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Good King Wenceslaus: The Story Behind the Song

Updated on March 8, 2018
Wenceslaus  by Peter Parler
Wenceslaus by Peter Parler | Source

Christmas time may be over, but it's effects still linger. Besides the bills and extra pounds, those Christmas melodies still seem to be stuck in our heads. We will be humming sleigh bells and Christmas tales until Valentine's Day.

One that I've been humming for a couple days now is Good King Wenceslaus. You know the one; 'good king Wenceslaus looked out, on the feast of Stephen...' We're all familiar with Good King Wenceslaus. He was that good guy who gave to the poor right? Well, turns out there's a lot more to the story than that.

Painting by Josef Mathauser depicting Vratislaus instructing his son Vaclav while Drahomíra looks on.
Painting by Josef Mathauser depicting Vratislaus instructing his son Vaclav while Drahomíra looks on. | Source
Ludmila, Wenceslas's grandmother. PD-1923
Ludmila, Wenceslas's grandmother. PD-1923 | Source

'King Weneceslaus'

For starters good 'King Weneceslaus' was not named Weneceslaus, nor was he a king. (He was however still good!)

His name was Vaclav and he was the Duke of Bohemia. Vaclav was born some time around the year A.D. 907. He was the son of Vratislaus, Duke of Bohemia and his wife Drahomira. Vrastislaus was a Christian while Drahomira was a pagan. Sadly in 921 Duke Vrastislaus was killed in battle.

This meant that young Vaclav (who would have been around 14 years old) was now Duke of Bohemia. This is when life began to become rough for the young duke. Because of their parents differing religions, a conflict broke out as to how Vaclav and his brother Boleslav where now to be raised. In Christianity by Ludmila, their Grandmother, or paganism by Drahomira, their mother?

It was decided to split power between the two. This meant Ludmila retained the education of Vaclav, this left Drahomira to focus her energies on her younger son Boleslav.

Ludmila eventually moved with Vaclav to her castle in Tetín. Drahomira soon became jealous of the influence her mother-in-law had over her son. She had Ludmila murdered by having her strangled with her own veil. Drahomira now had control of all of Bohemia.

By Känsterle (Overleg) Boleslav of Bohemia
By Känsterle (Overleg) Boleslav of Bohemia | Source

The End of Good Duke Vaclav

Things went awry for Drahomira when after a short lived reign, her son Vaclav come of age and inherited his father 'throne'. One of his first acts was to have his mother banished from Bohemia; no doubt with the murder of his grandmother fresh on his mind. (He seems to have forgiven his mother though since he allowed her back after three years).

During his reign Vaclav fostered friendly relations with Germany and instituted German priests to combat the Paganism of his mother. Despite many setbacks he remained a strong Christian and a noble and generous ruler all his life.

Sadly the good duke's reign ended in 935 when he was set upon by three nobleman while on his way to celebrate a Christian festival with his brother's family. He was stabbed through the heart and his brother Boleslav ran him through with a lance as he fell. So ended the life of Good Vaclav.Upon the murder of his brother Boleslav became Duke of Bohemia and became known as Boleslav the Cruel.

There is a legend that says that Vaclav's faithful servant Podevin hunted down one of the three nobleman and avenged his master's death by killing him. For this deed Podevin was executed by Boleslav.

Statue of King Wenceslaus that sits in Prague.
Statue of King Wenceslaus that sits in Prague. | Source

Legends of Wencelaus

Just as King Arthur, 'King Wencelaus' is a figure in many legends.

One legend that demonstrates the kindliness of King Wencelaus is the legend of Count Radislas. One day Radislas grew tired of living under the rule of Wencelaus and rebelled. Well, Wencelaus being a kindly and reasonable king sent word to Radislas that he would rather settle with him than make war. Though this was a noble move on the part of the King, Radislas, took it as an act of cowardice. He marched against Wencelaus with all his army. Wencelaus and his army met Radislas and the two armies stood face to face. The King, who hated to see such bloodshed, challenged Radislas to single combat. When Radislas charged Wencelaus he saw two angels standing by the King's side. As Radislas came near, the angles raised their swords and cried, "Stand Off!" Radislas changed his mind and knelt before the King, begging to be forgiven, which of course he was.

Another famous legend of King Wencelaus states, that a giant army sleeps in the mountain of Blanik, in the Czech Republic. And that one day, if the country of Czech was ever to be in grave danger the knights in the mountain would awake and ride to the aid of the people. The legend also states that the statue of King Wencelaus, that sits in Prague, will come alive! But as the King rides to their aid, his horse will stumble and reveal the King's sword, Bruncvík. With that sword, King Wencelaus, will slay the enemies of Czech and bring peace and prosperity again to the land.

Engraving by Brothers the Dalziel. PD-1923
Engraving by Brothers the Dalziel. PD-1923 | Source

What About the Song?

Just as King Wenceslaus wasn't actually a King the song isn't actually a Christmas Song. The song "Good King Wenceslaus" was written in 1853 by J. M. Neale for St. Stephen's day (which is December 26th).

The tune orginally belonged to the song "Tempus adest floridum" which means "It is time for flowering". It was a 13th-century Latin spring carol taken from the song book Piae Cantione.

In the song, Wenceslaus and a Page are traveling through the bitter night of winter to attend the feast of St. Stephen. They come across a poor peasant gathering wood. Wenceslaus, asks after the poor man and hears of his plight. The heart of the king is moved and he goes to find the peasant food. In the cold and darkness of the night the Page's heart grows faint and he thinks about giving up. But Wenceslaus convinces him to keep going and leads the way.

There is no historical evidence that the moonlight act of kindness in the song ever actually took place. However whether true or fictional Weneceslaus's act of charity can inspire us all, peasant or king!

The Legacy of Wenceslaus

Nuncio Diego Causero once wrote of Wenceslaus; “'Good King Wenceslaus” was able to incarnate his Christianity in a world filled with political unrest. He stood for Christian values and died for them. He has a call for all Christians and men of good will of this Country: to become involved in positive social change and political activity, no matter how much it costs, in order to bring harmony and justice to society.'"

How did a young Bohemian Duke become a King with a Latin name; memorialized in song and legend? By being courageous and kind. By using the power that was given to him to serve God and others. He stands today as a reminder to us all that kindness is for everyone, be they peasant, prince, or page.

Good King Wenceslas Coral with Lyrics

What is your favorite Christmas Coral? I would love to know! Tell me in the comments below!

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