Good King Wenceslas looked outJohn Mason Neale
on the feast of Stephen,
when the snow lay round about
deep and crisp and even.
If you were to sing a few bars of this classic Victorian Christmas carol to a random Czech, they wouldn’t have the faintest idea what or who you were singing about. Which is peculiar, considering the song is about the patron saint of Czech lands.
It isn’t a Czech song though. John Mason Neale wrote the lyrics in the middle of the 19th century, although he likely translated a Czech poem by Václav Alois Svoboda. The melody comes from an old Latin song “Tempus adest floridum” from the 13th century. I am of the opinion that the classic version is the best, though.
Opinions were a lot more divided a hundred years ago, though. Critics hated the combination of a Christmastime morality tale and the cheery melody of a spring carol “Time is near for flowering”. Understandably, though. Imagine hearing Christmas carols as early as spring, you’d be livid, too.
Good King and a Good Queen
There’s another theory of how the story may have made its journey from Bohemia all the way to England. Like all good stories, it has to do with Charles IV, the greatest king Bohemia has ever had. One of his daughters, Anne of Luxembourg, married King Richard II of England in 1382.
Charles IV felt a strong connection to Bohemia and its patron saint, Wenceslas. The seal of the university he founded depicts Charles kneeling before St. Wenceslas. It would hardly be a surprise if his daughter considered Wenceslas her patron as well and brought legends of his life with her to England, halfway across Europe.
She became popular during her short time in England, earning the moniker “Good Queen Anne”. She influenced the culture in surprising ways. She popularised sidesaddle form of horse riding. And the fact that she’d arrived to England from a town in Hungary called Kocs (pronounced “coach”) in a carriage gave rise to the term “coach”. Sadly, she’d died of the plague in 1394, aged only 28.
However the legend made its way, today it is a beautiful bridge between cultures.
Saint Wenceslas in Bohemia
For us Czechs, there is nothing Christmassy about Saint Wenceslas. For starters, his feast day happens three months ahead of Christmas, on the 28th of September. Since 2000, it’s been an official national holiday, “Day of Czech statehood”.
Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia was the 4th ruler Bohemia has had, at least as far as the recorded ones go. Grandson of Bořivoj, the first recorded member of the Přemyslid dynasty, he was often described as a veritable saint, even during his lifetime.
Legends describe him as a man who would pray daily. He would challenge rival nobles to duels to spare lives of innocent men on both sides. No injustice would go unnoticed while Wenceslas was around.
Where it all went wrong
However, 10th century Bohemia was a land at a crossroads. Our neighbour next door was the Holy Roman Empire. Being larger and a lot more bellicose than Bohemia, the coexistence was far from easy. Wenceslas preferred diplomacy over war and Bohemia paid a hefty tribute to Henry the Fowler as a result.
There was, however, his brother Boleslav. He was less “turn the other cheek” and more “throw the first stone” kind of man. And power struggles in the 10th century rarely ended amicably. Depending on which legend you go with, he either struck down his brother in anger, or coldly arranged his murder.
Either way, on Monday the 28th of September in the year 935… Or was it 929? Funny thing, nobody figured they ought to write down the year. So we are positive on the day of the week and day and month, but not the year. Seeing as the 28th of September would fall on a Monday both those years, we’ll never know for sure.
It was then that Wenceslas died just outside a church by his brother’s hand, or his brother’s orders. Soon, legend of his life started to grow and three years later, Boleslav had a change of heart and brought Wenceslas’s remains to the Prague Castle, where he was buried with honours befitting a king.
A peculiar holiday
It is odd to celebrate a murder as the day of statehood, but it turns out we lost a duke, but gained a saint. And another duke – Boleslav, of course, seized the throne. And it turns out he was not a bad ruler at all, and the following 30 years brought stability and prosperity to the land.
Nearly 1,100 years is a long time for some grizzly details to fade, and for the legend to completely outgrow its true roots. And Wenceslas had, in that time, become a symbol. Worshipped even by the great Charles IV, to this day he remains a key element of the Czech identity.
So every year, around the 28th of September, there will be services in churches all over the country to celebrate the life and martyrdom of our patron saint. At the same time, there will be concerts and assorted get-togethers, some in the spirit of patriotism, some with well-meant criticism in mind, celebrating the duke of Bohemia.
There will be articles in newspapers debating whether Wenceslas was a traitor who bowed before the Germans, the first collaborator in our history, or whether he was a wise statesman and diplomat whose alliance helped prevent a war that could have obliterated our people at an early stage of our history.
And in a way, I feel that’s exactly the way it should be. History, especially as old as a millennium, is rarely clear and the true meaning of the holiday is really somewhere between it all.