11 Nov Good King Wenceslas: The Saint of Bohemia
By Ed Masters
In the 9th century those two great Apostles to the Slavs, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, began the task of bringing the true Faith to those wild tribes which had been migrating into Europe for centuries. The Khazars, Moravians, and Bulgarians — among others– were all converted through their efforts, and multitudes were baptized into the Church as far east as Kiev. One of their successes was the Prince of Bohemia. Of the Premsyl Dynasty, Borivoy is the first known documented ruler of that nation and his wife Ludmilla were converted by these two brothers from Thessalonica. It is at this juncture that our story begins, for not too many years after their deaths a child was born who would become a legend in his own time. His name is venerated by his countrymen today, and the rest of the English-speaking world knows him as ‘Good King Wenceslas.’
Wenceslas (aka Vaclav) was Borivoy and St. Ludmilla’s grandson, was born during a pagan backlash against Christianity, in Prague around the year 907. At the death of his father Wratislas in battle against the Magyars1 Wenceslas was 13 years old — too young to rule. He was brought up by his grandmother St. Ludmilla; his brother Boleslas was brought up by his mother, the Jezebel-like Drahomira, an enemy of the Faith.
Ludmilla was instrumental in not only teaching Wenceslas the Faith and the Liturgies, but also educated him in Latin, Greek, and Slav. She also taught him the craft of making bread and wine for use at Mass, a skill he valued throughout his life. Indeed, writing centuries later, St. Alphonsus Ligouri remarked” … tender indeed was the devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament of St. Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia. This holy king was so enamored of Jesus there present that he not only gathered wheat and grapes and made the hosts and wine with his own hands and then gave them to be used in the Holy Sacrifice, but even during the winter he used to go at night to visit the church in which the Blessed Sacrament was kept. These visits enkindled in his beautiful soul such flames of Divine love that their ardor imparted itself even to his body and took from the snow on which he walked its wonted cold; for it is related that the servant who accompanied him in these nightly excursions, having to walk through the snow, suffered much from the cold. The holy King, on perceiving this, was moved to compassion and commanded him to follow him and only to step in his footmarks; he did so, and never afterwards felt the cold.”
No sooner was Wratislas dead than Drahomira made her move; with an intensity reminiscent of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, she attempted to re-impose paganism on that land. Priests and religious were exiled. Christians were banned from public places and offices.
THE KILLING OF ST LUDMILLA: Knowing the Christian influence Ludmilla would have on Wenceslas and therefore considering her a threat, Drahomira sent two loyal subordinates to assassinate Ludmilla. The Saint won her crown of martyrdom when the two assassins strangled her at Tetin, just after she received Holy Communion.
Stunned by her savagery, the nobility removed Drahomira and Boleslas from governing Bohemia, installing Wenceslas in their stead. Drahomira was subsequently exiled to Budech. At this time, Wenceslas was a Duke and 18 years of age.
Good King Wenceslas
Wenceslas was a model ruler. He was generous to and provided support for the needs of the indigent, the widows and orphans. He bought freedom for slaves and even visited prisoners during the night, giving them alms and listening to their concerns as well as exhorting them to leave their former ways of life behind and to repent of their crimes. He was known to have carried wood on his back in the middle of the night to those that needed it for fuel and assisted at the funerals of the poor. He went to church to pray at night, walking to church during the winter months barefoot through the snow.
There were instances where Heaven showed favor to Wenceslas; this made a deep impression on those who witnessed it. Wenceslas had to deal with the rebellion of Radislas, a Duke of Gurima who regarded Wenceslas’s piety with contempt. When Wenceslas sent envoys to Radislas with offers of peace this only emboldened the latter; he saw the gesture as a sign of weakness. Wishing to avoid unnecessary bloodshed Wenceslas challenged Radislas to single combat with the victor and both armies going home. Radislas accepted.
