The medieval Czech ruler of the duchy of Bohemia, Wenceslas (ca. 903-935) is best known to the English-speaking world as the pious and kind leader immortalized in the English Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas." He is one of the Slavic peoples' fabled early Christian rulers, and remains the patron saint of Bohemia.
Wenceslas was barely out of his teens when he ruled Bohemia and fought bitter opposition from within his own family because of his pro-Christian policies. He was murdered by his brother on September 28, 935, now the day on which the Roman Catholic Church celebrates his feast day. The memory of Wenceslas has been immortalized in modern times by his famous statue, which stands in the heart of Prague. It has become a historic rallying spot for citizens protesting a foreign presence in their land.
First Christian Kings
Wencelsas (also known as Wenceslaus, Vaclav, Vaceslav, and, in German, Wenzel) was a descendant of the Premsyl family that rose to power in Bohemia. This part of Europe lies in the western area of the present-day Czech Republic. Its contemporary borders are Austria, Poland, Germany, and on the east, what was the Czech kingdom of Moravia. Bohemia's name derives from its first settlers, a Celtic tribe known as the Boii, who were replaced by Slavic tribes from the east who likely arrived here in the sixth century CE. Neighboring Moravia became a kingdom first. Christianity was introduced there beginning in the 860s with the arrival of two Greek missionaries, Cyril and Methodius. During their most active years, the two men converted many of the Slavic tribes to Christianity, and were the first to transcribe the Slavonic language. From the pope in Rome they received approval to use this language for the liturgical mass, and ordained local priests. The Cyrillic alphabet, which Russian and a number of other Slavic languages still use in modern times, is attributed to the efforts of Cyril.
The work of the missionaries ignited several decades of religious and political controversy in the area, a battle into which Wenceslas would be fatally drawn. From Moravia, Methodius headed westward to the land of Bohemia, where his talents as a proselytizer convinced many, but not all, of the Slavic tribes to abandon their traditional pagan belief system. His most important ally was the prince of the Premsyl dynasty, Borivoy, the first historically documented ruler of Bohemia; Methodius baptized both him and his wife, Ludmilla. Their son Wratislaw (also spelled as Vrachislav or Ratislav) became the duke of Bohemia, and was a committed Christian. His wife, Dragomir (Drahomira), was descended from a Slavic tribe in the north called the Veletians, and had accepted Christianity in name only. In the line of succession was their first son, Wenceslas.
Raised by Grandmother
Wenceslas was born in the early years of the tenth century, likely between 903 and 907. His grandmother, Ludmilla, arranged with the parents to raise him at her castle at Tetin. There her personal chaplain, a follower of Methodius, baptized Wenceslas. In addition to ensuring that her grandson received instruction in Christian catechism, Ludmilla also made certain that he was educated in other subjects, including literacy in both the Slavonic and Latin languages. Some of this schooling took place at a forerunner of a collegiate institution in Budweis (Budech).
Bohemia was thrown into turmoil by a 906 CE invasion by the Magyars, a nomadic people from beyond the Ural Mountains. They would later settle in what is present-day Hungary, but did not fully adopt Christianity until nearly a century later, in the early decades of the eleventh century. Wenceslas's father Wratislaw died in this conflict that evolved into a Bohemian civil war, and his mother Dragomir then became regent of the duchy. She attempted to regress to a more secular political rule. Her advisors, culled from Bohemian nobles who still adhered to traditional ways—particularly the Slavs' former non-Christian religion—fomented discord between her and her mother-in-law. They suggested that her pious son was better suited for the priesthood than the duties of a duke. In response, the grandmother Ludmilla and pro-Christian factions convinced Wenceslas to attempt to usurp his mother's power. When Dragomir learned of this, Ludmilla was strangled by nobles at her castle, allegedly upon orders of her daughter-in-law.
Controversial Alliance with Germans
Rather than advance her own cause, this act of treachery backfired on Dragomir, for it helped rally support around Wenceslas. By 922, he had taken control of the duchy and proclaimed Christian law in Bohemia. His mother, exiled at Budech, was recalled to his court and their relations were unaffected by past tensions. To help maintain peace in the land, Wenceslas asked neighboring Germany for protection. These lands to the west of Bohemia were ruled by another Christian leader, Emperor Henry I (the Fowler) of Germany, the first of the Saxon line of kings. Such German rulers, after consolidating power, would eventually become Holy Roman Emperors. This alliance with the Germans later clouded historic assessments of Wenceslas, since Czechs and Bohemians would have a tenuous, sometimes troublesome relationship with one another in subsequent centuries. But Wenceslas was eager to ally with the West and the rest of Christian Europe, and considered Henry the direct successor to Charlemagne, the late eighth century French king who united large parts of western Europe under his rule and became the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
History, and particular Slavic Catholic history, have placed much emphasis upon Wenceslas, his piety, and his determination to implement Christian laws and principles during his brief rule. It is said that Henry was similarly devout, and was greatly impressed by Wenceslas when they first met. The German emperor offered to grant the duke whatever he would like, and so Wenceslas asked for the arm of Saint Vitus, one of the oldest of Christian saints, whose remains were in Germany. In Prague, Wenceslas began building a church in honor of the relic. He issued an edict that replaced the Slavonic mass with the standard Latin mass, which was used in the rest of Christian Europe. This was unpopular with the people. It was also unwise, since there were not enough priests in this area of Europe trained in the Latin language. Wenceslas also created advisory counsels and invited clerics to sit on them. This decision further alienated the nobles, who saw their rightful political role as being supplanted by priests.
