Jan Zizka, born in 1370, was the commander of the Bohemian military and the head of the anti Hussite forces during the anti-crusades of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. Zizka served under numerous lords before the uprise of the Hussite Wars. In 1410, he fought on the Polish side in the battle of Tannenburg and was on the winning side, as evidenced by the defeat of the Teutonic Knights there. It wasn’t until during the Hussite Wars until he truly got the opportunity to hone his tactical genius. The Hussites, named after their leader Jan Hus, continued to be a powerhouse in Bohemia and Moravia even after the chilling death of their leader. He was burned at the stake in 1415 for preaching against the beliefs of the Catholic Church and the sale of indulgences. This single event fueled the fire to start decades of religious warfare. The Hussite Wars began in 1419, splitting the general Hussite movement into numerous groups. The moderate group was called the Utraquists and consisted of the lesser nobility and the bourgeoiseie. They basically agreed with the Roman Catholic Church. The most radical division of the Hussites was the Taborites, named after their religious center and stronghold at Tabor, which was founded by their credible leader, Jan Zizka. They accepted the doctrines of John Wyclif. This group consisted mainly of peasants and expressed the messianic hopes of the oppressed. Another significant leader that emerged from this class besides Zizka was Procopius the Great.
The Hussite movement ultimately failed, but many aspects of it have become of permanent historical significance. It was the first noteworthy attack on the two strongholds of medieval society, feudalism and the Roman Catholic Church. Not only did it help blaze the path for both the Protestant Reformation and the rise of modern nationalism, but it also brought about new military innovations at the hands of the military mastermind, Jan Zizka.
When the Hussite Wars ignited in 1420, Zizka was nearly sixty years old and already blind in one eye. Soon after joining the Taborites, he made Tabor in Bohemia into a fortress that was nearly impossible to bring down. In July of 1420, he led the Taborite troops in their startling victory over Sigismund at Vysehrad, now a part of Prague. Sigismund was the pro-Catholic king of Hungary and successor to the Bohemian throne after the King of Wenceslas in1419. He failed miserably in repeated attempts to gain control of the Hussite kingdom. He was even was aided by the Hungarian and German armies.
Overseen by the Czech yeoman Zizka, riots broke out and led to the invasion and overhaul of the Hussite kingdom. Zizka’s armies then spread over the countryside, storming monastaries and innocent villages. In the following years, Zizka courageously withstood the force of the anti-Hussite crusades and continued to dominate one Catholic stronghold after another. He stubbornly kept commanding in person, even though he had become completely blind by 1421.
Zizka's views and the extreme religious views of the Taborites began to clash, so he formed his own Hussite wing in 1423. Even though it might seem like he distanced himself from his former colleagues, he still remained in close alliance with the Taborites. In that same year, the tension between the extreme Taborites and the conservative Utraquists, whose main-grounds were at Prague, escalated into a full-blown battle. Late in 1424, Zizka led his faithful army against Prague in order to intimidate and influence the people of that city to adhere to his unparalleled anti-Catholic beliefs. A truce between the two Hussite parties shot a much needed blow into the possibility of a civil war. The two factions then decided to partake in a joint expedition into Moravia under Zizka’s command. Suddenly during the campaign, Zizka suffered an untimely death.
Even though he’s not one of the most popular of historical commanders, he is definitely one of the greatest military innovators of all time. Peasants and townspeople, very inexperienced in arms, comprised the brunt of his army. Zizka didn’t dwell on trying to force them to conform to conventional armament and tactics of that time. Instead, he let them make use of crude weapons such as iron-tipped flails and armored farm wagons, which were mounted with small howitzer type cannons. When used for offense, his armored wagons broke through enemy lines with the greatest of ease. The wagons were constantly firing as they advanced, enabling the soldiers to slice through superior forces as only a wolverine could do. The wagons were arranged into an inpenetratable barrier surrounding the foot soldiers when used for defense. They were also used to transport his men. This illustrates how much Zizka played in the anticipation of the principles of modern tank warfare.
A huge monument was erected in Prague to honor Jan Zizka. The statue, which stands on top of a hill in Prague, has Zizka sitting on the largest horse statue in the world. The statue is 9 meters tall or over 27 feet tall!
The hill, on which the statue is located is often mistakenly called Zizkov, but the right name is Vitkov Hill, named after the victory in the battle of Vitkov in the year 1420. Probably the best view over Prague can be found on top of the Vitkov Hill, but apparently, the hill as well as the statue are off limits to visitors because the park is completely unattended.
Jan Zizka is the epitome of the word commander. Being blind in both eyes would discourage the common man to continue on, but to Zizka this was a minor set back. While leading his troops, he continued to fight and endless battle for what he believed and in the end paid the ultimate price.
In his History of the Czech People in Bohemia and Moravia Palacký writes: "It has long been said that the Taborites famous martial song, 'You who are warriors of God and his law...,' was composed by Žižka himself. Nearly every person in Tábor could read and write, not excluding the women." (p. 603) Here is the text of the battle hymn:
You who are warriors of God
and his law.
Ask God for help
and hope in him
that in his name
you may gloriously triumph.
The composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) used the melody of this song in his symphonic poems Tábor and Blaník and quoted it in the opera Libuše.