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St Wenceslas

Feast day: 28 September

Wenceslas (907-935 or 929) was the son of Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia. His grandfather was converted to Christianity by Cyril and Methodius. His mother Drahomíra was the daughter of a tribal chief of the Havelli but was baptized when she married. His paternal grandmother, Ludmila of Bohemia, had him educated in the old Slavonic language, and at an early age Wenceslas was sent to the college at Budec.

In 921, when Wenceslas was thirteen years old, his father died and his grandmother became regent. His mother Drahomíra was jealous of Ludmilla bercause of the power she wielded over Wenceslas. She had never truly accepted Christianity, and arranged to have Ludmilla killed. She was assassinated at Tetín Castle. She is said to have been strangled with her own veil. She was buried in the church of St Michael in Tetin but later removed, probably by Wenceslas, to the church of St George in Prague, which had been built by his father. Drahomíra then assumed the role of regent and immediately started to persecute Christians. When Wenceslas was eighteen, Christian nobles rebelled against Drahomíra. The uprising succeeded and Drahomíra was sent into exile to Budec. With the support of the nobles Wenceslas took control of the government. He used Christianity to strengthen his state.

After the fall of Great Moravia (east of the modern-day Czech Republic), the rulers of the Bohemian Duchy had to contend with continuous raids by Magyars and the forces of the Saxon and East Frankish King Henry the Fowler, who had started several eastern campaigns in the adjacent lands, home of Wenceslas’ mother. To counteract this, his father had made an alliance with a staunch opponent of Henry, namely Arnulf, Duke of Bavaria. However, this alliance became worthless when Henry and Arnulf became reconciled. The joint armies of Henry and Arnulf reached Prague and Wenceslas was forced to resume a tribute that had been paid earlier.

Wenceslas introduced German priests into his realm and favoured the Latin rite instead of old Slavonic which had gone into disuse in many places because of the shortage of priests. He also founded a rotunda, consecrated to St Vitus at Prague Castle, that was the basis of the present day St Vitus cathedral.

In 935, a group of nobles, allied with Wenceslas’ brother Boleslav, plotted to kill him. Boleslav invited Wenceslas to a feast, celebrating Saints Cosmos and Damian. Three of Boleslav’s companions stabbed Wenceslas to death. As he fell Boleslav ran him through with a lance.

Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint. A cult of him grew up in Bohemia and England. Four biographies were in circulation within a few decades. These had a powerful influence on the medieval concept of the just monarch, whose power stems from his great piety rather than his worldly might. Referring to these hagiographies, the chronicler Cosmos of Prague wrote as follows: “But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you, for as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, 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 with every difficulty, so much that he was considered, not a prince, but a father of all the wretched.”

Although Wenceslas was only a duke during his lifetime, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously “conferred on Wenceslas the regal dignity and title,” which is why he is referred to as “king” in legend and song. The St Wenceslas chorale is one of the oldest known Czech songs. Traceable back to the twelfth century, it is still among the most popular religious songs in the Bohemian lands. During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia it was sung with the Czech national anthem. His feast day, 28 September, has been a national holiday in the Czech Republic since 2000, celebrated as Czech State Day. He is one of those kings, like Arthur and Frederick Barbarossa, it is said will return to rescue their homelands when they are in danger.

Wenceslas is the subject of the popular St Stephen’s Day carol, “Good King Wenceslas”. It was published by John Mason Neale in 1853 and may be a translation of a Czech poem.

St Wenceslas, pray for us.