Jan Hus 1369-1415

It is said that Jan Hus prefigured in many respects Martin Luther and many other Great European religious reformers. Born at Husinetz in southern Bohemia, 1369; died at Constance 6 July, 1415 Jan Hus was a man who undoubtedly belongs in the gallery of great figures in Czech and European history and whose contribution to the Christian heritage has even, somewhat belatedly, been acknowledged by John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church.

On the 14th of March 1402 Jan Hus, a master of free arts at Prague University, around 30 years old had only been recently ordained a priest, was appointed preacher and administrator at the Bethlehem Chapel. It was to prove a turning point in the history of Prague and the Bohemian state. Up to this time there was nothing special about him. He had been born into a simple family, probably in Husinec near Prachatice. A story has it that Hus’ mother, who was a pious woman, knelt down seven times to pray for her son when accompanying him to Prachatice School. Around 1386 he was already living in Prague and dreaming of how, once he finished his studies he would become a priest, have fine clothes and a good position, and people would respect him. At the university he was initially a pretty average student, with a taste for wine and games of chess.

All this changed after he had gained his Bachelor’s degree and even more his master’s degree, but the real turning-point came when he was ordained a priest. At this point he realised that his real mission was care for the salvation of human souls.

From this realisation it was a short step to reflection on the need for reform of the Roman Catholic Church, which was in a depressing state and gripped by crisis. Not only had there been two competing popes at its head since 1378, but the whole church organism was eaten through chronic abuses. The most serious included the sale of church offices and functions (known as simony), a fondness for amassing property on the part of its functionaries, a love for external splendour and ostentatious wealth, as well as the widespread failure among priests to attend to their pastoral duties. So long as Hus contented himself using the pulpit of Bethlehem Chapel to voice general criticisms of the existing state of affaires and moral appeals for remedy, he earned approval even from the Archbishop of Prague. It was a different matter, however, when a group of reform-minded Czech masters led by Hus, started to draw inspiration from the work of the English theologian John Wycliffe. For Wyclife there was only one way out of the morass. The church had to be stripped of its property and forced to live by the gospels. Even more dangerously Wycliffe believed that it should be the secular power, specifically the ruler his officials and nobles who carried out the reform of the church. This was unacceptable to the Roman Catholic Church, which responded by branding many of Wycliffe’s views heretical.

Hus was not intimidated, nor did he yet have any reason for fear. He enjoyed the support of most of the Czech community in Prague, many members of the royal Czech nobles, owners of palaces near the Bethlehem Chapel, and a large number of students who made their opinions noisily clear. The German teachers and students of the Prague University took an anti-Wycliffe and anti-Hus position, and were supported by Berman burghers in Prague and other Bohemian and Moravian towns. Hus’ message on church reform, originally addressed to all Christians without regard to nationality, acquired strongly national (ethnic) and political dimensions. This became as clear as day in January 1409, when the King of Bohemia Wenceslas IV issued the Decree of Kutna Hora, which effectively placed Prague University under the control of Hus’ group. The German teachers and students left Prague in protest. It was these “exiles” that started to wage an intense campaign against Hus and his friends, whom they proclaimed to be heretics. The Hus case developed more international European dimensions in 1410, when his supporters presented a suit at the Papal Curia against the Archbishop of Prague for confiscating Wycliffe’s books. This was the beginning of a legal process that was to end tragically for the Bethlehem teacher. While the king of Bohemia took no action against Hus, with foreign eyes upon him he could not openly support a person suspected of heresy. When papal officials issued an anathema against Hus, the preacher found it wiser to leave Prague and live under the protection of his noble supporters, principally at Kozi castle found in South Bohemia and later at the castle of Krakovec near Rakovnik. It was in Krakovec that in 1414 he received an invitation to the imperial city of Constance, where Pope John 23rd, at th instigation of the King of the Romans and Hungary, Sigsmund Luxemburg, was calling a general Church Council with the aim of solving the problem of disputed claims to the papacy, drawing up church reforms and giving judgment a on serious questions of doctrine. Hus accepted the invitation in the hope that he would now be able to clear himself of suspicion of heresy in front of the highest church assemble and at the same time convince the intellectual elite of Christiendom that his conception of church reform was the right one. He must have had inkling, however, that his case might not end well, since before his journey he wrote and sealed his will, directing that it should only be opened after his death. He then asked King Sigismund for a letter of protection that would secure him safe journey to Constance and back, and freedom of movement at the place of the council itself. The document had a fatal flaw, however, in that it related merely to secular law, and not to church law, under which Hus’ case fell.

