The letters of John Hus/Part 6

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Part VI.—Letters Written from the Franciscan Friary

(June 5, 1415—July 5, 1415)

On the flight of John, as Mladenowic informs us, ‘the keys of the prison in which the Master was detained were handed over to the King, and he could now with honour have released him.’ Sigismund, who had overcome all his scruples concerning the safe-conduct, preferred to deliver Hus to the Bishop of Constance, upon whom, on the flight of the Pope, the care of a prisoner of the Inquisition would naturally fall. According to the statement of Hus in the lastletter, the bishop—and the cardinals also, at first—had already refused the charge. Probably that accomplished timeserver was waiting to see how the land lay and what action Sigismund would take now that he was free to act. But on receiving Sigismund’s command he delayed no longer. The Bishop, we read, fearing an attempt at release, ‘for the prison of the Blackfriars was outside the walls and the guards were few and careless, that same night took Hus, fettered in a boat, to his own castle of Gottlieben’—a few hours in fact after the last letter was written (March 24). The precaution of the Bishop—who provided for the boat a guard of a hundred and seventy armed men—shows that he expected some attempt at release, perhaps with the connivance of Sigismund. Possibly if the last letter of Hus had been despatched earlier something might have been done. As it was Hus was safely imprisoned in the west wing of Gottlieben, and the opportunity lost for ever. ‘There he lay in fetters in an airy tower.’ He could walk about all day, but ‘at night was handcuffed on his bed to the wall,’ to a block still preserved in the Museum at Constance. The ‘airy tower’ was a welcome change after the latrines. But at Gottlieben Hus missed the gaoler Robert, who had formed the link with his friends outside. Not a single letter or document written from Gottlieben has been preserved for us. So far as news from Hus is concerned, the months of his second imprisonment are a sheer blank.

The months of silence were, however, big with momentous issues both for Hus and the Church. But at these great issues we may only lightly glance. The course of the fugitive Pope was soon run. Within a few weeks John was deposed ‘as unworthy, useless, and harmful, a chosen vessel of all sins.’ The papal arms were removed from his dwelling, and he himself, after solemnly agreeing to his own deposition, was sent ‘with only a cook’ to Gottlieben, and confined in the east tower. So for two days Pope John, convicted, according to the Council, on fifty-four charges, was a fellow prisoner with John Hus. History contains few instances of greater contrast, certainly none more ironical in its final issue. The Council had condemned the Pope for the foulest of crimes. According to their own showing, whatever be its worth, John XXIII. was a monster scarcely fit to live. His punishment was a trifling term of imprisonment and a later reward. Hus, on the contrary, was acknowledged even by his enemies to be a man illustrious for his purity of life. But he had dared to follow one who thought for himself. His very virtues but made it the more needful that he should be burnt. Revolt against its system was the one crime for which the mediæval Church had no pardons to sell.

With the outbreak of the struggle between John and the Council, the trial of Hus, as we have seen, had been suspended. But after the deposition of the Pope there was once more leisure for the heretic. In fact, as soon as it was plain that the Pope’s flight would prove his undoing, the Council returned to its task. On April 6 a new Commission was appointed, with D’Ailli at the head, to examine the heresies of Wyclif and Hus. But D’Ailli was too busy to give the needed attention, so on the 17th the matter was transferred to another committee of four, one from each of the four nations. On May 4 they brought in an interim report. Wyclif was condemned on no less than two hundred and sixty different counts, though the main stress was laid on the famous forty-five articles. Wyclif’s writings were ordered to be burnt, ‘his bones to be dug up and cast out of the consecrated ground, provided they could be identified from those of Christians buried near’ (Hardt iv. 142–57).

The greater involves the less, and the condemnation of Wyclif practically sealed the fate of Hus, though for technical reasons connected with the absence of a pope, formal condemnation was allowed to stand over. In the ordinary course of events nothing further would have been heard of the prisoner at Gottlieben. Hus would have been left to rot in his dungeon, until his spirit was broken, or the time convenient for an auto da fé. But the friends of Hus were resolved to give publicity to the trial and secure the public hearing that Sigismund had promised. A week after the Commission had brought in its report, the Czechs and Poles showed how little they understood the procedure of the Inquisition by handing in a protest, drawn up by Peter Mladenowic, against the imprisonment of Hus without proper trial. They enlarged once more on the safe-conduct (May 13). The Council replied (May 16) that as far back as 1411 Hus had been tried and condemned. As for his pretended safe-conduct, it was only obtained by his friends fifteen days after his arrest. The Czechs, still unconscious of the real drift of events, twice again presented their petitions, urging for Hus a speedy public hearing, putting in the discredited certificates of the Bishop of Nazareth, though “Bishop Sup-with-the-devil,” as he was called from his famous meal with Hus, had already retracted, and slipped away home in disguise. Hus, they further pleaded, ‘should be released from his chains, and put into the care of some bishop, that he might recruit his strength’ and so prepare for his trial. In Bohemia the mutterings of the coming storm could already be heard. Two assemblies in May, at Brünn and Prague, of the nobles of Bohemia and Moravia despatched to Sigismund, as the heir to the throne, a warning ‘strengthened by two hundred and fifty seals,’ to release ‘the beloved master and Christian preacher’ from further imprisonment, and send him back to Bohemia after first granting him a public hearing. To please Sigismund this last was finally granted. Such a public hearing or trial was in reality an unheard-of act of grace on the part of the Inquisition, only wrung out by political necessities. That august court made a rule of keeping their trials absolutely secret. That there should be no mistake as to the real meaning of this concession, the Council had already sent (Whitsunday, May 19) a deputation of eight delegates, with D’Ailli at the head, to inform Hus of the thirty articles which had been proved against him. We shall find a reference to this deputation in one of the later letters (see p. 216). A fortnight later (June 5), for the convenience of this trial, Hus was brought back in chains from Gottlieben to Constance early in the morning, and lodged in a tower adjoining the Franciscan convent to await his final trial, Pope John doubtless looking on with interest at the heresiarch’s departure.

On arriving at the Franciscan convent Hus found opportunity for resuming his correspondence with his friends. If the date that von Hardt gives for his transference from Gottlieben be correct (June 5; see Hardt, iv. 306), one letter at least[1] would appear to have been despatched that very morning. Hus, we note, is still sanguine as to the effects of a public audience, though his letter shows that he contemplates other issues with resignation. One little detail of this third imprisonment is not without interest. Hus tells us (p. 218) that for the first time for some months his food was good and plentiful.

  1. Palackẏ gives three; but I have adopted a different order.