Who was Good King Wenceslas?
As every Czech knows, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ (907–935) is known by several names. These include Saint Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia and Václav.
The story of the short life of Wenceslaus is like a plotline from Game of Thrones. His father (the Duke of Bohemia) was killed when he was only thirteen, leaving his mother, Drahomira, to rule the province. She did this in the manner of Cersei Lannister.
Bossing Bohemia gave Dahomira a busy schedule. While she was seeing off her (many) enemies, Wenceslaus was being home-schooled by his Christian grandmother, Ludmila of Bohemia. A very modern arrangement involving strong empowered women? Not quite.
The problem was that Grandma’s curriculum included a lot of Christian nonsense about peace, love and understanding. This was not to Drahomira’s liking so she had her mother-in-law whacked. According to legend, the assassins used Ludmila’s veil to strangle her according to legend.
With Ludmila dead, Drahomira became regent. She set about persecuting Christians until her son was old enough to put away his Lego and take charge of the kingdom.
Wenceslaus — who according to legend was a kind, honest young man — vowed to be put a stop to all the murdering and mayhem. Obviously would have been tricky with his mother around so he sent her into exile to reflect on her misdeeds (fat chance).
The new regime was popular. A long era of peace and stability beckoned. Wenceslaus even allowed his mother to move back into his castle.
But someone always has to spoil things. In this case the villain was Boleslav the Bad, the brother of Václav/Wenceslas. Continuing family tradition of homicidal treachery Boleslav the Bad murdered his good brother. Whether Drahomira was involved in this particular plot-twist is unclear but she decided it would be unwise to hang around and fled from the court.
But what has this got to do with the carol?
Václav was later declared a Christian martyr and beatified. The Pope even took the liberty of posthumously promoting the new saint to King Wenceslas (he was technically a duke).
A cult developed around Wenceslas. He became a symbol of Czech nationalism, as well as a venerated Catholic saint. Tales were told of his boundless courage and self-sacrifice.
One of these legends was that he had sacrificed his own life to save that of his page. According to the (implausible) version celebrated in Neale’s famous carol (1853) the two men were out in the snow giving alms to peasants on a freezing night
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel
As night closed in, the page was losing the will to continue, but Wenceslas urged him on. The Good King ensured the miraculous survival of his servant at the expense of his own life.
But wait wasn’t Wenceslas bumped off by Bad Bro’ Boleslav? Did the dude die twice? Crazy times!
Why ‘the feast of Stephen’?
Stephen is widely acknowledged as the first Christian martyr — his death was witnessed and recorded by Paul. His ‘feast’ is the Second Day of Christmas — the 26th December. This is now more commonly known as Boxing Day in most of the English-speaking world (though not the USA)
Listen to podcast on Wenceslas from Stuff you missed in History Class
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