Who was Good King Wenceslaus?

This is another guest post from my fabulous husband, Ian. Ian is a German to English translator and a Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Good King Wenceslaus – The Story Behind the Carol.

We all know the popular Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”.  It’s a lively, jaunty tune with words that, although not about the biblical Christmas story, are about the spirit of generosity and friendship that the season is supposed to be all about.

But did you know there is a real story behind the song?  Or that Good King Wenceslas was a real person?

The real “Good King Wenceslas” is generally thought to have been Wenceslaus I (or Vaclav I in Czech), Duke of Bohemia, and reigned from 921 to 935 AD.  He was called a king in the legend (and the modern carol) because the Holy Roman Emperor gave him a royal title after his death in recognition of his good works.

As the title of the song suggests, he was certainly known as a good ruler, and a good man.  From early in his life, he was known as a humble, intelligent and educated young man and also as a devout Christian.  Despite ruling at a very turbulent time in Central European history, with numerous wars and alliances between the many fragmented states in the region, Wenceslaus acquired a reputation as a peaceful and benevolent ruler.  He was keen to establish Christianity in his lands, and built a new church dedicated to St Vitus in his capital, Prague.  This church became St Vitus Cathedral, which remains one of the biggest visitor attractions in the Czech Capital’s castle district to this day, and houses the remains of Wenceslaus at the good king’s shrine.

Despite his reputation, Wenceslaus alienated other members of the Bohemian ruling classes through his political alliances, including members of his own family.  A plot was hatched to remove him from power, with his brother Boleslav and other nobles at the centre of it, and in 935 AD Wenceslaus was murdered on his way to church.  Boleslav then succeeded him as Duke of Bohemia.

After his death, Wenceslaus soon started to become venerated as a saint and martyr.  Several biographies of him were produced, all of them emphasising his benevolent nature and his murder by a power-hungry court faction led by his own brother.  Stories of his good works were exaggerated to become legends.  And that is where the story immortalised in the carol comes in.

Later Christian chroniclers wrote of how Wenceslaus would rise every night from his bed and, accompanied by only one of his retainers, would walk barefoot – regardless of weather conditions, and I know from experience it can be brutally cold in Prague in the autumn and winter – to local churches, where he would give money, food, clothing and other kinds of assistance to widows, the poor, prisoners and others of his subjects in need.  These legends were the basis for him becoming a saint.  The cult of Wenceslaus was, naturally, especially prevalent in his native Bohemia, but he was also a popular saint in England.

The modern carol was written by John Mason Neale in 1853.  His lyrics are said to be based on a Czech poem about the good deeds of Wenceslaus.  The familiar tune is based on a medieval spring hymn, which had totally different words.  The reference to the “feast of Stephen” (St Stephen’s Day, 26th December) has no real link to the life or legend of Wenceslaus, with the saint’s day falling on September 28th, although of course there are parallels between the Duke’s charitable actions and the generosity associated with Christmas.  My suspicion is that the author used that reference to make his song one that could be sung at Christmas time!  Neale’s work has been heavily criticised for its sentimentality and Victorian moralising, but the carol remains hugely popular to this day.

Giving alms to poor people is just one of the legends associated with Wenceslaus in the Czech Republic, where his former Dukedom of Bohemia is now located.  In actual fact he is a kind of King Arthur figure for the Czech people, a medieval monarch with mythical status.  Legend maintains that an army of knights lies sleeping under a mountain in the country and, when the Czech people are in greatest need, they will rise up led by Wenceslaus and ride to save the nation.

Whether or not Wenceslaus was as generous and selfless as the legends and the carol suggest, there is no doubt that he is a key figure in Czech history.  If you ever go to Prague, you can find plenty of evidence of him.  A statue of him on horseback stands on the square that bears his name, one of the main squares in the centre of the modern Czech capital.  His armour and helmet are on display in Prague Castle, and his shrine can be visited in St Vitus Cathedral.  Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has its national public holiday on St Wenceslaus Day, September 28th.

So next time you are at a carol service and hear the famous melody, and join in with John Mason Neale’s words, remember that the man you’re singing about was a real person whose life and works have been celebrated for over a thousand years.

Related posts:  Who was St Nicholas?  Who was Babushka?  Who was La Befana?