Sigismund was born in Prague in the year 1368. He was the son of Bohemia’s Charles IV and his fourth wife, Eliska of Pomerania. Sigismund was second in line to the Bohemian throne on the death of Charles IV in 1378. His half-brother Vaclav IV succeeded their great father as King of Bohemia. Sigismund’s immediate fortunes lay farther to the east.
Two Daughters of Louis the Great
At the time of Sigismund’s birth, Hungary was ruled by Louis the Great of the House of Anjou from Naples. The native Arpad dynasty of Hungary had died out in 1301, and the Hungarians had turned to foreign rulers. In fact, the son of Bohemia’s King Vaclav II, the future Vaclav III, had briefly sat on the Hungarian throne. In 1308 Louis the Great’s father, the Neapolitan Charles Robert of Anjou, was chosen King of Hungary. And when Charles Robert died in 1342, his son Louis succeeded him.
Louis the Great was also the ruler of Poland since 1370 and the death of Casimir the Great, the last of Poland’s Piast kings. Louis died in 1382, the king of two great Central European kingdoms, Hungary and Poland. He did not have a son to succeed him, but he had two daughters, Marie and Jadwiga.
Poland and Lithuania
In 1379 young Sigismund was engaged to Louis’s daughter Marie. Marie was supposed to succeed her father to the thrones of both Hungary and Poland. The problem was her engagement to Sigismund. The Poles did not like him. He was a prince of the House of Luxemburg, and the Luxemburg dynasty was historically sympathetic to Poland’s archenemies, the Teutonic Knights. Besides, the Poles were tired of sharing the same king with Hungary. Consequently, the Poles chose Marie’s younger sister Jadwiga as their queen.
Jadwiga married the pagan Lithuanian prince Jagiello. Lithuania was thus brought into the Christian community, and Poland entered its greatest age under the Jagiellonian dynasty. For the next two hundred years Jagiellonian rulers controlled much of Central and Eastern Europe, and two members of the dynasty even sat on the Bohemian throne.
King of Hungary
Marie’s succession in Hungary was not unopposed. Some of the Hungarian nobles invited Louis the Great’s second cousin, King Charles III of Naples to Hungary and crowned him king. Charles was subsequently murdered. Queen Marie fell into the hands of her political enemies and had to be rescued by her husband Sigismund, whom she had married in 1385. Sigismund bought the queen’s freedom with concessions that he made to the Hungarian great nobility, and he was crowned King of Hungary in 1387. Queen Marie died in 1395, and Sigismund continued to rule Hungary until his death in 1437. He ruled Hungary for half a century.
Sigismund was not especially popular in Hungary, but he did leave one positive indelible mark on the country. He moved the capital to Buda, the hilly right-bank half of Budapest. Budapest, with its fairy-tale bridges that span the Danube, with its charming cafes that serve spicy food to the sound of Gypsy violins, is now Hungary’s capital, thanks to Sigismund of Luxemburg.
On the negative side, Sigismund lost control of important Hungarian territories, including Dalmatia. Dalmatia came to be ruled by Hungarian kings in 1102 with the union of Hungary and Croatia. In 1409 King Ladislas of Naples, claimant to the Hungarian throne and son of the murdered one-time Hungarian king Charles III of Naples, sold Dalmatia to the Venetians. Sigismund ratified the loss in 1420.
A three-hundred-year chapter in Hungarian history that had been accentuated by almost seventy-five years of rule by Mediterranean kings from Naples, had come to an end. With the loss of the Adriatic coastline, Hungary was no longer a Mediterranean power.
In the fourteenth century Christian Europe was threatened by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks first entered Europe in 1354. They spread throughout the Balkan Peninsula like a brush fire. Sigismund saw the danger that the Turks posed to Hungary and to Europe. When the pope declared a crusade against the Turks, the Hungarians were joined by knights and armies from various parts of Christendom
The Christian armies set out for the Balkans, but they were no match for the Turks. The Ottoman armies beat the Christians at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. Many of the Christian warriors were massacred. Others were captured and sold into slavery. The Hungarian army was wiped out. King Sigismund barely made it back to Hungary alive.
