In 1382, Anne of Bohemia (daughter of the powerful King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV) married King Richard II of England. With this royal alliance came increased communication between the two countries. Czech students attended English universities, and English students attended Charles University. Far more importantly, the works of English authors were translated into Czech. This was to have a lasting effect on this small country.
Jan Hus came from Husinec, moving to Prague when he was very young. He was a student at Charles University, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1393, and a Master’s degree in 1396. Having been ordained as a priest in 1400, Hus quickly began to preach reformation of the Catholic Church. Prague’s famous Bethlehem Chapel had been built not long before, and Hus became one of its preachers.
Hus was heavily influenced by John Wycliffe, whose writings strongly criticized the Catholic Church. Hus himself translated Wycliffe’s Trialogus into Czech and disseminated copies of it. Hus, meanwhile, strongly denounced the behavior of the clergy to a fascinated and growing audience at Bethlehem Chapel. His archbishop, Zbynek Zajic, allowed Hus to speak his mind. However, in 1405, Pope Innocent VII ordered Zajic to speak out against the teachings of Wycliffe. Zajic complied, and forbade any more criticism of the clergy.
The following year, Hus was more than happy to read aloud an English document giving praise to Wycliffe; the document’s seal came from Oxford University. Two years later, in 1408, the new pope, Gregory XII, told Zajic sternly that he was aware of the King of Bohemia’s sympathy for those who sided with Wycliffe. The archbishop ordered all of Wycliffe’s writings to be given to the archdiocesan chancery, where they would be “corrected”. This time, Hus obeyed the order.
That same year, 1408, saw Europe (and Charles University) deeply affected by the Western Schism. Hus led a group of scholars at Charles University who pledged to remain neutral, as the King of Bohemia wanted. He became the rector of the university and a court favorite. Furthermore, Wycliffe’s writings became popular again. This could not and would not last, and in 1410, Antipope Alexander V excommunicated Hus and his followers.
In 1411, Archbishop Zajic died, and the problems concerning the Catholic Church focused largely on the sale of indulgences. With the Schism still in full swing, various claimants to the papacy sold indulgences enthusiastically, in an attempt to raise money for various military operations. Although Hus was strongly opposed to the sale of indulgences, his followers at Charles University thought otherwise. Having lost this support, Hus found like-minded individuals elsewhere. Some of these followers burned the papal bulls, claiming that they should obey Hus, rather than the Church. Three men who opposed the sale of indulgences were beheaded.
In 1412, King Wenceslas strove for a reconciliation between Hus and his followers and those who adhered strictly to the teachings of the Church. Despite the efforts of all involved, no reconciliation was to be had. Hus decided to leave Prague and preach elsewhere; he had might on his side, since Wenceslas himself agreed with Hus. With the departure of Hus, his followers drove the staunch Catholics from Prague and gained control of the city.
Wenceslas’ brother was King Sigismund, head of the Holy Roman Empire. In an attempt to heal the schism and to implement certain reforms, he convoked the Council of Constance on November 1, 1414. The Council would drag on for four years, but the part played by Hus – though pivotal – would take much less time.
Sigismund requested the presence of Jan Hus at the Council, promising him safe conduct. Hus, most likely knowing what his fate would be, made his will before journeying to Constance. Perhaps feeling that he had nothing to lose, Hus preached the same rhetoric that had made him so popular in Prague after he arrived in Constance. On the premise that Hus intended to leave Constance, his enemies had him imprisoned.
Hus was kept in a castle dungeon, chained constantly, with little food. On June 5, 1415, he was put on trial, and sent to a Franciscan monastery. He stated in his trial that he was willing to recant his statements, if anyone could prove his mistakes using the Bible.
On July 6, 1415, Hus – still refusing to recant – was sentenced to death. He was taken to a stake, where kindling was piled up to his neck. He was given one final chance to recant, which, if he had taken it, would have saved his life. Again, he refused. The fire was lit, and Hus died a torturous death. Later, his ashes were thrown into the Rhine.
Today, Jan Hus is remembered by (among other memorials) a group of statues on Prague’s Old Town Square, and by the Czech language itself. The diacritical marks used in written Czech were invented by none other than Jan Hus.