Three weeks after his arrival in Consance Hus was lured from his lodgings with the widow Fida, arrested and imprisoned in harsh conditions at the Dominican monastery on the shores of Lake Bodam. It was meant as a warning, since the nature of the imprisonment indicated that the council was going to subject him to an inquisition trial. Hopes of Sigismund’s help proved vain, since the King of the Romans washed his hands like the biblical Pilate, claiming that he had no power to interfere in church law. The Czech preacher at least managed to get a public hearing before the plenary council, which was exceeding rare in cases of people accused of heresy. The proceedings took three days, sometimes resembling a learned disputation and sometimes a court hearing. The results were very bad for Hus. The exhausted and sick preacher, standing alone and against an assembly that was hostile in mood, had little chance turning the tide in his favour and refused to recant on the articles that the investigating commission had considered heretical in his writings. The verdict was unambiguous. Jan Hus was condemned to death at the stake as a convicted and obdurate heretic.

In fact neither Sigismund, who feared stormy reactions in Bohemia and Moravia, nor the council itself had any real interest in the execution of the Czech master. An assembly proclaiming church reform did not wish to send to his death a man who had been striving for the same, if in a different and from the point of view of the council an acceptable way. For almost a month Hus received continual visits in his prison cell from people urging him to recant and save at least his own life. Master Jans mood swinging between hope of safety and desire for a martyr’s death, kept to his resolve. He could not repudiate the divine truths and ideals in which he believed and which he defended. On Saturday the 6th of July 1415 he died on a meadow in front of Constance with the words of hymns on his lips, silenced only by the smoke of flames that ravaged his tormented face. His ashes were thrown by constables into the waters of the Rhine. Not quite a year later, Hus’ friend, the philosopher Prague, died the same death in the same spot.

News of the burning of Hus and then of Jerome fed flames of anger and impatience in the Bohemian lands. Hus’ numerous supporters, scornfully christened “Hussites” by their enemies ( in Czech “husa” means “goose”), started to seize church property and try to carry out the program of reform of the church and society. In July 1419, escalating disputes turned into open Hussite revolution. In the course of the upheaval the Bethlehem Chapel no longer played the same important role as at the beginning of the 15th century. Today, the rebuilt chapel is visited mainly by tourists from the protestant areas of Germany and North Europe, England and the USA. They come to honour the memory of Jan Hus as the heir of John Wycliffe and the force-runner of Martin Luther and Jean Calvin.

During his exile in Bohemia, Hus wrote the following:

“What fear shall part us from God or what death? What shall we lose if for His sake we forfeit wealth, friends, the world’s honours and our poor life? It is better to die well than to live badly. We dare not sin to avoid the punishment of death. To end in grace the present life is to be banished from misery. Truth is the last conqueror. He wins who is slain, for no adversity `hurts him if no iniquity has dominion over him.”

The monument of Jan Hus at the Prague Old Town Square was designed by Ladislav Saloun. The foundation stone was laid down in 1903 and the monument was unofficially revealed on 6 th July 1915, the 500th anniversary of Jan Hus´ death. A festive event was forbidden. Prague citizens covered the Jan Hus Monument with flowers.

The monument consists of Jan Hus statue and statues of Czech people around him. Jan Hus statue is looking at the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, which was the main church of the Hussites between 1419 and 1621. The people around him are the Hussite warriors on one side and on the other side there are prostrated people, forced to leave the country in 1620s, after the rebellion of Czech estates was defeated. The inscriptions on the Jan Hus Monument were added after the independent republic Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918. It reads: “Love each other and wish the truth to everyone” (Jan Hus´s words), “Live, nation sacred in God, don´t die”, “I believe, that the anger thunders will cease and that the government of your affairs will return to your hands, Czech folk” and “Who are the warriors of God and his law” (words from the anthem of the Hussite warriors).

Reference: Great Stories in Czech History by Petr Cornej , Prah 2005 ISBN: 80-7252-111-X