“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, tho’ the frost was cruel,_When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel….”
Wenceslaus I (907 – September 28, 935), or Wenceslas I, was the duke of Bohemia from 921 until his assassination in 935, purportedly in a plot by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel.
The Life of Wencenslaus I; Duke of Bohemia
Wenceslaus was son of Vratislav I, Duke of Bohemia (which comprises most of what is today the Czech Repiblic), and Drahomíra who was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief of Havolans and was baptized at the time of her marriage. In 921, when Wenceslaus was thirteen, his father died and he was brought up by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, who raised him as a Christian. A dispute between the fervently Christian regent and her daughter-in-law resulted in Ludmilla’s death, possibly arranged by Drahomira on September 15, 921. Wenceslaus is usually described as exceptionally pious and humble, and a very educated and intelligent young man for his time. It is thought that Drahomira attempted to reconvert her son to the old pagan religion, but little is known for sure about her regency. Whatever her attempts were to influence her son, he remained piously Christian and evidently didn’t care much for his mum, because upon assuming the throne in in 924 or 925 Wenceslaus had Drahomíra exiled .
After gaining the throne at the age of eighteen, he defeated a rebellious neighboring duke named Radslav. He also founded a rotunda consecrated to St Vitus at Prague Castle in Prague, which exists as present-day St Vitus Cathedral. In September of 935 a group of nobles—allied with Wenceslaus’ younger brother Boleslaus—plotted to kill the prince. After Boleslav invited Wenceslaus to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian in the city of Stará Boleslav, on the banks of the Elbe river, three of Boleslav’s companions murdered Wenceslaus on his way to church after a quarrel between him and his brother. Boleslav thus succeeded him as the Duke of Bohemia. There is a tradition which holds that Saint Wenceslaus’ loyal servant, Podevin, avenged his death by killing one of the chief conspirators. Podevin was executed by Boleslav.
Wenceslaus Becomes a Cult Hero and….
Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, and cults about him developed in Bohemia and in England. Soon after his death, several biographies of him were in circulation which emphasized his status as a “righteous king”— a leader whose great piety, and princely vigor were the source of his power. Cosmas of Prague, a chronicler of Bohemian nobility wrote in about the year 1119 :
“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.”
Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously proclaimed for him the title of King, hence his reference in the song as “King Wencelaus”. King Wencelaus remains to this day the patron saint of the Czech State. An equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslaus is located on Wenceslaus Square in Prague. His helmet and armour are on display inside Prague Castle. Since 2000, the feast day of Saint Wenceslas (September 28) is a public holiday in the Czech Republic, celebrated as Czech Statehood Day.
“GOOD King Wenceslaus!!”
In 1853, English hymn writer John Mason Neale (below) wrote the “Wenceslas” lyrics, in collaboration with his music editor
Thomas Helmore. Neales’ lyrics were set to a tune based on a 13th century spring carol “Tempus adest floridum” (“The time is near for flowering”) first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection “Piae Cantiones”. Helmore adapted the carol melodies and Neale either paraphrased the carol lyrics into English or wrote entirely new lines. Excerpts from both the music and words were published in “Carols for Christmas-tide” (London: Novello) in 1853, which contained 12 carols. At the time, Piae Cantiones was virtually unknown in England; thereafter, its words, its music, and its tale of the “Good King Wenceslaus” and his determination to help the poor would be read, adapted and performed throughout the English-speaking world.
The rest of the carol goes:
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st 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 steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted_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.”
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