Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Real Good King Wenceslas

There are many myths and few facts about the original Good King Wenceslas.

Let's start with the facts. Wenceslas was Vaclav I Duke of Bohemia from 921 - 935 AD. He was born into the house of the Přemyslids, the first rulers of Bohemia, at a time when Christianity was only just beginning to take hold among the Slavs. His grandfather Borivoj was converted by St Cyril and St Methodius (the Apostles to the Slavs) and Wenceslas was brought up a Christian by his father Vratislav. When Vratislav died Wenceslas was only 13 and his care passed to his saintly grandmother Ludmila. But a power struggle ensued over control of the young king and his kingdom between Ludmila and Wenceslas' mother Drahomira, which resulted in Ludmila's death by strangulation. In 924 or 925 Wenceslas had his mother exiled and took control of his dukedom.

Under his rule Christianity was promoted in Bohemia and the chronicles attribute to Wenceslas great acts of piety. In 929 the army of  the Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler, attacked Prague and Wenceslas sued for peace and pledged allegiance to the German Duke. This action together with Wenceslas' support of the Christian church angered many Bohemian nobles who turned to Wenceslas brother Boleslav as an alternative duke. At some point later Boleslav invited Wenceslas to a religious feast and when Wenceslas was on his way to church Boleslav and his allies murdered him

So Wenceslas was actually Vaclav; he wasn't a king but a duke and we can't even be sure of the dates - he may have died in 929 or alternatively 935. History is also unclear about his enemies. Was Drahomira a pagan - the chronicles can't make up their minds. Was Boleslav - well he didn't exactly stop the growth of christianity after Wenceslas' death. What we have here is a pretty typical example of realpolitik in the Dark Ages, with the usual fratricide, invading armies, conspiracies and a dose of religion to boot.  After which we get the postumous and highly unreliable hagiographic royal biographies.

Now for some of the myths -
  • The story of the old man seeking fuel appeared in 1853 - a piece of Victorian whimsy by John Mason Neale. The tune however is older - it's a medieval spring carol.
  • Wenceslas is said to be sleeping with an army of knights under Mount Blanik waiting to ride out to save the Czech nation - though why you would want a leader who failed to defeat the Germans in his lifetime escapes me. 
  • In an extension to the last myth Wenceslas will take the magical sword of Bruncvik from a stone in Charles Bridge, and with the sword he will defeat the country's enemies. Myths it seems are the same the world over.
Well there you go - the real Good King Wenceslas stays as illusive as ever.

1 comment:

Karen said...

What a timely post because my church in Prague was selected by BBC Radio 4 to do a global broadcast on December 26, 2010 on the lives of Wenceslas and St. Stephen. It went up on their website yesterday and will be available for six more days.

This was a terrific collaboration between the BBC, St. Clement's Anglican English-language Church in Prague, the Czech Ecumenical Choir that sang and the native Czech Anglican priest named Petra Hanover who contributed such wise commentary.

As a Brit, you must take incredible pride in the BBC. While I had heard of the BBC in America, I was never a listener, reader and watcher of it before moving to Europe. Now I am all three. What an asset your countryman have created! The more I consume BBC programming the more respect I have for the service.

Thank you, British people, for making St. Clement's very special service available worldwide.


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