The choir sang with gusto because the carol had a cheerful tune and was well loved.
"Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even."
Few had heard the true story behind the song, however. Few knew that there really was a 10th century Wenceslas, a Christian who ruled for about seven years in Bohemia (which is now part of the Czech Republic). Wenceslas was brought up by his Christian grandmother, Ludmila. She taught him that faith has to be put into action or it is a sham. Because of her teaching and example, Wenceslas learned true concern for the poor and suffering. That is the spirit John Mason Neale captured when he wrote his carol. The prince goes out on a cold night to feed a poor man who is gathering winter fuel. When a page complains of the cold and difficulty, Wenceslas urges him to follow in his tracks--a mirror of the way we follow in Christ's footsteps.
"Mark my footsteps, my good page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."
Wenceslas was just thirteen when his father died in 921. Ludmila acted as regent for the young man, but Wenceslas' mother, Drahomira, wanted the throne herself. She killed Ludmila and controlled the country.
Wenceslas did not wait to come of age, but seized the throne from his wicked mother. He banished her to a neighboring country. During his short reign, Wenceslas encouraged German missionaries to preach in Bohemia. He urged his people to convert to Christianity, even (we regret to say) punishing those who held out. At the same time, he reformed his country's judicial system and courted peace with neighboring nations, especially Germany. He was known for his charity to the poor.
Wenceslas had a younger brother, Boleslaw, who was made in the same mold as Drahomira. Some Bohemian nobles resented the fact that Wenceslas submitted to neighboring Germany. They urged Boleslaw to take action. Boleslaw plotted. When Wenceslas came to mass on this day, September 28, 929, his brother followed him to the church door. Recognizing that trouble was afoot, Wenceslaus said, "Brother, you were a good subject to me yesterday."
"And now I intend to be a better one!" shouted Boleslaw and struck his brother in the head with his sword.
Wenceslas had strength enough to fling his brother to the ground, whereupon one of Boleslaw's men stabbed Wenceslaus in the hand. Wenceslaus sought refuge in the church but two other assassins struck him down at the door. Bohemians look at Wenceslas as a martyr and their foremost saint. His picture long appeared on their coins and his crown was a symbol of Czech independence. Although Pope Benedict XIV did not want the Bohemian ruler included in the Roman Missal, he was. And an English hymn writer made an immortal carol about him.
- "Good King Wenceslas." Deep Cove Crier. http://www3.telus.net/st_simons/cr9212.htm
- Mershman, Francis. "St. Wenceslaus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- "Neale, John Mason." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-1996.
- Various internet articles such as http://www.royalty.nu/Europe/Wenceslas.html
Last update June, 2007.