At the appointed time, the two combatants charged in a classic medieval battle joust, Radislas with a spear and Wenceslas with only a sword. As they approached, Wenceslas made the Sign of the Cross and suddenly two angels appeared, warning Radislas. Awestruck by the appearance of the celestial beings, Radislas dismounted from his steed and knelt at the feet of Wenceslas, begging forgiveness for his actions and promising him his loyalty from that point on. Wenceslas bade him to arise and the two were reconciled.
Wenceslas and the German Emperor
Not long afterward Duke Wenceslas was summoned to the Diet of Worms by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry the Fowler, father of Otto the Great. He was late in coming to the Diet as he had attended Mass and the Emperor and other princes agreed not to rise at his entrance as they considered his tardiness an affront. However, when Wenceslas arrived, the Emperor and nobles saw that he was accompanied by two angels. The Emperor not only gave him a seat at his right but also gave him a precious relic, the arm of St. Vitus which Wenceslas took back to Bohemia with him.
Wenceslas was also very skilled politically. He wanted to unify Bohemia and also sought an alliance with Henry the Fowler, controversial even then. Wenceslas sought closer relations with the Catholic nations of western Europe to not only fend off future invasions from the east but also to make his own nation thoroughly Catholic.
Unfortunately some of the nobles of Bohemia resented this pact as they wanted Bohemia to be completely free of the Holy Roman Empire. Wenceslas knew this wasn’t possible as his nation was not strong enough to fight wars on multiple fronts. Wenceslas even invited German priests to say Mass in Latin as Slavonic had fallen into disuse. His advisory council included priests. (A couple of centuries later German craftsmen were invited to Bohemia in order to help develop the area economically. They became known as Sudetan Germans and their presence there gave Adolph Hitler his pretext for invading the country in 1938).
Plotting to Murder the Good King
Other nobles were still embittered at Wenceslas’ Catholicism, however and considered him a pious fool. These yearned for a return to their pagan ways; they hatched a plot with Wenceslas’ brother Boleslas and Drahomira to rid themselves of their ruler. Then, they waited.
On the Feast Day of Sts. Cosmas and Damian (ironically they were brothers) in 929 (some sources say 935) Boleslas invited Wenceslas to a banquet. The conspirators had originally planned to murder Wenceslas there but as they saw the expression on his face that exuded holiness, they wavered.
Wenceslas left the banquet and was warned by two retainers that something was amiss and that the Saint should leave in all haste. Wencelas refused however, and went back into the banquet to the surprise of all. Sitting back in his chair he raised his glass and bade all to toast St. Michael the Archangel, saying, “St. Michael, whom we pray to guide us to peace and eternal joy.” he then retired to bed, reciting the Psalms.
It was then decided that Wenceslas would be assassinated the next morning on his way to Mass. Wenceslas awoke and went to Mass that morning as was his usual habit and met his brother Boleslas on the way, thanking him for the previous day’s hospitality.
Boleslas responded, “Yesterday I did my best to serve you worthily, but this must be my service today!” He then drew his sword but Wenceslas blocked it effortlessly. He would not, however, kill his own brother. Boleslas then called for help from his three co-conspirators, Cesta, Tyra and Hnevys who then pierced Wenceslas through with their swords, one thrust in particular piercing his side. Some accounts say Boleslas himself thrust his sword into his brother.
Wenceslas fell inside the Church door which was splattered with his blood –which can be seen to this day — uttering the words, “May God forgive you this, my Brother!” The date was September 28, A.D. 929 (some sources A.D. 935).
Like another royal Saint a century and a half later, King St. Canute of Denmark, St. Wenceslas achieved martyrdom in a church. His body was desecrated upon his murder, hacked to pieces and buried on the spot of his martyrdom, but was later reburied in the Church of St. Vitus in Prague.
There are varying accounts about what became of those who plotted and carried out the murder of Wenceslas. One story says the three assassins died of madness and suicide, that Drahomira was swallowed up by a chasm that opened up beneath her, and that Boleslas died after many years of suffering physical illnesses. Another account says both Drahomira and Boleslas repented of their actions, with Boleslas himself being responsible for the reburying of his brother’s remains in St. Vitus’ Church; some say he had a church built and dedicated to him in Prague in A.D. 972.