Holy Roman Emperor
Sigismund was not just the King of Hungary and crusader against the Turks. In 1410 he was elected Holy Roman Emperor. Sigismund’s half-brother Vaclav IV had succeeded their father as Holy Roman Emperor, but in 1400 discontented German princes replaced Vaclav with another emperor, Rupert of Wittelsbach. Rupert died in 1410. Opposing factions in Germany then elected Sigismund and his cousin Jost, who was the margrave of both Moravia and Brandenburg, to succeed Rupert. Fortunately for Sigismund, Jost died in 1411, and King Sigismund of Hungary was now the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire as well.
Brandenburg and the Hohenzollerns
The death of his cousin Jost also brought Sigismund into possession of the march of Brandenburg. Actually Sigismund was the original heir to Brandenburg on his father’s death in 1378. Because of the difficulties involved with his succession to the throne of Hungary, however, Sigismund pawned Brandenburg to his cousin Jost. Sigismund came back into possession of the march after his cousin’s death, but he did not keep it for long. In 1415 Sigismund ceded Brandenburg to Frederick of Hohenzollern in return for a large sum of money.
The Hohenzollern family was the dynasty that united Germany in the nineteenth century. King Sigismund thus laid the cornerstone for modern Germany by putting Brandenburg and the future city of Berlin in the hands of the Hohenzollern family.
Council of Constance
The early years of Sigismund’s rule in Hungary corresponded with a time of turmoil in the Catholic Church. Since 1378 there had been two and even three popes at a time. At Sigismund’s suggestion, one of the rival popes called a council to solve the problem. The council met in Constance from 1414 to 1418. Meanwhile in Bohemia, Czech priests were preaching reform. Chief among them was the popular rector of Prague’s University, Jan Hus. Hus was summoned before the council to clear himself of charges of heresy. In spite of Sigismund’s promise of safety, Hus was condemned to death and burned at the stake. The Council of Constance healed the papal schism, but the flames that consumed Jan Hus ignited the Bohemian Reformation.
King of Bohemia
When Bohemia’s King Vaclav IV died in 1419, Sigismund claimed his right to the Bohemian throne. Sigismund, however, was too deeply involved in the death of Jan Hus to suit the Czechs. Sigismund decided to take his inheritance by force.
In 1420 Sigismund convinced the pope to declare a crusade against the Czechs and marched on Prague. The Taborite general Jan Zizka defeated the invaders at Vitkov Hill and saved Prague. Today Vitkov Hill bears both his name, Zizkov, and a giant equestrian statue in his honor. Later in the year Sigismund marched on Prague again. Once again his army was defeated, and on this occasion Prague’s second castle, Vysehrad, was destroyed. Today Prague has only one magnificent castle overlooking the Vltava River instead of two, thanks to Sigismund of Luxemburg.
More crusades were declared against the Czechs, but Sigismund was not able to make his claim to the Bohemian throne good until the Hussite Wars ended in 1436. When he finally entered Prague, Sigismund began anti-Hussite policies. Fortunately for the Bohemian Reformation, Sigismund died the following year.
Sigismund was the last of the Luxemburg kings. John, Charles IV, Vaclav IV, Sigismund. With him the dynasty that had made Bohemia the pearl of Central Europe died out. Sigismund’s legacy, however, lay mainly beyond the borders of the Czech Lands. His rejection by the Poles was a factor in the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian state and the Jagiellonian “empire” that ruled much of Europe for two hundred years. Opposition to him by factions in Hungary brought about the loss of Dalmatia and ended a three-hundred-year chapter in Hungarian history. His granting Brandenburg to the Hohenzollerns laid the foundation for the Kingdom of Prussia and the nineteenth-century German Empire. Sigismund was largely responsible for healing the Papal Schism and reunifying the Catholic Church, but the death of Jan Hus, in which Sigismund was implicated, brought about the Bohemian Reformation and presaged the breakup of Christian Europe into a Protestant north and a Catholic south. All in all, Sigismund of the House of Luxemburg, King of Hungary, Margrave of Brandenburg, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, was one of the most consequential rulers of his day.
– Robert Janak
“King Sigismund of the House of Luxemburg,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), August 2001, pages 6-8.