Wenceslas, King

Wenceslas, King

St. Wenceslaus, Vaceslav, Vaclav

The familiar Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslas," tells of a virtuous deed performed by the noble King Wenceslas on the day after Christmas, St. Stephen's Day. Is King Wenceslas an historical or a legendary character? If historical, did he ever perform a deed similar to that described in the carol?

According to the carol, King Wenceslas spied a poor man scavenging wood outside his castle on St. Stephen's Day. Moved by the needy man's plight, King Wenceslas found out where he lived, and set forth with his page to bring the man food, drink, and fuel. The wind and cold nearly overcame the king's page but, with Wenceslas's encouragement, the page stumbled forward, treading in his master's footprints. Heat rose from the tracks of the saintly king, a sign of heaven's approval of his act of charity.

The story told in the song combines historical fact with pious speculation. The song's lyrics describe a tenth-century Bohemian duke who later became a saint. Known as St. Vaceslav or St. Vaclav in Czechoslovakia, his name is usually rendered as "Wenceslas" or "Wenceslaus" in English. He was born to a Christian father, Wratislaw, and a pagan mother, Drahomira, around the year 903. His grandmother, St. Ludmilla, educated him in the Christian faith.

When his father died his mother became the duchess of Bohemia. Drahomira resented the influence of Ludmilla over the young Wenceslas, and so arranged to have the older woman murdered. Horrified by this act and by her unscrupulous political dealings, Wenceslas eventually wrested power away from his mother and assumed the title of duke. Drahomira had hindered the spread of Christianity, but Wenceslas supported the new religion. Furthermore, Duke Wenceslas acquired a reputation for personal piety and charity to the poor. Drahomira still opposed him, however, and soon convinced Wenceslas's brother Boleslaw to murder the young Duke and take his place on the throne. Wenceslas died at the hands of his brother on September 28 in the year 935. Although he may have been deprived of earthly power at a young age, Wenceslas was elevated to sainthood after his death. He became the patron saint of Bohemia by the eleventh century. His feast day is September 28.

In the nineteenth century an Englishman named John Mason Neele (1818-1866) wrote the lyrics to "Good King Wenceslas." He based the story on legends concerning the saint's good deeds as duke of Bohemia. He paired these lyrics with a thirteenth-century tune he found in an obscure book of early songs. Although the sturdy melody may now automatically evoke images of the noble king trudging through the snow, the tune had earlier been used as a spring carol titled "Spring Has Now Unwrapped the Flowers." Neele's winning combination of words and music spread the legend of Wenceslas to listeners who otherwise would never have known of the saint.

Further Reading

Mershman, Francis. "St. Wenceslaus." In Charles B. Hervermann, ed. Catho-lic Encyclopedia. Nashville, Tenn.: T. Nelson, 1913. Available online at Papin, J. "St. Wenceslaus." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 14. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Studwell, William E. The Christmas Carol Reader. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1995.