WENCESLAS: The Man, the Myth, the Christmas Carol


By Steven Otfinoski

As far as Christmas carols go, you've got three basic archetypes: songs about Jesus, songs about baby Jesus and songs about snowy weather. Then, tossed in with a lovable snowman, is poor King Wenceslas. Because he's jumbled into this mix, some might walk away thinking the good king existed only in song; but they'd be wrong. Very wrong. With a nation of Czechs still looking to him as their patron saint, it seems that Wenceslas more than made his mark. So, just how "good" was he? And why do we sing about him at Christmas time? Don't worry, it's all covered below.

Behind the Music

Wenceslas, or Vaclav, as he was better known, was born around 907 C.E. Strictly speaking, the "good king" wasn't a king at all, but a prince who presided over Bohemia, the region that eventually became a principal part of Czechoslovakia and more recently the Czech Republic. In addition to the "king" myth, the well-known Christmas carol has perpetuated an image of Wenceslas as a bearded, middle-aged monarch. The truth is he died around age 22.

While Wenceslas was not a king, he was a member of the first royal Bohemian dynasty, the Premysls. The first Premysl on historical record is Duke Borivoy, grandfather of Wenceslas and the first ruler in his pagan land to accept Christianity. Borivoy married the Slav princess Ludmila, who joined her husband in converting to the Christian faith, and together they built the first church in Bohemia. Upon his death Borivoy was succeeded by his two sons, Raislav, Wenceslas' father, and Spythinev. Young Wenceslas was extremely close to his grandmother, Ludmila, who instilled in him a strong religious faith and gave him a thorough education (a highly unusual opportunity since most aristocrats at the time couldn't read or write). Raislav died when Wenceslas was 13, and his power-hungry mother, Drahmoira, became regent. Although probably not a pagan herself, Drahmoira aligned herself with the anti-Christian crowd in Bohemia and separated Ludmila from her son to prevent them from plotting against her. Later she had her mother-in-law strangled, thus making Ludmila one of Bohemia's first Christian martyrs and a role model for her grandson.

Wenceslas quickly proved his mettle by going up against his mother's forces and defeating them in one decisive battle. Now the sole ruler of Bohemia, the young prince ended the persecution of Christians, promoted education among his people, and united Bohemia and Moravia into one kingdom. Accordingly, he became known for his kindness to children and the poor, a trait that is central to the Christmas carol.

The Wenceslas Formerly Known as Prince

The Czech nobles didn't like Wenceslas' promotion of Christianity, but it was his relationship with Germany that proved to be his undoing. Rather than wait to be attacked by his powerful neighbor, Wenceslas formed an alliance with Henry I, the first Saxon monarch of Germany. According to the alliance, Bohemia would be under German domination but retain much of its independence.

Angered by the alliance, the nobles, who distrusted Germany, began plotting Wenceslas' death. And, in a Shakespearean twist, they were joined in their plot by the prince's ambitious brother, Boleslav. There are several versions of how Wenceslas met his end on September 20, 929. One version holds that the scheming Boleslav invited his brother to a religious festival and personally attacked him on the way to church. A more lurid version has Boleslav's co-conspirators striking the young king down in cold blood as he attended mass.

The dark deed earned Boleslav the fitting epithet "Boleslav the Cruel," but the murderous brother turned out to be a surprisingly able monarch. His quarrel with Wenceslas must have been more political than religious, for he himself was a Christian, and he (like Wenceslas) did not persecute Christians as his mother had. Boleslav greatly expanded the kingdom of Bohemia, adding parts of Moravia not already in his kingdom, a good bit of Silesia and most of what is today Slovakia. When he died in 967 after a 38-year reign, Boleslav left behind a kingdom geographically similar to what the Czech Republic is today.

As for poor Wenceslas, his untimely death may have been the best thing to happen to him. Perhaps to atone for his act of fratricide, Boleslav had his brother's bones buried in the church of St.Vitus in Prague. The relics made the church the center of a cult to the Christian martyr and soon Bohemian pilgrims were flocking to the holy site. The celebration of Wenceslas' life became so prominent that a national holiday was created called Wenceslas' Feast Day, celebrated for the first time on September 28, 985. Within another generation, he was officially declared Bohemia's patron saint. His image appeared on coins, and the so-called "Crown of Wenceslas" became, in subsequent centuries, a symbol of the Czech lands and their people. Wenceslas remains a potent symbol of Czech patriotism and independence to this day—not bad for a prince who didn't make it to his 30s.

Martyr and Child Reunion

So where does the Christmas carol fit into all this? Fast forward about 800 years to London when John Mason Neale, son of an Anglican clergyman, was born in 1818. After being ordained in 1842, chronic poor health prevented Neale from being appointed to a parish. Instead, he was made chief official of Sackville College in 1846. Sackville, despite its name, was not an institute of higher learning but an almshouse that sheltered the poor and underprivileged. Neale took his charge seriously and worked tirelessly to better the lot of the unfortunate. In 1854 he co-founded the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, a religious order whose duty was to nurse the sick. To many Anglicans, this smacked too much of Roman Catholicism, and they accused Neale of being an agent of Rome. He was physically attacked by a crowd at a funeral service and several times was nearly stoned by mobs who also threatened to burn down his house.

But Neale survived the persecution and eventually earned some respect as a church scholar and translator of ancient and medieval hymns from the original Latin and Greek. He also penned original hymns and carols, the most famous being "Good King Wenceslas," written in 1853. He intended it as a carol for children to instill in them the importance of giving to the unfortunate, and chose Wenceslas as his protagonist because of his reputation as a pious ruler who was kind to the poor.

"Good King Wenceslas," with its quaint moral lesson of a king who enlists his page to help him bring food, wine and fuel to one of his poorest subjects during a raging storm, was an instant success. The Good Reverend Neale continued to serve the poor himself until his death at age 48 in 1866.

For all its popularity, "Good King Wenceslas" isn't strictly a Christmas carol. In fact, the story told in the carol takes place on the Feast of Stephen, which falls on December 26, the day after Christmas. However, Stephen, as those of you who are savvy about your saints know, was also the first Christian martyr, which makes the setting of this popular carol grimly appropriate.