Jan Zizka was a badass 15th century Czech knight who led the first real Protestant uprising in Europe by building gigantic fucking war tanks and using these homemade custom iron-plated juggernauts to crush the balls of anyone who opposed him with extreme prejudice all the way up their asses. In his fifteen years relentlessly smiting bitches apart and flattening the skulls of his enemies by swinging an oversized steel mace that was presumably modeled after his oversized steel testicles, Zizka never suffered a defeat on the battlefield – an accomplishment made duly impressive when you consider the fact that he was commanding a semi-unruly horde of untrained peasants and religious fanatics against battle-hardened men-at-arms from some of the world's most dominant military powers.
Oh, and he did it all with one eye. Except for when that got too easy, and he did it while being completely fucking blind in both eyes.
Look upon your doom.
The story of Jan Zizka starts with a significantly-less-murderous dude who just so happened to also named Jan. Almost a hundred years before Martin Luther stormed the Bastille and posted the Declaration of Independence on the doors of the Alamo by hammering a wooden stake through the Pope, a Czech priest named Jan Hus was already starting shit with the Church over that whole "selling of indulgences" thing that pissed so many people off in the Later Middle Ages. The short version of the story is that Jan Hus thought the Catholic Church needed to be reformed in three key ways: First, the Church services should be read in Czech instead of Latin, because who the fuck speaks Latin anyways. Second, everyone should be able to get in on the wine-drinking action during Holy Communion, and the Priests shouldn't bogart the Blood of Christ for themselves. Third, the only way to be absolved for your sins should be to make peace with God through Confession, and that rich people shouldn't be able to give the Church money in exchange for absolution from their evil deeds.
Naturally, the 15th century Catholic Church responded to this request for reform by excommunicating Jan Hus and burning him at the stake as a heretic.
This "die in a fire" response didn't sit too well with the Hussites (a catch-all term used to describe people who thought Jan Hus was a "pretty righteous dude"), so in 1419 an angry mob of pissed-off Hussite villagers stormed into the town hall in Prague and threw a bunch of city councilors out the third-story windows onto a waiting hedge of well-sharpened spears. This balls-out riot is known as the First Defenestration of Prague, which is awesome not only because it is a brilliant use of the word defenestration (meaning "to throw an object or a person out a window") but also because it suggests that there was more than one Defenestration of Prague (which there was – the Second Defenestration of Prague was the precipitating event that kicked off the Thirty Years' War). I guess it would have helped the rulers of Prague to invest in some storm shutters or something.
Defenestration in action.
When news got back to King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia that his citizens had revolted and chucked most of his favorite diplomats through a series of plate glass windows to their horrible deaths, he immediately stroked out and died. (Historical note: This is not the same man as "Good King Wenceslas" – that was King Wenceslas I of Bohemia, who was a decent human being and a Roman Catholic Saint. Wenceslas IV was known as "Wenceslas the Idle", and was basically worthless anyways, so it wasn't a huge loss.) Since Wenceslas didn't have any kids, the new Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund assumed control of Bohemia, and the Pope immediately ordered him to grab his blade and kick some heretic ass.
It wouldn't be that easy.
You see, the leader of the Hussites and their politician-hurling revolution was a no-bullshit, battle-hardened military commander named Jan Zizka. Zizka, (whose name with all the wacky Eastern European diacriticals was ika) was a Bohemian, but it's important to note that this was back when "Bohemian" meant "crotch-obliterating Czech hardass" rather than "starving artist living in a marijuana-filled loft above a defunct Chinese restaurant listening to Bob Dylan". Zizka was a landowner near the Czech town of Budweis – the place that lends its name to Budweiser beer – and he had served as a commander in the now-dead King's royal bodyguard. By 1419, Zizka had already lost an eye fighting as a mercenary Captain against the Teutonic Knights - battling alongside Polish knights at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410, when he led a group of Russian Cossacks that held the line against an all-out charge by a horde of uber-hardcore Teutonic heavy cavalry. Even after his flanks fell back and he got an eye poked out by a lance or an arrow or something, Zizka the One-Eyed stayed strong, helping to turn the tides and contributing to the eventual destruction of the Teutonic Order as a political entity (but that's a tale for another day).
Zizka at Tannenberg, seen here flipping out Olde fchool.
So when the Holy Roman Empire declared a Crusade against the Hussites in 1420 and Catholic loyalists started setting Hussites on fire and/or throwing them down mine shafts for fun and pleasure, their de facto leader Jan Zizka immediately sprung into action. He moved his angry mob to capture the one fortress in Prague that hadn't been locked down by loyalists (it helped that the fort was garrisoned by men who had served under his command in previous wars), and led his sort-of-warriors in a tough street fight with their religious freedom (and very existence) on the line.
