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Council of Constance and the arrest of Jan Hus

Jan Hus by an unknown author, 16th century
Jan Hus by an unknown author, 16th century

Preceding this date in History, there had been a major issue regarding the Papacy, in that during 1378, two rival Popes had been appointed. Urban VI of Rome was appointed in April of 1378 from outside the College of Cardinals. His election was opposed by the French Cardinals, as invalid. Later on in September of that year the French Cardinals nominated their own rival antipope, Clement VII of Avignon, the home of the Pope for the previous seven decades. This period came to be known as the second part of the Great Schism, or alternatively the Western Schism. Urban VI was later succeeded, upon his death in October 1389 by Boniface IX, until 1404, Innocent VII until 1406 and finally Gregory XII in 1406.

Meanwhile in Avignon, in 1394 Clement VII passed away and was succeeded by Benedict XIII. In an effort to alleviate the situation, a third papacy was elected by the Council of Pisa by several Bishop’s who claimed greater authority than one Bishop. Their solution was to elect Alexander V on the understanding that the Roman and Avignon Popes would resign. Sadly the plan failed, Alexander’s successor John XXIII was popular, particularly amongst the opposition to Avignon, but as neither the Gregory XII nor Benedict XIII would abdicate; eventually the Council of Constance was convened by John XXIII himself in 1414. It would run for four years.

One of the first items on the agenda was the reformations undertaken by John Wycliffe, English protestant reformer whose teachings led to the formation of the Lollard movement in the later 14th century. One of Wycliffe’s main protests of the Catholic doctrine was the process of Transubstantiation, for which he claimed there was no scripture contained within the Bible. For this and other views, he was issued with five Papal Bulls, which he ignored. The Lollards beliefs led to the Peasants Revolt of 1381, of which Wycliffe was associated as a leader; however his actual involvement is debated to this day. Wycliffe stood by his own Scholasticism style of teaching, that his views were only presented to learned men, and therefore it was via other voice that his reforms were feeding to the common man. By the time of their march, Wycliffe had actually retired and it was around this time he suffered his first stroke. Regardless, he was held partly responsible for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, by the rebels. Wycliffe died of a further stroke in 1384, but was still held up as a heretic at the Council of Constance 30 years after his death.

Jan Hus, a contemporary reformer from Bohemia, to a poor peasant background – unlike that of Wycliffe – he nonetheless managed to earn a Master’s degree at the University of Prague and subsequently became the University’s Dean of Philosophy in 1401. There were two main opposing religious philosophical views in the University at this time, Nominalism, favoured by the (mainly) German faction, and Realism, the popular view of the principally Czech corner. Hus, was a strong critic of Nominalism, and had as a result studied the views and reforms of Wycliffe, who had also been vocally critical of nominalism, so finding them to be hugely similar to Hus’ own beliefs.

Wycliffe’s reforms had been used in the National reform movement led by Jan Milic before he died in 1374. In 1402, his followers nominated Hus as the leader of their Bethleham Chapel in Prague. The following year he became advisor to the later Archbishop of Prague, Zybnek Zajic whose Reformist views were similar to his own. However over a period of the next five years, Zajic was slowly to alter his opinions, until he came to oppose reform. In 1407, he formally laid charges of Heresy against two of his own contemporaries who subsequently abandoned their own realist opinions and switched sides too. Hus suddenly found himself out on his own.

Burning of Jan Hus at the stake in Konstanz
Burning of Jan Hus at the stake in Konstanz

In 1409, Hus publicly argued with Zajic regarding the latter’s opposition of the Council of Pisa who were called to remove the Avignon and Roman Popes and reform the Catholic Church. Alexander V was confirmed as the Pope and both Benedict XIII and Gregory XII were deposed, after King Wenceslas granted a three to one vote margin to the Czech Masters against the Germans, who as a result protested and left the University. Zajic was forced to promise his support to Hus, who became Rector of the University. Unfortunately for Hus, Zajic died in 1411, and his enforced support was dissolved. The matter of Hus’ heresy was raised from under the rug and in a dispute over sales of indulgences by John XXIII, and a new trial for heresy had been ordered by the Curia. Hus agreed to leave Prague to spare issues in the city. Hus had by this point lost the support of King Wenceslas who had agreed the indulgences, and been excommunicated by the Church. Hus returned to Bohemia.

In 1411, the newly elected King Sigismund of Germany and Hungary, decided to appoint himself restorer of the Church, and ordered the Council of Constance to be convened. He invited Hus to attend and defend his views and his actions, assuring him safe passage for the return journey. Hus eventually agreed to attend, but did not receive the conduct he had been promised. Upon his arrival, by consent of Sigismund, Hus was arrested and confined. As a result of frantic intervention by Bohemian nobles supportive of Hus, he was granted three public hearings to defend his views, leading to an acquittal of some of the charges. However some charges of heretical views remained, and Hus, was warned that unless he recanted these views he would face execution. He refused.

On 4th May 1415 Jan Hus and John Wycliffe were formally charged with Heresy. Hus was found guilty and imprisoned. He was sentenced to death, on 6th July and burned at the stake that day.