Jan (John) Hus (1374-1415) and Master Jerome of Prague
Jan Hus was a Bohemian (Czechoslavakian) priest ordained in 1401, who shared similar views with John Wyckcliffe concerning the excesses of the medieval Catholic Church.
He came from a modest background and by scrimping and saving his parents put
him through the university of Prague where he obtained a Master of Arts and
Bachelor of Divinity degrees.
There was a strong link with
the teachings of John Wicklcliffe through the offices of Queen Anne (d
1394) wife of Richard II, daughter of the Emperor Charles IV, and
sister to king Wenceslaus, of Bohemia. Anne could not tolerate the
devotions of the Catholic church and became a devout follower and sponsor of
Wickcliffe. Through her and her royal contacts evangelism gained a
hold in Bohemia; meanwhile Wickcliffe`s books were taken to Prague by an
Englishman, Peter Patne, principal of Edmund Hall, Oxford who had to flee
from the papists. A response to this was the seizure of such books from
across Bohemia by the order of archbishop Sbynko and a ceremonial burning –
said to be 200 volumes finely written, bound in leather and gold bosses.
Paine was soon lecturing at the university and was avidly supported by the
students who resented the actions of the archbishop.
Hus spent most of his career at Prague University and as a preacher in the nearby Bethlehem Chapel.
Held in great esteem, he became involved in the politics of the university
which had been set up by Charles IV with three quarters of the professors
from the states of Bavaria, Saxony and Poland ( most of whom were German).
As a result Bohemians were worse off in the allocation of benefices and
other appointments. Hus represented the case to King Wencelas and the
privileges were revoked. This caused a split in the university with the
German faction moving to Misnia. But Prague continued to thrive under the
new order. His early conflict with the Church came through his opposition to
two decrees by Archbishop Sbynko concerning Wickcliffe`s books, when he
maintained that the professors had the right to read whatever they wished
without being molested.
His public speaking emphasised personal piety and purity of life and stressed the role of the Scriptures as the authority for the church. An early publication by him, On the Church, defined the church as the body of Christ with Christ its only head, and taught that only God can forgive sin. These beliefs put him into conflict with the Catholic Church who regarded him and Wyckcliffe as two of the most dangerous heretics in Europe. Underpinning the resentment of the church was that Hus had sought to remove the University of Prague from the jurisdiction of Gregory XII ( one of the Three Popes then disputing amongst themselves who was the genuine Pope).
Hus continued to speak against the pope and cardinals establishing doctrine of the church, which he said was contrary to Scripture. He further advocated that non one should slavishly follow an instruction from a cleric that was plainly wrong. These seeds of discontent he expanded to dissatisfaction with the conduct and corruptness of clerics, the worshipping of idols, going on pilgrimages ; the practice of indulgences; and the
withholding of the wine from the people during Holy Communion.
About 1410 Hus retired from
the university and went to his birth place at Hussenitz where he continued a
strong critic of the church, including the Bull of Pope John XXIII declaring
a crusade against the King of naples and granting indulgences to all who
participated. In 1412 he returned to Prague where his orations gave rise to
some public unrest, including demands that Pope John XXIII was the
Antichrist. The unrest caused the magistrates to take action against the
Hussites some of whom were arrested, and despite assurances to their armed
supporters, the prisoners were privately beheaded . This led to the bodies
being forcibly recovered and removal for burial. A list of some forty five
of Wickcliffe`s propositions was drawn up and censured (thereby exerting the
authority of Rome) , after which the magistrates accused the Hussites of
sedition, thereby seeking to justify their action. Hus responded by
publishing a treatise about the church with Jesus Christ its head and
foundation – the pope and cardinals are only members of it, and no one is
obliged to obey them or the bishops. He also published a list of six
errors that were fixed to the church door charging the clergy:
By believing that the priest
by saying mass, becomes the creator of his creator.
Of saying that we ought to believe in the virgin, the pope, and in the
That the priests can remit the pain and guilt of sin.
That everyone must obey his superiors, whether their demands be just or
That every excommunication, just or unjust, binds the excommunicant.
The sixth related to the practice of simony.
For a while Hus was reasonably safe in the distant lands of Bohemia but in
late 1414 he was summoned to the Council of Constance that had convened on
15 November 1414. He was called by Pope John XXIII to explain his views. In the fashion of the day, despite having a most solemn safe conduct from the Emperor,
Sigismund, he was seized and cast into prison when he presented himself at
Constance. But Pope John fled when the Emperor arrived in December,
the Council having decreed that the three Popes then existing should stand
down pending consideration of the matter (who was the one and true pope).
The Council appointed
the cardinals of Cambray and St Mark, the bishop of Dol and the abbot
of the Cistercians, to continue with the process against Hus. Joined by
other bishops thye was asked Hus to confirm his writings, some thirty of
which were cited, many being commentaries based on issues raised by
Wyckcliffe. Some eighty nine charges were raised against him but very few indeed were in any wayproven.