Oh, and while he was riding the countryside consolidating his power and recruiting Hussite troops, Zizka also survived an ambush when his 400-man bodyguard was attacked by 2,000 of the enemy – he not only escaped with his life, but massacred the attackers almost to the last man. It would be the first true test for his homemade secret weapon:
The Hussite War Wagon.
Jan Zizka's War Wagon was a badass armored death machine that ended up being the closest thing real-life history has to a steampunk M1A1 Abrams tank. These doombringing monstrosities were ultra-sturdy wheeled vehicles built from heavy timber and reinforced with iron, and were so hardcore that they could withstand bullets, arrows, and crossbow bolts without buckling. In combat, Zizka would just load these suckers up with peasant men and women armed with cannons, small hand guns (the Czech pistalas were the beginning of pistols as we know them today), crossbows, or bows, and then just let his warriors pour fire on the enemy from the safety of their armored transport. On the attack he would shove them forward like tanks to smash through the enemy lines, and in defense he'd chain them all together "circling the wagons" style so that they were immovable objects. The War Wagons could be deployed anywhere at a moment's notice, and when the Hussites weren't using them to bash the shit out of their enemies they converted them into Party Busses and transported food, families, and equipment quickly and easily. They even carried mobile ore-crushers and forges on these things so they could repair their weapons and mold new bullets or cannonballs while on the march. Pretty goddamned brilliant, if you ask me.
Jan Zizka never rode in these things during combat, however, preferring to fight face-to-face with a skull-obliterating mace on horseback, but the War Wagon was his design, and it was a damn good one at that. Considering that he was basically commanding heavily-outnumbered, under-equipped, disorganized peasants using shovels and pitchforks, he somehow whipped them into a fighting force that could take on even the toughest knights and aristocrats. It was pretty fucking impressive.
Bringing the pain, lederhosen-style.
So when Emperor Sigismund arrived at Prague with a huge besieging army of knights and crusaders, it shouldn't be a huge surprise that Jan Zizka kicked the shit out of them without a hell of a lot of trouble. Zizka set up defenses around Vitkov Hill, preventing the encirclement of the city, and then when the crusaders charged them he smashed them apart with his war wagons, then personally led a charge around the flank that crushed the last remnants of the enemy forces. The people of Prague (Praguians?) were so pumped that they crossed out the "V" in Vitkov Hill and renamed it Zitkov Hill instead, an act that drew the only single manly tear Jan Zizka ever shed in his entire life.
From that point on, Zizka led a guerilla war against Royalist Bohemians and Holy Roman Crusaders alike, destroying everyone in his path and consolidating Hussite power in the land. Once he was firmly in control of Bohemia he signed a writ proclaiming religious freedom for all Bohemians, which was nice of him and all, but this religious tolerance thing still didn't stop some loyalist jackass from shooting him in his good eye with an arrow in 1421.
|Legend has it that when the Holy Roman Empire heard that Zizka was laid up with two missing eyes, they mounted an attack on one of his fortresses. When Zizka heard about this, he immediately got out of bed, hopped on his horse, and started riding toward the battle, warning the Romans that they needed to "Czech themselves before the wreck themselves". When the enemy soldiers heard he was coming for them, they dropped their shit and bolted without firing a shot.|
Having both his eyes put out by enemy weaponry STILL didn't stop Zizka, however – this tank-driving maniac was just too badass to fade away. He went on to command his army for 4 more years, the blind leading the non-blind, and still never lost a fight. The Pope ended up sending a second crusade after the Hussites in 1421, but even though the invading army outnumbered and encircled Zizka's forces, the Czech mastermind loaded his troops into their War Wagons and led a balls-out breakout that smashed through the cleverly-placed trap. Once he was free of the enemy, he circled his men around, turned the tables, caught the OTHER DUDES off guard (how you get ambushed by a blind guy is beyond me) and, at the Battle of Nemecky Brod in 1422, Zizka's army of 12,000 men charged 23,000 crusaders and destroyed them out of hand.
After driving off two papal crusades and firmly establishing himself as the Big Shit of Bohemia, Zizka died of the Black Death, which is admittedly a pretty badass way to go out. After his death, his movement remained, however – the Hussites fought and defeated five papal crusades between 1420 and 1431, eventually made peace with the Pope, and installed a Hussite King of Bohemia. Today Jan Zizka is the national hero of the Czech Republic.
The horse in this statue of Zizka is larger than any other horse in any other statue in the world.
Dunford, Lisa, Brett Atkinson, and Neil Wilson. Czech and Slovak Republics. Lonely Planet, 2007.
Grant, R.G. Commanders. Penguin, 2010.
Houdley, William E. Zizka. Oxford University, 1871.
Nolan, Cathal J. The Age of Wars of Religion. Greenwood, 2006.
Scott, Richard Bodley and Peter Dennis. Eternal Empire. Osprey, 2008.
Turnbull, Stephen. The Hussite Wars. Osprey, 2004.
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