History of Germany - H. E. Marshall


The death of Rupert left the Empire in confusion. Wenceslaus was still alive, and once more tried to claim the throne. But he tried in vain, for the electors were all agreed that whatever king was chosen, it should not be Wenceslaus. But although the electors were agreed not to have Wenceslaus, they were divided as to who they should have. So two Emperors were chosen.

One was Jobst, Margrave of Moravia, a greedy, ambitious old man. "He passed for a great man," said an old writer, "but there was nothing great about him but his beard." The other was Sigmund, Wenceslaus' younger brother. Both young and handsome, he was well versed in every knightly art, and in all the learning of the times. He was already very powerful, being King of Hungary and Elector of Brandenburg. He was arrogant too, and being one of the electors he voted for himself. "No prince in the Empire surpasses me in power," he said, "or in the art of ruling. Therefore I, as elector of Brandenburg, give Sigmund, King of Hungary, my vote, and herewith elect myself Emperor." But although Sigmund thus elected himself, others of the Electors chose Jobst. And besides this, Wenceslaus was ready to fight them both.

With three princes thus claiming the crown, a great a fight around it seemed certain. But Jobst died suddenly, it may be by poison, Wenceslaus came to an agreement with his haughty younger brother, contenting himself henceforth with being only King of Bohemia. Thus, at length, Sigmund was allowed to take the throne of Germany in peace.

But it was not in Germany alone that there was strife. For while three Emperors had been fighting over the Empire, three Popes had been fighting for the headship of the Church. It was a sad time for those who looked up to the Pope as their guide and leader in all things holy. For the three Popes hated each other bitterly. They quarrelled amongst themselves, they excommunicated each other, and as all of them had need of money, they stooped to many evil ways in order to get it. Church livings and sacred offices were sold to the highest bidder, and forgiveness of sins was sold to any who would pay. These things made earnest people very sorrowful, they could not but see that such things were wrong, and many good men began to preach against the evils that had grown up in the Church. Among these was John Huss, a teacher in the University of Prague.

That there should be three Popes at one time all wrangling together, was a scandal and grief to the whole Christian world. Sigmund wished to put an end to this discord and wickedness, and he called together a great council at Constance. It was a Parliament of the whole Christian world, and all the pomp and splendour of the earth seemed gathered together.

It is true only one of the three Popes came, but, about him crowded many cardinals in their red robes, bishops in splendid array, abbots and learned doctors, there were knights and nobles too in silver and cloth of gold, in blue and crimson, and the streets of Constance were a very rainbow of colours. Magnificent in crimson and cloth of gold, wearing his great glittering crown upon his head, Sigmund himself opened the Council.

As he read his grand Latin speech he made a mistake, calling schism feminine.

"Your Majesty?" said a cardinal quietly, "schism is neuter."

Sigmund looked at him in disdain. "I," he answered proudly, "am King of the Romans, and above grammar."

So amid a babel of tongues, with the sound of trumpets and of bells, the Council of Constance set to work to cleanse the evils of the Church. By its decrees the three Popes were all deposed and a new Pope chosen. But the Council of Constance did little lasting good, and the act for which it is most remembered is a dark blot on Sigmund's name.

You remember that a man named John Huss had begun to preach against some of the teaching of the Roman Church. He was a friend and follower of our reformer Wycliffe, and he did much to spread Wycliffe's writings among the people of Bohemia. The great men of the Church looked upon him, therefore, with jealousy and mistrust.

So John Huss was summoned to appear before the Council to answer for his misdeeds. Once already Huss had been summoned to Rome. But, well knowing that he could expect scant justice from a godless Pope, he had refused to obey the summons. Now he obeyed, for King Sigmund granted him a safe-conduct both going and coming. "To all princes as well spiritual as worldly, and to all our other subjects, greeting," he wrote. "We affectionately recommend to you all, the honourable Master John Huss, M.A. and B.D., the bearer of these presents, going from Bohemia to the Council of Constance, whom we have taken into our protection and safeguard. We desire you when he comes among you, to receive him well, and entertain him kindly, furnishing him with all that is needful for his safety, whether he goes by land or by water, and to let him freely and securely pass, sojourn, stop and repass."

Armed with this safe-conduct, trusting in the sacredness of a King's word, Huss went to Constance without fear. But in spite of the King's safe-conduct, as soon as he arrived in Constance he was seized and thrown into prison. There, suffering many cruelties, being chained both hand and foot, he lay in darkness and pain until he was brought forth to be tried.

As Huss stood before his accusers his courage did not fail him. "Of my own accord I came to this Council," he said, "under the public faith of the Emperor present." So saying he looked earnestly at Sigmund.

