The letters of John Hus/Part 4

Part IV.—Letters Written on the Journey to Constance

(August—November, 1414.)

On October 30, 1413, Sigismund, at that time at Como, had summoned, as ‘the defender and advocate of the Church,’ all princes and prelates to a General Council to be held at Constance on November 1, 1414. The affairs of Christendom which led to the calling of this Council, the failure of the Council of Pisa, the ambition of Sigismund, and the struggles of the three rival Popes, must not now detain us. But it is important for the student of the life of Hus to realise that when Sigismund summoned this most momentous Council the termination of the schism was not his only object. As heir to the throne of Bohemia, he felt the need of removing from the land the stain of heresy. He realised keenly that ‘throughout the whole earth resounded the rumour that the Bohemians are sons of heretical baseness.’ Unfortunately, but one letter of Hus for the year between Sigismund’s summoning of the Council and the following August has been preserved for us (supra, p. 137). A fuller correspondence would have been invaluable in giving us some insight into the popular anticipations as regards this great event. Whatever steps Wenzel might take, Sigismund, as the heir to Wenzel’s domains, determined to bring the matter before the Council. He was persuaded that the affair could be peaceably settled, and that he would win the gratitude of Bohemia. He accordingly despatched from Friuli, in Lombardy, three of his court to bid Hus present himself at Constance, and to act as his escort. The good intentions of Sigismund are evident in his choice. John of Chlum, surnamed Kepka, and Wenzel of Lestna, of the house of Duba, were both adherents of Hus, who had served with Sigismund in 1413 in his Venetian war. The third, Henry Chlum of Lacembok, was John of Chlum’s uncle. Sigismund also promised that he would obtain for Hus a full hearing and send him a safe conduct ‘written in Latin and German.’

Hus at once prepared to obey. In view of his own appeal to a General Council, he could not do otherwise. He was too unconscious of his real dissent from Rome to know the risks he ran. His next move was not without worldly wisdom. On August 26, 1414, he posted up notices in Latin and Czech throughout the whole of Prague offering ‘to render an account of his faith and hope’ before the Synod that would open on the

following day. Numerous copies of this notice have been preserved. The Latin Notice[1] ran as follows:—

Notice to the Synod

Master John of Husinecz, bachelor of divinity,[2] is ready to appear before the most reverend father, Conrad, Archbishop of Prague, legate of the Apostolic Seat, at the next convocation of all the prelates and clergy of the kingdom of Bohemia, being at all times prepared to give an account of the faith and hope that is in him to the satisfaction of all who may inquire of him thereof; and, moreover, to see and to hear each and all who have a mind to charge him with obstinacy in error or with any heresy whatsoever, in order that they may render themselves liable in that same place, according to the requirements of the law of God and of justice, to the penalty of retaliation, if they fail legally to prove against him obstinacy in error or heresy.[3] To all which charges before the said Archbishop and prelates, and withal at the next General Council in Constance, he is ready with God’s help to reply, to abide by the law, and, in Christ’s name, to prove his innocence according to the decrees and canons of the holy fathers. Given on Sunday following the feast of St. Bartholomew.[4]

On the refusal of the Synod to receive either Hus or his proctor, Jesenicz, Hus on August 30 once more posted up notices on the door of the royal palace and throughout all Prague stating his future intentions.

Appeal to the Court

To his Majesty, to the Queen, to their advisers, the Prefect of the court, and the whole court.[5]

I, Master John Hus, do hereby make known and declare that, whereas I did clearly learn from certain persons that a letter was sent by the Pope to his Majesty (though I knew not by whom it was transcribed), wherein his Majesty was advised zealously to weed out of his kingdom of Bohemia all budding heretics, and whereas, as I put my trust in God, it was without fault of my own that a rumour of that kind did arise, causing me to be pointed at with the finger, I despatched hither and thither many letters, lest on any account his Majesty should incur slander and Bohemia disgrace, and, moreover, caused them to be posted up, announcing that I would show myself in the Archbishop’s court, in order that cognisance might be taken of my beliefs: accordingly, if there had been any one in the kingdom of Bohemia who could charge me with any heresy, he might have announced his name in the Archbishop’s court and publicly indicted me there. But inasmuch as no one came forward and my lord the Archbishop gave me and my proctors no locus standi, therefore, in the name of justice, I entreat his Majesty, the Queen, their advisers, and the Prefect of the entire court to grant to me due attestation of this fact—namely, that I made the above declaration, and publicly posted up a letter concerning this matter, and that no one in the whole kingdom stood forth against me. Again, besides all this, I hereby make known to the whole of Bohemia, and to the other countries from old time of vast importance, that I wish to appear in Constance at the Council that has been summoned, in the presence of the Pope, if he is to be there, and before the said General Council. If any one can lay any heresy to my charge, let him prepare to set out to the Council, that he may there in person lay before the Pope and the whole Council whatever heresy he hath heard me utter. If I shall be convicted of any heresy, I do not refuse to suffer the penalties of a heretic. But I trust God, whom I truly love, that He will not permit the detractors and adversaries of the truth to overcome the truth.

Hus did not neglect to take other steps for his defence. The same day (August 30), ‘in the upper room of the house of the Master of the Mint,[6] John of Jesenicz, the procurator of Hus, humbly but earnesly inquired of Nicholas, Bishop of Nazareth, inquisitor of heresy for the city and diocese of Prague: “Reverend father, do you know of any error or heresy in Master John de Husinecz, alias Hus?” To which the said Lord Nicholas answered, not of compulsion, but freely and publicly in the Czech tongue: “I have met Master John Hus many times and in many places, eating and drinking with him. I have often been present at his sermons; I have had many talks with him on diverse matters of Holy Scripture. In all his words and deeds I have ever found him to be a true and catholic man, in no wise savouring of heresy or error”’ (Doc. 242). Certain of the nobles procured a similar declaration from the Archbishop. So, on the following day (September 1), Hus despatched a letter to Sigismund, enclosing copies of the notices he had posted in Prague and elsewhere, and not forgetting, we imagine, though of this the letter says nothing, to forward a copy of the Bishop of Nazareth’s certificate of orthodoxy.

  1. The Czech Notice is similar, but differs in the conclusion: ‘. . . And if any one is able to prefer a charge of error or heresy against me, let him get ready to set out thither, that he may accuse me there, after giving out his name before the aforesaid Council. It will give me no trouble to reply in due order as to the truths I hold, both to small and great. Therefore, good sirs, lovers of justice, consider carefully whether I make any demand in this letter which is contrary to divine or human law. If, however, I shall not be allowed a hearing, let it be known to the whole kingdom of Bohemia that this occurs through no fault of mine.’
  2. Baccalarius formatus, the technical term for a bachelor of divinity who had read Peter Lombard’s Sentences, but not yet incepted as a regent. See, e.g., Chartularium Univ. Paris, ii. 700, and for Oxford, Munimenta Acad. (R.S.), 392, 395-6.
  3. Hus is here strictly within the canon law. See Gratian, II. C. 2, q. 3. This point is emphasised in the conclusion of the Czech Notice.
  4. August 26, 1414.
  5. A Czech copy only has been preserved. But a translation into Latin was made as early as the Epist. Piissimæ, B. 3.
  6. See infra, p. 211, n. 3.