Who was Good King Wenceslas?

Sunday 26 December 2010

Today, December 26, is the Feast of Stephen, forever ingrained in the national memory by the carol Good King Wenceslas.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen...

The carol tells the story of the aforementioned good kinglooking out of his castle to see a poor man foraging for firewood in the forest. In an act of Christian charity, Wenceslas decides to spread the Christmas cheer and sets off with his page, into the cold and the dark, to make sure the wretch enjoys himself to the full. But who was good King Wenceslas, and was he as good as the carol would have us believe?

Well, first of all you can discard the narrative from the carol as fact, as it was invented by that infamous Victorian caroller, J M Neale in 1853. He also took what was originally the tune of a spring time carol Tempus adest floridum to provide his little festive number with a melody. So, if an over-enthusiastic lyricist is responsible for the saccharin-sweet sentiment of the carol, who was the real life inspiration for the saintly monarch?

You’ll be relieved to hear that Wenceslas did at least exist, although he wasn’t a king. He was actually a duke, but you could call him a prince if you were feeling generous. Born circa AD 907, in Stochov near Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, he was ruler of the principality of Bohemia. He was raised as a Christian by his grandmother Saint Ludmilla. However, his mother Drahomíra was a pagan, and ruthlessly ambitious. She had Ludmilla murdered and then ruled as regent herself until Wenceslas came of age. However, intrigue plagued her court and a desire on behalf of the populace of Bohemia to see an end to the conflicts between the Christian and non-Christian factions within the region led to Wenceslas taking the reins of government himself.

As a mark of his pious Christian upbringing, it is said that Wenceslas took a vow of virginity and that German missionary priests, seeking to make Bohemia Christian, enjoyed his wholehearted support. By 929 Christianity was spreading throughout Bohemia, but Wenceslas’ own converting zeal upset his still non-Christian rivals. That same year, faced with the threat of invasions from Germany, Wenceslas submitted to the German king Henry I. This upset the nobles still further who then plotted to get rid of him. These same nobles worked on Wenceslas’ own brother, Boleslav, who then waylaid him on the way to mass. Boleslav cut him down at the door to the church, hacking him to pieces. Wenceslas was only 22 years old.

Almost as soon as he was buried, there came reports of miracles taking place at Wenceslas’ tomb. In 932, fearful of reprisals from beyond the grave, the superstitious Boleslav had his dead brother’s remains disinterred and moved to the church of Saint Vitus, in Prague itself. The church was a popular pilgrimage site during medieval times and eventually became a cathedral. Wenceslas himself was canonized and was made patron saint of Bohemia.

So now you know!


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