The hot blood rushed to the Emperor's face. He had broken his kingly word, and he blushed for very shame, but he kept silence. Then seeing that he could expect no help from the King, Huss tried to defend himself, but all in vain. Before ever he had left Bohemia his fate had been sealed. So "having the fear of God before their eyes "the Council of Constance declared John Huss a heretic and an outcast. For he had spread abroad the teaching of John Wycliffe of accursed memory, and done much that was evil.

After this the Church had done with him, and with fearful curses they gave his body to the Evil one.

"And I," said Huss quietly, "give it into the hand of my Lord Jesus Christ."

Thus was John Huss, a good and holy man, cast forth from the Church. He might no longer preach or teach; he might no longer wear the robes of a priest. So now his judges surrounded him.

They took from him his vestments, one after the other, uttering over him at the taking of each some dreadful curse. Upon his head in mockery they placed a paper cap a yard high, like a fool's cap, and thereon were painted three horrible demons and the word "Arch-heretic." And in the robe of a penitent, with the hateful paper cap upon his head, he was led forth to the stake to die the death of a martyr. He went with a brave heart and smiling face, "as if," says an old writer, "he were being led forth to a banquet."

He walked unbound with two of the city serjeants in front of him and two behind, and a great crowd of well-armed soldiers following. About them pressed the people, filled with wonder, fear, and pity.

Singing hymns of praise to God, John Huss reached the stake. And as the cruel flames rose about him he cried aloud, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." Then he bowed his head and died. He died upon his birthday, July 6, 1415.

John Huss


The leaders in the Church hoped that after the death of Huss no more would be heard of his new religion. But they were mistaken. Never yet have the fires of persecution burned up the flame of reform. John Huss indeed was dead, others too followed him to the stake, but his work lived on.

To the Bohemians he was a hero, and they were now filled with anger and bitterness against Sigmund, who, by giving him a false safe-conduct, had delivered their hero to death. So when in 1419 Wenceslaus died, leaving no child to succeed him, and Sigmund claimed the throne of Bohemia, the Bohemians rose in rebellion against him. They would have none of him, and what is called the Hussite War now began and lasted for more than fifteen years.

The Bohemians were led by a soldier named Ziska. He was a ferocious-looking man, not very tall, but very strong, with broad shoulders and a large head. His face was tanned and brown, and his big black beard and shaggy black eyebrows made his face look fierce and stern. He was blind of one eye, too, which made him look still more terrible.

Ziska was a born leader of men; he made war ruthlessly and fiercely, and in some ways was not unlike our own Oliver Cromwell. Out of the mob of peasants who crowded to his standard he made one of the finest armies the world has ever seen. He was the first man in the German Empire to form a well-drilled army of foot soldiers. He was among the first to make much use of guns and cannon, which were then but newly invented.

Ziska's soldiers became almost unconquerable. Now here, now there, across the plains of Bohemia he led them, winning victory after victory.

At length, while storming a town, Ziska was hit in the eye—his one remaining eye—by an arrow. Great was the sorrow among his soldiers, for their beloved leader was now quite blind. And not only that, he became so ill that they thought he would die.

But Ziska did not die, and blind though he was, he would not give up his leadership. "I have still my blood to shed," he said. So he continued to lead his army. He rode in a carriage near the standard, and his knowledge both of the country and of his men was so sure that he still led them to victory.

And blind though he was, he was still as stern as ever; he still made war as ruthlessly as before. Once he made his array march both night and day till the weary men began to grumble. "It is all very well for you," they said, "for both day and night are alike to you. But we, we cannot see at night."

"What!" cried Ziska fiercely, "you cannot see? Well, set fire to a couple of villages; that will give you light."

But at length, at the age of seventy, this fierce old soldier, still fighting, was seized with plague and died. His spirit, however, seemed to descend on his followers. They took the name of "orphans," for they had lost their father in their leader, and still fought on as fiercely as before.

At length in 1436 Sigmund, weary of the war, made many promises and concessions to the Bohemians, and so won peace.

In July he entered Prague in state, as the acknowledged King of Bohemia. But he did not live long to enjoy this new-won peace, for the next year he died.

Sigmund had always loved pomp and splendour, and even in death this love did not leave him. When he was told that he was soon to die, he bade his attendants dress him in his royal robes, place the crown on his head, and the sceptre in his hand. And thus, seated upon his throne, in all the magnificence of earthly pride, he awaited the last call which even kings and emperors must obey.

And ere he died he bade his servants draw the shroud over his splendid raiment, and leave him sitting dead upon the throne for two or three days, "so that all the people may know," he said, "that the lord of the world is dead."