This month marks 600 years since the martyrdom of Christian reformer Jan (or John) Hus, a key figure in the lead-up to the emergence of the Protestant movement in Europe.

Born in Husinec in southern Bohemia in around 1369, Hus, the son of a well-off farming family, travelled to Prague – now the capital of the Czech Republic – at a young age. From 1390 he studied at the university, graduating in 1394, earning his master’s degree in 1396 and being ordained a priest in 1400.

Jan Hus, depicted in a statue in Prague.

PICTURE: Robert Horvath/www.freeimages.com

Hus was appointed dean of the philosophical faculty there in 1401 and, that same year, he was placed in charge of the Bethlehem Chapel where sermons were preached in Czech, rather than Latin, in the spirit of a national movement of church reform which had been founded by priest Jan Milíc in the latter half of the 14th century and which the chapel stood at the centre of.

Like other Czech nationalists at the university, Hus, who was appointed rector in 1402, was heavily influenced by the writings of English reformer John Wycliffe. Inspired by Wycliffe’s writings, he had from 1401 on, been preaching in the city demanding reform within the church and speaking against the moral failings of the clergy, up to and including the papacy.

Increasingly absorbed in public preaching, Hus soon emerged as the leader of the reform movement. Meanwhile, resistance to Wycliffe’s teachings was growing among some parties in the city - in particular Zbynek Zajíc, the Archbishop of Prague and a friend of Hus, became increasingly opposed to the reformers, a position which brought him into increasing conflict with his friend.

The final break between Hus and the archbishop came after the Council of Pisa in 1409 deposed rival popes Gregory XII and Benedict XIII and elected Alexander V in their place (which in actuality simply meant there were no three people claiming the papacy instead of two). Hus and the reformers welcomed the appointment of the new pope while the archbishop and senior Bohemian clergy remained in support of Pope Gregory XII (he is now recognised as the pope while both Alexander V and Benedict XIII are viewed as antipopes).

King Wenceslas of Bohemia had long been in support of the reformers and he forced the Bohemian clergy to acknowledge Alexander V as pope but, apparently bribed by Archbishop Zbynek, the new pope issued a Papal Bull against the Wycliffite followers in Prague, banning his teachings and such practices as preaching in private chapels. This, of course, included Bethlehem Chapel in Prague.

Hus refused to obey the pope’s order and the archbishop excommunicated him. The case went before the Roman Curia but the archbishop was forced by King Wenceslas to promise his support to Hus and, after the archbishop died in 1411, the case was quietly dropped.

In 1412, however, a dispute arose over the sale of indulgences issued by Pope Alexander V’s successor, another antipope John XXIII, to finance a crusade he had declared against the King of Naples, a protector of his rival Gregory XII.

Hus publicly denounced the sale of the indulgences (and the war itself) but the king, thanks to the fact that he’d received a share of the monies raised, had been a supporter and in denouncing them, Hus found he’d lost the king’s support.

Hus’ followers were now openly opposing preachers in Prague (in particular in regard to the sale of indulgences) and three men who had spoken openly against them were beheaded (they are now regarded as the first Hussite martyrs).

The city's clergy turned to the pope who ordered church representatives to proceed against Hus. Hus was excommunicated again and Prague and other locations where Hus might reside was placed under Interdict, meaning people in the affected areas couldn’t receive the sacraments.

To spare the city, in October, 1412, Hus voluntarily left Prague for southern Bohemia where he found refuge among friends and wrote a large number of treatises and sermons in Czech, some in answer to criticisms being made against him. These have since become classics of Czech literature.

Meanwhile, in a bid to restore the unity of the church and put an end to the ongoing disputes over who was pope, the brother of Wenceslas, Sigismund, the newly crowned King of Germany (and later Holy Roman Emperor), called the Council of Constance to come up with a solution. Hus was invited by the king to share his views and, despite promises of safe conduct, was arrested after arriving in Constance, apparently with the tacit consent of Sigismund.

Hus was tried before the council as a heretic and urged to recant his views but when he refused, was sentenced to death and, on 6th July, 1415, was burned at the stake.

Hus’ legacy, of course, didn’t end there and following his death, Hus’ followers continued to practice his teachings, bringing them into conflict with the Catholic Church in what became known as the Hussite Wars. Following the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618 between Protestants and Catholics, many Hussites - faced with being forced to abandon their beliefs - fled their homeland and settled in parts of Protestant Germany where many joined the Lutheran and Moravian churches.

A pre-cursor of the Protestant movement which would later sweep across Europe, Hus’ teachings were all about making Christianity more accessible. He believed the interpretation of the Scriptures was not solely the preserve of the clergy whom he criticized for their wealth and power, and he questioned the role of the church as mediator between God and man.

This date of Hus’ death - 6th July - is now commemorated as a national holiday in the Czech Republic in a reflection of how strongly Hus is linked with the national identity of the Czech people.

SOURCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION:

‘Jan Hus’, Matthew Spinka, Encyclopaedia Britannica

'Jan Hus', New World Encyclopaedia

'Jan Hus', New Advent

• 'Hussitism and the heritage of Jan Hus', Hello Czech Republic