Day 14 of Advent: Good King Wenceslas

As some of you surely know, “Good King Wenceslas” is a popular British Victorian carol. Whether you have already known this fact or just now learnt about it, you are probably wondering what it has to do with Czech Christmas. Truth be told, this carol is not sung in the Czech Republic, yet there is a significant connection to the country’s history.

Who Was the Good King Wenceslas?

This British Victorian carol about the good King Wenceslas is very popular and so it is often used in TV shows and movies. Sometimes just as a soundtrack, sometimes a part of the plot, as it was in one episode of The Big Bang Theory, where the carol is sung by Sheldon Cooper. Here you will actually learn that the good King Wenceslas was in fact a real person. His name was Václav and though he was not actually a King, as is sung in the carol, as a duke he did rule over Bohemia. However, unless you are familiar with the Horrible Histories series, you probably don’t know the real story.

The Real “King” Wenceslas

The carol “Good King Wenceslas” was created by John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore and published in 1853. The lyric written by J. M. Neale was set to the melody of an old 13th-century spring carol “Tempus adest floridum”. The carol tells the story of King Wenceslas who together with his page helped a poor peasant and, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, was not actually a king, but a duke.

But this is not the whole story. The real story of Wenceslas (Václav in Czech) is actually closer to the Game of Thrones than to the popular carol. Wenceslas was born in 907 AD and, according to a legend, he was raised by his paternal grandmother Ludmila. Ludmila, much to his mother’s dislike, was a devout Christian and thus raised the little Wenceslas as a Christian as well. Drahomíra, his mother, was a heathen and resented Wenceslas’ grandmother Ludmila, her religion and her political views, so she had her killed by her guards – Tunna and Gommon. If you are wondering why the guards’ names sound so non-Czech, it is said that they were Varangians. Anyway, since Drahomíra didn’t want Ludmila to be canonized, she ordered her Varangian guards to strangle her instead of killing her with their swords. Yet, she was later canonized. It is, however, more likely just a legend and the reason behind Ludmila’s murder was purely political. 

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Either way, young Wenceslas was eventually made a duke of Bohemia and being strongly influenced by Christianity, he ruled in accordance with his religion. As a devout Christian he built churches, destroyed pagan shrines and, according to legends, freed slaves and helped the poor. What Czechs mostly regard him for are his political steps – when Bohemia was invaded by Henry I the Fowler, King of East Francia, Wenceslas had basically two options: resist and go to war with Heinrich der Vogler, or pay tribute money, “tributum pacis”  in Latin. He decided for the latter option, not wanting to spill the blood of innocent people. This, on one hand, probably saved the new state from being treated much harsher by its Western neighbours. On the other hand, it also contributed to the gradual Germanization of the land, according to some. This decision marked him as a weak and cowardly ruler in the eyes of many Bohemian citizens, one of them being his own younger brother Boleslaus I (Boleslav in Czech). Boleslaus decided to take the fate of Bohemia into his own hands and started plotting against his brother. He invited Wenceslas to (Stará) Boleslav (a town named after Boleslaus, obviously) for a feast on the occasion of the celebration of Saints Cosmas and Damian. The next day Wenceslas decided to go to mass and on his way to the church he met his brother Boleslaus. Boleslaus drew his sword and hit the surprised Wenceslas in the head, only slightly hurting him. Wenceslav managed to take the sword from his hands but threw it away since he didn’t want to kill his brother. Poor Wenceslas was, however, immediately murdered by Boleslaus’ crew. Some versions of the legend tell a slightly different story, though – according to one of them, the clash took place near a gate but Wenceslas was only injured. He ran away and tried to hide in a church whose door was, unfortunately for Wenceslas, still locked and so the Boleslaus’ crew surrounded Wenceslas and then beat and stabbed Wenceslas to death. This supposedly happened on September 28 of the year 929 or 935. Just as the day was later made a Czech national holiday, Wenceslas was eventually canonized just like his grandmother st. Ludmila and made the Patron of the Czech lands. Unsurprisingly, Boleslav was later nicknamed “Boleslav I Ukrutný” (“Boleslaus I the Cruel” in English).

St. Wenceslas' statue
St. Wenceslas’ statue in front of the National Museum on Wenceslas’s Square in Prague (source of the image:

Not all Czechs are glad to have Wenceslas as their Patron – for choosing not to go into a war with East Francia he’s been long regarded as a weak ruler and a coward by many Czech historians and the common folk. During the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia between 1939 and 1945 by Nazis, Wenceslas was often laughed at by Germans and used as an argument of Czechs being supposed to serve Germans. Of course, this didn’t make Czechs like Wenceslas more. Yet the second biggest square in the Czech Republic was eventually named “Václavské náměstí” after Wenceslas.

This carol is a little satisfaction to Czech people, who can now be at least proud of their saint being sung about in a famous carol. St. Wenceslas would be probably also very surprised if he knew, there would be a British carol composed about him many centuries after his death.

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Anna Minjaríková

Hello, readers! My job is to provide you with some interesting tips and useful information about all the things Czech. ♫ I'll be there for you! ♫

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