Good King Wenceslaus: The Untold Story

We’ve all heard the tune, even sung it absent-mindedly on this, the Feast of Stephen.

And many of us have wondered: who in the sam-scratch is King Wenceslaus? There’s no King of England with that name, not even the old Anglo-Saxon kings who didn’t put handy numerals after their name to know which one they were. And since his name isn’t Louis, Charles, or Phillip, he can’t be French. So what was Wenceslaus the King of?

Bohemia. Sort of.

Wenceslaus was the son of Borivoj I, who created the realm known as Bohemia in somewhere around 870 (dates in the ninth century are a bit flexible, especially on the outskirts of the Carolingian empire, where Vikings and Saracens and Magyars kept making a mess of things). Bori granted himself the title of knize, which means something like “prince” in Czech but got translated as dux in Latin. Dux is the root word of our “duke”, but the old Roman title implied a certain level of military independence, something between a Field Marshal and a Warlord. But the tyranny of Latin had Bori and all his successors until the 13th century listed as Dukes, which implies an allegiance to a king or emperor. The Holy Roman Emperors tended to act as overlords of Bohemia, but that authority was rather faraway and UN-like at times, especially as most HRE’s tended to spend their time quabbling with the German Dukes and the Pope for control of the realm. The knizes certainly acted as the sovereign rulers of bohemia, until they became Kings.

Anyway, Wenceslaus was the duke/prince of Bohemia from 921 until 935. Christianity was still new on the ground then. Borivoj had been converted, but plenty preferred the old gods, and Wenceslaus’ grandmother St. Ludmilla ended up strangled by his mother Drahomira for being a bit too enthusiastic with the new religion (and for being too popular with the young prince).

All the stories describe Wenceslaus as pious, educated, intelligent, humble, a veritable Sir Galahad of Bohemian knizes (including a vow of celibacy). His reign was a bit of a wash: he managed to put down a rebellion, suffered not too many raids by Magyars (aka Hungarians), and laid the foundation of what became St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. But he was forced to kneel to the German King Henry I (the Fowler), who stormed Prague in 929. Either this humiliation or his passion for Christianization turned the nobles against him, and they looked to replace him with his younger brother Boleslav.

In 935 Boleslav invited Wenceslaus to a feast. Some manner of quarrel broke out between the brothers, and Wenceslaus was murdered by three of Boleslav’s companions on his way in to a church. Immediately popular outcry proclaimed him a saint and martyr, and is currently regarded as the patron saint of the Czech Republic. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, the son of Henry the Fowler who had humiliated Wenceslaus, went so far as to grant him the title of “rex” posthumously. So he may be called “Good King Wenceslaus” without error.

As for Boleslav, he went on to rule effectively for over thirty years after his brothers murder. He took part in Otto I’s shellacking of the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955 and expanded his realm in the aftermath. But details of remorse poke through: a son born to Boleslav around the same time (according to some sources, the same day) as Wenceslaus’ death was given the name Strachkvas or “dreadful feast.” This son Boleslav promised to the priesthood and kept his word, Strachkvas eventually rose to be Archbishop of Prague but died in mysterious circumstances during his consecration in 996. A daughter of Boleslav, Mlada, became a nun; Boleslav sent her to Rome to petition the Pope to make Prague a bishopric in the first place. So whatever his devotion to the old gods (or the gods of irony) prior to becoming knize, afterwards he ruled as any medieval Christian ruler might have.

And now you know….


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