I almost didn’t write this blog. Truth is, I am unfamiliar with the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. Or rather, I have heard the song a few times but could not quote a single line. That isn’t to say I do not appreciate that it is a favored hymn to many, which is in part why I looked into the song’s origins. Imagine my surprise to discover the story behind the carol is utterly fascinating.
The Real Wenceslas
Around 907, the man who would inspire the carol was born in Stochov, Bohemia —now the western portion of the Czech Republic. He was the son of Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia, and Drahomíra, the daughter of a pagan Havelli tribal chief. Christianity was a new religion for the ruling family, Wenceslas’s grandfather and grandmother the first to convert from paganism, but their faith was strong and sincere.
Wenceslas was raised in the Christian faith, a firm foundation that would serve him well during the rocky future. His grandmother, Duchess Ludmila, did not trust Drahomíra —who had been baptized immediately prior to her marriage and displayed little belief in the Christian faith— so she assumed the task of educating the boy, in Biblical matters and general academics. When old enough, Wenceslas was sent to Budec near Prague, where he learned to read, write, and converse in Latin and Greek.
In 921, when Wenceslas was around 13, Duke Vratislaus died, making him the new duke. However, due to his youth, Wenceslas’s paternal grandmother, Ludmila of Bohemia, was named regent. This was a very good move which unfortunately did not play out as it should have. His mother immediately reverted to her pagan beliefs and ever resenting Ludmila’s influence, Drahomíra arranged for assassins to murder her, which occurred on September 15, 921. With no one to stand in her way, Drahomíra named herself regent and as the de facto ruler, she launched an assault on Christians by repressing Christian noblemen and persecuting priests.
Thankfully, Wenceslas remained loyal to his Christian faith and when he came of age at 18, he joined with the remaining Christian nobles to rise up against his mother. Drahomíra was exiled, but pardoned by Duke Wenceslas a few years later, a decision revealing his merciful nature, even if it later contributed to his downfall.
Duke Wenceslas assumed full control of the government, however not all was calm. While most of the nobles supported Wenceslas, others preferred his younger brother Boleslav. In an attempt to prevent further discord, it was agreed to divide the duchy between the brothers, Boleslav given a considerable amount of land. Alas, as with so many power-hungry, evil people in history, Boleslav would not be content.
As Duke of Bohemia, Wenceslas —known as Vaclac the Good— was beset by troubles from within and without. Not all noblemen were pleased with his devotion to Christianity and monk-like lifestyle. There was resentment to his intense promotion of the “new” faith that not all had fully or honestly embraced. His kindness and generosity to the common people earned their love, but not so much amongst the aristocracy.
“Rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.” ~Cosmas of Prague, ca.1119 AD
Adding to the displeasure of the nobles, Wenceslas signed a treaty with the much more powerful, and Christian, King Henry I of East Francia (modern day Germany). It was a shrewd choice due to the ongoing raids, attacks, and full-scale wars occurring all over the region during these decades. Sadly, the disapproving noblemen allied with Boleslav to stage a coup, a treasonous act encouraged by mother Drahomíra.
Boleslav invited Wenceslas to a feast at Stará to celebrate the birth of his son. On September 28 in 935, the day after arriving, Wenceslas was on the very steps of the church to attend mass when set upon by three of the accomplice nobles. They stabbed him several times, the final killing blow a skewer with a lance from Boleslav himself.
The Legacy and The Carol
Beloved by the people, the 28 year old Duke (his age is an estimate as his precise birthdate is not known) left a remarkable legacy and became the inspiration for legends. His remains are in St Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague, and his helmet and armour are on display inside Prague Castle. Almost immediately after his death, Wenceslas was declared a martyr and a saint by the Catholic Church.
He is today the patron saint of the Czech state and September 28, his Saint’s Day, is a public holiday celebrated with feasting. Within two decades of his death, no less than four biographies were written about him. A church hymn titled Saint Wensceslas Chorale was written in the 12th century, and is one of the oldest known Czech religious anthems. It remains very popular and was considered for the Czechoslavak national anthem. The statue of Saint Wenceslas seen below was sculpted in 1887 and stands in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Legend has it that the Saint watches over the country and is on the alert to come to life at the time of deepest distress, when he will be aided by an army of knights that lie sleeping and waiting inside the nearby mountain of Blaník.
Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (962-973) posthumously declared Wenceslas a king, the title “conferred on the regal dignity” based on the ancient concept of rex justus (righteous king), that being a monarch whose power stems from his great piety and princely vigor. In other words, a king in deeds if not technically a crowned king of a country. It is this sense from which the carol Good King Wenceslas was written and titled.
In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the lyrics in collaboration with music editor Thomas Helmore. The word were written for the Feast of St. Stephen on December 26 and are original. The tune, however, is from a 13th century Finnish spring season carol Tempus adest floridum (“Eastertime has come”) which was entirely unknown by the 1800s. Neale was determined to restore Catholic music and saints days back into the Anglican church, and thanks to the gift of a 1582 publication containing the Finnish song, he was given the opportunity to use the ancient and forgotten melody with his newly written carol.
Good King Wenceslas first appeared in print in Carols for Christmas-Tide, published in 1853 by Novello & Co. The carol is unique is several ways. For one, it is about a relatively obscure duke who, while indeed a saint, lived nearly 1000 years before the song was written and was practically unheard of in England. Secondly, it was not written for Christmas directly, and makes no reference to Jesus, Mary, Bethlehem, or any other details from the Nativity. For these reasons, as well as others related to musical issues I don’t understand, Good King Wenceslas has had many critics over the centuries. Nevertheless, while never a vastly popular Christmas carol compared to most, it has remained a beloved carol performed and recorded by an array of noteworthy artists, including Bing Crosby, The Beatles, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Mannheim Steamroller, The Piano Guys, Mel Tormé, and The Irish Rovers.
Below are the full lyrics (it is a long song) and two recordings found on YouTube. It seemed only fitting to share one by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, but I could not find a live version, only a recording. Secondly, after listening to several, I loved the upbeat tone and fun of the version by The Irish Rovers.
~ Good King Wenceslas ~
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.
‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’
‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’
‘Bring me meat and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither.’
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.
‘Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.’
‘Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’
In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.