Plebian Roots. Called the “only military genius of the Middle Ages,” Jan Zizka was born at Trutnov (located in the modern Czech Republic), which was known in the Middle Ages as the kingdom of Bohemia. Zizka means “one-eyed” and refers to the injury he received as a young man. His family name was apparently Trocnov. He came from an impoverished noble family and had to make his own way through military service. For a time he served Wenceslas IV of Bohemia, who came from a German dynasty. Wenceslas’s father was Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who secured the Bohemian throne for his son, but his rule was constantly under challenge—one of which came from his brother Sigismund, who became emperor in 1410. Thus, Zizka gained a great deal of experience in war and political intrigue serving his king. About 1405 he left royal service and served as a mercenary in an extensive range of lands and wars across eastern Europe. He fought with the Poles against the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Tannenberg in Prussia (1410).
Hussite. Zizka returned to Prague and probably to royal service by 1414, the year he bought a house there. In Prague he heard the sermons of John Hus, a Czech theologian who advocated extensive changes in the Catholic Church, one of which involved giving the cup of wine as well as the bread to the laity in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Hus’s followers became known as Utraquists from the Latin word for “both.” Hus also denounced the authority of the papacy and the domination of High Church offices in Bohemia by German clergymen. His program for reforming the Church became wrapped up in Czech opposition to the ruling German dynasty and the large percentage of nobles and wealthy merchants in Bohemia who were German. Hus was called to the Council of Constance (1414) to answer charges of heresy; despite the guarantee of safe conduct he was captured, convicted, and executed in 1415 with another Czech theologian.
Wagenburg. Bohemia immediately erupted in revolt. Zizka seems not to have joined the revolt until Wenceslas died in 1419. The dead king’s brother Sigismund, who was already emperor, claimed the Bohemian throne and brought in German knights to help secure it. Zizka quickly emerged as the best captain available to the Utraquists. His personal beliefs took a more radical turn, as he joined a group of Utraquists who believed that Christ’s Second Coming would soon occur on a Bohemian hilltop that they renamed Mount Tabor. These Taborites were convinced that they had to help in bringing about Christ’s return through violence, by ridding the world of sinners. At the Battle of Sudomer (1420), Zizka for the first time used the wagenburg, a line of wagons on which were placed infantrymen armed with edged weapons and a few crossbows and handguns. The wagons provided a defensive position for the untrained peasants who served as Zizka’s infantrymen, which enabled them to hold their position against the charge of German knights. Essentially the wagenburg mimicked a fortress, in which poorly trained fighting men frequently had held off knightly forces elsewhere in Europe. Zizka’s shocking victory persuaded him of the value of the tactic, which he may have learned from the Russians, and he rapidly developed it further. He increased the number of handgunners, so that the twenty or so men on each armor-plated wagon were about equally divided between those with firearms and with edged weapons. Soon he also had wagons that carried small cannon, which were fired out of gunports cut into the sideboards. Later in 1420 he won his greatest victory at Vitkov, over a German knightly force three or four times the size of his own.
Victories. In a matter of only months, Zizka had formalized the tactics that brought him victory after victory over larger and better-equipped armies. When word came to the Taborites that the enemy was on the march, they would drive their wagons to an appropriate spot on the road over which the enemy was coming. The wagons were placed in a line across the road, and dirt was thrown under them to prevent any one from crawling underneath. Handgunners waited with their hookguns, attached to the wagons’ sideboards, which absorbed much of the recoil. Charging knights and their horses presented a large target that even the highly inaccurate handguns of the time were capable of hitting at close range. Then the men with edged weapons dashed out and killed the knights who had been thrown to the ground. What cavalry Zizka had was posted on the flanks of the wagenburg, ready to charge into the enemy’s line once the men on the wagons had brought it to a halt. In two years Zizka, despite having become completely blinded by an arrow in his good eye, had driven out Sigismund’s forces and was taking the war into Germany. The religious turmoil unleashed by the Hussite Revolt, however, led to more radical extremes than even the Taborites could tolerate, such as the Adamites, who proclaimed they were living like Adam and Eve in the new Garden of Eden—naked and sinless. Claiming that they owned all the goods of the earth, they raided Czech villages from an island in a river. In 1421 Zizka was forced to use his army to destroy the Adamites, whose leader had promised them that God would blind their enemies. The moderate Utraquists and Taborites also fell to fighting as the external threat dissipated. As long as Zizka lived, the Taborites had the upper hand, but his death in 1424 from illness passed the advantage to the Utraquists. They won a major victory over the Taborites in 1434 and soon after negotiated favorable terms with the emperor and the Pope, which allowed the Utraquist Church to survive in Bohemia until the next century. Other than introducing the hookgun to the Germans, whose word for it probably was the source of the term “arquebus” for the first effective musket, Zizka’s ideas had little impact on military men beyond Bohemia, and the wagenburg itself had died out even there by 1450.
Thomas A. Fudge, The Magnificent Ride: The First Reformation in Hussite Bohemia (Aldershot, U.K. & Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998).
Frederick G. Heymann, John Zizka and the Hussite Revolution (New York: Russell & Russell, 1955).
Howard Kaminsky, A History of the Hussite Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).