The translation of his relics is celebrated on March 4, coincidentally the Feast Day of St. Casimir of Poland.
St. Wenceslas’ legacy was immediate and lasting. During his lifetime he had many churches built in Bohemia and founded the rotunda of St. Vitus at Prague Castle. Miracles occurred at the scene of his death within a very short time of his martyrdom and was considered a Saint.
More miracles occurred upon invoking his intercession. A pagan man who was imprisoned vowed to be Baptized into the Faith if the holy actions of St. Wenceslas were true. His shackles immediately fell off and he could never be bound again by the guards. Upon his release from jail he kept his promise, was baptized, and lived many years studying the Faith. A blind and crippled woman prayed at the spot of his martyrdom and asked to be cured and immediately she was able to see and use her arms again. A man from the Frankish Kingdom who was lame was told in a dream to visit St. Vitus’ Church in Prague. Praying in that church he was healed and gave thanks to St. Wenceslas for his intercession.
The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great posthumously granted Wenceslas the title of King. An altar has been devoted to him in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome since the beginning of the 14th century. The chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in about the year 1119, stated:
But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.
Centuries later that legend was claimed as a fact by Pope Pius II who was Pontiff from A.D. 1458-1464.
The hymn “Svatý Václave” (St. Wenceslas) or “St. Wenceslas Chorale” is one of the oldest known historical Czech songs. Its origins are found in the 12th century and it is still one of the most popular religious songs to this day in that country. In 1918, in the beginning of the Czechoslovak state, the song was discussed as one of the possible choices for the national anthem.
His Feast Day of September 28 is a national holiday in the Czech Republic. Hundreds of churches were built and dedicated to him throughout central Europe and there are at least four dedicated to him in the United States. Much artwork depicting him can be found in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Coins and money with his image and likeness have been minted for centuries in his native land and he was invoked by his people for centuries against invasion and occupation by foreign powers up until the end of Communist control of Czechoslovakia in 1989.
Wenceslas Square has been a rallying and gathering point for many years and it showcases a statue of St. Wenceslas on horseback. It was fitting and altogether appropriate that after the Czech Republic and Slovakia split into two countries the first President of the Czech Republic was a man named after St. Wenceslas, the playwright and author Vaclav Havel.
Now, how did St. Wenceslas become associated with the Christmas season even though his Feast Day is on September 28? In the year 1853 a carol was published by John Mason Neale which told the story of St. Wenceslas helping to gather firewood for the poor on the day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Feast Day. This carol may have been a translation of a poem by the Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
on the feast of Stephen,
when the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shown the moon that night,
though the frost was cruel,
when a poor man came in sight,
gathering winter fuel.
Hither, page, and stand by me.
If thou know it telling:
yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
underneath the mountain,
right against the forest fence
by Saint Agnes fountain.
Bring me flesh, and bring me wine.
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine
when we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went,
forth they went together
through the rude wind’s wild lament
and the bitter weather.
Sire, the night is darker now,
and the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how
I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps good, my page,
tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
freeze thy blood less coldly.
In his master’s step he trod,
where the snow lay dented.
Heat was in the very sod
which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
wealth or rank possessing,
ye who now will bless the poor
shall yourselves find blessing.
There is an old legend concerning King St. Wenceslas. It is said that at a future time, when his people face the ultimate danger, he will rise from the dead and lead an army of knights that currently repose in Blanik, a mountain in the Czech Republic. He will claim the sword of Bruncvik and drive out the enemies of the Czechs. Peace will then reign. (The Germans have a similar legend about Charlemagne, as do other people with kings of their past: Arthur of Britain, Rodrigo of Spain, and the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI, among others).
Every Catholic parent should tell their children the story of Good King Wenceslas – so that when they see someone’s footprints in the snow, they think of him. King St. Wenceslas, ora pro nobis!
1 who settled in present day Hungary