Tábor is often regarded as the spiritual home of the radical Hussite movement. The movement's history can be traced back to the 15th century and the decision by Catholic authorities to murder Czech religious reformer Jan Hus, who was famously burned at the stake in Constance, Germany, in 1415. The consequences of this act were far greater than the Catholic authorities could have foreseen. Hus's death caused a religious revolt among the Czechs, who had viewed his decision to preach in Czech language as a step towards religious and national self-determination.
Hus himself had not intended such a drastic revolution, focusing on a translation of the Latin rite, and the giving of bread and wine to all the congregation instead of to the clergy alone. But for many, the time was ripe for church reform.
Hus was born around 1372 in Husinec, in southern Bohemia. From a poor background, he managed to become a lecturer at Charles University in Prague and in 1402 was ordained a preacher. He dreamt of a return to the original doctrines of the church – tolerance, humility, simplicity – but such a message had political overtones for a church that treated forgiveness as an opportunity to make money.
Tried on a trumped-up charge of heresy at Constance, Hus's murder was doubly unjust in that he had been granted safe conduct by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund.
In Bohemia many nobles offered to guarantee protection to those who practised religion according to Hus's teachings, and Hussite committees became widespread. The movement split over its relationship with the secular authorities, with the moderate Utraquists siding in 1434 with the Catholic Sigismund.
The more radical Taborites, seeing themselves as God's warriors, fought the Catholics in every way. As the military base for the Hussites, Tábor – named after the biblical Mt Tabor – was successfully defended by a mainly peasant army under the brilliant Jan Žižka and Prokop Holý.
The movement also attracted supporters from other Protestant sects in Europe. Many converged on Tábor and the groups joined against the crusading armies of the Holy Roman Empire.
Hussite ideals were never fully extinguished in Bohemia. Although the Utraquists became the dominant force after defeating (with the help of Sigismund's Catholic forces) the Taborites at the Battle of Lipany in 1434, the resulting peace guaranteed religious freedom for the movement. It took almost 200 years before Protestantism was fully suppressed in the Czech lands by the Catholic Habsburg rulers following the Battle of White Mountain, near Prague, in 1620.
Tábor's Hero: Jan Žižka
Hussite Count Jan Žižka, the legendary blind general, was born in Trocnov, just outside České Budějovice, in 1376. He spent his youth at King Wenceslas IV's court and fought as a mercenary in Poland, but returned to the Czech kingdom at the beginning of the Reformation and became the leader of the radical wing of the Hussite movement, the Taborites. His military genius was responsible for all of the Hussite victories, from the 1420 Battle of Žižkov onwards. After losing both eyes in two separate battles, Žižka eventually died of the plague in 1424.
Žižka's army was highly organised and was the first to use a system of wagons with mounted artillery – the earliest tanks in history. These vehicles allowed him to choose where to draw up position, taking the initiative away from the crusaders and making them fight where he wanted. The technique proved almost invincible.
The Hussites successfully held off their enemies for a decade following Žižka's death, but were defeated by a combined army of the rival Hussite faction of the Utraquists and the Holy Roman Empire in 1434. Surprisingly, Žižka's invention was not incorporated into other armies until Sweden's King Gustavus II Adolphus adopted it two centuries later.