Saint Wenceslaus

"Good King Wenceslaus" of Christmas carol fame wasn't really a king, but he was saintly and good. Perhaps born around 903 near Prague, in what is today the Czech Republic, young Wenceslaus was the product of a mixed marriage. His father Ratislav (the Duke of Bohemia) was a Christian, while his mother Drahomira came from a non-Christian Slavic tribe.

Wenceslaus was raised a Christian by his grandmother Ludmilla. The grandmother (also a saint) had been the wife of the first Christian duke of Bohemia.

When Wenceslaus' father died, his mother took over Bohemia, and civil war broke out between the Christian and non-Christian factions. Grandmother Ludmilla began urging Wenceslaus to take over; hearing of the sedition, Drahomira promptly had Ludmilla murdered.

The resultant power struggle ended in 922 with the teenage Wenceslaus in charge of Bohemia, attempting to bring together the warring factions.

As ruler, Wenceslaus attempted to reduce the oppression of the peasants by the nobility. Opposition to Wenceslaus among some factions of the nobility intensified after he acknowledged Emperor Henry I (the Fowler) of Germany as his overlord.

Wenceslaus' younger brother Boleslaus joined the opposition in 929, after Wenceslaus had a son, thereby removing Boleslaus from the chain of succession.

Boleslaus invited his brother Wenceslaus to a religious festival, and while Wenceslaus was on his way to mass on the morning of September 28, Boleslaus and a group of followers attacked him and stabbed him to death. Wenceslaus' last words were "May God forgive you, brother."

Immediately venerated as a martyr, Wenceslaus by the end of the century was celebrated as the nation's patron saint.

Wenceslaus Square is the center of modern-day Prague, and became in 1989 the site of mass popular demonstrations that helped topple the Communist dictatorship.

Although there is no historical record of the story recounted in the Christmas carol, it is consistent with Wenceslaus' concern for the poor. In the carol, Wenceslaus and a page leave their castle to bring food and pine longs to a peasant on the feast of Saint Stephen (Dec. 26).

As the wind grows more intense and the night grows darker, the page fears that he may collapse in the snow. Wenceslaus tells the page to follow his steps, which, miraculously, warm the page's freezing feet. Saint and page complete the trip to the peasant's home safely.

The youthful page's understandable fear of the bitter weather parallel's, in a sense, what must have been the real Wenceslaus' fears of attempting, as a teenager, to unite a nation divided by religious and dynastic civil war.

Wenceslaus and the page both attempted to pass through their respective storms by walking in the footsteps of righteousness. That path led the page out of the storm, and Wenceslaus into grave danger, and then to sainthood.

-Bu Dave Kopel

For more: Orthodox Family Magazine biography of Saints Ludmilla and Wenceslaus.

Electric Library Encyclopedia entry on Wenceslaus.

More by Kopel on Catholic Saints.

MaryLinks. Organized collection of links regarding the Virgin Mary, plus a daily calendar with links for Marian feasts, history, and essays.

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