The Hussite Wars and the Aftermath

Following the death of Emperor Charles IV in 1378, the golden autumn of the Catholic Church and the Augustinian Order began to fade before the growing storm of Hussitism that was ever to haunt subsequent Czech history. As a movement Hussitism was born within the melange of late fourteenth century religious and political questions which at a distance do not lend themselves to easy analysis. The unwitting catalyst was Master Jan Hus, the earnest preacher and rector of the newly founded Charles University, who ardently worked for the reform of the Church on a platform suspiciously akin to that of the Oxford don and English reformer, John Wycliff. Though Wycliff’s writings were condemned as subversive they proved to be a lodestone for much discussion and controversy and soon Jan Hus joined the fray gathering a loyal following attracted by his challenging and increasingly inflammatory sermons delivered in the Bethleham Chapel.

The laxity of the clergy which neither the mediocre Avignon papacy (1305–1378) nor the “Great Western Schism” (1378–1417), its scandalous sequel, adequately managed to address. The kingdom of Bohemia was a case in point. “Golden Prague,” the effective seat of empire under the able rule of Emperor Charles IV (1347–1378), monumental in opulent ecclesiastical and monastic structures, was, as proverbial for its numerous and prominent clergy, who, more often than not, were caught in the double maze of politics and careerism. As a body, the clergy reflecting the customary social barriers of contemporary medieval society were divided into the “higher” and the “lower” clergy. The former drawn frequently drawn from the wealthy, titled classes closest to the imperial court, comprised the influential hierarchy or ruling body of bishops and prelates. The latter or lower clergy, a species of a floating clerical proletariat (the zakovstvo or vagi) were often denied ordination for unavailability of benefice (a stipened position) or at least a prebend (a stipend). Naturally as the divide widened so did the discontent and those “non-beneficed” clerics, especially abounding in university cities like Prague, voiced strident criticism of their lordly (mainly) German speaking prelates.

But other factors, too, provided the fuel of discontent. A scandalously divided papacy, in particular, moved such preachers as Jan Hus to incite the Czechs into open rebellion. It would be too easy to blame Charles’ incompetent son and successor, Vaclav IV, for these mounting religious tensions since the bi-focal Roman-Avignonese papal dilemma was beyond any political power to heal or control. Although carefully groomed by his father, Wencelaus IV fell far short of his father’s ambitions and helplessly watched the growing ambitions of the restless Habsburgs. Less than seven years after his coronation (1385) he lost a great part of his kingdom and suffered the ultimate indignity of forced abdication in 1394. The following year, he was provisionally restored as king in face of Turkish incursions but failing the challenge, the hapless Wenceslaus was once more imprisoned (1397) this time in Vienna under Habsburgs surveillance who for final measure once more deposed him on August 22, 1400. Called, unjustly after his death “the Drunkard” for his alleged alcoholic bouts, Wenceslaus IV had also been implicated in the murder of the future St. John Nepomuk but mercifully died just on the very eve of the Hussite revolt in 1420. In retrospect one could say that this talented man was both victim of political circumstance over which he lost control as well as his own personality faults which he could not control.

The Augustinians on the eve of the Hussite revolt following the execution of Jan Hus in 1415, were, understandably, caught up in the eye of the resultant storm. So prominently situated under the shadow of the imperial palace, St Thomas Church and Monastery with all its obvious opulent imperial endowments, could hardly have escaped the ensuing carnage and the iconoclasm. But even before that date Augustinian opposition to such radicalism raged between the Austin friars and the eloquent, populist reformer, Konrad Waldhauser (+1369), a fiery Austrian canon and pastor “of the Germans” at St. Mary Tyn Church who most vituperatively denounced the friars toward the end of his contentious career. Of course, The Augustinian friars did little to endear themselves to Walldhauser in whom they solemnly recognized as the AntiChrist. Not to be outdone in casting of appellatives, it should be noted that the Augustinians had been identified previously by John Wicliff as “a beast resembling a lion” (Daniel 7:4).

