"Only the Bohemians could defeat the Bohemians" - the Battle of Lipany and the end of the Hussite Wars

30 May 1434, twenty miles east of Prague, the Hussite Wars virtually ended with the Taborites’ and Oprhans’ defeat at the Battle of Lipany.

“It is better to die well than to live badly” (Jan Hus)

Ludwig Marold’s imagination of the Battle of Lipany (1898)

What happened in Bohemia was a microcosm of events that kept the whole of Central and Western Europe in suspense at the turn of the fifteenth century. A storm was brewing from Essex and Kent to Catalonia and the fringes of the Transylvanian forests out East. The authority of the church was seriously questioned, her prerogative of interpreting the world was socialised by translations of the Bible from Latin into the languages the people spoke, military supremacy of the mounted nobility was toppled after several crushing defeats inflicted on Europe’s chivalry by commoners with cheap commoners’ weapons, bows and pikes, along with the invention of gunpowder while manufacturing and trade had become at least as important as basic food production in vast feudal holdings, giving rise to a new, educated, rich and independently-minded social class, the burghers of the cities. In places like Flanders, Northern Italy and Bohemia, ruled by foreign feudal empires, the newly found importance gave rise to something along the lines of a national identity, the idea of self-rule and the willingness to fight for it. Burning new national heroes at the stake to dam the rising tide was generally a decidedly stupid idea under the circumstances. When the future Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Hungary invited the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus to the Council of Constance in 1414 to discuss matters under a guarantee of safe conduct but went back on his word and had Hus executed a year later, unrest broke out in Bohemia immediately. Catholic priests were driven from their parishes, angry letters between Sigismund and the local nobility went back and forth and Imperial councillors were thrown out of the window at the Hradčany during the first Defenestration of Prague in 1419. And then the Bohemian reformers formulated their manifesto, the Four Articles of Prague: Freedom to preach the Word of God, celebration of the Lord's communion under both kinds (bread and wine to priests and laity alike, the chalice was less and less offered especially to commoners, hence “Calixtines” the name of a group of local reformers), no secular power for the clergy and equal punishment for the mortal sins without considering the social position of the criminal. By 1420, the Hussite Wars between the various groups of Bohemian reformers and the Holy Roman Empire and its vassals were already in full swing.

Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel“ by Alfons Mucha (1916)

The next 15 years were the death throes of the Middle Ages in Bohemia and the neighbouring countries of Poland, Germany and Hungary. Five crusades were led into the region to punish the heretic Hussites and all of them were repulsed, first by the leader of the most radical of the Hussite factions, the Taborites, Jan Žižka z Trocnova, who demanded to be skinned and have his pelt put on a drum to call his children to battle even after his death in 1424. They called themselves the Orphans afterwards and were led by Black Žižka’s lieutenant Prokop, later called Prokop Veliký, Prokop the Great, who perfected his former master’s innovative tactics to fight and defeat the Imperials and led his troops on far-ranging raids, known as spanilé jízdy, beautiful rides, deep into Imperial territory, quite like Edward the Black Prince and others with their Chevauchées during the Hundred Years’ War, fought 1,000 miles to the west at the same time, with the same gory results. The Hussites’ recipe for success against the Imperials and other crusaders, over and above their dedication and discipline was their innovative tactics, chiefly artillery firing out of their mobile fortifications, the vozová hradba or wagenburg, basically arranging their war wagons into a laager and shooting charges of heavy cavalry to pieces. Then, the Hussites would burst out of the formation and take the broken knights and their demoralised infantry support in the flanks and club them to death with their favourite weapon, the war flail. In contrast to chivalric warfare of the age, they were not interested in capturing nobles for later ransoming. The Hussites were known for taking no prisoners. Accordingly, the crusaders ran as soon as they saw the banners of Prokop the Great’s Orphans and heard them sing their battle hymn “Ktož jsú boží bojovníci" ("Ye Who are Warriors of God") at Domažlice in 1431.

A contemporary depiction of a Hussite laager

After 15 years of brutal war had devastated much of Southern Central Europe, it had become obvious to Emperor Sigismund that the Hussites were probably not to be beaten in the field, at least not by Imperial and papal troops, and negotiations started in earnest until the more moderate Hussite wing, the Utraquists or Calixtinians, returned into the folds of Mother Church and promptly started to fight the radicals, Prokop’s Orphans and the other Taborites. At Lipany then, two equally strong laagers faced each other and the Utraquist’s leader Diviš Bořek of Miletínek came up with a rather simple ruse de guerre. He feigned flight and Prokop the Great, brilliant commander and victor of the battles of Ústí nad Labem and Domažlice that he was, fell for it. He left the security of the laager, pursued the apparently fleeing enemy and was promptly charged by Bořek’s heavies, hidden so far, overrunning the surprised Orphans, out of formation in the open and breaking into the unclosed wagenburg. Prokop and his lieutenants died while making a last stand there and those of the Orphans and Taborites who surrendered were burned afterwards. Against arrangements, goes without saying. The Imperial’s mopping-up actions after the battle lasted over the next five years and the last die-hards were burned or, like Jan Roháč z Dubé hanged in Prague and imperial and papal order was restored, while once prosperous Bohemia was a wasteland for generations until the religious and social conflicts erupted again, marked by Second Defenestration of Prague in 1618 and the following Thirty Years’ War with even worse consequences for Central Europe.

And more about the Hussite Wars and the Battle of Lipany on:

And a rendition of “Ktož jsú boží bojovníci" can be seen here: