Stories from German History - Florence Aston

The Dawn of the Reformation


As the fourteenth century drew to a close, signs were not wanting of an approaching great change. The German Empire was very large, embracing not only its present dimension, but the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, and reaching even into Russia and Italy.

Numerous princes ruled these territories, and the Emperor was chosen, as stated previously, by a body of seven of them, who bore the title of Electors. This was scarcely a wise method, since the votes of the Electors were often sought by bribes, sometimes by gifts of money, sometimes of land or privileges, with the result that the more the emperors gave way, the weaker they became, and the stronger grew the power of the princes of Germany.

Evil emperors and princes weakened the respect that the lower orders had always felt toward those of high birth, and evil popes shocked the feelings of those who had loved and venerated the Holy Church.

In the reign of the Emperor Wenceslaus, who was chosen German Emperor in 1878, both these tendencies are marked.

His father, Charles IV, had established a law strictly prohibiting all bribery, and afterward, feeling himself growing old, he spent 700,000 florins in corrupting the seven Electors, and thus prevailed upon them to choose his son as Emperor.

Having secured the Imperial crown, Wenceslaus gave himself little concern about the Empire, never once visiting Germany nor once holding a diet. He lived entirely in his own kingdom of Bohemia, where he was loathed and dreaded as a cruel tyrant. So barbarous was he that historians have since thought that he was probably insane, and it is no wonder that his subjects lost all respect for kingly authority and considered it no sin to disobey his laws.

At table he would sit surrounded by ferocious blood-hounds, whom it was his pleasure to set fighting among themselves, or chasing his guests round the hall. Occasionally he would amuse himself by setting them at his wife, who was several times torn by them as she lay in bed. His nobles were once invited to an entertainment, and they found him seated in a black, tent with a white and a red one on either side, and, when brought before him one by one, they were asked how much land they would give him. Those who gave up their possessions willingly were marshaled into the white tent, where they were sumptuously feasted, after which they ruefully departed; but those who refused were beheaded in the red tent at the hands of the common executioner. Upon another occasion the burgomaster and town councillors of Prague were ushered into his banqueting hall to find a man of grim aspect standing in a corner leaning on an axe. Their surprise and the glances of dismay they stole at each other caused Wenceslaus exquisite pleasure.

"Wait until after dinner," he said to the executioner; "thou shalt have work enough then."

One may well suppose that after the poor citizens had sat some time at that meal, vainly trying to make a show of eating, they readily granted the ferocious king any desire that he expressed in order to save their own lives.

Not even the priests were free from his cruelty, for he oppressed and tormented his wife's confessor because he wished to know all that she had told him. Knowing that the betrayal of confessions was forbidden to priests, and that he would be breaking his ordination vow by doing so, the poor man at last declared that he would die rather than commit such a sin.

"Sayest thou so, Sir Priest?" cried the King. "Then, by the heavens, thou shalt have thy wish. Bind this monk hand and foot and throw him into the River Moldau." And so perished an innocent and faithful servant of God.

So shameful was this tyrant's neglect of the German Empire, over the ruin of which he used to laugh with much enjoyment, and so barbarous was his cruelty that his younger brother, Sigismund, contrived to capture his person and keep him under restraint as a madman. But Wenceslaus was very cunning, and whilst bathing in the river one day he eluded the vigilance of his keepers by diving deep into the water. He gained a boat rowed by a young girl, and was safely conveyed to the opposite bank.

Wenceslaus might have made the German Empire very strong had he cared to do so, for France, his most dangerous enemy, was engaged in war with England, and grave scandals had reduced the power of the papacy considerably.

In olden days the German Emperor had received his crown from the hands of the Pope and subject to his approval, but when two men proclaimed themselves successor of Saint Peter and rightful Bishop of Rome, and each declared the other an impostor, they called upon those princes who had formerly been their vassals and lived under their sway to decide their quarrel. Wenceslaus, however, had no inclination to rouse himself and take advantage of this opportunity, loving better the beer of Prague and his life of brutal sensuality and cruelty there.

At length the Electors determined to set him aside, and in the year 1400 they chose Rupert, the Count Palatine, to rule Germany in his place.

Some few cities offered their services to Wenceslaus, expressing their willingness to reinstate him on the Imperial throne, but he was too lazy to care, and so long as he could live in his own little kingdom of Bohemia, and amuse himself by venting his cruelty on defenceless subjects, he was quite happy.

So he allowed them to elect what emperor they chose, preferring to turn his attention to his public executioner, whom with cruel irony he caused to be beheaded so that he might understand the suffering he had inflicted on so many others at his master's command. Likewise his cook, who had sent up an ill-roasted capon, he had roasted before his own fire on a spit.

The Emperor Rupert died in 1411, but Wenceslaus made no attempt to regain the crown, so his brother, Sigismund, was elected by one party and Jodocus of Moravia by another.

Both the popes had been set aside and a new one elected, but, as the other two refused to resign, the year 1411 presented the edifying spectacle of time Emperors of Germany and time Popes, each one of the latter protesting that he was infallible and the true successor of Saint Peter. Little wonder then that reverence for religion and loyalty to sovereigns was at a low ebb in Germany.

Within a few months Jodocus died, and Sigismund was left in undisturbed possession of the throne. He was handsome and lively, but had no steadiness of purpose, and, like his brutal brother, was given to sensual pleasure. One good deed he did in that he called together a council at Constance in the year 1414 with the object of reforming the Church.

The teaching of the Englishman Wyclif had penetrated into Germany, and, shocked as people were at the gross corruption of their clergy, it was a favourable opportunity to consider the question of reform.

The pope who had last been elected died within the year and was succeeded by John XXIII, a man of evil life, who had been a pirate and had committed the most revolting crimes, but so degraded were the clergy of the time that one of the cardinals is said to have remarked that John would make a good pope, since none but a scoundrel could now rule the Church.

The Council of Constance met on the 28th of November, and was believed to have attracted to the city at least 150,000 people. Of these three were patriarchs, thirty-three cardinals, forty-seven archbishops, one hundred and forty-five bishops, one hundred and twenty-four abbots, eighteen hundred priests, seven hundred and fifty doctors, and monks innumerable.

Of the three rival popes, John XXIII was the only one who put in an appearance. He had travelled over the Alps in a carriage, and had been overturned into a snow-drift on the way. The peasants of the neighbourhood had hastened to the spot, eager to help the pontiff and receive his blessing, but when they arrived on the scene and were roundly rated by the Holy Father, who was musing and swearing in a violent temper, they hung back, and their simple minds began to doubt whether such blasphemous language could proceed from the Lord's representative on earth,

Temporal sovereigns were present at the Council in the persons of the Emperor and all the Electors, also numbers of nobles who acted as ambassadors for foreign kings, but Sigismund himself behaved with so little dignity during the sittings that he aroused the contempt of all his guests. The multitude which had collected at Constance included mountebanks, buffoons, troops of English actors, and bad characters without end, and with these Sigismund amused himself and indulged in orgies of drunken debauchery. The first act of the Council of Constance was to declare itself above all popes, and call upon the three representatives of the papacy to resign. Gregory XII did so, and became a simple cardinal, John XXIII resisted by armed force, and was henceforth imprisoned in the castle of Heidelberg, but Benedict XIII was in Spain, and from there bade defiance to all decrees. After this, the representatives proceeded to examine the heresies alleged to have sprung up in the Church.


The sister of the Emperor Wenceslaus had married Richard II of England, and by this means the writings of the English reformer, John Wyclif, had found their way into Bohemia and had been studied with especial interest by the professors of the university of Prague. Chief among these professors was the celebrated John Huss and his friend and pupil, Jerome of Prague, who for ten years at least had been preaching and lecturing in Prague and the neighbourhood, maintaining that the Pope was no better than other bishops, that the doctrine of purgatory had no warrant from Holy Scripture, and that confession, images and vestments were vain things.

The priests of the Roman Catholic Church taught that the bread and wine of the Holy Sacrament actually changed into the body and blood of Christ, and they only delivered the bread to the laity, reserving the wine for themselves alone. Huss and his followers believed that the body and blood of Christ were only received in a spiritual fashion when men partook of the bread and wine, and that there was no reason to withhold the cup in the Holy Communion, since our Lord Himself had delivered it to His disciples.

When summoned before the Council of Constance, John Huss was given a safe-conduct by Sigismund, as a pledge that no harm was intended to his person, so he boldly entered the great council hall and saluted the company assembled there. He was first addressed by one of the cardinals in the following words:

"Master Huss, we have manifold complaints against you, that you have taught and spread abroad gross errors against the Church, for which cause we have summoned you here that we may understand from your own mouth of these matters."

To which Huss replied: "Reverend Father, rather would I die than confess myself guilty of one of these acts of heresy; wherefore I come before you this day that if any error be proved against me, I may recant and express my sorrow for the same."

Huss was then removed into a side chamber and examined, and afterward was arrested and thrown into a filthy dungeon, the poisonous air of which gave him fever.

Thus did the Emperor Sigismund break his word, in that he had promised no harm should attend the person of Huss, who, in spite of his petitions, could obtain no hearing until June 1415, when many ridiculous charges were brought against him, such as that he believed in four gods. Whenever he raised his voice in his own defence he was shouted down and forbidden to speak. On the 6th of July he was condemned to death at the stake as a heretic, the Emperor coldly informing his friends who protested that no faith could be kept with unbelievers.

Huss was taken by the Bishop of Riga to the cathedral, but made to wait outside until Mass was ended. On entering, he found the Emperor seated on a throne, surrounded by dignitaries of the Church all in robes of state, and, on a table before them, a full set of priestly garments, which were to be employed in his degradation from the priesthood.

The service was opened by a sermon from one of the bishops on the sin of heresy, after which another bishop read a long list of accusations against John Huss, and every time the condemned man attempted to interrupt he was silenced with angry cries of "Peace, heretic, peace!" At length, hearing them accuse him of contempt of the Pope's commands, he raised his voice and cried loudly: "That is false! I appealed to a higher tribunal and came before this council to defend myself, trusting to the Emperor's promise that no evil should befall me." And as he spoke he fixed his eyes indignantly on the countenance of Sigismund, who is said to have reddened with confusion under his gaze.

The condemnation to death by fire was next read, and Huss knelt and prayed for forgiveness for his murderers, afterward he was invested with the priestly garments, and then, as each one was taken from him, he was solemnly cursed as a heretic. The ceremony was ended by a bishop who placed on his head a paper cap painted with devils, and commended his soul to his master, Satan. Huss raised his eyes to heaven and exclaimed: "But I commend it to my Lord Jesus Christ."

He was then led to the place of execution and bound to a stake already fixed in the ground, and while the faggots were piled round his feet he recited psalms to himself Before the torch was applied the Duke of Bavaria offered him freedom if he would recant, but Hues cried aloud "I call God to witness that I have never either taught or written those things with which false men have charged me, but in all my teaching I have sought only to turn men from their sins and lead them to God. The truth which I have taught I am now ready to seal with my blood."

The pile was then lighted, and amidst the smoke the martyr's face was distinguishable for a few moments, his lips moving in prayer; then he bowed his head and died. By command of the Duke of Bavaria, his cloak and girdle were also burnt; so that his disciples in Bohemia should have no relics of their master to treasure, while the ashes and even the soil were scraped up and thrown into the Rhine.

John Hus


Jerome of Prague fled from Constance as soon as he found that there was no hope of saving his beloved master, but soon he too was arrested and after many months in prison was ultimately condemned to the flames. So died John Huss and also his disciple, and their cruel persecutors thought that they had stamped out heresy in their death. But the firmness and gallant bearing of Huss had made a great impression on the spectators of the terrible sight, who asked each other what he had done to merit such a fate, since with their own ears they had heard from him nothing but godly words.

The doctrines of Wyclif had taken firm hold in Bohemia, and when the new Pope Martin had been proclaimed by the Council of Constance and had issued a bull or declaration condemning these doctrines, crowds of Bohemians met and discussed the new teaching, and needed but a leader to rise in armed revolt against Sigismund to punish him for his breach of faith and cruel bigotry.

It was not long before a leader appeared. There lived at the Court of Bohemia a warrior named John Ziska, who was a favourite of King Wenceslaus because he had fought bravely for him. In appearance he was extraordinary, with a round bald head, deeply furrowed face, and enormously broad shoulders surmounting a thick-set figure with short legs. Like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Napoleon, and Julius Caesar, he had the curved eagle nose of the conqueror and a fierce, bristling red moustache. A true Bohemian by birth, Ziska hated the Germans, and he had a special antipathy to the monks, the evil of whose lives he knew too well.

After the death of Huss a great change had come over Ziska. He wandered about the palace gloomy and sullen, his eyes fixed on the ground, muttering fiercely to himself till even the King noticed his demeanour and asked the reason.

"They have burnt Huss," he answered darkly, "and we have not yet avenged him."

"I cannot help it," said Wenceslaus, "you must try what you can do by yourselves."

Taking him at his word, Ziska called the Hussites to arms, a proceeding which greatly disturbed the King, who commanded them all to come to the palace and deposit their weapons there.

They obeyed, and, headed by Ziska, marched in military order, bearing the chalice as their standard, pausing only at the town hail to throw thirteen German councillors out of the window and to hang an especially evil priest before his own door.

These proceedings reached the ms's ears, who realized, as he sat in his palace listening to the uproar, that a well-disciplined multitude had risen, and moreover a multitude that was deeply enraged. So great was his excitement and terror that, as they approached, he was seized with an apoplectic fit and died. The insurgents broke into churches, tore down the images and rent the priests' vestments in pieces; but Ziska was too sensible to think that anything could be gained by such means, so he calmed his followers and entered into negotiations with Queen Sophia, the widow of King Wenceslaus.