Carrying on in very much of the Waldhauser tradition was yet another radical priest and social reformer, Jan Milic of Kromer, who began his career as a Czech preacher in 1364 at sv. Mikulas Church across the square from St. Thomas Church and monastery. Toward the end of his life in 1374 he inherited Waldhauser’s German ministry, pulpit and eager congregation in St. Mary Tyn Church. Personally poor and ascetical, he garnered the support of Prague’s Archbishop Jan Ocko of Vlasim (+1379), a prelate truly concerned with the welfare of his people. Milic then took to gathering the poor, the reformed prostitutes and the socially marginalized into a community intentionally called Jeruzalem. His outspoken demands for a council to reform obvious abuses in the Church growing more strident, aroused such suspicion that Milic was wisked away to Avignon for a hearing during which he died in 1374.

But affairs would come to a dramatic climax with the charismatic Jan Hus (+1415), Master of Charles University. Like his predecessors, Milic and Waldhauser, he gathered a group of enthusiastic followers now openly vaunting their heterodoxy to a higher clergy confronted with the dilemma of a tripartite papacy. All the citizens of Prague, so it seemed, eagerly flocked to Master Hus’s eloquent sermons now more tinged with Wicliff’s jeremiads excoriating clerical wealth and privilege. Faced with growing suspicion of heresy yet steadfastly protesting his orthodoxy Hus, like the future Martin Luther, a full century later (1517) first attacked the teaching and preaching of indulgences in 1412. The imperial court of Zigismund, Wencleslaus IV’s brother and successor, then promptly ordered Hus to recant some 45 perceived doctrinal errors. Hus, vainly appealing to Jesus Christ, was answered with a retaliatory decree in October 1412 ordering the demolition of his Bethlehem Chapel and his immediate banishment from Prague. The standoff was to end (1414) when Jan Hus accepted the Emperor Zigismund’s fateful “guarrantee of safe conduct” to the newly convened Council of Constance. There in spite of all convention, the emperor had him ignominiously arrested, degraded from the priesthood and burnt at the stake on July 06, 1415. Johannes Zacharias, the vicar of the Saxon Observantine Augustinians, who preached in St. Thomas Church, played such a role opposing Hus that the Catholic party at Constance dubbed him Husomatrix, or the Flagellum Husitorum (“the Scourge of the Hussites”). Obviously, such concerted anti-Hussite efforts did little to endear Zacharias and his Augustinian brothers either to the Prague proletariat or to the Hussites in particular.

Master Jan Hus’s tragic death, barbaric, indeed, though meted out according to the harsh penal code of the day, has become sine dubio one of those defining moments that was ever to haunt the collective Czech memory and Roman Catholic conscience to the present. Once the news of Hus’s ignominious fate reached Prague sporadic violence became the order of the day. Once imperial authority buckled under this onslaught iconoclasm soon knew no bounds. With the initial success of the Hussite infantry succesively led by the able Jan Zizka who in 1424 fell in combat to the death of his radical successor, Prokopius Holy (+1434), the priest- turned- general, Bohemia and its neighbors were subject to sporadic military forays targeting clergy and churches.

With the erosion of royal authority and increasing street violence the Augustinian community soon experienced the full brunt of Hussite fury. Responding to this growing anarchism a certain lord Cenek Vartenberg took the fateful step of quartering German troops in St. Thomas’s monastery as early as 1419. Unable, however, to shore up his defenses he hastily retreated on November 04th to the Hradcany redoubt leaving the Augustinians and St. Thomas to the mercies of Mikulas Husi, a rabid Hussite demogogue. On May 09th 1420 within a year of its completion, a mob plundered and seriously damaged the church and monastery. The final blow was struck on June 14th when the same rioters returned and burnt the monastery and church to the ground. Those Augustinians who valiantly remained behind such as Augustine Smacky, Jan Block and Adam Putzen were severely beaten and Herman Schwab, the Augustinian auxiliary bishop of Prague, was murdered. As with nearly all the religious houses of Prague, the other Augustinian foundation in Prague, the nunnery of St. Catherine’s in Novy Mesto, had also been fired earlier in May. The hapless Augustinian nuns now sought refuge among the Dominican nuns of St. Ann’s convent (Stare Mesto) spared (according the rumor) through the intercession of the prioress, the putative aunt of John Zizka himself.

The Augustinians managed to return only in 1437 after the once invincible Hussites had been defeated in the decisive battle of Lipany. This finale, terminating a series of brilliant campaigns described as “a coordinated religious riot” rampaging through Poland, Bavaria, Saxony and Hungary, did, however, mark a tentative peace. Once back in Mala Strana the friars set about rebuilding the ruins of their gutted church and monastery with scarce expection of help from an embittered Czech populace.

