Alexander V denounced him. Zybněk ordered the execution of several Hussite students. The Catholic Church at that time was seething with dissension over the divided Papacy, as rival claimants sat in Rome, Avignon, and Pisa, and a general council of bishops convened at Constance Constance, Council of (1414-1418) in an effort to heal the schism. Any unconventional teaching about the character of the true church was therefore unwelcome.

The archbishop of Prague tried to silence Hus, but he preached anyway. Zybněk accused him of heresy. Heresy;Hus When the pope at Pisa, John XXIII John XXIII (antipope) , announced a sale of indulgences, Hus cited that as evidence of financial abuses in the highest Church office. King Wenceslas broke with Hus over this issue, so the reformer lost his protector. In 1414, Sigismund Sigismund (king of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor) , king of Hungary and of Bohemia, who was to become Holy Roman Emperor, requested that Hus and Jerome appear before the Council of Constance to answer charges of heresy. He promised them safe conduct to and from the council, but a trial led on July 6, 1415, to condemnation and death by burning for both of the accused.

Perhaps Sigismund thought the executions at Constance would intimidate Bohemian dissidents, but they provoked a violent revolt instead. It began in Prague in 1419, under the leadership of Hussite Hussites noblemen, and so several Bohemian cites adhered to the defense against the Catholic forces. Sigismund’s efforts to suppress the Hussites by force failed, but the rebels weakened their own cause by dividing among themselves. The conservative faction sought Church reforms in accord with Hus’s teachings, but the radicals wanted sweeping social and political changes as well. The Taborites Taborites , as the radicals were known, decried the traditional feudal society and enlisted common people and lowly knights and clergymen, as they fought tenaciously until 1434, when imperial forces defeated them with aid from conservative Hussites.

John Hus.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Defeat in battle did not destroy the Hussites. Emperor Sigismund and the Catholic hierarchy agreed to a compromise in 1436 that allowed the Hussites to practice their religion and to enjoy the same political rights as Catholics. Many Hussite nobles kept Catholic properties they had seized during the revolt. The Papacy, reunited at the Council of Constance, did not accept the compromise, but it lacked the means to thwart it.

The Hussites had won politically as well as religiously, perhaps because of the defeat of the Taborite radicals. Large numbers of Bohemians and some Moravians aligned with the Hussite movement in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. Bohemian nobles continued to elect their kings and to exert decisive influence in the national diet and thereby to maintain protection of the Hussites until the forces of the Habsburg Empire conquered Bohemia in the Thirty Years’s War (1618-1648). The remaining Taborites who resisted absorption into the major Hussite church became known as United Brethren, which maintained a separate existence and refused all agreements with the Catholics and did not enjoy legal recognition. The Brethren were very receptive toward Lutheranism and Calvinism, when those beliefs entered Bohemia in the sixteenth century. Hussites of both connections suffered horribly during recurrent persecutions by Catholic authorities well into the eighteenth century.


Although the Hussites eventually became Protestants, Hus himself was almost completely orthodox when judged by the standards of medieval Catholicism. The account of his trial at the Council of Constance shows clearly that he accepted all seven sacraments and that he believed in transubstantiation Transubstantiation , the teaching that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the actual body and blood of Christ when a priest consecrates them. Hus believed in Purgatory and in prayers for the dead who were confined there, and he thought that living believers could perform good works to benefit the deceased in Purgatory. He believed the Virgin Mary had been raised from the dead and exalted to Heaven above the angels, where she intercedes for Christians on earth and in Purgatory. While he awaited execution, Hus confessed his sins to another priest, and he implored Saint John the Baptist to intercede for him with God.

It appears that his rejection of papal supremacy was Hus’s only actual heresy. He upheld the authority of the Bible but as interpreted by the early ecumenical councils and the church fathers. He would not affirm the right of the pope to issue the infallible interpretations of either the Scriptures or the fathers. Hus preached and wrote in an era when the matter of supreme ecclesiastical authority was hotly contested, so his views appeared dangerous both to the Papacy and to advocates of the conciliar theory of church government.

Further Reading

  • Budgen, Victor. On Fire for God. Welwyn, England: Evangelical Press, 1983. A readable biography that extols Hus as an example of heroic faith.
  • Fudge, Thomas A. The Crusade Against Heretics in Bohemia, 1418 to 1437: Sources and Documents for the Hussite Crusades. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2002. A collection of primary sources drawn together to illustrate the Bohemian aftermath of the Council of Constance and the crusades that followed.
  • Fudge, Thomas A. The Magnifcent Ride: The First Reformation in Hussite Bohemia. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998. A detailed account of Hus’s theology, his politics, and his historical legacy. Places the Hussites in the context of the political and cultural situation in fourteenth and early fifteenth century Bohemia.
  • Hus, John. The Church. Translated by David Schaff. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974. A reprint of an edition of Hus’s most controversial writing, De ecclesia, first published in translation in 1915. Essential reading for an understanding of his beliefs.
  • Hus, John. “Hus on Simony.” In Advocates of Reform, edited by Matthew Spinka. Vol. 14 of Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953. An important tract that shows Hus’s exposé of ecclesiastical corruption.
  • Kaminsky, Howard. A History of the Hussite Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. A thorough study of Hussite ideas and their revolutionary consequences.
  • Klassen, John M. Warring Maidens, Captive Wives, and Hussite Queens: Women and Men at War and at Peace in Fifteenth Century Bohemia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. A useful text for broadening one’s understanding of the cultural effects of the Hussite revolution. Examines the changing roles of women in fifteenth century Bohemia. The author argues that women gained more freedom from traditional roles as men came to respect those dissident women working to resist women’s oppression and subordination.
  • Roubiczek, Paul, and Joseph Kalmer. Warrior of God. London: Nicholson and Watson, 1947. A valuable biography by enthusiasts who portray Hus as a saint.
  • Spinka, Matthew. John Hus. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. The best biography of Hus published in English. Scholarly, readable, and fair.
  • Spinka, Matthew. John Hus and the Czech Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941. An important study of Hus’s concept of reform and the extent of his debt to Wyclif.
  • Spinka, Matthew, ed. and trans. John Hus at the Council of Constance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. The records of Hus’s trial and execution. Shows clearly that he was not a proto-Protestant.