The Emperor Sigismund was furious and would allow her to make no terms, so Ziska raised the peasantry, who plundered churches and monasteries wherever they passed. Many of the priests were slain with the greatest cruelty, and some, it is said, were thrust into barrels, daubed with pitch and set on fire.

An easy victory was won over a force dispatched by Queen Sophia, since Ziska commanded the women in his band to take off their shawls and aprons and throw them under the feet of the horses, by which means they stumbled and fell, and their riders were soon overcome.

In the month of June 1420 the Emperor Sigismund himself entered Prague, threw twenty-four Hussites into the river, and attacked Ziska's force. But he was unsuccessful and obliged to retire; after which men, women and children, armed with flails and reaping-hooks, flocked in hundreds to Ziska's standard, and were banded by him into companies.

Unfortunately the success of the Hussites turned the heads of many of their number, and in their zeal they indulged in very silly extravagances. One section lived on a hill which they called Mount Horeb, and named themselves Horebites, whilst they maintained constant quarrels with the Taborites, who had taken up their abode on another hill, christened by them Mount Tabor. Most foolish of all was a sect in Moravia, who called themselves Adamites, professed to live in the simplicity of the Garden of Eden, and walked about stark naked.

Such extremes tended to bring the Hussite doctrines into contempt, and Ziska was very angry. He put to death hundreds of these fanatics, for the discipline in his army was exceedingly severe, since he knew too well to what lengths religious enthusiasm would drive people. The penalty of death was inflicted on any man who quitted the ranks, burnt or plundered without leave, and on gamblers, liars or unchaste persons.

Ziska had become totally blind, since he had lost first one eye and then the other in skirmishes, but he continued to lead his army, following the standard in a carriage. He was of iron strength and would march his men by night and day, until they complained that though all was dark night to him, they at least required repose and sleep.

"Cannot you see?" he would ask grimly. "Light up a couple of villages then!"

For nearly four years this army maintained its existence, destroying churches and monasteries and slaying all who opposed its progress. The nobles of Bohemia tried to make peace by offering religious toleration and freedom of worship, but failed, so in January 1422 the Emperor advanced once more upon Prague, where his standards were captured and his army beaten back, though the Hussites suffered enormous loss. Sigismund then endeavoured to gain Ziska over by presents and promises, but the grim leader was inflexible. He died of plague in the month of October 1424, and on his deathbed commanded that his skin should be used to cover a drum, so that his followers might think of him when its voice called them to war.

After his death the Hussites once more defeated the Imperial forces in a pitched battle, and at last, in 1488, Sigismund was compelled to grant them religious liberty, and undertook to gain permission for their worship from the Pope if they on their part would acknowledge him as king.

In the year 1488 the Emperor Sigismund died, being succeeded for two years by his son-in-law, Albert, who also died, and then by Frederick III of the great house of Habsburg.

Frederick was indolent and would have been harmless enough as a nobleman or as a monk, but as an Emperor he was useless and even harmful. His life was spent in gardening and in the study of poetry and astrology, and, to use the language of a German historian, "the Imperial crown had become aright-cap." For fifty-time years he slumbered on the throne, and during this time events of the greatest moment for Europe took place.

The Council of Basle, which had been called by Sigismund in 1481 to settle Church affairs, was still sitting, for the Hussite rising had proved that much discontent prevailed.

The German princes were dissatisfied because the Pope taxed their subjects exorbitantly, thus carrying sorely needed money out of the country. The people were dissatisfied with the rapacity and evil lives of the clergy and with the services which were read in Latin and not understood. The Holy Scriptures were withheld from the laity, and those who had had the good fortune to study them found no warrant therein for the doctrines of transubstantiation, purgatory, the adoration of saints, the infallibility of the Pope, and many other wars that had crept into the Church.

The Council effected some reforms and took measures to restrain the profligacy of the clergy and prevent the desecration of churches by wakes and fairs, but when they applied to the Pope for ratification of their decisions, he declared all their edicts null and void, and when they deposed him he refused to abdicate. So years passed in useless bickering, for Frederick was not strong nor strenuous enough to enforce these reforms.

In Frederick's reign the city of Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and the eastern half of the Roman Empire fell. When he died in 1498, he left Germany torn with internal strife, and one of the most wicked men the world has ever produced—namely, Alexander VI—on the papal throne of Saint Peter. But during his reign was born a man who was to purge the religion of Germany as with fire—Martin Luther the Reformer.