The prospects were indeed daunting and progress was slow. At first, the friars managed to restore enough of the sanctuary and choir as a place of public worship with some additional space for a humble downsized friary. By 1497 with extensive help from unexpected benefactors the prior, Friar Augustine of Domazlic, rebuilt St. Thomas’s Church with sufficient room for public worship; still later, he renovated extensive portions of the devastated monastery. This was quite a feat for the estimated three resident Czech and foreign friars who had to live in other accomodations for the duration of the construction. But their achievement was shortlived when in 1503 tragedy again struck with a disastrous fire which burnt out both Church and monastery. Undaunted the friars managed to rebuild by 1509 the cloister vaults and the sanctuary and this just in time for another dramatic mishap. On May 17th 1509, the feast of the Ascension, the Augustinians staged a striking paraliturgical biblical tableau with a dramatic finale. As an image of the Risen Lord was slowly lifted by pulleys from the sanctuary floor through a hole in the ceiling, royal trumpeteers blared out a fanfare much to the breathless edification of the attendant faithful. However, affairs got out of hand when a great crowd pushed its way into the upper galleries of the church for a better glimpse of the ceremonial. Unable to sustain this added weight, the galleries ominously sagged and suddenly collapsed killing six persons and seriously injuring many more in the aftermath. Nor was this the final woe. In 1516 a melee broke out outside St. Thomas Church. An initially trivial altercation between Hungarian and Lotharingian guardsmen had some tragic consequences when the local populace took sides in the ensuing pitched battle. Once order had finally been restored, there were 16 Hungarian casualties who by command of Louis of Hungary, the newly crowned King of Bohemia, were buried with full obsequies in St. Thomas Church.

In the period between the great fire of 1503 and the conflagration of June 2nd 1541, St. Thomas monastery was reduced to an indigent dependency of the extensive Bavarian province then consisting of some 55 monasteries. Divided into nine distinct geographical districts (districtus) ranging from what is present day Belorus-Lithuania in the east to Bavaria-Austria in the west and from the Polish Baltic in the north to the Dalmatian Adriatic littoral in the south, communication with the distant provincial was precarious at best. This problem was somewhat alleviated with the appointment of resident vicars in certain designated territories. In Bohemia in the aftermath of the Hussite struggles and the later steady advance of Protestantism there was a pressing need in Mala Strana and in Prague itself (without an effective bishop from 1421 to 1561) for German speaking priests. As St. Thomas was the only Catholic parish in Mala Strana, this language problem became crucial with the influx of German Catholics at court during the reign of Emperor Rudolph II (1576–1612). Though many of the resident friars in St. Thomas were foreigners, none apparently felt confident enough in German. Priors often hardpressed in their quest for capable Catholic German preachers could be quite successful in attracting such luminaries as the famous priest chronicler and bi-linguist, Vaclav Hajek of Libocan, who brilliantly preached at St. Thomas from 1533 through 1547.

Although the Augustinians remained orthodox during the Reformation which was slowly gaining ground in Prague, an increasingly hostile atmosphere especially during the reigns of Maximilian II (1564–+1576) and Rudolph II (1576–+1612) exacted its toll on Catholic life and Augustinian observance. And Antonin Brus, Prague’s first Archbishop since 1430, a member of the knightly Order of the Red Star or Krizovniki, was determined to stem the reform tide. In sharply worded but hardly diplomatic imperatives, he, at once, ordered the friars to a more intense pastoral ministry which included – despite the risk of public derision – the wearing of the habit. The Church of St. Thomas, still in a state of reconstruction after the fire of 1541 – the third such calamity in fifty years – had been providentialy rescued by Emperor Ferdinand I (1556–+1564), a generous benefactor who covered most of the costs of restoration. In memory of his dead wife, the Empress Anna (+1547), he had given the Augustinians timely needed material for Church reconstruction four years before his own death. Not to be outdone, Ladislaus Lobkowicz, the royal councillor and judge of appeals, likewise, donated materials for the same purpose and was singled out as “munificent and generous” by the grateful friars.

