The Real St. Wenceslaus: A Murdered Duke and a Christmas Carol

The Real St. Wenceslaus: A Murdered Duke and a Christmas Carol

You know the song. You can probably start singing it right now:

“Good King Wenceslaus went out, on the feast of Stephen…”

Most people know this popular Christmas carol. But few know that the subject of this song was a real person—and a canonized saint!

Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, died in 935. His feast is celebrated on September 28th, the day he was murdered.

A holy and virtuous leader, Wenceslaus has a much bigger story than a simple holiday carol could convey: his story involves political unrest, personal courage, a life of heroic virtue, and the sacrifice of his life. 

Who Was St. Wenceslaus?

St. Wenceslaus was born circa 911 A.D. to the royal family of Bohemia which is today called the Czech Republic. (Although he is called a “king” in the song, his royal family was technically a duchy rather than a monarchy.)

When his father died, Wenceslaus’s mother, Drahomira, came into power. She was a pagan who greatly favored the pagan factions in their ongoing power struggle against Christians.

Providentially, Wenceslaus was raised by his grandmother, Ludmila. Ludmila, a devout woman who also became a saint, had hopes that Wenceslaus would become a Christian and one day govern the kingdom in place of his mother. 

St. Wenceslaus and St. Ludmila during the Mass by František Tkadlík

Both of her prayers were answered. After Ludmila was murdered—likely at the command of a jealous Drahomira—Wenceslaus eventually gained the support of his mother and the Bohemian people. He would have liked to live a humble life out of the limelight, but God had other plans for him.

Wenceslaus, who would have preferred to become a monk and not a duke, fortified himself in this struggle through fervent prayer, extreme asceticism, charitable service, and a vow of chastity.

Catholic New Agency

As ruler, St. Wenceslaus attempted to unite his kingdom. He aided poor peasants, supported the Church, and cultivated friendly relationships with nearby Christian nations such as Germany, bringing their priests to Bohemia to celebrate the Latin rite.

But Wenceslaus’s Catholic faith and activity angered his enemies—including his own brother. 

The Murder of St. Wenceslaus

The murder of St. Wenceslaus

There was only one thing to be done to stop Wenceslaus: kill him. 

Having invited him to Mass in celebration of Saints Cosmas and Damian, Boleslaus planned to ambush his brother. 

When Wenceslaus arrived, several of Boleslaus’s friends charged him and stabbed him. Boleslaus himself dealt the final blow, running his brother through with a lance.

Tradition tell us that Wenceslaus’s final words were, “May God forgive you, brother.” 

He was only about twenty-four years old when he was killed.

The murder of Wenceslaus did not work out well for the pagan factions. Rather than discrediting him and burying him in the dust of memory, Wenceslaus was hailed as a martyr and celebrated as the country’s patron saint. He is credited with making Bohemia a Christian nation. 

Just three years after his death, Boleslaus—who repented of murdering his brother—had St. Wenceslaus’s body moved to the Church of St. Vitus in Prague, to which pilgrims flocked.

Wenceslaus is now the patron saint of Prague, Bohemia, and the Czech Republic.

There is a statue of him at Wenceslas Square in Prague which is a popular meeting place. Citizens have gathered by this statue to demonstrate against the Communist regime.

Statue of St. Wenceslaus by Josef Václav Myslbek
Josef Václav Myslbek’s statue of St. Wenceslaus (Photo source: WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The statue has this inscription:

Saint Wenceslas, duke of the Czech land, prince of ours, do not let us perish nor our descendants.

The Christmas Carol “Good King Wenceslas”

Good King Wenceslaus went out, on the feast of Stephen
Good King Wenceslaus by Colin Masson. Used with permission of the author.

Why did Wenceslaus end up the subject of a Christmas carol? 

“Good King Wenceslaus” was written in 1853 by John Mason Neale. The tune was supposedly written in celebration of Boxing Day, which takes place on the second day of Christmas and is typically dedicated to charitable giving. 

It was inspired by the charitable actions of Wenceslaus, who spent his life caring for the destitute. Tradition says that Wenceslaus would go out even on snowy nights to give alms to the poor.

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 by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.

Cosmas of Prague, Priest, Historian, and Writer, writing in 1119 A.D.

One legend in particular tells us that, on one of his charitable rounds in the snow, Wenceslaus brought a servant to help him. The servant was suffering from the cold and struggling to go on—whereupon Wenceslaus encouraged him, advising him to walk in his own footprints in the snow. Setting his feet in Wenceslaus’s footprints, the servant was miraculously warmed by them and able to continue.

Next time you hear the beloved Christmas carol, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for it!

Here is a wonderful recording of this excellent carol. You can enjoy it whether it’s Christmas or not!

“Good King Wenceslaus” lyrics:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.

Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou knowst it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes fountain.

Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude winds wild lament
And the bitter weather.

Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how
I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shall find the winters rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.

In his masters step he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

 John Mason Neale, 1853

Honor St. Wenceslaus Today

Few of us will be in a high position of power when caught between battling political factions, but there are many things this great saint can teach us. 

Firstly, St. Wenceslaus stood up for Christian virtue at a time when it was unpopular and attacked. He boldly displayed the values of charity, faith, and generosity with great humility, despite his societal status. He even forgave his murderer—who was also his very own brother. 

When we are victims of hatred, calumny, or any other injury—whether at the hands of those closest to us or perfect strangers—we can draw near to St. Wenceslaus for guidance. He is a great saint to call upon for intercession when dealing with family strife, conflict of any kind, or the need for courage in the face of hostility. 

Let us pray to be given leaders like St. Wenceslaus. May we—and all those with power—boldly advocate for truth, virtue, and self-sacrifice, no matter the personal cost. 

St. Wenceslaus, PRAY FOR US.

St. Wenceslaus is such a unique saint. What’s your favorite thing about his life story?

How will you celebrate the Feast of St. Wenceslaus?

What are your thoughts on this article? Share with us in the comment section below!