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If it’s great to see your work in print, and even to see other people reading it, think what it’s like to have people reciting or even singing what you’ve written 160 years later!  J M Neale would know ….

Good King Wenceslas has long been a part of the British Christmas – at least since J M Neale wrote the carol in 1853. An older man helping his page to carry the firewood and bring food to yonder peasant, leaving miraculously warm footprints in the snow. (Have you ever wondered why yonder peasant, who lives a good league hence, right against the forest fence, needs to come to Prague to look for fuel? Hmm …)

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This story is not what comes first to the mind of the Czechs, whose patron saint he is. To them he is St Wenceslas, or Svatý Václav in their language. His statue stands proudly in Wenceslas Square in the centre of Prague.

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A strong, handsome military leader, riding a great charger and dominating this huge square.

wenceslas

The reality was a little different. First, Wenceslas was not a king, but a Duke. More importantly, he was murdered at the age of 28 so was not the middle-aged uncle-like figure we might imagine.

Wenceslas was born in 907, or to put it in our terms 8 years after the death of Alfred the Great. He was the son of the Duke of Bohemia. Christianity had come to what is now the Czech Republic a generation or so before. His father was raised in a Christian setting, but his mother Drahomíra was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief and though she may have been baptized at the time of her marriage she was still pagan at heart.

In 921, when Wenceslas was thirteen, his father died and he was brought up by his grandmother, Ludmila, who raised him as a Christian. Wenceslas is usually described as very pious and humble, very educated and intelligent.  There was a struggle for control of young Wenceslas between his Christian grandmother Ludmila and his pagan mother Drahomíra. Drahomíra was furious about losing influence on her son and arranged to have her mother-in-law Ludmila strangled.

According to some legends, having regained control of her son, Drahomíra set out to convert him to the old pagan religion. She failed. In 925 Wenceslas assumed government for himself and had Drahomíra exiled.   He founded the first church on the site of the present-day St Vitus’ Cathedral that so beautifully dominates the skyline of Prague.

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In England at this time, invasion by the Danes was the main problem. The rulers of Bohemia had to deal both with continuous raids by the Magyars or Hungarians and the forces of the Saxon king Henry the Fowler. To withstand the Saxons, Wenceslas’s father had forged an alliance with the Bavarian duke Arnulf the Bad. (They had glorious names in those days.) Unfortunately, in 929 the Bavarians and the Saxons joined forces, invaded Bohemia and forced Wenceslas to pay tribute. Tradition states that he saw this as preferable to the great bloodshed that would have followed resistance.

A 12th century source states that “rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.” This presumably is the origin of J M Neale’s carol.

We have seen from the antics of Drahomíra and Ludmilla that family life in the ducal household was, er, dysfunctional, as the saying now is. In 935 his younger brother Boleslav plotted to kill Wenceslas. After Boleslav invited Wenceslas to celebrate a religious feast, three of Boleslav’s companions murdered Wenceslas on his way to church. The tradition is that he knocked on the church door for sanctuary but a frightened priest inside denied him entry. I’ve been to the church myself to pay my respects.

Boleslav succeeded him as the Duke of Bohemia. If you look him up on Wikipedia you’ll see he was known as Boleslav the Cruel.

Boleslav expressed much remorse at his brother’s death – as did our Henry II after the murder of Thomas Becket – but that didn’t stop him staying on the throne for the next 37 years. Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, when a cult of Wenceslas grew up in Bohemia (and in England). His chapel in St Vitus’ cathedral in Prague is magnificent. Since 2000, his feast day (September 28) is a public holiday in the Czech Republic. Another reason for the Czechs to like him.

Thanks and well done, JM!

(If there are historical errors in what I’ve written, do point them out!)

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