Hussite History

The Hussite wars in the period between 1419 – 1436 were religious wars fought for the freedom of the Czech people from the dominant Catholic church of the Holy Roman Empire.

This is a fascinating period, particularly for the wargamer, due to the innovation of new battlefield weapons and tactics adopted by the predominantly peasant Hussite army to defeat the men at arms dominated armies sent against them. This conflict would see for the first time extensive use of firearms and artillery and also the introduction of the "Wagenburg" or mobile wagon fort.

In 1415 the Czech religious reformer Jan Huss was arrested on the orders of the Pope, accused of being a heretic. Huss was a constant critic of the Catholic Church, always campaigning against its abuse of power but also a vociferous campaigner for greater religious freedoms for the Czech people. Huss was put on trial for heresy and at Constance on 6 July 1415 he was burned to death.

The consequence of this was to slowly fan the flames of revolt in Bohemia where the Czech people continued to push the religious beliefs of the late Jan Huss. The Hussites split into 2 groups comprising the moderates or Orebites and the more extremist Taborites. Both factions fought against political meddling from the Pope in Constantinople. The Catholic Church finally lost patience in 1420 and proclaimed a Crusade against "The Hussites".

Vast knight armies were organised and sent to destroy the upstart Hussites in what the Catholic Church thought would be a quick and easy victory. However, what they encountered was a superbly organised army with many new innovative weapons and tactics. The credit for this development goes to the one-eyed war veteran Jan Zizka. He realised that any army made up from the poorer peasant classes, even with the support of a small Hussite nobility, would be quickly defeated if fought in a conventional way.

With only a small number of mounted knights at his disposal Jan Zizka had to rely on large numbers of peasant foot soldiers. The standard way to defeat heavily armoured cavalry armies was to mimic the English and Swiss armies of the day and adopt the longbow and pike as weapons of choice. To be successful with such weapons requires highly trained and well disciplined soldiers.

Jan Zizka did not have such troops; instead he had large numbers of peasants who despite their devoted and often fanatical approach to fighting were undisciplined. To bolster and stiffen this large “infantry rabble” Zizka adopted the Wagenburg, wagon fort or war wagon. These were standard peasant farm wagons that had defensive hoardings bolted to them turning them into mobile forts. The wagons in a defensive situation formed themselves into “laagers” with wagons chained together and additional boards and pavises used to fill the gaps beneath and between the wagons. Horses would be pulled into the centre and infantry comprising halbadiers, flailers, crossbowmen, handgunners, bowmen and slingers would man the defences. A cavalry reserve would be formed ready to counter attack. Often ballast wagons or fire wagons would be pulled or pushed into enemy formations to break them up.

On the offensive parallel mobile columns of wagons would advance with a cavalry screen scouting ahead. On contact with the enemy they would try and squeeze the enemy between the two lines of wagons and use relentless firepower to defeat them. There are also records of the Hussites creating numerous wagon nests across the battlefield to channel the enemy into areas where they could be attacked whilst disadvantaged. There are other records in which dismounted Hussite troops would slowly withdraw in front on an enemy force whilst the war wagons would advance on both flanks, thus drawing the enemy force into a trap.

Zizka also recognised the potential of firearms and artillery against medieval knight armies. The Hussites employed large numbers of hand guns and a fantastic variety of artillery pieces. Artillery pieces were often mounted on wagons and thus the self-propelled gun had been invented.

The Hussites fought numerous battles against Crusader armies comprising soldiers and knights from all over Europe. Eventually internal disputes caused the Orebites and Taborites to fall into conflict, and these factions fought many battles against each other. This culminated in the Battle of Lipnay which was to mark the end of the Hussite wars.

More detailed reading:

Warhammer Ancient Battles - Armies of Chivalry
The Hussite Wars 1419-36 by Stephen Turnbull - Osprey Publishing
Armies of the Middle Ages Vol2 by Ian Heath - Wargames Research Group