On 10 June the Emperor sent four bishops and two lords to get Hus to receant
but he declined to do so. On 7 July he appeared before the Council at its
fifteenth session, and again he refused to abjure. At this the bishop of
Lodi launched into a tirade about heretics and the Council proceeded to
condemn him as a manifest heretic; taught many errors; defied the keys
of the church; seduced and scandalised the faithful by his obstinacy ;
having rashly appealed to the tribunal of Christ. He was duly condemned to
be degraded, have his books burnt and handed over to the secular
authority ( for burning).
In fact Hus was not condemned for any error of doctrine but for having the temerity to attack the pomp, pride and avarice of the pope, cardinals and prelates of the church. It is true that he could not abide the dignities and high living of the church and considered the doings of the pope to be Antichrist like. But he had not opposed transubstantiation, the seven sacraments or the mass
– the usual benchmarks for determining a heretic. Indeed both he and Jerome
accepted the mass and transubstantiation, both believing in the real
presence. Neither did he specifically attack the authority of the church of Rome
– , if it was well governed. But such was the arrogance of the Church at
that time there was no stopping the inevitable cry for condign punishment
Despite these quite moderate criticisms as compared with Wyckcliffe`s more substantial allegations, Hus was seen to be a danger and rushed to execution on 6/15 July 1415
( Rolt in Lives of the Principal Reformers says 2 May 1415). The despicable treatment of Hus`s remains serves perhaps to illustrate just how afraid the prelates were of the martyr, his criticisms and his very memory.
But the spite and bitterness of the Church did not stop there, turning to focus its venom on Master Jerome of Prague, a friend and co religionist of Hus. Jerome
was held in great respect, not only for being Hus`s colleague but in his own
right as a man of great learning, with degrees of Master of arts from
Prague, Heidelberg, Paris and Cologne. Among his earlier
accomplishments was a journey to England where he had copied out all the
writings of Wyckcliffe that he brought back to Prague. He was cited to
appear before the Council of Constance 17 April 1415. Jerome sought a
safe conduct to Constance but ominously only received one for going there,
not for a return. Approaching Constance he was duly seized and cast into
prison where he was surrounded by friends urging him to recant as they
thought there was no chance of escape if he went for trial [The Emperor had
already publicly said that an example ought to be made of him]. His public
abjuration was, however, rejected saying that he was insincere. New articles
were then alleged to keep him in prison.He was returned to prison where he
was again assailed by his dissatisfied enemies who brought some 107 specious
charges against him, in their determination that he should be executed.
Jerome was disgracefully treated, harassed and bound in chains. His accusers, such as they were, made sweeping allegations of errors but could not come up with specific instances nor would they allow Jerome to explain his views without interruption. Soon the cries of heretic broke out and a blood – or burning, lust took over.
Jerome was heard by the Council of Constance over a period of days in May
1416 having been incarcerated in a dungeon, without food, daylight or sleep
for three hundred and forty days. Despite the privations he dealt effectively with the charges; finally he withdrew his recantation and greatly regretted unjustly speaking of Hus
and his doctrines. Again he was chained and fettered and thrown into
prison to await his judgment.
Shortly after the odious
bishop Lodi preached a sermon and set the machinery of execution into
motion. Jerome was formally deemed a heretic and sentenced to be burned forthwith. On 30 May 1416
(Rolt in Lives of the Principle Reformers has 1 June 1416) , at the same spot as Jan Hus
had died, they stripped him of his clothes, chained and roped him and heaped firewood over him, then set it alight. It is said that Jerome kept singing and praying for many minutes before the roar of the fire drowned his voice out, even then his body and mouth were working for a further fifteen minutes or so. His clothes, boots, bedding from the prison, and his personal papers, were brought and heaped on the fire so that eventually all was burned, and the residual dust cast into the waters of the river Rhine.
A consequence of these executions was a protestation by some fifty four nobles to the Council of Constance in defence of Hus and Jerome. The spite and malevolence of the prelates only succeeded in raising national feelings in Czechoslovakia and the establishment of a Hussite Church which survived until ca 1620. Moreover, their executions did not extirpate opposition but served to focus attention of the serious minded throughout Europe to the cruelty, injustice and hypocrisy exercised by the papal authority. The obvious intention became clear – to perpetuate ignorance superstition and, in short, slavery to Rome. Other kingdoms and states occasionally resisted the encroachments of Rome and a momentum was beginning to build for reformation.
Actual breaks would soon follow that created new political alliances based on religion. In a short time the contending religions separated out to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Brandenburgh, Prussia, England, Scotland, Ireland and Holland with Protestant governments. Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Spanish Belgic states were Catholic. Germany, with its many princes were divided roughly half and half; Switzerland was divided but preponderantly Protestant. And France almost turned, having a large minority firm in the Protestant faith. The catholics were still numerically superior although the Protestants rather weakened their position by the two major divisions – following Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon or Calvin. Lutheranism largely prevailed in the northern states of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the German states, while in Britain, Holland, Switzerland and France Protestantism followed Calvinistic lines. The importance to the English Reformation of these alignments was in the strategic alliances to safeguard her borders.