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Foxe's Book of Martyrs

The Life, Sufferings, and Martyrdom of John Huss, Who Was Burnt at Constance in Germany.

John Huss was a Bohemian, born in the village of Hussenitz about the year 1380. His parents gave him the best education they could bestow, and having acquired a tolerable knowledge of the classics at a private school, he was sent thence to the university of Prague, where the powers of his mind and his diligence in study soon rendered him conspicuous. In 1408 he commenced bachelor of divinity, and was after successively chosen pastor of the church of Bethlehem, in Prague, and dean, and rector of the university. These stations he discharged with great fidelity, and became at length so conspicuous for his preaching and the boldness of his truths, that he soon attracted the notice and excited the malignity of the pope and his creatures. The incident which most provoked the indignation of Huss was a papal bull, which offered remission of sin to all who would join the army of the pope in his contest with the king of Naples, who had invaded the holy see, and threatened destruction to the papal dominion.

The English reformer, Wickliffe, had so kindled the light of reformation, that it began to illume the darkest corners of popery and ignorance. His doctrines were received in Bohemia with avidity and zeal by great numbers of people; but by none so zealously as John Huss, and his friend and fellow-martyr, Jerome of Prague. The reformists daily increasing, the archbishop of Prague issued a decree to suppress the farther spreading of Wickliffe's writings. This, however, had an effect quite the reverse of what he expected, for it stimulated the converts to greater zeal, and at length almost the whole university united in promoting them. In that renowned institution the influence of Huss was very great, not only on account of his learning, eloquence, and exemplary life; but also on account of some valuable privileges he had obtained from the king in behalf of the Bohemians.

Strongly attached to the doctrines of Wickliffe, Huss strenuously opposed the decree of the archbishop, who, notwithstanding, obtained a bull from the pope, giving him commission to prevent the publishing of Wickliffe's writings in his province. By virtue of this bull the archbishop condemned those writings: he also proceeded against four doctors who had not delivered up some copies, and prohibited them to preach. Against these proceedings Dr. Huss, with some other members of the university, protested, and entered an appeal from the sentence of the archbishop. The pope no sooner heard of this, than he granted a commission to cardinal Colonno, to cite Huss to appear at the court of Rome, to answer accusations laid against him, of preaching both errors and heresies. From this Dr. Huss desired to be excused, and so greatly was he favoured in Bohemia that king Wincelaus, the queen, the nobility, and the university, desired the pope to dispense with such an appearance; as also that he would not suffer the kingdom of Bohemia to lie under the accusation of heresy, but permit all to preach the gospel with freedom in their places of worship according to their own honest convictions.

Three proctors appeared for Dr. Huss before cardinal Colonno. They pleaded an excuse for his absence, and said they were ready to answer in his behalf. But the cardinal declared him contumacious, and accordingly excommunicated him. On this the proctors appealed to the pope, who appointed four cardinals to examine the process: these commissioners confirmed the sentence of the cardinal, and extended the excommunication, not only on Huss, but to all his friends and followers. Huss then appealed from this unjust sentence to a future council, but without success; and, notwithstanding so severe a decree, and an expulsion from his church in Prague, he retired to Hussenitz, his native place, where he continued to promulgate the truth, in his writings as well as his public ministry. It was in this retirement and comparative seclusion that he compiled a treatise, in which he maintained that reading the books of protestants could not be forbidden or prevented. He wrote in defence of wickliffe's work on the Trinity; and boldly protested against the vices of the pope, the cardinals, and the clergy of those corrupt times. In addition to these he was the author of several other productions, all of which were penned with such strength of argument as greatly facilitated the diffusion of protestant principles.

In England persecution against the protestants had been carried on for some time with relentless cruelty. They now extended to Germany and Bohemia, where Dr. Huss, and Jerome of Prague, were particularly singled out to suffer in the cause of religion. In the month of November, in the year 1414, a general council was assembled at Constance, in Germany, for the purpose of determining a dispute then existing between three persons who contended for the papal throne. These were, John, set up by the Italians; Gregory, by the French; and Benedict, by the Spaniards. The council continued four years, in which the severest laws were enacted to crush the protestants. Pope John was deposed and obliged to fly: more than forty crimes being proved against him; among which were, his attempt to poison his predecessor, his being a gamester, a liar, a murderer, an adulterer, and guilty of unnatural offences.

John Huss was first summoned to appear at the council; and to dispel any apprehension of danger, the emperor sent him a passport, giving him permission freely to come to, and return from, the council. On receiving this information, he told the persons who delivered it, that he desired nothing more than to purge himself publicly of the imputation of heresy; and that he esteemed himself happy in having so fair an opportunity for doing so as the council to which he was summoned to attend.

