Who was the real King Wenceslas?

Posted on Dec 11, 2019 Tags: , , , ,

‘Good King Wenceslas’ is a fantastic Christmas song. The melody is bouncy, the rhymes aren’t too forced, and the story is inspiring. What could be more festive than a kindly king heading out through the snow to bring alms to a poor peasant? OK, he failed to clothe his poor page adequately for the endeavour, but that’s not really an issue because his footprints were holy enough to keep the lad warm. Lovely.

Except that it’s all rubbish. And not just in a ‘Miracles are just folk stories’ kind of way. The lyrics of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ bear only the very mildest resemblance to the old Slavic tale they’re based upon. So, what was really going on?

Did Wenceslas really exist?

Well, historical records are patchy, but he probably did genuinely exist. If the person in the carol is the same as the peron people think, he was a duke and then a saint in tenth century Bohemia (roughly equivalent to the modern day Czech Republic).

So, not a King, then?

No, but to be honest the King/Duke thing is the least of the issues with the carol. Remember that the carol was written for a British audience, and British dukes have a lot less power than Bohemian dukes did. ‘King’ sounded more impressive than ‘Duke’ in Britain, and so a King he became.

OK. So Wenceslas was a Bohemian duke…

No, Vaclav was a Bohemian duke.


Vaclav. ‘Wenceslas’ wasn’t his name. His name was ‘Vaclav’.

How on earth do you get from ‘Vaclav’ to ‘Wenceslas’?

Well, Anglicising unfamiliar names was common here for a great many centuries. Although even the most ardent Victorain Angliciser must have to admit that ‘Vaclav’ to ‘Wenceslas’ is a bit of a stretch.

OK. Fine. So Vaclav was a Bohemian duke…

Yes, and a good one if you believe the stories. He was known as Vaclav The Good, and he was renowned for his generosity to the poor. One story holds that he would visit the churches of his region barefoot, handing out alms. This is probably what the carol is drawing from. However, in the old legends Vaclav takes his shoes off before entering the holy buildings because he’s so humble and pious. He doesn’t stride barefoot through miles of snow (followed by an unfortunate page). Humble and pious he may have been, but he wasn’t an idiot.

Anyway, Vaclav reigned for fourteen noble and heroic years. But there was a problem. Vaclav had a brother – Boleslav the Cruel.

Not a promising name.

No indeed. As you’d expect from someone with the epithet ‘the Cruel’, Boleslav had a pronounced streak of megalomania. He wanted his brother’s dukedom, and would stop at nothing to get it. So, in 935AD, he had Vaclav murdered.

What a villain!

Well, yes, but as with all historical legends there’s probably a bit more to this than the story makes out. The trouble with saintly legends is that they concentrate on very black and white examples of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ behaviour, and leave out a lot of context.

If you look more closely at the political context of the time, Vaclav had made some pretty dodgy decisions. Bohemia at the time was under a lot of pressure from the rival tribes and kingdoms of the Magyars, Bavarians, and Saxons. Vaclav did nothing to aid the situation. It’s likely that Boleslav and his co-conspirators feared that Bohemia would fall to one of their rivals were Vaclav to hold his seat among the Bohemian leaders.

Still not a reason to kill him, though.

Well, no. But, nonetheless, that’s what Boleslav and a group of other young nobles did. They invited Vaclav to a celebration for the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian (not Stephen. Sorry). When he got there, they stabbed him Julius Caesar style. Boleslav ran him through with a lance as he fell. Legend has it that Boleslav’s wife gave birth to a son on the very day of the murder. Boleslav named the baby ‘Strachvas’, which means ‘A terrible feast’. Talk about rubbing it in.

What about the page?

I’m glad you asked! The page is indeed in the story. His name is Podevin, and he makes his mark on the legend by ambushing and slaughtering one of the conspirators. He’s later executed by Boleslav. No word on the temperature of his feet at any point, I’m afraid.

OK. It’s dark, but honestly I’ve heard darker stories from that part of the world. Why did this one become a Christmas carol?

Good question! The honest answer is – nobody knows.

The song just popped up out of nowhere?

Oh no. We know where the tune came from, and we know who wrote the lyrics. What we don’t know is why.

Let me explain. The tune to ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was written at some point in the fifteenth century, in Finland. It had lyrics, but they were to do with the joys of spring. This subject matter was not good enough for British Victorian songwriter John Neale, who discovered the ditty in 1853. He took the tune and fitted this bizarrely inaccurate tale about a Czech saint to it. For some reason.

And everybody loved it.

They sure did. It’s a great song…if you can ignore the weird creative decisions and wild innacuracies which brought it to life.

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