An Outlook

With Christmas almost upon us, it must be time for some holiday season trivia. This time let’s consider that mysterious figure Wenceslas.

Aside from some of the principal participants in the nativity, no individual associated with the holiday season had as interesting a story as King Wenceslas. Indeed, the story of Wenceslas and his family reads like a Greek tragedy or perhaps a plotline from Days of Our Lives.

A ruler of Bohemia in the 10th century, Wenceslas’ association with the holiday season arose through the famous Christmas carol, which was written 148 years ago. So how did a 10th century Bohemian ruler come to have a carol written about him? And why do I find his life so interesting? Well, read on, folks, you’re about to find out.

The Englishman, John Mason Neale, originally wrote the carol we know as, “Good King Wenceslas,” as a song for children. Despite the fact that the carol clearly refers to St. Stephen’s Day, which is the day after Christmas, the song quickly became a holiday favorite. Interestingly, while Neale wrote the words to the carol, the melody was borrowed from a song with the Latin title “Tempus adest floridum” (translated as “spring has unwrapped her flowers”). This Latin titled song was first published in 1582 in a collection of Swedish church songs. How an Englishman came to write lyrics about a Bohemian king remains a mystery, but various sources have offered the supposition that Neale may have seen Wenceslas’ image on a coin, leading him to research the king, and eventually create the famous carol.

Historians believe that the historical Wenceslas was born in 907. Weaving together the documented history and the legends, his story unfolds like this:

Wenceslas was a member of the Premyslid dynasty. According to legend, this dynasty rose to power when the Duchess Libuse, reacting to criticism of a judgment she had rendered between two men, chose to marry a simple ploughman named Premysl and thereby have him join her in ruling the land. The historical reality is the Premyslids ensured their authority by murdering the Slavonic clan (who, in turn, had murdered their rivals the Vrsovec clan).

Wenceslas was born to Duke Wratislaw and Duchess Drahomira. According to popular legend he was born in a castle in the border town of Stochov. The castle today is in ruins, but a 1,000-year-old oak still stands next to the ruins. The legends state that Wenceslas’ grandmother, Ludmila, planted the oak at the time of his birth and ordered the servants to water the tree with the boy’s bath water. Thus the tree’s continued vitality.

While Wenceslas’ father and mother were pagans, Ludmila was an ardent Christian. It was Ludmila that took charge of raising Wenceslas and, along with her priest Peter (who had been educated by the Greek missionaries Cyrus and Methodius), played the most significant role in his life. Wratislaw died (under somewhat mysterious circumstances) when Wenceslas was 13 years of age and, as the oldest child he was enthroned. Despite his enthronement, his mother Drahomira succeeded in retaining power, claiming that she was entitled to do so until Wenceslas turned 18.

As I stated earlier, while Wenceslas and his grandmother were Christian, Drahomira and Wenceslas’ surviving younger brother, Boleslav, were pagan. Fearful of the influence the priests and Christians in general were gaining within her sphere of rule, Drahomira had Ludmila killed in 920, the same year that Wratislaw died. The belief at the time was that Drahomira, herself, either smothered Ludmila with a pillow or choked her to death. Whether this belief was true or not is unknown, but Drahomira was certainly greatly feared by her subjects.

During the next two years, the realm returned to largely pagan control with Christians, and particularly priests, regularly persecuted. But all that changed in 922 when Wenceslas became Duke Wenceslas (Note: notice that the correct title is Duke, rather than the “King” title in the Carol).

With Wenceslas in power, the country shifted firmly toward Christianity. He built the Rotunda of St. Vitus in Prague Castle and encouraged priests to locate within his country and took many on as trusted advisors. In addition, he forged close links with the rest of the Christian world, recognizing Henry the Fowler, the King of Saxony, as both the successor to Charlemagne and as his own overlord. It was Henry who provided Wenceslas with the relics of St. Vitus to place in the rotunda.

As a boy, Wenceslas enjoyed harvesting grapes and preparing bread and wine for religious purposes. These pastimes stayed with him, according to tradition, even as a ruler, which endeared him greatly with his people. Another tradition holds that Wenceslas at one time considered journeying to Rome to dedicate his life to the church and even had discussions with his brother about abdicating his rule.

Whether or not these discussions ever occurred is moot. Boleslav, along with various pagan elements within the kingdom, became increasingly concerned about the influence Christians, and Christianity, was gaining within Bohemia. There was also strong resistance to Wenceslas’ alliance with Henry the Fowler and Saxony. These elements eventually organized a coup, and successfully slew Wenceslas just outside the door of the rotunda.

Thus, Wenceslas became a saint, but our story is not quite complete. Above the church door where he was slain a painting depicts Christ on the cross with Wenceslas below leading Blanik’s Knights. The inspiration for the painting comes from the prophecy that when Wenceslas’ people face their greatest peril, Blanik Mountain will open up and St. Wenceslas will ride out on a white horse leading Blanik’s Knights into battle where they will succeed in securing everlasting peace for his people.