When radical preacher Jan Želivský arrived in Prague in 1418, he stepped into a seething conflict. In the three years since Jan Hus's death, Praguers had grown more passionate about reform—particularly about receiving both the bread and the chalice in Communion.

Reform-minded clergy, enjoying the support of commoners, nobles, and university masters, had expelled Catholics from most of the city's churches. King Václav did not interfere, but then he grew to fear the reformers' escalating power and in 1419 forced many of them, including Želivský, from their pulpits.

Želivský wanted his church back.

On July 30 he and his followers, some armed with pikes, swords, and clubs, marched to their former sanctuary. Finding the doors locked, they smashed through, then held a Communion service with bread and wine.

The group proceeded to the town hall, where several newly appointed Catholic councilmen were gathered. The angry crowd demanded the release of imprisoned reformers. When the councilmen refused, the protesters threw 13 of them out the window. Any who survived the fall were killed—but their corpses were not robbed.

The event was less a riot than a planned coup. The rebels succeeded in gaining some concessions from the king, who died a fortnight later of apoplexy. The victory was only temporary, though, and for the next 17 years Bohemia became a military and ideological battleground.

The great divide

The Czech reform movement comprised two major camps: the radical wing, including the Táborites, and the more moderate Utraquists. Radicals largely came from the lower levels of society (Želivský sometimes called himself "preacher of the poor, unfortunate, miserable, oppressed"), while moderates drew from the ranks of nobles and university ...

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