Posthumous King Wenceslas

The Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas has a deceptive title. The real Wenceslas’ reputation for goodness was mainly posthumous, as was his rank and title. Also he may have been murdered by his brother after a drunken fight.

Good King Wenceslas
Radek Linner, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Good King Wenceslas has been a Christmas carol staple for more than a hundred and fifty years. It’s a strange carol in that it’s based on a real person, Wenceslaus I, who was Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century CE. He is the patron saint of the Czech Republic and is still very popular there today: the whole country gets Wenceslaus’ feast day off as a public holiday. But for the rest of us, we probably know him best from the carol that bears his name:

Good King Wenceslas look’d out,
on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
gath’ring winter fuel.

Good King Wenceslas

This song commemorates Wenceslas’ legendary acts of charity – going out into the snow barefoot to deliver alms and aid to a peasant. That legend dates back to soon after Wenceslas’ death, which was probably around 935 (when he was 24 years old). A series of posthumous biographies emphasized his charitable works and supposed martyrdom, and this translated into Medieval fame and subsequent sainthood. I suppose charitable kings were thin on the ground in the 10th century.

Except Wenceslas was not a king. He died the Duke of Bohemia; the title of king was given to him posthumously by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I some decades after Wenceslas’ death. And that death was an interesting one too. While feasting with his younger brother Boleslav, Wenceslas was stabbed to death – either by his brother or his lackeys – so that Boleslav could take the throne.

(End note: disturbingly, Boleslav’s son was born the same day. So the murderous younger brother named him Strachkvas, meaning “deadly feast.” Strachkvas went on to join the clergy, and according to legend died during his own ordination ceremony as Bishop of Prague.)

[Thanks to Morgan E.]

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