Fratricide on Church Steps
At some point in the 920s Wenceslas married and became the father of a son. This effectively shut out his younger brother Boleslaw (also Boleslav, Boleslaus, sometimes called Boleslav the Cruel) from the line of succession. Dragomir, the mother of both, allegedly urged Boleslaw to murder his own brother. Though the year of his death is vague, the circumstances surrounding the deed are better known. In the year 929 or 935, Boleslaw invited Wenceslas to join him at a site outside Prague (in what later became known as Stara Boleslav) to celebrate the feast day of saints Cosmas and Damian. While there, Wenceslas was advised that his life was in danger, but ignored the warning. On his way to mass in the morning of the second day, he met Boleslaw outside the church and thanked him for his hospitality. Boleslaw purportedly replied, "Yesterday, I did my best to serve you fittingly, but this must be my service today," and struck him. A struggle ensued, and a group of nobles loyal to Boleslaw finished the task. Legend has it that Wenceslas's final words were, "May God forgive you, brother."
The body of Wenceslas was then dismembered and buried at the site of the crime, to which the faithful began making pilgrimages. The reported incidents of miracles there were said to have greatly unnerved Boleslaw, now duke of Bohemia. He made a genuine repentance. Three years after the murder, he ordered the removal of his brother's remains to the church of St. Vitus. Boleslaw later consolidated his power by having much of a rival clan murdered. The Premsyl dynasty ruled Bohemia for four centuries after 995 CE. In the twelfth century, the successors to Wenceslas—now quite firmly on the side of Rome and the Christian church—were elevated to the position of electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Some of these leaders, hoping to spur economic development in the area, invited German craftsmen to settle in Bohemia. Their descendants, who still spoke German, became known as Sudeten Germans, and provided Nazi German chancellor Adolf Hitler with a spurious reason to invade the country in 1938.
A Venerated Hero
By the year 984, the feast of Wenceslas was being celebrated in Bohemia. A third church on the site of the original St. Vitus was began in the 1340s as a cathedral under orders of Charles IV. The church, site of religious and coronation ceremonies for centuries and untouched by the destruction of World War II, contains an ornate chapel for the resting place of Wenceslas. Charles ordered that its walls be made from jasper, amethyst, and chalcedony. The saint's skull was girded in pure gold.
The English Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas" dates from the nineteenth century, though the melody itself is much older. Its verses recount the journey of the duke and a servant of his, who take food and pine logs to a peasant home on Saint Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas. It is a cold and arduous forest trek, and the page fears he will not make it. Wenceslas tells him to follow in his footsteps, which miraculously warm him.
Symbol of Czech Pride
Wenceslas Square in Prague is home to a statue of the revered leader. The square is one of the city's most famous landmarks both for Czech citizens and visitors alike. It has become a gathering spot for successive generations of Czechs and Slovaks protesting foreign domination. Most recently, those opposed to the presence of Soviet troops on Czechoslovak soil. Enervated by the rise to power of a reform-minded communist leader, Alexander Dubcek, who began instituting liberal policies, demonstrators draped banners on the statue of Wenceslas statue. Overnight, Soviet troops would take them down; a teenage boy was shot and killed by Russian soldiers in front of the statue. Pro-democracy crowds, whose numbers swelled in Wenceslas Square every day, bedecked the site with flowers and put a Czech flag in the hand of Wenceslas. After Soviet tanks rolled into the country and through the streets of Prague to quash the rebellion, a black flag of mourning was placed in the saint's hand. In early 1969, a Czech student set himself afire in front of the statue to protest the totalitarian, Soviet-installed leadership.
The square became the site of a far more successful demonstration twenty years later, when a half-million Czechs and Slovaks began gathering in front of the likeness of Wenceslas in the first days of November just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here they successfully agitated for freedom from Soviet Communist domination. Fittingly, the leader of the ad hoc group who became the country's first democratically elected president bears the Slavic version of the name of Wenceslas as his given name, Vaclav Havel.
Further Reading on Wenceslas
Sayer, Derek, The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, Princeton University Press, 1998.
Thurston, Herbert, and Donald Attwater, Butler's lives of the Saints, Christian Classics, 1981.
Wechsberg, Joseph, Prauge: The Mystical City, Macmillan, 1971.