December 26, the second day of Christmas, is St. Stephen’s day. John Mason Neale, an English hymn writer, used the day as the wintry setting for a Christmas carol titled Good King Wenceslas. He wrote, “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen; when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even….” Neale’s popular carol, written in 1853, just ten years after the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, recounts a legend in which Wenceslas and his page trudge through deep snow to take a meal of meat and wine to a poor peasant who lives three miles away on the edge of a forest. The last verse encapsulates the moral of the story: “Therefore Christian men be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.” Like Dickens’ novella, it reminds those in power that compassion will find favor in the present life and beyond.
Wenceslas (907-935), or Vaclav in Czech, offers a good role model for those who have authority. He was widely known in his day as an alms-giving ruler who genuinely cared for his less fortunate subjects. His reputation for charity and justice led to his canonization shortly after his politically motivated murder. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Czechs who immigrated to the United States dedicated dozens of parish churches, particularly in the upper Midwestern states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (photos 1 & 2), to St. Wenceslas. Who was this “good king?”
Duke Wenceslas I What we know about Wenceslas comes mainly from the hagiographies, accounts of the saint’s life, written after his death. We know from these and other sources that Wenceslas was a duke, not a king. He briefly ruled the Duchy of Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic) during its turbulent transition from traditional Slavic religion to Christianity. Images of the saint typically show him wearing a crown and holding a shield bearing insignia from a coat of arms. The stylized eagle in a 19th century stained glass window at Iowa City’s St. Wenceslaus Church (photo 3) signifies the Premyslid dynasty, Bohemia’s first ruling family. The lion appearing on Wenceslas’ shield at the church bearing his name in New Prague, Minnesota is emblematic of the later Kingdom of Bohemia which was part of the Holy Roman Empire (photo 4).
We also know that Wenceslas’ father was a convert to Christianity and that his mother, Drahomina, was baptized on her wedding day, probably as a condition of marriage in the church. It seems that she never fully embraced the new religion. The discord within the royal family evidently mirrored the situation in Czech society. Some members of the nobility adopted Christianity while others did not. When Wenceslas was 13, his father died. Ludmila, the boy’s grandmother, raised him in the Christian faith. She was also appointed as regent to rule in Wenceslas’ place until he was old enough to take the throne. None of this sat very well with Drahomina. She reportedly resented Ludmila’s influence over her son so much that she conspired with two noblemen to kill her mother-in-law. Legend has it that they strangled Ludmila with her own veil when Wenceslas was 14. Ludmila was later canonized for her role as a martyr and contributor to Bohemia’s Christianization. Her image sometimes appears in churches dedicated to St. Wenceslas, as at Iowa City where the artist alludes to her martyrdom with the palm branch she holds in her right hand (photo 5).
The Bad Brother When Wenceslas attained the throne around 925, he placed his mother in exile and then set out to protect and govern his duchy. He’s credited with founding Prague’s first church dedicated to St. Vitus in 930. It’s not clear if Drahomina played a part in what came next. But in 935, Wenceslas’ younger brother, Boleslav, and several disgruntled nobles plotted to assassinate Wenceslas. One account says that Boleslav invited his older brother to a dinner to celebrate the consecration of a new church. When Wenceslas was leaving the ceremony, three co-conspirators stabbed him to death. As he fell to the church’s front steps, Wenceslas forgave his brother with his last words.
After the dreadful deed was done, Boleslav felt remorse. The upstart Duke of Bohemia repented of his murderous sin and had Wenceslas’ remains placed in St. Vitus Cathedral, which quickly became a pilgrimage destination. About twenty years later, Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, posthumously declared Wenceslas to be a king of Bohemia, hence the appellation “Good King Wenceslas” in Mr. Neale’s Christmas carol. The present day St. Vitus cathedral, constructed in the 14th century (photos 6 & 7), houses the saint’s relics in the St. Wenceslas Chapel, constructed in the 1340’s. The upper reaches of its walls display scenes from the good king’s life.
Patron Saints It did not take long before the Czech people regarded Wenceslaus and Ludmila as patron saints. Ludmila has additional designations as the patron of duchesses, widows and, perhaps most significantly, people who have problems with their in-laws. Wenceslas is remembered as the epitome of a just ruler, and an exemplar for those in high office—and perhaps equally for those who aspire to such office—to act charitably on behalf of the poor. His story is no less relevant today than it was nearly 700 years ago when the chapel that holds his remains was consecrated (photo 8).
I want to thank Vicki Clyde and Mike Vruno for sharing the photos they took of St. Vitus Cathedral and St. Wenceslas’ Chapel. Copyright 2015. Michael Klug, firstname.lastname@example.org, 12/26/15