History of St. Wenceslaus

903 - 929 AD

"Good King Wenceslaus" of Christmas carol fame wasn't really a king, but he was saintly and good. 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.

If saints have been falsely characterized as "otherworldly," the life of Wenceslaus stands as an example to the contrary: he stood for Christian values in the midst of the political intrigues which characterized 10th century Bohemia. Duke, martyr, and patron of Bohemia, born probably 903 (907) near Prague, in what is today the Czech Republic; died at Alt-Bunzlau (Also: Alt-Bunglou), 28 September, 929. He stood for Christian values in the midst of the world. His parents were Duke Wratislaw (Also: Ratislav), a Christian, and Dragomir (Also: Drahomira), daughter of the chief of the Veletians, a Slav tribe from the north. They had twin sons Wenceslaus and Boleslaus. Wenceslaus since he was the elder was sent to his grandmother St. Ludmila to be raised. Boleslaus remained with his mother.

At Budweis, Wenceslaus received a good Christian education from his grandmother, St. Ludmila, who sought to promote him as ruler of Bohemia in place of his mother, who favored the anti-Christian factions. The grandmother (also declared a saint) had been the daughter of a Slavic prince. She married Duke Borivoy of Bohemia, whom she followed into the Church. They built a church near Prague and tried unsuccessfully to force Christianity on their subjects. Many of the powerful Czech families became strongly opposed to the Catholic Religion. They wished to remain in their pagan beliefs. On the death of Borivoy in 915, his sons Spytihinev and Wratislaw ruled the whole country.

After the death of Wratislaw (Wenceslaus was still young when his father died in battle), Dragomir, acting as regent, opposed Christianity. Civil war broke out between the Christian and non-Christian factions. Grandmother Ludmila began urging Wenceslaus to take over. Hearing of the sedition, Drahomira kept Wenceslaus from Ludmila and reportedly caused her to be strangled to death while she was praying at Tetin in 860. Her Feastday is September 16th.

The resultant power struggle ended 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. He ruled from 921-929. His rule was marked by efforts toward unification within Bohemia, support of the Church, and peace-making negotiations with Germany, a policy which caused him trouble with the anti-Christian opposition. St. Wenceslaus cultivated friendly relations with Germany, and preserved the unity of his country by acknowledging King Henry I (the Fowler) as his over-lord around the year 926, (he placed his duchy under the protection of Germany), seeing in him the legitimate successor of Charlemagne. This caused a great opposition who formed a party against him. He introduced German priests, and favored the Latin rite instead of the old Slavic, which had gone into disuse in many places for want of priests. The Emperor Otto I conferred on him the regal dignity and title.

For religious and national motives, and at the instigation of Dragomir, Wenceslaus was murdered by his brother Boleslaus. Boleslaus invited his brother Wenceslaus to the Feast of Sts. Cosmas and Damian. While Wenceslaus was on his way to mass on the morning of September 28, Boleslaus struck Wenceslaus and they began struggling. Then friends of Boleslaus ran up and attacked him and stabbed him to death. Wenceslaus' last words were " May God forgive you, brother."

Although his death resulted primarily from political upheaval, Wenceslaus was hailed as a martyr for the faith. By the end of the century Wenceslaus was celebrated as the nation's patron saint. Three years later Boleslaus, having repented of his deed, ordered Wenceslaus's body to be moved to the Church of St. Vitus in Prague. The shrine became a place of pilgrimage. The gathering of his relics is noted in the calendars on 27 June, their translation on 4 March; his feast is celebrated on 28 September. 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.

St. Wenceslaus by his death did what he was unable to do while he was living. He made Bohemia Christian. Within thirty years of his martyrdom the Faith was so strong that Wenceslaus's friend, the Emperor Otto, gave Bohemia a bishop of its own with his seat in the Cathedral of Prague, where the good King lay in a shrine to which pilgrims came from all over Germany. At the beginning of the eleventh century St. Wenceslaus was already regarded as the patron of modern Czechoslovakia.

COMMENT: "Good King Wenceslaus" was able to incarnate his Christianity in a world filled with political unrest. While we are often victims of violence of a different sort, we can easily identify with his struggle to bring harmony to society. The call to become involved in social change, and in political activity, is addressed to Christians; the values of the Gospel are sorely needed today.

Sources:

The Catholic Encyclopedia, © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc.
Saint of the Day, vol2, by Leonard Foley, OFM, © 1975, St. Anthony Messenger Press
Orthodox Family Magazine, biography of Saints Ludmila and Wenceslaus.
Electric Library Encyclopedia