The times were difficult. Emperor Maximilian II (1564–1576), despite his Catholic upbringing, openly sympathised with Protestantism and publically disdained Catholic practices. In an increasingly hostile Prague, the Augustinians even had to sell cloister property to support their community. Conditions did improve, however, with the accession of the eccentric Rudolph II in 1576 and relations with the imperial court even grew cordial when St. Thomas’s Church, was regarded though unofficially as the dvorni farni chram or the court parish church. Parochial life too grew apace with the establishment of the Court Confraternity of Corpus Christi of Saint Thomas Church that was later endowed by Pope Sixtus V with many indulgences. Like his grandfather, Ferdinand I, Rudolph II proved a generous supporter of the Augustinians in times of need. Thus, in 1584 he even lent them the services of his architect Ulrich Aostalli to examine the fabric of the Church then reduced to the presbyterium or sanctuary and the side chapel of St. Dorothy. Aostalli, aside from the designs for a projected hall-like nave that would have lengthened the Church considerably, did little else. However, his Renaissance portals to and from the sanctuaryas well as the portals leading into the sacristy, Saint Barbara’s and Saint Dorothy’s Chapels all date from Rudolph’s reign (1576–1607). Most likely, the friars not having to pay for his services so gratuitously extended by the emperor, just as easily dismissed him. They then hired a certain di Alberto whose sudden death (1590) led to the commissioning of the energetic John Dominic de Barefis. He apparently accomplished so much in two years that the Papal Nuncio, Bishop Caesare Speciano of Cremona, on December 29, 1592 consecrated the Church under the double patronage of Saint Thomas and Saint Augustine. Some 17 years later in 1609 the same architect restored the choir and in 1610 the master-bricklayer, one Marco, repaired the damage done to the Church by lightening. Succeding architects included Dominic de Bossi and John Baptist Bussi de Campione who in 1617 executed the fine marble portal over the main and side entrances of the Church.

The Augustinians of St. Thomas during the previous century were for the most part Italian or Spanish friars then under the jurisdiction of a distant Bavarian provincial. In 1604 through the initiative of the Emperor Rudolph II, the Prior General, Hipolito Fabriani, then mandated Felice Milensio, the designated Vicar General for Germany in 1602 to take the final steps for the creation of a Bohemian province. During the Chapter beginning on December 01, 1604, the most obvious candidate, Jan Kritel Svitavsky (Kristl or Crystellius), then prior of St. Thomas was elected the first Bohemian provincial. During his four eventful and effective administrations as provincial (1605–1609; 1614–1623; 1633–+1637) the Church of St.Thomas, despite the constant threat of war and religious conflict, was slowly restored to something of its previous glory. Perhaps, one of his most memorable contributions was Svitavsky’s commissioning Peter Paul Rubens for the paintings of Augustine and the Child and The Martyrdom of Saint Thomas the Apostle, which hung over the Main Altar until removed in 1968 to the National Gallery.

From 1656 through 1692 the monastery was completed in the form we see it today but was once more in need of reconstruction. The chronicler put it: ruinosa ecclesia ac exterii deformis fenestrisque obscuris (“the Church is in a ruinous state and the exterior is marred by unsightly windows”). It should be mentioned that a section of the building was already beginning to collapse when fate seemed to intervene. On July 26, 1723, just eight days after the state visit of the newly crowned Emperor-King of Bohemia, Charles VI (+1740), lightening struck the sagging edifice and killed the Augustinian friar Roch. Decisions now could not be delayed. The prior, Seraphin Melzer, a most able man, very much in the spirit of his industrious predecessor, friar Jan Kritel Svitovsky (+1637), was determined to rebuild and refurbish the Church. And much to his credit, he gave himself unreservedly to that singular task until taken by death June 21, 1737. Supported by generous benefactors he first reinforced the seriously weakened walls, installed a new floor and commissioned Vaclav Reiner (+1743) to execute the still extant frescos depicting the life and teaching of St. Augustine, the father of the Augustinian order.

Friar Serafin’s other singular contribution was the hiring of the famous architect Kilian Ignac Dietzenhofer (+1751) who on April 26, 1727 verbally promised the Augustinians “to preserve the ancient structure of the Church, to restore where possible and to rebuild where needed.” A scion of that prodigious family whose monumental churches and palaces still grace central Europe, Dietzenhofer undertook the task of remodelling the church in contemporary baroque style. He first lowered the soaring gothic ceilings, constructed galleries over the side naves and then constructed a lantern atop the cupola over the sanctuary.