‘Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the feast of Stephen.’ Did he really? Let’s look.
Saint Wenceslaus was the Duke of Bohemia from 921 to 935 when he was assassinated by his own brother Boleslav the Cruel. He was the son of Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia and grandson of Borivoj I of Bohemia. His mother was Drahomira, daughter to a pagan tribal chief and was baptised upon her marriage. At the age of 13 in 921 Wenceslaus father died and he was then brought up by his grandmother Saint Ludima. A dispute over who had the most influence over Wenceslaus led to his mother arranging for the murder by strangulation of Ludmila at Tetin Castle near Beroun on the 15th September 921. Some legends state that Drahomira tried to then convert back Wenceslaus unsuccessfully to the old pagan religion.
During his reign continually had to negotiate against snips at his borders. After the fall of Great Moravia the Bohemian Duchy had to deal with continuous raids by the Maygars and also the Saxon duke and early Eastern Frankish king Henry the Fowler. Henry also raided lands of the Polabian Slavs which was the homeland of Wenceslaus’ mother. Wenceslaus’ father had previously forged an alliance with the Bavarian duke Arnulf the Bad who was an opponent to Henry. In 921 at Regensburg Arnulf and Henry put aside their differences which wiped out the alliance as useful.
In either 924 or 925 at the age of eighteen Wenceslaus assumed power for himself excelling his mother in the process. He then defeated a rebellion by Radslav, Duke of Kourim. In 929 joint forces of Arnulf and Henry reached Prague enforcing a previous tribute payment that Wenceslaus had no option but to pay. Henry had previously been made to make payments to the Maygars which needed funding. This is believed the reason that made him enforce the payments once more from Wenceslaus.
In 935 a group of nobles aligned to Wenceslaus brother Boleslav plotted his death. Boleslav invited Wenceslaus to the feast of Saint Cosmas and Damian. On his way to the church at Stara Boleslav three of Boleslav companions –Tira, Csta and Hnevsa – murdered him. Boreslav then succeeded Wenceslaus as Duke of Bohemia.
Wenceslaus was immediately considered as a martyr and a saint after his death and a cult grew up in Bohemia. Although only a duke during his life, Wenceslaus was bestowed the title of king by Otto I of the Holy Roman Empire posthumously. This is why during the song and legend he is referred to as king.
In the Czech Republic Saint Wenceslaus’ feast day September 28th has been a public holiday since 2000.
The carol was written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853. The music itself originates from Finland about 300 years earlier.
So there we are a little bit more about one of the more famous ‘kings’ we associate with Christmas.
Have a wonderful Christmas to all who are reading this blog!