In the latter end of November he set out for Constance, accompanied by two Bohemian, who were among the most eminent of his disciples, and who followed him through respect and affection. He caused placards to be fixed upon the gates of the churches of Prague, in which he declared, that he went to the council to answer all charges that might be made against him. He also declared, in all the cities through which he passed, that he was going to vindicate himself at Constance, and invited all his adversaries to be present. On his way he met with every mark of affection and reverence from people of all descriptions. The streets, and even the roads, were thronged with people, whom respect rather than curiosity had brought together. He was ushered into several towns with great acclamations; and he passed through Germany in a kind of triumph. "I thought," he said, "I had been an outcast. I now see my worst friends are in Bohemia."

On arriving at Constance, he immediately took lodgings in a remote part of the city. Soon after there came to him one Stephen Paletz, who was engaged by the clergy at Prague to manage the intended prosecution against him. Paletz was afterwards joined by Michel de Cassis, on the part of the court of Rome. These two declared themselves his accusers, and drew up articles against him, which they presented to the pope and the prelates of the council. Notwithstanding the promise of the emperor, to give him safe conduct to and from constance, he regarded not his word; but, according to the maxim of the council, that "Faith is not to be kept with heretics," when it was known he was in the city, he was immediately arrested, and committed prisoner to a chamber in the palace. This breach was particularly noticed by one of Huss's friends, who urged the imperial passport: but the pope replied he never granted any such thing, nor was he bound by that of the emperor.

While Huss was under confinement, the council acted the part of inquisitors. They condemned the doctrines of Wickliffe, and in their impotent malice ordered his remains to be dug up and burnt to ashes. While these orders were executing the nobility of Bohemia and Poland used all their interest for Huss; and so far prevailed as to prevent his being condemned unheard, which appeared to have been resolved on by the commissioners appointed to try him. Before his trial took place, his enemies employed a Franciscan friar, to entangle him in his words, and then appear against him. This man of great ingenuity and subtlety, came to him in the character of an idiot and with seeming sincerity and zeal, requested to be taught his doctrines. But Huss soon detected him, and told him that his manners wore a great semblance of simplicity, but that his questions discovered a depth and design beyond the reach of an idiot. He afterwards found this pretended fool to be Didace, one of the deepest logicians in Lombardy.

At length Huss was brought before the council, when the articles exhibited against him were read: they were upwards of forty in number, and chiefly extracted from his writings. The following extract, forming the eighth article of impeachment, will give a sample of the ground on which this infamous trial was conducted. "An evil and a wicked pope is not the successor of Peter, but of Judas." Answer, "I wrote this in my treatise, if the pope be humble and meek, neglecting and despising the honour and lucre of the world; if he be a shepherd, taking his name from feeding the flock of God; if he feed the sheep with the word, and with virtuous example, and that he become even like his flock with his whole heart and mind; if he diligently and carefully labour and travel for the church, then is he without doubt the true vicar of Christ. But if he walk contrary to these virtues, so much as there is no society between Christ and Belial, and Christ himself saith, `He that is not with me is against me,' how is he then the true vicar of Christ or Peter, and not rather the vicar of antichrist? Christ called Peter himself, Satan, when he opposed him only in one word, and that with a good affection, even him whom he had chosen his vicar, and specially appointed over his church. Why should not any other then, being more opposed to Christ, be truly called Satan, and consequently antichrist, or at least the principal minister or vicar of antichrist. Infinite testimonies of this matter are found in St. Augustine, St. Jerome, Cyprian, Chryostome, Bernard, Gregory, Remigius, Ambrose, and all the holy fathers of the Christian church."

On his examination being finished, he was taken from the court, and a resolution was formed by the council, to burn him as a heretic unless he retracted. He was then committed to a filthy prison, where, in the day-time, he was so laden with fetters that he could hardly move: and every night he was fastened by his hands to a ring against the wall. He continued some days in this situation, while many noblemen of Bohemia interceded in his behalf. They drew up a petition for his release, which was presented to the council by several of the most illustrious men of the country; notwithstanding which, so many enemies had Huss in that court, that no attention was paid to it, and the persecuted reformer was compelled to endure all the ignominy and misery inflicted on him. Shortly after the petition was presented, four bishops and two lords were sent by the emperor to the prison, in order to prevail on Huss to make a recantation. But he called God to witness, with tears in his eyes, that he was not conscious of having preached or written any thing against the truth of God, or the faith of his orthodox church. the deputies then represented the great wisdom and authority of the council; to which Huss replied, "Let them send the meanest person of that council, who can convince me by argument from the word of God, and I will submit my judgment to him." This firm and faithful answer had no effect, because he would not take the authority of the council upon trust, in opposition to the plainest reasonings of scripture. The deputies, therefore, finding they could not make any impression on him, departed, greatly astonished at the strength of his resolution.

