“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.”
You’re probably familiar with this old Christmas carol. But did you know that Wenceslas was a real person? He was born into the royal Premysl or Przemyslid dynasty of Bohemia (located in what is now the Czech Republic).
According to legend, the original Premysl was a plowman who married a Bohemian princess named Libuse or Libussa during the 8th century. Their descendants eventually united the warring tribes of Bohemia into one duchy. The first known Premysl ruler was Wenceslas’s grandfather, Duke Borivoy I, who made Prague Castle the family seat. He married a Slav princess named Ludmila, and both eventually became Christians. Borivoy and Ludmila tried to convert all of Bohemia to Christianity, but failed. When Borivoy died he was succeeded by his sons, Ratislav and Spythinev. Ratislav was Wenceslas’s father.
Wenceslas was born around 907 in the castle of Stochov near Prague. The castle is gone now, but there is still an oak tree there that was supposedly planted by Ludmila when Wenceslas was born. His nannies watered the tree with his bath water, which supposedly made the tree strong. The church Wenceslas attended also exists today.
At first Wenceslas was raised by his grandmother, Ludmila. Then, when he was about 13 years old, his father died. Wenceslas succeeded him as duke. But because he was too young to rule, his mother, Drahomira, became regent. Drahomira was opposed to Christianity and used her new power to persecute followers of the religion. She refused to let Wenceslas see Ludmila because she was afraid they would scheme to overthrow her. Not long after Ratislav’s death, Ludmila was murdered at Tetin Castle — strangled, it is said, at Drahomira’s command. After her death Ludmila was revered as a saint.
But the loss of his grandmother did not stop Wenceslas from seizing power. At the age of 18 he overthrew his mother’s regency, just as she had feared, and began to rule for himself. A stern but fair monarch, he stopped the persecution of priests and tamed the rebellious nobility. He was known for his kindness to the poor, as depicted in later verses of the carol. He was especially charitable to children, helping young orphans and slaves.
Many of the Bohemian nobles resented Wenceslas’s attempts to spread Christianity, and were displeased when he swore allegiance to the king of Germany, Henry I. The duke’s most deadly enemy proved to be his own brother, Boleslav, who joined the nobles who were plotting his brother’s assassination. He invited Wenceslas to a religious festival and then attacked him on his way to mass. As the two were struggling, Boleslav’s supporters jumped in and murdered Wenceslas.
“Good King” Wenceslas died on September 20, 929. He was in his early twenties and had ruled Bohemia for five years. Today he is remembered as the patron saint of the Czech Republic.
The words to the carol “Good King Wenceslas” were written by John Mason Neale and first published in 1853. The music is from a 13th century song called “Tempus Adest Floridum,” or “Spring Has Unwrapped Her Flowers.” The music was first published in written form in Finland in 1582 as part of a collection of songs called Piae Cantiones. It is also used for another carol, “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child.” And in case you’re wondering, the Feast of Stephen is celebrated on December 26 — the day after Christmas.
This article was first published at Suite101.com.
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