On the 4th of July he was, for the last time, brought before the council. After a long examination he was desired to abjure, which he refused without the least hesitation. The bishop of Lodi then preached a bloody persecuting sermon, the text of which was, "Let the body of sin be destroyed." The sermon was the usual prologue to a cruel martyrdom; and when it was over his fate was fixed, his vindication rejected and judgment was pronounced. The council censured him for being obstinate and incorrigible, and ordained that he should be degraded from the priesthood, his books publicly burnt, and himself delivered to the secular power. He received the sentence without the least emotion; and at the close of it he kneeled down with his eyes lifted towards heaven, and, with all the magnanimity of a primitive martyr, thus exclaimed:

"May thine infinite mercy, O my God! pardon this injustice of mine enemies. Thou knowest the iniquity of my accusations: how deformed with crimes I have been represented: how I have been oppressed by worthless witnesses, and a false condemnation: yet, O my God! let that mercy of thine, which no tongue can express, prevail with thee not to avenge my wrongs."

These excellent sentences were received as so many expressions of treason, and only tended to inflame his adversaries. Accordingly, the bishops appointed by the council, stripped him of his priestly garments, degraded him, and put a paper mitre on his head, on which were painted devils, with this inscription: "A ring-leader of heretics." This mockery was received by the heroic martyr with an air of unconcern, and it seemed to give him dignity rather than disgrace. A serenity appeared in his looks, which indicated that his soul had cut off many stages of a tedious journey in her way to the realms of everlasting happiness, and when the bishops urged him to yet recant, he turned to the people, and addressed them thus:--

"These lords and bishops exhort and counsel me, that I should here confess before you all, that I have erred; to which, if it were such as might be done with the infamy and reproach of man only, they might, peradventure, easily persuade me thereunto; but now truly I am in the sight of the Lord my God, without whose great displeasure, and disquietude of mine own conscience, I could by no means do that which they require of me. For I well know that I never taught any of those things which they have falsely alleged against me, but I have always preached, taught, written, and thought contrary thereunto. With what countenance then should I behold the heavens? With what face should I look upon them whom I have taught, whereof there is a great number, if through me it should come to pass that those things, which they have hitherto known to be most certain and sure, should now be made uncertain? Should I by this example astonish or trouble so many souls, so many consciences, endued with the most firm and certain knowledge of the scriptures and gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and his most pure doctrine, armed against all the assaults of Satan? I will never do it, neither commit any such kind of offence, that I should seem more to esteem this vile carcass appointed unto death, than their health and salvation."

At this most godly speech he was forced again to hear, by the consent of the bishops, that he obstinately and maliciously persevered in his pernicious and wicked errors. The ceremony of degradation being over, the bishops delivered him to the emperor, who put him into the care of the duke of Bavaria. His books were consumed at the gates of the church; and on the 6th of July he was led to the suburbs of Constance to be burnt alive. When he had reached the place of execution, he fell on his knees, sung several portions of the Psalms, looked stedfastly towards heaven, and repeated, "Into thy hands, O Lord! do I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O most good and faithful God." As soon as the chain was put about him at the stake, he said, with a smiling countenance, "My Lord Jesus Christ was bound with a harder chain than this for my sake, why then should I be ashamed of this old rusty one?" When the fagots were piled around him, the duke of Bavaria was so officious as to desire him to abjure. His noble reply was, "No, I never preached any doctrine of an evil tendency; and what I taught with my lips I now seal with my blood." He then said to the executioner, "You are now going to burn a goose, (the name of Huss signifying goose in the Bohemian language,) but in a century you will have a swan whom you can neither roast nor boil." If this were spoken in prophecy, he must have meant Martin Luther, who shone about a hundred years after, and who had a swan for his arms--whether suggested by this circumstance or on account of family descent and heraldry is not known. As soon as the fagots were lighted, the heroic martyr sung a hymn, with so loud and cheerful a voice, that he was heard through all the crackling of the combustibles, and the noise of the multitude. At length his voice was interrupted by the flames, which soon put a period to his mortal life, and wafted his undying spirit, which no fire of earth could subdue or touch, to the regions of everlasting glory.